George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire 

George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire 

In The Catch-Up, a longtime fan and a newcomer have a discussion about a TV show, movie, book, music, or other pop-culture item. In this installment, Genevieve Koski and Tasha Robinson discuss of the first five books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire book series. While plot points are never discussed in detail, there are a handful of references to significant events below, including character deaths. So proceed at your own risk.

Genevieve: Riding public transit is a great way to keep track of the current big, blockbuster book trends. A decade ago, buses and trains were filled with commuters toting around the latest Harry Potter book; a few years after that, the Twilight books started popping up, followed soon by The Hunger Games and its sequels. But last summer, these literary upstarts were joined in the zeitgeist by an older, more established phenomenon: George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series, which kicked off in 1996 with A Game Of Thrones and had already accrued a considerable, loyal fan base over the course of 15 years and, at that point, four volumes. Even though the best-selling ASOIAF had already established itself as a bona fide book sensation, especially within the smaller purview of fantasy, like the aforementioned titles, it took something extra to nudge it into (or back into) the wider consciousness. Something like a blockbuster film, or, in this case, the 10-hour blockbuster film that is a high-profile HBO drama series. Starting from the time the TV series was announced and throughout the course of the first season, the number of copies popping up in commuters’ hands steadily increased. And that doesn’t stand to let up now that the second season of Game Of Thrones has just debuted.

Well, I was one of those commuters, one of those bandwagon-jumpers who needed the nudge of a television show to make me pick up a damn book. I made a halfhearted attempt to read Game Of Thrones several years back at a friend’s behest, but put it down before finishing the first couple of chapters. I’ll admit I’m a dilettante at best when it comes to fantasy, high fantasy especially, and I was immediately overwhelmed and put off by the gaggle of unfamiliar names and terms (“So… ‘Ser’ means ‘Sir’? Like a knight?”) and talk of houses and sigils and the like, and I didn’t like the look of those appendices and maps. While detailed world-building is one of my favorite things about speculative fiction, I like to fall into a story and let its world grow up around me, and with A Game Of Thrones, I felt like I was struggling to climb over a wall built to keep me out of its world. 

The Game Of Thrones HBO series proved to be the passage I needed into the world of ASOIAF. The Castle Black, if you will. Watching the series, I was still often at a loss as to who was important and who had ulterior motives, or even what the hell was happening and what it had to do with those prostitutes fingering each other. But that’s not an uncommon feeling with complex TV dramas, HBO especially, and I’ve learned to sit back and ride the wave and let the pieces fall into place, something it’s generally harder to do with a book, for me at least. And by the end of the 10th hour, it had all fallen into place enough—though not completely—that I was horrified at the idea of waiting a year to find out what was up with those damn dragons. So I dug out my old, neglected copy of A Game Of Thrones. (I contemplated just jumping right into the second book, A Clash Of Kings, since the seasons generally align with the books, but I’m of a mind with Scott Tobias when it comes to starting at the beginning of series.)

Immediately, it was like I had discovered the key to the castle. That opening prologue that kept tripping me up with its talk of Maesters and Southron lords suddenly had a reference point in my mind: Not only could I see what was happening, cross-referencing the text with the memorable opening scene of the HBO series, I knew what it meant. I knew that it was important and leading somewhere exciting, and was suddenly happy to tag along instead of asking, “Wait, what’s going on? Where are we going? Will there be ice cream?” (In this case, ice cream equals dragons.) There was a newfound sense of… trust, I guess, that I was now willing to extend to not just this book, but the subsequent volumes as well. And as an added bonus, when I went back to re-watch the HBO series a few months later, I saw even more with the added clarity and context afforded to me by the books. I’ll probably go back and re-read Clash Of Kings after this season finishes, to help fill in holes and compare what was lost and added in the translation to TV.

Now that I’ve experienced that glorious synergy, I can’t imagine experiencing the books without the TV series, or vice-versa. But that’s exactly what you did, Tasha. I do want to get into the specifics of the books themselves, but first I want to ask you what drew you into ASOIAF, and how you experienced the series as someone much better-versed in fantasy. And how did that experience color your experience with the Game Of Thrones HBO series? And lastly, do you think I’m horrible for needing a TV show to hold my hand through the big, scary book?

Tasha: No, no. I’ve had similar experiences in needing a show or film to assure me that a book was worth diving into (with Watership Down, for instance), and I generally feel that it doesn’t matter whether you come to your culture through friends, the media, public transit, or just being such a scenester that you knew about that band before everyone else got into it and it sold out. The important thing is your relationship to it.

My relationship to the books started before they even came out; my copy of the original book A Game Of Thrones (currently out on loan to yet another excited newbie) is a pre-release galley copy. When the first book came out in 1996, I was a regular writer for an online publication called Science Fiction Weekly (eventually bought, then ultimately scrapped, by what later became the SyFy Channel), and I got a lot of genre fiction before it hit the mean, unicorn-poop-bedecked fantasy streets. I was already a lifelong George R.R. Martin fan who’d followed him from short stories through his TV show Beauty And The Beast through his shared-world Wild Cards series through his assorted novels. (Which is why I wrote the Gateways To Geekery column on him.) So naturally when his first novel in 13 years landed in my lap, I jumped on it. I followed along with each of the books as they came out, reviewing some of them and interviewing Martin several times along the way. Most of my friends read the books too, and spent a great deal of time over the years arguing about them with the gravity, dedication, and detail-orientation of Talmudic scholars: Who is Jon Snow’s mother? What actually happened to Balon Greyjoy? Who is Syrio Forel, really, and did Ser Meryn Trant really kill him? Is this, that, or the other character really dead? (People. C’mon. The answer is no. As with a comic book, unless you see a corpse, the character is not dead, and maybe not even then. Seriously, at this point Martin ends around a third of his chapters with scenes where a character appears to die, but then turns up later. How long are you going to keep falling for this?)

How did I experience the series as someone well-versed in fantasy? Probably about like well-versed rock fans in the ’60s experienced The Beatles, with a sense that the band was simultaneously drawing on a rich existing scene, and creating something new and exciting that was becoming the root of a whole new movement. A Game Of Thrones was merely a very good fantasy novel with a deeply shocking ending, but 1998’s A Clash Of Kings was a game-changing epic, steeped in all the environmental detail of good historical fiction, all the strategic detail of good military fiction, and all the boundless creativity and escapism of good fantasy. On top of that, it felt real, both in its vast complexity—no “three merry misfits save the world while everyone else is background noise” streamlining here—and in its grimness. No one who’d read the Wild Cards novels should have been surprised that Martin was willing to kill off characters—even important ones, even beloved ones, even protagonists—but it was immensely shocking to the fantasy community, which was frankly used to escapist fiction where Chosen One types frequently battled impossible odds and came out on top. (Nor are they the only ones to be shocked, judging from the more mainstream reaction to the end of season one of the HBO adaptation.) Even Martin’s clearest influence, J.R.R. Tolkien, let his unlikely heroes not just save the day, but survive to celebrate.

Once Martin became a bestselling author—and started taking longer to write each book, leaving an epic-hungry band of converts impatiently waiting for each new installment—it was natural for other writers to help fill the new demand. Martin effectively spawned a new wave of grittier, grander fantasy, with authors like Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Karen Miller, Brandon Sanderson, Scott Lynch, and more writing massive books and launching massive series to some degree inspired by his work. Given how long I’ve been living with Martin, and the nouveaux-Martin wave, the rise of the HBO show has been mildly staggering to me. Something that’s been a major part of my nerdy subculture for 15 years now is suddenly hitting the mainstream, and people are treating it like the new shiny thing. Also, it suddenly has lesbian sexposition all over it. You ask how having lived with the books for so long colored my experience with the HBO show: Mostly, it made it hard for me to engage with it. The version in my head (and on the page) is so much bigger and more vibrant and more complicated and detailed. And less full of naked boobs and lesbian sex for the dumbbells in the audience who can’t pay attention unless someone is naked. (A friend of mine has theorized that HBO has a CEO Of Tits, whose only job is to watch everything the network produces, and yell “More tits!” I really dig HBO series—I’m catching up on Boardwalk Empire right now—but at some point, the endless parade of boobs just makes me tired. It’s so cheap and boring at this point. Grow up, HBO.)

That said, I’m always pleased when a new adaptation of something I love brings more people back to the source material, and creates the fans that keep a franchise going. Still, I have a hard time talking meaningfully about A Song Of Ice And Fire in the same way I have a hard time meaningfully talking about the role of oxygen in my life. Suddenly all these new breathers have showed up and are rapturous about how cool this “air” thing is. I’m just reeling a bit with all the fresh enthusiasm, and trying to recapture the era when I was as excited by the story as people are now.

So help a crusty old fantasy fan out with your youthful perspective, Genevieve. What about the Ice And Fire books really thrilled you, once you got into them? What stands out for you as exceptional, unusual, or interesting? What do you want to see more of as the novels continue?

Genevieve: It’s interesting that you mention arguing with your friends over the years about the events in the books, Tasha, because I had a similar experience during my recent trip through the series. A good friend of mine who was also inspired by Game Of Thrones to read the books provided a much-needed outlet for enthusiasm and discussion, without which I might have gotten too bogged down in the mire of Martin’s obsessively descriptive prose to continue. As my friend was consistently a volume ahead of me, his constant queries of “Have you gotten to [insert dramatic setpiece] yet??” was a good source of forward momentum through those long passages where Martin lingers on the minutia of feasts and house lineages and armor, often repetitively. (If I never read the phrase “lobstered gauntlet” again… dammit, I just did.) And now I’m serving the same role for my mom, who is about to start the third book. While I’m sure many people experience these books solo, in a cultural vacuum, having other fans to bounce off of can amplify your excitement and investment in a series, which I’m sure is a major component of the books’ recent resurgence.

As for what thrilled me about the books, well, it turns out it was actually that obsessive mire I was just griping about. Sort of. Yes, I tended to glaze over those passages in my mad rush to get to blockbuster moments like Theon’s attack on Winterfell, or The Red Wedding, or Joffrey’s death—one of the (dis)advantages of being able to blaze through five books in a couple of months, rather than waiting years between—but those blurry drive-bys eventually sharpened into a comprehensive view of Westeros. As I mentioned earlier, I love expansive, detailed world-building (which is why I know, say, the seven spell types in the Harry Potter universe), and while I didn’t always respond to the tiny, detailed strokes of Martin’s descriptions, I was enamored by the overall picture. It’s impressionism in prose, and it’s constantly expanding, from Winterfell to King’s Landing to the Iron Islands to Meereen to Braavos. While I still, after five books, have to flip back and forth to remember where a character currently is on the map of Westeros, or check the appendices to remind myself for the 50th time who’s a Martell and who’s a Tyrell, that added puzzle adds an extra level of engagement.

That fascination with the geography and houses of Westeros speaks to your second and third questions, about what interests me most about the books, and I’m afraid my answer might put me at odds with many fans of the series: I much prefer the elements of political intrigue and the nuances of the War Of The Five Kings to the series’ more mystical elements. Yes, Dany’s dragons are pretty sweet, but Bran’s green dreams and Melisandre’s shadow-babies usually make me glaze over. And then there are The Others, which has been a looming threat since the first pages of the first book, but feels far less engaging than more immediate, practical threats to The Wall, like Mance Rayder in Storm Of Swords or the Night’s Watch mutiny in A Dance With Dragons. (And yes, I realize the irony of my ignoring The Others in favor of more immediate, tangible threats to the Seven Kingdoms.)

And yet, I know those elements are probably going to have big payoffs down the line, because Martin has proved himself exceptionally adept at throwing a big ol’ knot into what seems like a dangling plot-thread-to-nowhere. Take Arya, perhaps my favorite character in the early books, whose apprenticeship with the Faceless Men at first seemed like a disappointing slide into repetitive, mystical BS… until she becomes a fuckin’ badass assassin at the end of A Dance With Dragons! And while Daenerys’ prophesy parade through the House Of The Undying in Clash Of Kings felt like a slog as I was reading—until she went and blew it up, that is—the payoff from that has been more than worth it.

Which I guess all circles back to my impressionistic approach to ASOIAF. I’ll freely admit I’m not close-reading every paragraph, and I would have to stop and think (or maybe even flip to the appendix) to tell you who Randyll Tarly is, and I basically skim Bran chapters at this point. But I’m totally enthralled by what it’s all adding up to, and am reasonably confident that even the draggiest storylines are going to lead somewhere, or at least intersect with a more interesting one. And man, we haven’t even talked about Tyrion or Cersei or Jon or Sansa or the Iron Islands, all among my favorite characters/storylines (and all still mostly free of mystical/magical elements, not coincidentally). There’s so much to engage with in these books, on so many different levels, that even the stuff that’s not interesting sort of becomes interesting.

As someone who had years to wait between installments, Tasha, how did you engage with the books, both on a specific-storyline level and in the bigger-picture sense? Are you similarly along for the ride, or has the luxury of time—or your higher comfort level with the material—inspired you to dig in on a more nuanced level? Do you share my blind trust that even the more meandering storylines are going somewhere, or are you a little more cynical at this point? And lastly, can you please explain why I should care about Bran turning into a tree or whatever?

[pagebreak]

Tasha: Oooh, Genevieve, I hope the friend who kept you moving through the series was circumspect with the “Have you gotten to…” prompts. Because you have me picturing “Have you gotten to the part where Tyrion kills [redacted] yet? That was really unexpected and cool!” Yes, other fans can boost your engagement with a piece of culture, but they can also spoil it for you—and not just by giving things away or demanding you rush to catch up with them, but by engaging with the material in a very different way than you do, and demanding you relate to it on the same level. I’ve had some of that with Ice And Fire fans, who want to hint-hunt through the books and speculate endlessly on what’s coming next, where all those plotlines are going, how they’re going to tie together, and so forth. Which is just not how I relate to culture at all. For me, there’s already enough presently available culture without spending hours on end trying to analyze, anticipate, and even judge culture that doesn’t even exist yet.

So I’d describe myself as along for the ride. For me, Martin’s increasingly slow pace in turning out the books means it’s necessary to be patient and switch my engagement over to other things between books, not that it’s necessary to endlessly obsess over picking apart what we already have. Granted, these books are so expansive and so detailed that they reward that kind of analysis, and I have nothing against anyone who finds it fun; it’s just not my personal scene. Am I weird in thinking, though, that it’s a little unfair to Martin to spend the five years between books trying to get ahead of him? If I were writing these novels, I confess I’d be incredibly intimidated by the effort to mentally keep ahead of literally millions of readers who were trying to outguess and outthink me—not to mention the way those five years of speculation and anticipation tend to build up expectations that no one could match. I tend to devour the books as they come out… and then not think about them a great deal between books, except when my job requires it, or there’s a new development, like the launch of the HBO show, or a new Martin novella or graphic novel.

And yes, that is in part because I have faith in Martin’s ability to tie it all together eventually, and I don’t want to anticipate that ending. I’m cynical about whether the series will ever get finished, but I try not to focus on that. If he does wrap it all up… well, he’s a terrific storyteller. I do believe he’s going somewhere, and I think that somewhere is going to be amazing. That’s why I dodge the speculators as much as possible: I don’t want to get there years before Martin does. I want his fully realized, fully fleshed-out version of the ending, not a bare-bones speculation that has Jon and Dany picking out place settings for their wedding, but no sense of how they got together and what it all means. So maybe my readings of the books aren’t very nuanced, because for me, it’s all about the pleasure of reading, and the focus and determination and obsession some people bring to the table seems a lot like work. I confess that when A Dance With Dragons came out, rather than going back to re-read the past books again, I made heavy use of the invaluable A Wiki Of Ice And Fire to remind me who many of the mid-level players were, and where we’d seen them last, and what their significance to the story was.

And at times, I really feel like I’m missing things anyway. You ask how I engaged with the books on a storyline-specific sense: That was mostly a case of picking and choosing not just my favorite characters (which have changed over the years; Brienne has been a longtime favorite, but I loved Tyrion in Clash Of Kings and got really sick of his annoying “Where do whores go?” business in Dance With Dragons; Jaime was an entirely boring villain to me until he lost his hand and had to rethink his life; Arya comes and goes for me, depending on what she’s up to), but my favorite Martin writing modes. Going back to the first book, he writes in a very different style for the Dany chapters than for the King’s Landing chapters, and for a while, I found that jarring, as if I was switching back and forth between two different writers within the same book. It’s always been amazing and thrilling for me, though, how readily Martin switches between characters and loses me (“I don’t care what Davos is up to right now—get back to Arya, dammit!”), and then picks me right back up again within a few pages. Engaging with the books on a plotline-by-plotline, scene-by-scene basis has always been a matter of trusting that no matter how reluctant I am to leave one character’s company, the next is going to have something fascinating to say.

That said, there are certainly points where I’ve gotten lost. There’s a sequence in A Dance With Dragons where Theon takes Lady Barbrey Dustin down to the Stark crypts, and she dumps a load of personal history on him, and I was mostly at a loss to put her new information together with what we already know about the previous generation. I wondered if what we were learning was just flavor, or some vastly significant piece of the big puzzle that I just wasn’t absorbing because it had been six years since the last book. If Martin does finish the whole series someday, I know I’m going to have to go back and read the whole thing from the beginning just to try to get a better sense of the big picture.

But I’ll give the speculators and the theorists and the anticipators this one, which first came up for me in comments on my review of A Dance With Dragons: Bran isn’t “turning into a tree or whatever,” he’s learning to channel and control his abilities as a warg. He’s learning to bodily possess other people and creatures. He’s learning to communicate across the vast spaces of Westeros via the trees. Given how much miscommunication and slow-traveling messages have affected the storyline throughout the books, that latter seems particularly significant. But more to the point: One of the biggest potential problems facing Westeros at this point besides The Others is those three growing, increasingly uncontrolled dragons. Which Bran is potentially going to have the skill to possess. And how amazing will that be? Care, Genevieve. Care a lot.

But maybe that’s a tease too. There are a lot of teases in this series that deliberately come to nothing. Like Quentyn Martell’s theory that he has dragon blood in his veins and will be able to control Dany’s dragons. (Oops.) Martin is famous for engaging with his fandom, and he’s well aware of all the people trying to outguess him, and he has a conscious impish streak about giving them tastes of possible directions for the story, then pulling the rug out from under them. Or alternately, giving them just a taste of what they want—say, with Brienne of Tarth showing up for one line of A Dance With Dragons, but without revealing how she survived, who she’s working for, or what she’s up to—and then no more. Or ending many of his chapters, as I noted above, with significant characters appearing to be dead. Or ending his books with a massive pile of cliffhangers. Much like Joss Whedon, he knows the power of giving his fans unresolved tension instead of the catharsis and easy answers they think they want.

And how do you relate to that tendency, Genevieve? You’ve had it easier than I have in terms of reading all the books back-to-back, without having to wait years to find out whether this character or that character survived from one book to another, but you’re in the same boat as everyone else when it comes to those chapter-ending fake-deaths, or the characters who disappear for hundreds of pages, or the overarching plotlines left unresolved. And now with Dance With Dragons, you’re getting a taste of how it feels to be left in the dark about the fates of Stannis and his army, and Jon Snow, and so many other things. Do you register all this with frustration, delicious anticipation, or something else entirely? What do you think about the way Martin consciously plays with his audience? And are you going to spend the next however many years digging into all the ancillary material and speculating about where the books will go from here, or are you going to join me in disengaging and waiting patiently for the next installment?

Genevieve: Well shoot, now I do care about tree-Bran. And now I have to wait God knows how long to see how that shakes out. Thanks a lot, Tasha!

As for that waiting: As you said, I’ve had it easier, being able to blaze through the first five books, and in a sense, I still have it pretty easy in terms of tolerating the anticipation, thanks to the HBO series. As I’ve made clear, there’s still a lot in this series I just don’t get, so in a way, the second season of Game Of Thrones feels like new, supplementary material, rather than a rehash of things I already know. (I’ve mostly avoided previews and behind-the-scenes stuff about season two for this reason: I want to experience it whole-cloth, rather than absorbing drips and drabs before it premières, then filling in the holes as it airs.) So there’s still plenty to tide me over for the next few months, and possibly longer, if the second season inspires me to go back and re-read A Clash Of Kings. After that, though…

Honestly, I’ll be fine, as I’m of a mind with you when it comes to disengaging between entries in a series. I did the same thing with my beloved Harry Potter books, though the staggered release of the movies and the last three books kept it pretty high in my consciousness for a few years there. (Is it too much to hope that Martin will similarly keep pace with the TV series? Probably!) Plus, even with the luxury of fast-reading, I’ve learned to be wary of Martin’s fake-outs and circuitous resolutions—a hard lesson learned during the Dany-, Jon-, and Tyrion-free A Feast For Crows—so expending energy anticipating things that may or may not be resolved, and maybe not even addressed, seems pointless. It’s like obsessing over a blind date or planning how you’ll decorate your future dream home. It can be a fun thought-exercise, but it’s ultimately pretty unsatisfying, and such heightened expectations run a serious risk of tarnishing the event once it eventually arrives.

But I think we may be in the minority there, as evidenced by the passionate speculation about the series that occurs in the comments here and elsewhere. And I think that’s great—sometimes I wish I had the inclination and mental faculties to engage in that sort of obsessive, speculative discussion, as it seems fun—but if Martin really does delight in messing with his audience, as you suggest, I also wonder if it might be a little self-defeating. Not that I believe Martin would sacrifice good storytelling for the sake of misdirection, but he might be drawing out smaller, less plot-centric elements in order to tweak his more rabid fans. And while that’s certainly very savvy on his part, it’s also sort of a dangerous game he’s playing. It feels reminiscent of Lost, which threw so many balls in the air over the course of its six seasons, there was no way it could catch them all by the series conclusion, leaving many fans who obsessed over the minutia of the series unsatisfied. While I’m certain big, important issues like Dany’s dragons and Jon’s parentage—and okay, fine, Bran the warg—will get their due attention before ASOIAF concludes, it seems inevitable that some smaller bits of discussion-board fodder will get lost in the shuffle. (If the long-lost direwolf Nymeria turns out to be the Walt of ASOIAF, oh, I will just spit.)

So yes, I’m content to sit back with you, Tasha, and see how this all shakes out, rather than attempting to beat Martin at his own game. But at the same time, there are certain things I’m really, really ready to see resolved, and I’ll be extremely frustrated if The Winds Of Winter ignores them in favor of introducing yet another new character I have to keep track of and care about—which I think puts me in the ranks of just about every ASOIAF fan. But even if the next book wraps up without, say, confirming that Coldhands is Benjen Stark, or filling in what went down between Cat and Brienne, I’ll be frustrated, yes, but will still go buy A Dream Of Spring the moment it’s released. I suspect you’re the same, Tasha, so I’ll bring us home by asking this: What do you think it is that keeps readers coming back to a series that regularly teases and punishes them with long plot digressions and traumatic character deaths? I realize it’s a tall order to ask you to boil the series down to its essence, but you’ve had a lot longer to think about it than I have, so you must have some opinions on What It’s Really All About, Man. After all the feasts are done and the battles are won, why do we care?

Tasha: Well, part of what keeps people coming back is that it’s just an exciting story, with extremely well-realized characters, and surprising plot twists. And part of it is that Martin executes it all at a level of detail that’s tremendously friendly to those obsessive fans, who at this point have so much material that they could keep speculating endlessly. And part of it is the cliffhangers, and that sense of gotta-see-what-happens-next. Martin is market-savvy in a lot of ways, and he’s smart about keeping people from disengaging.

But I really think the heart, the essence of what he’s doing with A Song Of Ice And Fire is what he’s always gone best: He’s playing with readers’ sense of justice, and their innate desire to see the bad guys punished and the good guys triumphant—or, in a more nuanced way, to see the arrogant humbled, and the weak and innocent saved from horrible fates, and the dutiful and honorable rewarded. What Martin does, better than any other writer I’ve ever read, is create scenarios where justice is denied in elaborate and frustrating ways, but then finally comes—always at a cost. There are no easy payoffs in his books, in this series or in his past history. You talk about ignoring The Others in order to focus on smaller, more immediate threats to the Seven Kingdoms—well, so are the characters, who are scrabbling for the best deck chair on the Titanic, and generally don’t know it. And yet a small, determined handful of people know exactly what they’re facing with The Others, and are trying to fight them before it’s too late for the rest of the world. In a fair and just world, they’d triumph and be considered heroes: Their sacrifices would be recognized and rewarded. With Martin, there’s no telling. It’s a fantasy series, so we all assume they’ll eventually triumph—cruel as Martin can be to his characters, I don’t believe for a second that he’d end with them all dying horribly and the world perishing in eternal winter. The question is what it’ll take to succeed, what kind of price they’ll have to pay, and exactly how they’ll go about it.

All of which may sound obvious, but Martin echoes this sort of thing over and over on smaller scales, and the way he denies characters justice and safety is consummately button-pushing. Like Arya finally almost being reunited with her mother and siblings, only to be whisked away from The Red Wedding. Or Brienne finally finding Catelyn and promptly getting strung up for her trouble, without a chance to speak. Or Oberyn Martell fighting Gregor Clegane, and so clearly having him on the ropes, before that went horribly sour. Even Cersei planning to let Ned live at the end of Game Of Thrones, and Joffrey overruling her… It’s a pattern Martin follows over and over, promising readers satisfaction, then denying it. But that just makes the relief stronger and sweeter when, say, Tyrion finally strikes back against his father, or Dany finally gets the hell out of Meereen and away from all the people who have held her down and tried to manipulate, control, or kill her. That, I think, is what keeps people coming back to A Song Of Ice And Fire: the monstrous injustices Martin foists on his characters, and the savage satisfaction when one of them finally triumphs. He keeps the stakes high, but so does a great deal of fantasy. What he does really well is make them personal at the same time.

And now, thanks to the HBO series, they’re becoming personal for a lot more people. I’m glad the show brought you into the fold, Genevieve. Welcome on board. Now join me in waiting for the next book, and waiting to see whether the TV series does Martin justice, or withholds it from him, just to see if that keeps fans coming back, too.

Filed Under: Books

More The Catch-Up