At some point of time last weekend - the third such of my life I have spent with GRR Martin's A Song Of Ice and Fire - I did not think these books would ever, ever get over. It was annoying. Whatever gave him the idea that having thousands of PoV characters and each of their chapters ending in a cliffhanger would sustain interest over three thousand pages? All through A Game of Thrones, I sat chewing my nails. Halfway through A Clash of Kings, my mind started wandering. It's taken me over two weeks to make any headway with A Storm of Swords because I just can't be bothered.
Having said that, I did finish them. And I am going to read whatever he throws out next. I am intrigued, in spite of the fact that too much plot is no plot at all. It's a bit like reading intricate historical documents of cause before effect before cause before effect. Martin sacrifices the traditional trope of the battle between good and evil to something exterior to the story's bare bones and more central to the reading itself: perception and reality. It's standard fantasy elements put me off. I have come to realise that I do not like dragons or cold dementorish wights. But as all my friends - Martin fanboys to a man - said, the characters keep you going. Wearying as it is to turn a page and see that a chapter in Character A's PoV has been cut off just as something exciting is about to happen, it's difficult to let go once you've begun.
Before I finished the first book, I thought Martin's habit of turning his characters a million shades of grey would never stand him in good stead. The books are all about one long power struggle over Westeros, after all, and power has to have a purpose, which none of these people discernibly have. But its exciting to be challenged in your perceptions as a reader, to see why the Aragorn types shouldn't always win, or why its okay, sometimes, to be a reckless, amoral, incestuous oathbreaker. Martin's strength doesn't lie in worldbuilding - he seems to be depending on straight lines and medieval-English history for the most part. He has some great writing: battle scenes are clearly his forte, as one would expect of any epic fantasy writer, and I thought the Eyrie - a mountain fortress that is treacherously difficult to get in and out of - was conceptualised extremely well.
But his people are what really drive his piece, and he puts them through the wringer, alright. Talking over the books, a friend mentioned that what she loved about them was how a character's strengths could turn so easily into his weaknesses, which is true. I was especially struck by the rise and fall of Eddard Stark, the aforementioned Aragorn figure, in the space of a single book: his unyielding sense of honour that makes him the best man for a tough job at the start of the book is what finally drives him and the kingdom he guards under. There is Cersei Lannister, scheming and beatiful (and, I must admit, one of my favourites), who seems to hold all the cards in her hand, but finds plan after plan backfiring upon her as she underestimates her enemies. And there is the puzzling, brittle Stannis Baratheon, who is simultaneously a king and a pawn.
There are some books, like The Great Gatsby, that you can read and talk about and love, and excuse of all its attitudes towards sex and women by stating, simply, that it is not a feminist novel. I've been trying to decide if that can be said of Ice and Fire. It's a medieval world, its a hard life, women are treated much the way they are in feudal societies everywhere. There's really not much space to break gender stereotypes, and I'll say it for Martin, he doesn't try too hard. There's the Cersei, the evil bitch, the forbearing maternal Catelyn Stark, the tomboyish Arya, the crazy Jocastan Lysa, the irritating-as-hell exotic princess Daenerys (talk about stupid magical names!) and so on. Still, they don't all put me off dinner. I love Catelyn, who is proving rather tough to kill, and I can't wait to see what becomes of Brienne the Maid, a mannish, innocent knight-wannabe who is currently providing a foil to one of the book's central figures, Jaime 'shit-for-honour' Lannister.
I was a Stark supporter at the end of the first book, but the next two have put me firmly in the court of the Lannisters. Honour and righteousness is all very well, but this isn't Tolkien. It's almost Carrollian: remain interesting, or have your head cut off. I can't see Arya or Sansa survive the series, although I would like to see Sansa Stark get a pair of balls and rule the world with Tyrion, who, predictably, I love almost as much as I do Jaime. Other favourites include Davos Seaworth and the likely hero of the series, the somewhat less-than-Aragornian Jon Snow.
The good thing, however, is that there's a lot further to go before we get to the end. And never before have I meant the following words so intensely: anything could happen.
- Jon Snow and Daenerys meet, make love and tiny dragonwolf babies.
- Cersei meets a sticky end. Jaime has something to do with it.
- I hate to say this because its so damned obvious, but: Jaime and Brienne. Do something.
- Bran becomes something.
- Stannis wins the Iron Throne.
- But Tyrion becomes the Supreme Ruler of the Universe. Because Tyrion rocks beyond belief.