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This week I finished the fifth book in the series ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ by George R.R. Martin. I wanted to read the books before starting to watch HBO’s television adaptation, because most of the time, the book is better than the movie or TV show. I discovered that ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ is an exception to that rule; Game of Thrones as a TV series is what the book should have been.

Viewpoints versus Chapters

Most, if not all, books I’ve read so far, use chapter-driven storytelling. Every new chapter advances either the main character(s) or the locations. Usually there are only a few locations with a limited set of core characters.

Martin tries to do something different. Instead of writing chapters based on events, he uses ‘viewpoints’. You see the plot unfold through the eyes of a specific character, which means that every viewpoint is from a first person perspective. But since the story jumps around via many characters, it takes a while before you realise who this is again and what he or she is referring to.

If there are only a handful characters this could work, but in A Song of Ice and Fire, the number of characters expand with every new book.  And some of them are not important or interesting. Jumping around 20-odd characters at one point isn’t an exaggeration. To top it, the characters are spreading out all over the map as well. It’s a mess. It doesn’t work.

A Litany of Events

It’s no wonder that a story like this becomes unwieldy after a while, both for the reader and the writer. The fourth book is so long that it was un-publishable. Instead of editing down and merging story lines or characters, he split it up in Book Four and Book Five. The cut happens at the end of Book Four with an epilogue where the author jumps in and talks directly to the reader in a letter of sorts, explaining why we don’t hear anything about Essos.  He also explains he clustered events in Westeros for Book Four and will pick up the story in Essos for the other characters in Book Five.

Since the story in Book Five is about a longer period and runs parallel to book 4, we see characters from Book Four popping up. In one case, we get a duplicate scene from Book Four, but seen from another character’s point of view. I rolled with my eyes when I read that.

The Art of Editing

Something tells me that this may very well be one of the reasons why Book Six missed several deadlines and is still not published. Writing is the art of omitting. George R.R. Martin is too fond of his story to cut out unnecessary stuff. For this reason, Book Five became more a Litany of Ice and Fire than a song. Reading became a chore. I hope Martin’s editor will do his job for Book Six, but I’m afraid it will only get worse with more unnecessary characters and plot lines.

Forget About the Books

I love history, I love fantasy. I love it when a story has a certain amount of realism despite the obvious fiction. A Song of Ice and Fire has all of that. It has great world building, I love the language which is an archaic form of English, using words in a particular way that gives the story a distinct ‘otherworldly’ feeling. All the ingredients of a great saga are there. It’s just a pity that the execution is so poor.

That leaves me to wonder: why do people rave so much about George R.R. Martin and his books? The man has great ideas, but he’s not a great writer.

Giving the books 2.5 stars out of five. It’s an okay book with great potential, but written poorly.

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