In Which I Discuss The Book I Just Finished Reading, And Make Mention Of (And Not A Little Slander Upon) The Remainder Of The Series To This Point, With Some Ranting…Literary Criticism This Ain’t
I had the idea of writing this up in a nice meta fashion, mimicking the book—my vibe of it, not necessarily the specific style of GRRM’s voice—but then realized I’d have to write some 10k+ words of generally meandering chatter, spending most of my time talking about the crisis that guy who was working the drive-through window at the place I went for lunch suffered through this morning in his parking lot, and other random bullshit, all while occasionally, briefly mentioning in passing that, oh yeah, there’s a review coming, and it’ll be amazing, and then back to inane, unrelated stuff, before ending the review with a sudden, massive, completely absurd shocker like “BTW, if you read past page 643, you’ll get AIDS and die!”
And that wouldn’t be much fun for anyone, me or you. Which, incidentally, would serve as a perfectly adequate and accurate review, but, you know, fun and lack thereof. So here’s something that was at least a bit more fun to write, if not hopefully read.
Ultimately, I finished it. And had moments where I genuinely enjoyed what I was reading. He’s a good writer, and has created a handful of vivid characters in incredible circumstances, and I genuinely want to read about them and see how their stories end up.
The key there: a handful. All great storytellers seem to understand this just fine. You can have a cast of thousands, but you need a couple of key names above the titles for people to latch on to. Especially in an epic story where the POV keeps moving around from location to location…that’s jarring enough. With all sorts of intertwining conspiracies and plotting, and motivations and loyalties switching on a dime… And if you want to keep your readers invested in what’s going on while moving them around all over the place, it really helps to have a consistent landing spot for them whenever you return them to someplace they haven’t been for a while.
You don’t suddenly, 500+ pages in, drop in a long chapter involving characters that we haven’t even heard mentioned since halfway through the last book, some 5 years and 700+ pages ago, a dozen or so of them with very similar, hard-to-pronounce names, and somewhat bland and overlapping, easily-confused personalities and motives, and try to reveal a whole bunch of obscure minutiae about a small element in a vaster conspiracy, then abandon those characters and that location and the whole conspiracy for the rest of the damn book, and expect me to care or even fully follow what’s going on, even after reading through it multiple times.
I’ll say it again: a handful. It’s worth noting that the book ends with an Appendix that attempts to list out the key characters and their relationships to each other, just for this one book.
It’s 53 pages long. That’s not a typo.
In the Appendices for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien does something similar, listing out the family trees of each of the major houses involved in his stories…not just those mentioned in the book you’ve just read, by the way, but everyone, from the very first great-great grandfather, long since dead, through all the generations over thousands of years, up to the present day and the living heroes who participate in the events covered in the book you’ve just finished reading, a book that is often cited as the definition of Epic Fantasy. All those people, across multiple races, and thousands of years. And it’s barely half as long as GRRM’s list of the people in just one book that we’re supposed to keep straight in order to understand what’s going on.
Seriously? I’m not dumb, I’m actually pretty smart and occasionally smart enough to justify at least a reasonable amount of my inherent arrogance and misanthropy…and halfway through the book, I just gave up trying to follow all the major narrative threads and treated it like a long collection of vaguely-related short stories, pretending at the beginning of each chapter that it was unconnected to anything I’d read previously.
And then we come back around to those few characters who are interesting and worth paying attention to, and they’ve actually got a decent part of the book set aside for their stories, and what do we get?
Jon wakes up, and it’s cold. He eats some food, drinks some wine, wanders outside into the snow, meets with people who don’t like him, discusses a decision that’s somehow important to whatever’s eventually going to happen (probably in just a couple thousand more pages, it’s like imminent and shit), finds that those people disagree with him, and makes his decision anyway, one that seems pretty obviously clear to everyone reading along. He leaves, walks outside, it’s cold, he mopes for a bit about how hard it is to be a commander, and then goes to bed.
There. Fill in some of the generic blanks with random specific details (who he’s meeting with, what the decision is), and you can mad-libs about 90% of the Jon chapters in the book, some 200+ pages.
Was that fun? Let’s do it again.
Daenerys wakes up, bathes in her pool, chooses what dress to wear, and goes off to procrastinate. She worries about her “children”, makes a decision that’s pretty obviously awful to everyone reading along, worries some more about her “children”, goes to her pool, and then goes to bed.
Same thing: we just covered another 200-ish pages of the whole book.
And the worst part is that there’s some really good stuff in there. Jon does make some pretty massive decisions regarding the future of the whole realm, and his story does bring us ever closer to the fabled Winter that is coming…in the same way that tilting your head slightly forward while standing in Santa Monica does, in absolute terms, bring you slightly closer to Yankee Stadium. And Daenerys ends up riding one of her dragons, finally claiming her birthright in full…until she stops, and leaves him, gets diarrhea from eating unripe berries, and worries some more about her “children”.
It’s all just buried until mountains of wasted paper and ink. Sigh. The man needs an editor more than anyone since Steve King wrote 300 pages too many for The Tommyknockers.
The only one who actually has anything to do is Tyrion, and that’s not because he’s actively pursuing anything—if it was left up to him, he’d happily stay in one place, drinking and whoring until his money, dick or liver runs out, whichever comes first—but because larger people with ulterior motives keep dragging him around, listening to his fast talking just enough to decide to keep him alive, but never enough to actually take his advice and get shit done. (Except for one memorable occasion, which is probably the most interesting part of the whole book: Connington’s and Aegon’s return to Westeros, which is the only part of the book I have no issue with at all. There are a handful of complex but easily-discernible characters, each with their own private motives but all with a clearly-defined goal, and together they take actual tangible steps to achieve that goal. It’s like someone snuck in and wrote some GRRM fan-fiction while he wasn’t looking, and he never bothered to take it out.)
You know those detective shows or movies, where they’re hunting a serial killer, and they finally come upon his apartment (and of course he’s already long-gone), and they see what must have started as a simple peg board, a few newspaper clippings and notes to help keep things straight, only the guy is bug-shit nuts and now every inch of every wall is covered with photos and articles and notes and drawings so disturbing they’d make a childhood psychologist shoot himself in despair for the next generation, with lines drawn randomly connecting stuff, and it’s all done in some very natural lighting, like afternoon sun from a window, with plenty of dust and haze in the air, and the whole point is to make the audience think “Holy shit, this guy is bug-shit nuts, no sane person could even read through all this, let alone try to make sense of it and connect it all into a larger whole?”
I imagine that’s what GRRM’s writing office looks like these days.
So, to sum up, I didn’t hate it, there was some really good stuff in there, and of course all the hints of some grand, once-in-a millennia conflict coming “soon”, which is entertaining (at least for the first couple thousand pages of foreshadowing), but I won’t be re-reading it, ever, and if the next book is anything like this one, I’m probably just going to set them aside and ignore them until the entire series is done, by which point I’ll be retired and have plenty of time to wade through them and see if the whole damn thing was worth it.
And, seriously, TWO Arya chapters? That’s it? That’s like paying a stripper for a lap dance and giving her $200 to take off her watch. If we don’t get at minimum an entire book’s worth of Arya killing all the motherfuckers on her morning prayers’ list before this things wraps up, I’m gonna be pissed.