Sometime in 1996 or 1997, while prowling around a bookstore (you know, an actual store with these weird things with words written on actual paper) I came across a book entitled A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. It was in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section of the store. Anyone who’s perused my LibraryThing catalog will know that I mostly read thrillers, but I am a fan of science fiction and fantasy as well. However, it is fairly rare that I find books in either of these genres that really grab my attention. I’m not sure what it was about A Game of Thrones that caught my attention (it certainly wasn’t the description on the back which, reading the back cover of that paperback again last night, doesn’t really seem to describe the book very well), but I bought a copy and put it on my bookshelf with the intent to read it … later.
Jump forward several years. Even though A Game of Thrones had been sitting on my bookshelf, it had never made it to the top of my always crowded reading list. There had always been another Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler or generic thriller to fill my reading time. But I found myself picking up A Game of Thrones fairly often to see if maybe it would be the next book that I’d read. Finally, in the summer of 2003, I decided to read A Game of Thrones. It became one of the first books that I read in eBook format on my Sony Clie. I read it over the course of several months while I worked out on an elliptical machine (the software on the Sony Clie had a customizable autoscroll feature that was pretty cool). Anyway, I absolutely loved the book. I recall telling people at the time that I thought it was easily the best fantasy novel (and more on that in a minute) since Tolkien. When I finished A Game of Thrones I quickly purchased the second volume A Clash of Kings and read it while I continued to workouts.
The story told in these books (the series is called A Song of Ice and Fire) is difficult to describe. I’ve often said that it is really a masterful work of medieval historical fiction, just not our history. The book is set in a fantasy world in a land called Westeros. It draws quite a bit upon the English Wars of the Roses for inspiration. And it does have supernatural elements, but in very limited and restrained amounts. The book is not about wizards running around turning people into toads; nor is it about explorations of dungeons filled with slavering beasts. Instead, it is about humans and their quest for power, glory, honor, and other more base human motivations. It is, as the title of the first book implies, about thrones and the perceived power that a crown wields. But mostly, it is about some of the most well-written characters in fiction.
The story is told from shifting points of view. Each book has a handful of point-of-view characters (and chapter headings tell the reader which character will be “featured” in that chapter). So the reader is able to watch the story unfold from different viewpoints (and, like anything else, viewpoint is critical to the interpretation of certain events and motives). But by avoiding omniscient narration, Martin is able to ground his story very thoroughly in his characters and their respective views of their world and the events in which they are embroiled.
Another element that sets these books apart is that those characters are not the classic white hat wearing good guys or black robed villains. Good people do bad things and bad people aren’t necessarily evil. Knights aren’t always honorable (and might offer the occasionally epithet); ladies aren’t always … um … ladylike? Oh, and people have sex, too. And get this: People die. And not just any people, but main characters, even heroic main characters. Death is often ugly and painful. And any taboos that you can think of are probably thoroughly trashed somewhere along the way. In other words, the story is very surprising with twists and turns that are completely unexpected. It’s not often that an author surprises me in a story; in A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin surprises me over and over and over again.
Alas, eventually my workout routine ended and when I finished A Clash of Kings, which I also loved, I decided that I wanted to get back to faster moving thrillers. I knew that I wanted to read the third book A Storm of Swords but, like with my original delay in reading A Game of Thrones, there was always something that I wanted to read more. It’s also worth mentioning that these books are huge!
In 2005, the fourth volume, A Feast for Crows, was published. In its review of the book, Time called Martin “the American Tolkien”. I had the chance to meet the author (and get an autographed copy) at a local bookstore and hear him talk about the series. That provided the impetus to move on to A Storm of Swords, but after just a few pages, I realized I had a problem. The story is so complex and involves so many characters, that I knew that I would miss much of the detail and interest in that book because I didn’t have a firm recollection of the events of A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. Thus, I decided that I needed to re-read those books before moving on to A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows. I bet you can guess what happened… That’s right. Once again, as much as I wanted to read these books, I kept putting them off for other books.
And so things remained for a looong time. I continued to think of A Song of Ice and Fire with very high regard and knew that I really did intend to go back and re-read the first two books and then move on the third and fourth books (and the fifth book if and when it was ever published). But I knew that the time investment was huge (did I mention that these books are huge…?) and thus I kept putting it off.
And then came HBO.
Around Spring 2010, I learned that HBO intended to air a series based on A Song of Ice and Fire. From all I read, it sounded like this was going to be a big budget series done well as opposed to the numerous cheaply made and poorly written fantasy series that have come and gone. And it sounded as if Game of Thrones (the name of the HBO series) would be faithful to the books. Once I began to think that HBO could do for A Song of Ice and Fire what Peter Jackson did for Lord of the Rings … well, it was finally time to re-read the books. I decided that I wanted the events of A Game of Thrones to be fresh in my mind as Game of Thrones (note the difference between the book and TV show is the lack of the article “A” in the title of the show) premiered. My timing was almost perfect. Even better, the show was almost perfect, too (and on Thursday we should learn if Game of Thrones will be nominated for any Emmy awards).
When I finished re-reading A Game of Thrones, I realized how much I’d missed during my initial read while exercising. The book deserved a much, much more careful read, as the detail is so rich and the characters and story are so complex and demanding. I remembered the broad outlines of the story but there was so much that I didn’t remember; I didn’t find myself bored at all. So within minutes after finishing A Game of Thrones I moved on to A Clash of Kings and when that was done it was time for A Storm of Swords and, at last, A Feast for Crows.
Now, let me back up here for just a moment. As I mentioned, A Game of Thrones was published in 1996. A Clash of Kings followed in 1998 and A Storm of Swords came out in late 2000. Unfortunately, A Feast for Crows was delayed until 2005. That book included an author’s afterward that ended:
Tyrion, Jon, Dany, Stannis and Melisandre, Davos Seaworth, and all the rest of the characters you love or love to hate will be along next year (I devoutly hope) in A Dance with Dragons, which will focus on events along the Wall and across the sea, just as the present book focused on King’s Landing.
Apparently, when writing A Feast for Crows, the novel became too big to be published. So Martin and his publisher decided to cut it in half (or so), but not in the way that one would expect. Rather than picking an arbitrary ending point somewhere in the “middle”, Martin decided to pull the chapters for some of the characters out of the book entirely, thus limiting A Feast for Crows to one group of characters and one part of the story. Tyrion, Jon, Dany (three of the most interesting characters in the series) and the others mentioned in the afterward would be the focus of the fifth book that was due in 2006.
But as often happens, that plan went awry. Apparently Martin had a great deal of difficulty (for a whole host of reasons) completing that fifth book. And so time passed and passed and passed. And A Dance With Dragons remained “in the works”. Martin used to provide regular updates on his blog, telling readers what he was working on and when he expected to finish. Eventually, however, he gave up doing even that and instead wrote simply that he wouldn’t be providing any more of those updates but would, instead, just tell readers when he was done.
I think, by the time that the premier of the HBO series was approaching, many people had begun to wonder if A Dance With Dragons would ever be finished. And then came the announcement earlier this year that Martin had, indeed, finished A Dance With Dragons and that it would be published … today … July 12, 2011.
I finished A Feast for Crows last week while on vacation. My timing was off by a few days, so I took advantage of that and read Jeffrey Deaver’s entry in the James Bond canon Carte Blanche (which I finished last night). And tonight I will start on the long-awaited A Dance With Dragons. And on Saturday, I’ll go back to that bookstore to meet the author again (and get a signed copy of the hardback of A Dance With Dragons to be placed on my bookshelf next to the signed copy of A Feast for Crows).
But just think of the excitement of fans who’ve read the books as published. As I mentioned, three of the best characters in the series were completely (or almost completely) absent from A Feast for Crows; in other words, there hasn’t been any new material about those characters in over ten years! But today, the wait is over.
Each year, I look forward to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. But tonight, I’ll be in the basement, TV off, iPad on. A Dance With Dragons has arrived.