Fall of the House of Stark: Some Thoughts on A Song of Ice and Fire So Far

Author George R. R. Martin

(This is part 6 of an exploration of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.  Read prior posts here.)

(Series spoilers ahead!)  In my review of Game of Thrones a few months ago, I noted that the series was about the fall of the Stark family, how good intentions can lead to ruin.  But in reading the rest of the series, I discovered it’s not about the Starks at all, although members of that family figure prominently in the plot.  No, the series is about the need for realistic, sometimes cynical decision-making in a world with no room for error, but the defining moment isn’t when Ned Stark loses his head.

It’s when Robert Baratheon slayed Rhaegar Targaryen.


Fall of the House of Stark, Part 5: A Dance With Dragons

(This is part 5 of an exploration of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.)

George R. R. Martin faced a difficult problem when he finished A Feast for Crows.  He had written a significant portion of his next book — A Dance with Dragons — from the leftovers from Feast, but it wasn’t coming together.  He faced the task of rewriting the unpublished half of a popular published book, breaking nothing in the existing narrative while improving the story.

This is why it took six years to finish.

Martin’s entire series is is a hydra: for every plot head he cuts off, another three take its place.  A Dance with Dragons doesn’t cover much more ground than A Feast for Crows — mostly that already told in the last book — but makes up for it in the sheer breadth of character interaction and story continuity.

It is also about characters forced out of their depth.  Adept chessmaster Tyrion Lannister becomes powerless; would-be child conquerer Daenerys Targeryen must learn to rule; and idealist Jon Snow learns the price of compromise in Westeros.


Fall of the House of Stark, Part 4: A Feast for Crows

(This is part 4 of an exploration of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.)

Back when I reviewed A Game of Thrones, I likened the series A Song of Ice and Fire to a television show, given Martin’s experience in showrunning.  If that’s so, then A Feast for Crows feels like a season abbreviated by a writer’s strike: some excellent leadup, including exploration of two intriguing characters we’ve only witnessed second-hand, but with the series’ most popular characters left out for the sequel.  But it also covers excellent ground, scarce explored previously.  This is a book about a loss of identity, and what happens when peasant revolt and religious fervor mix.


Fall of the House of Stark, Part 3: A Storm of Swords

(This is part 3 of an exploration of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.)

Years before the events of the first book A Game of Thrones, Tywin Lannister became lord of Casterly Rock and inherited a title in shambles.  His father had squandered away the family’s fast wealth, leaving them under tremendous debt.  It took years for Tywin to restore the family to its prior glory, and during that time he developed a reputation as a cold-hearted, ruthless ruler.  One of his “bannermen,” or lesser lords that owe allegiance to the Lannisters, was Lord Reyne of Castamere who, with Lord Tarbeck, rebelled against Tywin.  Tywin defeated both, leaving nothing of either the Reynes or Tarbecks alive or standing.  A bard immortalized their fall with “The Rains of Castamere,” painting Tywin Lannister in a harsh light.  But Tywin took to the song, and it became his anthem for when he wanted to remind enemies and allies alike of what he is capable of.

A Storm of Swords is the strongest book in the Song of Ice and Fire series.  It has the most forceful (if not quite “satisfying”) conclusion, with the most significant character development.  And it has a curious recurring subtext: the importance of song.  People are songs; dynasties are songs; whole lands are songs.

And songs must end.


Fall of the House of Stark, Part 2: A Clash of Kings

(This is part 2 of an exploration of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.)

A Clash of Kings, a story about faith, begins appropriately with a bright omen: a red comet streaking across the sky, seen by everyone in Westeros and beyond.  Yet everyone reads the portent differently.  The titular kings see the comet as an omen of their own victories.  Peasants fear it.  A widowed queen follows it across a barren desert.  A Clash of Kings isn’t just about the clash of Renly Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon, and the rest: it’s about the clash of faiths and civilizations.


Fall of the House of Stark, Part 1: A Game of Thrones

(This is part 1 of an exploration of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.)

Before he began the mammoth series A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin wrote for television, penning episodes of the 1980s reboot of The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman.  He also created and maintains the Wild Cards shared universe, editing anthologies of short stories set there.

So Martin was already adept at the long-form serial before he began Song of Ice and Fire.  Serialized storytelling is a hard art to master (one I’m frankly frightened of!), and I’m in awe of writers who can master it.  Dickens was one such master. The release of the end of Great Expectations to London by ferry was akin to the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or the fevered watch parties for series finales of shows like Lost.

A Game of Thrones, the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire, belies Martin’s serial heritage in one important aspect: it is the first part of a much longer story, not a book self-contained with comfortable resolutions.  Chapters end on cliffhangers; the novel ends only with the longest breathing space Martin could create, a brief pause in the hell that is Westeros.

The form serial has two big strengths: ongoing character development and the exploration of themes at length.  Martin uses both to his advantage.

And oh, what characters!