A Dance With Dragons 2: After The Feast by George RR Martin (2011)

The seventh and most recent (2011) book in George RR Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels, this is in fact, as previously explained, part two of the fifth book, Dance With Dragons, itself too large to publish in one volume. The two Dance with Dragons books combined would have totalled 1,117 pages of text, plus the 60 pages of genealogies at the end of each book; hence their division into two more manageable volumes.

But if you are reading the series, this is the final, most recently available book. Finish it and you join the legions of GRRM fans waiting impatiently for the next instalment, The Winds of Winter, expected publication date – 2015!

Photo of Harry Lloyd as Viserys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Harry Lloyd as Viserys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

This is a photo of Viserys Targaryen, exiled as a child from the kingdom of Westeros where his royal father has been brutally overthrown and killed. Viserys is brought up abroad, dreaming of completion and fulfilment, hoping to return and claim his rightful throne and bring his sad story to a triumphant conclusion. Instead he spends his childhood in an alien city and his adult years wandering across an endless steppe, thrown among brutal strangers, abused and humiliated, before being suddenly and sadistically killed by having molten gold poured over his head.

It is tempting to joke that reading all seven Song of Ice and Fire novels has been a somewhat similar experience. It’s taken me three long months to read them, three months during which my initial enthusiasm, my delusions that the multiple plotlines might reach some kind of fulfilment or closure, has peaked, plateaued and then, in this last book especially, rapidly declined.

Three things in particular have eroded my initial enjoyment – the misogyny, the climate of failure and the sense of disappointment. I’ve written about the misogyny of the novels in another post.

The Reader’s Disappointment

The first book, Game of Thrones, is given the underlying tension and pageturning exitement of a thriller as  we watch Lord Eddard Stark close in on the Great Secret at the heart of the Lannister succession. In the last pages he is abruptly executed and his secret is casually revealed in the second book by which time no one cares as the kingdom descends into civil war. The next few books have brooding over them two great, exciting threats – the attack on the Great Ice Wall which we know is being planned by an unseen army of wildlings and things of the night – and the threat that Daenerys Targaryen will sweep back to Westeros to claim her throne astride the three mighty dragons she has brought to life. Yet both these overarching narrative arcs fizzle out with no real resolution: King Stannis’s army decimates the wildling horde pretty easily; and Daenerys locks her dragons in a dungeon and gets bogged down in endless pointless politicking in the godforsaken slave city of Meereen.

Other great set-piece conflicts are set up, such as Robb Stark’s military triumphs in the North and Renly Baratheon’s elegant march across the South. These also are rapidly deflated as Robb is unceremoniously assassinated at Walder Frey’s castle and Renly is also assassinated by an evil spirit. The biggest battle in the whole series, the Battle of Blackwater Bay, also has a great sense of anticlimax as the attacker Stannis loses all his forces and the evil Lannisters emerge victorious.

“All signs are foreshadowing the terrible disaster that is to come,” it says on the Wikipedia entry for A Clash of Kings. But it never comes. One reads the ensuing four books in hope that something, anything, decisive will happen. Instead Robb is crushed, Stannis is crushed, Renly is crushed, Daenerys runs into the sand – the characters and plotlines may ramify out like weeds, but the edge-of-your-seat tenterhooks of the earlier novels slowly evaporates.

And this is directly connected to…

The Characters’ Failure

  • Lord Eddard Stark thinks he’s acting nobly and for the best. He fails and dies.
  • Eddard and Robert Baratheon think they can secure a peaceful transition of power but both fail; instead the continent collapses into brutal civil war.
  • Lady Caitlin Tully thinks she’s acting for the best when she releases Jaime to be exchanged for her daughter, Arya and Sansa. But Jaime is captured and mutilated and she never lives to see her daughters.
  • Robb Stark thinks he’s acting from duty when he marries Jeyne Westerling who he’s been sleeping with. it is a catastrophic error, as he had promised his hand to a daughter of the powerful Lord Frey and Frey takes his revenge by killing Robb, his mother and most of his army.
  • Sansa Stark thinks her young boy king fiance will give her a life of chivalry and beauty. It is a terrible failure of judgement; he strips and humiliates her.
  • Cersei Lannister’s every action is designed to protect her children but her beloved son dies in front of her eyes, while her daughter Myrcella is hideously maimed. She then plots to get her boy son’s fiance, Margaery Tyrell, accused of made-up crimes of fornication and debauchery – only to be herself imprisoned and tried for the same crimes – in her case, with justification.
  • Lord Tywin Lannister is motivated solely by the good of his House but he dies at the hand of his disgraced son, and it looks like the the entire house will be eclipsed by House Tyrell.
  • Jon Snow sends Maester Aemon to the Citadel for his own safety but far from being safe, Aemon dies on the way from the rigours of the long sea journey. Jon makes elaborate plans to incoporate the wildlings into the Night’s Watch, against mounting opposition from his own men who eventually turn on him and murder him.
  • Stannis Baratheon judges himself the rightful king of Westeros but all his plans are crushed at the Battle of Blackwater Bay. Although his defeat of the wildlings beyond the wall is a success, his journey to attack Winterfell is another catastrophic disaster in which most his army perish in the deepest blizzard seen for decades.
  • Brienne of Tarth dedicates her life to defending King Renly who is promptly murdered before her eyes. She is charged with bringing Jaime to King’s Landing and fails to prevent him being mutilated on the way. She is charged with finding Sansa and Arya and fails, getting herself hanged in the process.
  • Daenerys Stormborn is such a vital and heroic figure at the end of book one, having endured a forced marriage, and then the death of her beloved husband and unborn son, before being reborn along with three dragons ushering in a new age in Westeros. Sadly, she spends the next six books wandering deep into the desert continent of Essos, shedding dead followers along the way, before embarking on a pointless quest to liberate the slaves of the great slaver cities. Her stated aim is to return to Westeros and claim the throne due to her (and her dead brother Viserys), as children of the deposed king Aerys. Instead her threads in two or three books are entirely devoted to evermore tedious politics of faraway cities full of ungrateful citizens who she’s liberated form their shackles. All the promise and excitement of her thread died years ago.
  • Theon Greyjoy is an epic failure: determined to prove his worth to his father and touch sister, he takes the almost empty castle of Winterfell, only to be himself overrun by the terrifying Ramsay Snow, who locks him in a dungeon, starves him and tortures him, destroying his mind and body.
  • Mance Rayder, the Night Watchman turned wildling, assembles and leads a vast army of the ‘freeborn’ against the Great Ice Wall which defends Westeros. But after several books of threat and suspense, just as he’s attacking the Wall, King Stannis and his army emerge from the mist and decimates Mance’s forces, shattering all his ambitions and leading to his enchained imprisonment. In a later twist he’s freed to lead a raid on Winterfell, wrongly believing the young girl betrothed to Ramsay Snow to be Arya Stark. It isn’t her, all his spearwife helpers are killed, and he himself captured and tortured.
  • Ser Jorah Mormont, in exile in Essos, dedicates his life to defending Daenerys but when she realises that he’s been informing King’s Landing of her doings all along, she dismisses him from her service and he becomes a wrecked man.
  • Failure runs in the family as his father, Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, leading an ill-fated expedition north of the Wall to spy out the wildling forces and rescue Ben Stark, fails in both endeavours and ends up being murdered by his own men in Caster’s House.
  • Young prince Quentyn Martell, son of the gouty old Lord Martell of Dorne, is despatched to Essos to make a match with Daenerys the dragon mother, only to arrive far too late, Daenerys being up to her neck in complex court machinations in Meereen; and then, in making a stupid attempt to free the dragons from the dungeon where they’ve been chained, is himself burned to death.
  • Arianne Martell seduces Arys Oakheart of the Kingsguard to get his help in smuggling little princess Myrcella away from Sunspear. She intends to declare the little princess queen and raise an army around her. Instead her plot is foiled, the loyal Ser Oakheart is chopped to pieces before her eyes, and little Myrcella has half her face hacked off.
  • Victarion Greyjoy, a man already haunted by the failure of having his charismatic brother cheat on him with his wife (whereupon he beats his wife to death by hand), sets himself to be the next king of the ironborn when their father, Balon, dies. He is ignominiously defeated. When he sails for Eassos, also attempting to contact Daenerys and her dragons, almost half of his iron Fleet is destroyed.
  • Davos Seaworth, the “Onion Knight”, having had his fingertips chopped off by his stern lord Stannis, then watches his master’s plans come to destruction at the Battle of Blackwater Bay, where no fewer than four of his sons are killed. He is later despatched by Stannis to White Harbour to secure the loyalty of local lords, in which he completely fails and is imprisoned.
  • The dwarf, the Imp, Tyrion Lannister, sets out to preserve his family and keep his lover, Shae, safe –  but ends up killing his own father and strangling the beautiful Shae. He flees abroad seeking safety and ends up being sold into slavery.
  • Lysa Tully is hopelessly in love with cunning Petyr Baelish and thinks her dreams are finally coming true when he arrives back at the Eyrie, despatched from King’s Landing to secure her allegiance. Until he calmly pushes her out of a window 600 feet up a mountain. So much for childhood sweethearts.
  • Kevan Lannister believes he is acting for the best when he allows his niece, Cersei, to be led naked through the streets of King’s Landing to atone for her sins. He is just carefully planning  his next move when he is assassinated.
  • Even the supercunning eunuch, Lord Varys, though still alive, hadn’t anticipated when he helped to free Tyrion Lannister from the King’s Landing dungeons, that the Imp would defect from the escape plan to track down his own father and kill him with a crossbow – thus ensuring the end of Varys’s career as a statesman and player.

After this exhausting marathon, almost the only major living character who hasn’t failed is the (very) cunning Lord Petyr Baelish (aka Littlefinger) who has successfully based himself in the Vale of Arryn, cooly murdered his overtrusting wife, and playing divide and rule among the local lords. My son and I have been reading the series together, discussing its many aspects – and we’d agreed our favourite characters were Tyrion, Jon Snow and Littlefinger. Only with the death of Jon and enslavement of Tyrion did it begin to dawn on me that we liked them because they were successful. With the others more or less failures (and dying is a telltale mark of failure) it dawned on me maybe this is the reason we, as readers, like Baelish – even though he’s shown himself to be an amoral killer – because he has the charisma of success. Tyrion also had it for most of the series – in the early books he was a benchmark of irony and sanity and savvy – but his successive failures and humiliations have rubbed it off him.

This is interesting because it suggests a novel needs at least some characters we readers can identify with – not in the naive sense that they are like us, but in the Freudian or fairy tale sense that they live out our fantasies – they overcome obstacles and succeed.

Watching a succession of unlikable characters fail, more or less miserably, while countless bystanders get hacked to pieces, in an atmosphere drenched in woman-hating swearwords and crude abuse, has taken its toll on my senses – and I am oh-so-relieved to have finished this vast, amazing, appalling odyssey and escaped back to the real world.


Check out George RR Martin’s blog and his website.

Westeros.org links through to scores of other GoT websites, as well as hosting hundreds of FAQs about the series.

The books have been made into an ongoing HBO TV dramatisation. Series 1 and series 2 are now available on dvd. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (1996)

27 December 2012

‘How different, how very different from the home life of our own dear queen’,’ one is tempted to comment about the shenanigans at the court of King Robert of the House Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, who led a victorious rebellion to overthrow the mad king Aerys and his House of Targaryan, and now rules the continent of Westeros. (Numerous maps of Westeros are available on the web, including a colourful one defining the regions ruled by each House; the ones included in the books are usefully collected on this page.)

Game of Thrones is the first in the epic seven-novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, by American fantasy writer George RR Martin, set in the mythical medieval land of Westeros. The novel follows the fortunes of the powerful noble families or Houses who divide up the land, interweaving the stories of countless kings and queens, knights and concubines, servants and maesters, as they scheme, poison and fight each other for power.

Genre Swords and dragons. Fantasy.

Style The style is Tolkien meets Michael Crichton. Tolkien because, although he wasn’t the first to write stories set in medieval times, far from it, I think he was the first to combine elements of legend, the supernatural, and previously disparate folklore entities – elves, dwarves, giants – into one coherent imaginary world, created with such enormous attention to detail, to the backstory, the languages, the geography of that world – that the Middle Earth he created is a universe which fans can still immerse themselves and get lost in to this day.

Suspense Michael Crichton because the chapters are short and punchy with a clear narrative focus, moving the story on at pace like a modern thriller. Something happens in each chapter, often shocking and unexpected events. Each chapter is named after a character and tells the developments in the complicated plotlines from their point of view. So a shocking surprising event happens in a chapter devoted to the dwarf Tyrion. But instead of the next chapter following on, it will jump to the adventures of Jon Snow on the Great Ice wall a thousand miles to the North. This leaping between about ten different characters, so that you don’t find out what happened next to Tyrion, creates a permanent sense of suspense which is very gripping.

Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo in HBO's 'Game of Thrones' broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Style Similarly, although he throws in the odd token medievalism (‘oft’, ‘elsewise’, ‘near’ used as an adverb, inversions – “he was a man full grown”) essentially the tale is told in tough modern prose. A disconcerting symptom of the modernity of thought and style is the swearing. The characters quite often say ‘f***’ and sometimes the c word, something I don’t think we find in the genteel narratives of Dr Tolkien. If nothing else does, the swearing alerts you to the harsh, cynical, contemporary mindset underpinning the books. Maybe it’s more Tolkien meets Tarantino.

Paratext is the term is used by literary theorists to refer to the font, layout, pagination, prefaces etc which hedge round the text of a published book and which to some extent qualify and mediate our experience of the text. The book ‘Game of Thrones’ comes with five pages of maps, preparing you for a narrative which involves travel, and in an unknown fantasy land. It ends with 30 pages of Appendix featuring a couple of pages listing all the members of the major Houses, and a timeline of Westeros history, alerting the reader to the scope and complexity of the story. When my son was persuading me to read it, this long appendix put me off – I though, God, do I have to learn all this? In the event, it’s vital and addictive: and I kept referring to it to understand who was who and why they were plotting against each other.

With a bit of license we can extend the meaning of ‘paratext’ to include the cloud of associated products and merchandising which so often surround the modern text. First, there is the network of websites, beginning with George RR Martin’s website, his blog, A Song of Ice and Fire wiki and numerous others. Each of the characters has their own facebook page!

Mark Addy as King Robert Baratheon in HBO's 'Game of Thrones', broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Mark Addy as King Robert Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Meanwhile, you can buy Ice and Fire hats, t-shirts, card games, board games, models, scarves, pendants, mugs, magnets and cook books (see the selection available at Forbidden Planet!) ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ isn’t in the Harry Potter league yet but it’s trying.

And there is now a TV series. This first book, ‘Game of Thrones’, came out in 1996. In 2011 the American channel HBO broadcast ‘Game of Thrones’ converted into ten pacey, violent and quite pornographic hour-long TV shows. (Beware of showing them to your children!)

Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark in HBO's 'Game of Thrones', broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Series two covers the events of book two (‘Clash of Kings’) and was broadcast last year (2012).  Series three has completed production and will be broadcast in March this year (2013). It transmits in the UK on Sky Atlantic.

HBO trailer for Game of Thrones on YouTube

Delay The novels themselves, originally intended to form a trilogy, were extended to a set of five, and now seven. ‘Game of Thrones’ was published in 1996. The fifth installment, ‘A Dance with Dragons’, took over five years to write and was published in 2011. The sixth book, ‘The Winds of Winter’, is being written. The waits between volumes have become notorious: see, for example, this page summarising the reasons fans are anxious GRRM may never complete his epic task.

Going by precedent, the sixth book should come out in 2014 and the last one in 2017, 21 years after the first one! And there’s a possibility the T series might overtake – or have to pause to wait for – the books. Assuming a new season every year, the seventh season will air in 2017, so production would have to start in 2016 – a year before the book it’s based on is published.

So there’s not just suspense about the plotlines and narratives and characters in the text – there’s a higher level metasuspense about the resolution of the entire series, and its interdependency with the TV series. And the unspoken anxiety behind all this – what happens if – God forbid – GRRM (born 1948) dies before finishing the last books? Will it become the greatest unfinished novel since Charles Dickens’ ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’? Would any one of the thousands of other fantasy writers publishing today be invited to complete it? Or if GRRM does complete the series, what’s to stop his publisher commissioning other authors to extend the stories, to write sequels in the way James Bond novels continue to be published to this day, 50 years after Ian Fleming’s death?

Not just the novels – but the status, feasibility, long term future of the stories and characters they contain – will continue to be the subject of feverish speculation for the next four or five years, at least… for a humorous example, check out this video of a song written by US comedy duo Paul and Storn encouraging GRRM to hurry up and finish the series and “Write like the wind”:

The MUSIC and LYRICS of “Write like the wind” copyright Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo and Paul Sabourin

Check out George RR Martin’s blog and his website.

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and will be out on dvd in March 2013. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

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