It is six months since I first read this book, and since then I've read it twice more. What is there to say about it? With an average rating of 4.42 on Goodreads, rated by 36,383 readers, and with 4,724 reviews (to date), what can I possibly add? What can I say that has not already been said before, and undoubtedly better? This is the book that got me reading fantasy again. Decades after 'Lord of the Rings' left me stunned, here was another piece of fantasy that completely blew me away. Larger than life characters, a vipers' nest of political plotting, a whole world of places and inter-related families and history and creatures and magic and strange happenings, plus a dazzling writing style - all that and more blended to make a story I was unable to put down.
Well, there has to be a but, doesn't there? Right from the start, almost, I had concerns about some of the author's methods. After the rereads, that has settled into three issues. Firstly, Westeros is a dismal, depressing, miserable place. No, I don't want fairies and unicorns, or a simplistic good/evil dichotomy, and gritty realism has its place, but this is beyond realism. Nowhere in the real world do you find quite so many selfish, scheming, treacherous, downright evil people, and so few people with even an ounce of good nature in their bones. Now it may be that Martin will eventually toe the traditional line, and good will triumph over evil (in some sense) somewhere in the latter part of book 7, but until then we are left with a book whose message appears to be: life's really
a bitch, and then you die (horribly, painfully and slowly).
Secondly, Martin does appalling things to his main characters. They die (if they're lucky), otherwise they're mutilated, crippled, beaten up, enslaved and forced to see and do hideous things, even the children. Minor characters fare even worse, but that's almost expected in a genre that deals with end-of-the-world scenarios. But the main (point of view) characters are the way the reader engages with the story, we have to care about them on some level to enjoy it, and having them vulnerable to death or worse at any moment actually interferes with that. The reader is liable to disengage, and that (surely) is not what any author wants.
In fiction, it's not enough to make your characters suffer just because you can. They have to suffer for a reason - because the plot depends on it, because it makes their character grow, or because the author is making a point about life or humanity or some such. There are too many instances in Martin's work where the reason is not at all obvious - Bran's injury, for example, where we can clearly see the proximate but not the ultimate cause (in plot terms).
Thirdly, the story sprawls. Now, fantasy is prone to largeness by nature - you can't fully describe an epic story in standard novel format, so three volumes at 600+ pages apiece is perfectly normal. Entire continents and worlds need a lot of people and places to fill them. Martin, however, takes this to a whole new level. The cast of thousands all have names and affiliations and children and servants and histories and sigils and named swords. No one could possibly remember a tenth of it, without a photographic memory. To get a handle on it, you have to take copious notes or use a wiki or read the books many times.
And the plot sprawls too. The first book's narrow focus on the Winterfell/King's Landing axis, plus the Dothraki movements, makes for a tight story, with only 8 POV (point of view) characters, excluding the prologue. But the later books begin to spread all over Westeros, with 9 POVs in book 2, 10 in book 3 and 12 in book 4. Book 5 is reported to feature 16. This, combined with the explosion of the originally planned trilogy into 7 (at least) books, makes me wonder whether the story has actually got away from the author altogether.
Now, I realise as I write this that all these points are precisely
the things that many people love about the books. Gritty reality is much better than elves and Tom Bombadil tweeness, they argue, it's truly exciting if any character could die at any moment, and the depth and richness of Westeros is awesome. I can understand that. When you've eaten marshmallows for years, something acid is just what you want. But I think Martin takes it too far, and too much acid is destructive. I still see these as defects.
They aren't the only ones, of course. Sizes and distances are dodgy, the magic is all over the place and the medieval European setting is conventional, to put it mildly. But none of that bothers me much, because the story is so good, and the writing is extraordinary. I'm still going to read the whole series (assuming the author and I both live that long). I'll still enjoy it. I trust Martin to produce an amazing finish. But ultimately I will judge the books by the three issues given above, and specifically the reason for Bran's injury - was it critical for the plot, or did the author do that just because he could?