Rambling Thoughts Upon Catching Up With A Song of Ice and Fire

I’m finally caught up with A Song of Ice and Fire. I pity all of you who had to wait years in between the first five books, because there is precious little that divides one from the other, that rewards any sort of pause in the narrative, and there is much that punishes those long breaks, when it comes to keeping track of all the names and places and heraldries and intrigues. Of course, now with a couple more books to go and who-knows-how-long till the next one, I’m in the same boat.

Warning: spoilers aplenty.

Like Tolkien’s, George R. R. Martin’s greatest accomplishment in his works is the secondary world he has created, intimidating and wonderful in its breadth and depth.  But unlike Middle Earth, there is nothing mythic about Westeros and its environs. It is medieval history and economics writ onto a world with only a dollop of the supernatural.

Especially in the later books, SoIaF reminded me of an extended campaign of Amber: The Roleplaying Game. Bear with me here. The Amber setting also had a certain element of court intrigue, but that’s not the main thing. If you ever played Amber and your games were anything like the ones I was involved in, at a certain point all the players have their own individual, sometimes-intersecting but often solo plot threads going, and there are a host of supporting characters, many of whom are more powerful than the characters the players represent, and the whole business starts to take on a life of its own. When I ran an Amber game in full swing, my preparation before game night would consist largely of running down the list of players, considering their plans and likely actions, and then running down the (long!) list of supporting characters and putting myself in their shoes and wondering what they would do in the circumstances they were in. Gameplay was just a matter of following those threads and working out the inevitable implications of the characters and their actions — it had a life of its own, and didnt need (some sometimes resist) attempts by move the overaching plot in a Direction by any sort of narrative fiat.

I imagine Martin finding himself in a similar situation. Daenerys finds herself atop the Pyramid in Meereen — what would she do? She couldn’t simply walk away from all that, it’s not in her nature, so what then? All of book five basically unravels that thread. Same for Cersei finding herself behind the throne.  I can’t imagine Martin planning for Jon to die the way he did — and I’m still a little bitter about it, actually — but I can easily see him sitting down, considering who the people are around him and what the situation is on either side of the Wall, and realizing that because of who he is — his father’s son, to the bone — he’s going to piss people off trying to do the right thing, and it’s not going to end well for him.

Arya. I was fiercely devoted to her from almost the minute she was introduced, which in these books is not a very healthy approach to take with any character. Somewhere in the middle of book three I vowed that I would stop reading if Martin killed her off — and part of the strength of these books is that that, as with anything else, was definitely a possibility. If you started reading thinking that a certain character “had” to survive or that a certain outcome was “inevitable,” you should have been disabused of that by the end of the first book, and Martin is inclined to issue periodic reminders just in case you forget the lesson.  What has actually happened with Arya is interesting but makes me a little nervous — what if, rather than simply killing her off, Martin is concocting an even greater cruelty by simply obliterating her identity, piece by piece, on her road to being Faceless?

Arya and Jon reuniting was the one scene I was most looking forward to at some future point in these books. And as “fitting” or “inevitable” as Jon’s death might be, the fact that it’s no longer possible saddens me. Maybe she’ll reconnect with Bran, though who can tell what he is becoming or has become. Seeing Sansa again doesn’t carry quite the same excitement, or Rickon for that matter, since he was so small during the idyllic pre-book-one time.

Tyrion. I haven’t seen the HBO version yet but lots of people who have say that he’s their favorite character in it. And he’s right up there with Arya for me as well. Everyone who reads these books has, whether they realize it or not, a CHI — chapter heading index — that scales from one to ten based on their excitement/anticipation when they see which point of view of the next chapter is going to be from. And these numbers can of course change over time. On a scale of 1 to 10 Arya and Tyrion always rate 9 or 10, Bran 7 or 8, Daenerys down around 3. Davos a solid 7, perhaps inflated since he’s so infrequent. Jaime, who was “WTF error number not found” when he first came on the scene as a POV, is now for me a solid 8. Jon’s a 7, Samwell 5, Sansa 4, Theon 3.

But yeah, Tyrion.  The smartest guy in the room no matter the room, which Varys appreciated, which is why he tried to send him to young Aegon. But for every time Tyrion’s mouth saves his ass, another time it’ll get him in trouble, and wherever on that roller coaster he actually ends up at the end of all this, it’ll have been quite a ride.

I must confess that, thinking about it a little more, where book five left things was unsatisfactory in a number of ways.  Bran’s and Sansa’s plotlines don’t make any headway in the latter half, not even a nod toward the end to see where they fit in. Stannis’ fate is reported in a letter, so we don’t get an end-note on either Theon or Asha’s experiences either. Part of me thinks that it was left as possibly-unreliable reportage because there might be more going on there, but I thought that about the Knight of Flowers getting grievously wounded and there was no there there either. For Victarian, Brienne and Jaime, Samwell, we have inklings of what’s in store for them but nothing approaching a neat resolution. Book five ends swimming in loose ends, and the thought of having to just leave them hanging there for who knows how long is maddening.

A word on the supernatural — what there is of it. The Others are obviously a big honkin’ something-or-other. And then we have our polar forces — Day/South, represented by the Lord of Light, whose followers appear to have an undeniable ability to peer into their fires and see things happening from the past/the future/afar, though no particularly ability to interpret what they see. Night/North, represented by the greenseers and the Old Ways and, increasingly, Bran, where the chief power is the ability to project & control animals (“wargs”) and in some cases other people and even trees. Then you’ve got Melisandre’s creepier powers, the Faceless Men to some extent, and of course the dragons. I’ll be curious to see where it all ends up, since there’s clearly a sense that the arrival of the dragons has triggered an upswing of magic in the world. But what I’m most curious about is the relationship between the magic of the North and the Others. The red priests fear the night; the greenseer tells Bran to embrace it. Melisandre clearly perceives the Other that she’s facing off against as a power beyond the wall, but does that refer to the Others or to the greenseer/Bran? And are those two related, and if so how? I was expecting a big reveal on that front toward the end of book five, but instead we got nothing from Bran since mid-book.  Grrr.

Man oh man is the North screwed. With Jon gone, wildlings and crows will fall on each other. Melisandre’s presence doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. The Boltons now hold sway. And our little ray of sunshine? And Arya-who-is-not-Arya in the hands of effin’ Theon. I can see it now, though, Martin’s going to pull a another Jaime on us, and by the end of book seven we’ll kind of like Theon in spite of ourselves.

Of course, only after writing all of this does it occur to me what Thoros of Myr did to/for Beric Dondarrion, and that with the red lady up there we best not write Jon Snow off completely. That thought is as intriguing as it is creepy.

Davos is still out there, searching for … Rickon, was it? Another ray of hope.

Though it does say something that my thought process coming off the book consists of desperately rooting around looking for things to be optimistic about!

At any rate, I am happy to finally be at the point where I can geek out with everybody else about these books. They’re not perfect but it was a hell of a ride.