All the way through the last three volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire (which I previously wrote about here), I was waiting, hoping, anticipating the moment when the narrative would surge (or at least drift slightly) ahead of the TV series. Now, I know that the series is becoming ever more divergent from the print edition, but that seems to be mainly through combining characters, excising subplots and otherwise streamlining the bloat of the books. Both are surely heading more or less to the same conclusion.
If, that is, there is a conclusion.
It’s by no means clear that there’s going to be. It’s pointless, it seems to me, to read these books for the plot. There is no central plot line. The story is rhizomatic: it’s all subplots. As a reader, you might find yourself favouring some of the subplots over others. Do you care about Dany and her dragons? Good luck with that. Not featured in book 4, they’re big in book 5 (both parts of), but not very much happens until (I made a note) page 190 of the final volume. And even that comes to not very much.
Nobody cares much for Stanis, but he’s the only one moving pieces on the board for the most part. And you’d think that after his arrival at the wall at the end of the 3rd book, stuff might happen. But not really.
So much of ASOIAF takes place offstage, in fact. People are sent off places and then we don’t hear much or anything about them for hundreds of pages. It’s almost as if the whole project was designed to confound the expectations of the reader-for-the-plot. What we’re left with instead is a level of excruciating detail about minutiae, whether in the form of food (heron stuffed with figs gave me pause) or dreadful body odour or – worse – the bloody flux that afflicts refugees and armies.
Is this hyperreality? Is it a lesson in how mediaeval wars were fought – not by armies of skilled fighters but by logistics and blind luck? The winning side being the one with the fewest dead horses, or the least weakened army.
But another unfortunate effect of GRRM’s dwelling on detail is his concern with rape and sexual abuse and torture. I found scenes featuring Theon/Reek too much to bear (skip skip skip) and despair of any woman not being raped or threatened with rape or simply shaved all over and paraded naked through the streets (complete with hyper-detailed description of piss and shit – or night soil, as the author insists on calling it.
As for the scenes featuring Brienne, my goodness, but the level of graphic detail is dismaying. And you can’t help thinking the author takes too much pleasure in inflicting suffering – especially on women.
What if you read avidly about Jon Snow? Well, he does quite a lot in the last three volumes. But what he is doing mainly concerns moving people around and making deals, holding meetings and overruling those who disagree with him.
It’s never really clear – until it is – whether anyone is dead or not. People are reported dead (yes, it’s the fog of war), but then turn up in disguise, or using another name. A number of people turn up incognito – except we’ve never met them before, so you wonder why. These are often the characters who have been cut for TV, which is to the good. Whole character arcs start in the middle of nowhere and lead to failure/death and you can quite see why they’re just not needed to drive the plot forward. Other people die or are reported dead or just disappear for ages and have graphically detailed bowel problems.
Rape, maim, torture, bloody flux, poison, behead, dismember: these are the rhythms of life and death in ASOIAF. Somewhere within is a lean, gritty fantasy trilogy featuring a much smaller cast of characters and a radically streamlined plot about a winter plague of frozen zombies and an exiled girl queen learning to fly dragons.
But with all these subplots and this army of characters, it’s lost. And it’s no wonder GRRM struggles for so long to write the books. There are no threads to hold onto and too many Greyjoys than is strictly necessary.