George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is, in my opinion, the best fantasy book series since J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. That comparison isn’t a coincidence; Martin has talked often about how his series is in conversation with The Lord of the Rings. He wanted more granular details about Middle-earth, once famously asking, “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” When Martin read The Fellowship of the Ring as a kid, he didn’t like that the wizard Gandalf didn’t stay dead after falling down a pit in the Mines of Moria.
Martin wanted to write a fantasy series that felt less like myth and more like history. You can feel that desire all over A Song of Ice and Fire. People die (and stay dead) so often that Martin became famous for killing characters. We get into the nitty-gritty of how politics and economics affect the lands of Westeros and Essos, and we meet a huge cast of characters who all think they’re the heroes of their own story.
Sometimes, I think Martin’s love for granularity can lead the series astray, and I’ll get into why, but there’s no doubt of the power and impact of his work, not only in literature but in television and movies, thanks to HBO’s hugely successful TV adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones. It will be a long while before studios stop trying to ascend the hill that Game of Thrones stuck a flag into.
There is a pretty huge caveat to me calling A Song of Ice and Fire a great book series: it is not finished. Thus far, Martin has published five of a planned seven books. He has been writing the sixth book in the series, The Winds of Winter, for so long that it is has become a running joke among fans, and even he can see the humor.
Does that mean that the five existing books aren’t worth reading? I don’t think so. There’s enough juice here to entertain people even as we wait on an ending that I sincerely hope we get. I think the books vary in quality, but all have great writing in them. Let’s take a look at them book by book, starting with the weakest of the lot:
5. A Feast for Crows (Book 4, 2005)
To me, the first three books in the A Song of Ice and Fire have three big things going for them: complex, layered characters; detailed worldbuilding; and a propulsive plot that always has you wanting to read just one more chapter. Then we get to A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in the series, which picks up after several big plot twists towards the end of A Storm of Swords: Tyrion kills Tywin, the Starks are massacred at the Red Wedding, Jon Snow is elected Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, etc. Feast begins with our characters picking up the pieces. It starts slow and never really speeds up.
The problem with Feast is that although the characters and worldbuilding are as great as ever, we don’t build to any of the explosive climaxes that made the first three books such page-turners. Instead, we follow characters in states of transition. Brienne and Podrick search the Riverlands for Sansa, Sansa adjusts to a remote life in the Eyrie, Arya learns the ways of the Faceless Men in Braavos, and so on. The most entertaining chapters belong to Cersei Lannister, who mismanages things in King’s Landing so spectacularly that she’s eventually thrown in jail by the High Septon, all the while convinced that she’s doing a brilliant job. But even there, the best parts of her story are pushed into the next book.
On top of that, Martin introduces us to new characters on the Iron Islands and in Dorne, further slackening the pace as we make introductions. It’s not that these stretches are badly written — the Kingsmoot scene on the Iron Islands is one of the better chapters — but we can’t help but wonder why we’re spending time with these new people rather than catching up with familiar characters like Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow, none of whom appear in Feast.
My reading on both A Feast for Crows and its sequel book A Dance With Dragons is that by this point, A Song of Ice and Fire had become so popular that Martin’s editors were no longer willing to tell him no. These books have lots to recommend them, but they could both benefit from a merciless editor making some hard cuts.
That said, Martin’s confidence as a wordsmith only grows here. In fact, A Feast for Crows contains his best stretch of prose in the entire series, when a character named Septon Meribald tells Brienne, Podrick and a character named Ser Hyle Hunt the difference between ordinary criminals and “broken men”:
After he gives this speech, Ser Hunt asks Septon Meribald if he fought in the War of the Ninepenny Kings. “So they called it, though I never saw a king, nor earned a penny,” Meribald answers. “It was a war, though. That it was.” This speech doesn’t appear in Game of Thrones at all. That’s an enormous loss, because it is deeply felt, heartbreaking and beautiful. Even if the least of the Song of Ice and Fire books, Martin is giving his all.