A Song of Ice & Fire
Book Three: A Storm Of Swords
I think that Martin may have strayed from Epic to Soap Opera. The series is moving too slowly, there are too many characters, and they are killed off or suddenly created with a major role in an almost random fashion. He could say that’s part of the deal in times of war: someone will survive whole invasions and then be killed in a minor skirmish. It’s in the style of a grand history, and he can be merciless with his characters. He’s really challenging the ‘makers of your own destiny’ idea: great and noble (and evil) schemes are just blown out. But I think he erred, for example, with Sandor Clegane’s death: how could he have survived all he had with cunning and skill and reading the situation - and then suddenly so out of character misread the one that brought his death? Likewise Tyrion: shrewd and then a fool. And no-one seeming to question that if he was going to poison someone, he wouldn’t have done it as ridiculously publicly.
But it’s irritating. And I don’t really want to be irritated. Please, please, some editing. Perhaps if it was done in another form: set up a world, and then take a different book each to focus on different characters, to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. But he is going for the huge thing of all these concurrent storylines. Rather than just have Bran’s brother die early in the book as some background, we have chapters and chapters on Rob and his achievements and aspirations ... and then he dies. I mean, looking at it that way it sounds like a real positive, and in some ways as I write I’m thinking, “C’mon, stay with it, it’s a really original approach, breaking totally away from the stifling predictability of probably 95% of the genre.”
But when there is no rhyme or reason to who lives and who dies, and Martin seems to be even stalling about getting to the larger threats surrounding the whole continent which will give us some sort of hopefully satisfying conclusion ... and when Martin himself seems to have no clear plan about the plot, but will happily meander about with whoever’s left and whoever appears, it is soap opera-ish. I hope it’s not an utterly market driven thing - a very effective way to keep selling books - get them in on a story but, 1001 nights style, NEVER get to the end, just keep hinting at it.
It would be OK if every ‘episode’ was good enough to give pleasure alone, but they’re not. Several of them are only ‘worth’ inclusion for their relation to the ‘main’ characters, but are still given far too many words. Some of them still are, hence the, but it’s not as if this is a dialogue book. The dialogue is 99% about the melodramatic action: nobody’s saying anything particularly wise or funny or clever. For something this big, he needs a team of writers to keep up the quality.
Much as I think he’d hate the comparison, I think he’s done a bit of an Eddings and so far pulled four inconsistent books out of what could have been an excellent two or three. The danger of the genre: Orson Scott Card, Robert Jordan, Julian May and so on and so on. What’s holding you is cheap tricks of “What will happen to Arya next week, fans?” - at some points I find myself saying, “I really don’t care.” This was never the case with Tolkien - because Tolkien had finished the whole thing before he published. He had time to go back and revise appropriately. I might start a chapter thinking, “Hurry up, I want to get back to the other storyline,” but soon enough Tolkien had me ‘in’ on the other one. And he didn’t play it out too long - the driving underlying and unified plot was always there.
Sure Martin’s trying to do something different, but he’s borrowed a lot from Tolkien, and I don’t know that the altered form he’s running with is working for him. So many ‘red herring’ characters. Gendry? Maybe he’ll turn up again, but there’s too much going on. He hasn’t made Card’s mistake of trying to have 15 ‘pivotal’ characters (an unsustainable contradiction). But having so so many non-pivotal ones given such space, we lose interest unless they stand alone in mini-stories/episodes. They don’t.
The characters, dialogue and action are not strong enough to entertain without the larger plot. A Wodehouse or a Tyler, a Chandler or a Lodge has enough going on in the language or the insight to not need strong plot devices. But even they have the sense to keep it down to a couple of hundred pages and a half a dozen characters. Martin needs to have important actions happening regularly to keep us with him, but after a while we’re not sure if anything matters so much. The only way to keep caring is to lower your standards, as I said, to a soap opera level.