Readers beware, this is a long article. The first half of the article is a synopsis of each book, while the second half of the article contains the actual review.
Warning: This article contains certain spoilers; if you are afraid to find out certain bits of information which are essential to explaining the continuity in the series, skip over the sections are greeted by ‘Spoilers Ahead’. The endings of said sections are marked
Song of Ice and Fire books 1-4
“Winter is coming.”
The ominous words of House Stark are spoken throughout the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George RR Martin. Hailed by Time Magazine as the ‘American Tolkien’, Martin has created what can only be described as one of the best fantasy book series of this day and age. As the inspiration of one of HBO’s newest hit shows, “Game of Thrones” Martin’s saga tells the story of multiple characters in the fictional lands of Westeros and Essos.
The ‘Game of Thrones’ Band wagon is travelling around the world, and many people are hopping on, so I can understand your hesitance to pick up the books which the show is based on. Are they worth the read? Well check the synopsis and review below and decide for yourself.
Book Synopses: Books 1-5
Book I: Game of Thrones
The saga ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ begins with the book titled ‘Game of Thrones‘ , the name-sake of the show which brought the books into the lime light. Opening with one of the most gripping, brutal prologues, Martin hooks readers in immediately, curious of the mysterious threat that looms beyond the great wall of ice (which separates the land of Westeros from the threats of the North), in the land of winter. The irony of this scene is that it is the only time the White Walkers (who can be considered to be the main antagonists of the overall plot) are actually seen prior to the third book, A Storm of Swords (which is my personal favorite, much to the disgust of many of my fellow fans).
Rather than following the text-book linear path of a unified country standing against a greater threat, Martins focuses primarily on matters south of the Wall in the beginning of his saga, opening the actual story with the King, Robert Baratheon, riding north to Winterfell to visit Lord Eddard Stark and his family. Lord Eddard (affectionately called Ned), who is the Warden of the North, is a close friend with the king, and played a major role in the rebellion that gave him his power. King Robert usurped the Iron Throne (A ghastly metal chair forged from the swords of the defeated, and dragon fire) from the Targaryen dynasty which ruled Westeros for three hundred years. However, Robert’s visit is not a social one, however, as he asks Ned Stark to return south with him to Kings Landing, to act as the King’s Hand after the suspicious death of prior hand and foster father of Ned and Robert, Jon Arryn.
Unbeknownst to the King, Ned received a letter prior to the Kings arrival from his wife’s sister, claiming that Jon Arryn’s death was not a natural one, but murder by the hands of the Lannister family. This letter is what prompts Ned to accept the King’s request and ride south to Kings Landing, to serve as the Kings hand while at the same time investigating the cause of Jon Arryn’s death.
This introduction leads readers to create a close connection with Ned Stark, his wife (Catlyn Stark), his five children (Rob, Bran, Rickon, Arya and Sansa) and his base-born (bastard) son, Jon Snow.
The Starks are not the only group of major characters in this story however; with King Robert Baratheon came a great procession of vassals, knights and sell swords, as well as his own royal family which include members of House Lannister (Queen Cercei, his wife, and her two brothers, Ser Jamie of the Kings Guard and the dwarf/imp Tyrion), a powerful family in the West.
It is clear from the palpable tension that there is some bad blood between House Lannister and House Stark. This tension only grows stronger as the book progresses. When Ned Stark leaves for Kings Landing, he takes his daughters Arya and Sansa with him. While Kings Landing is the royal city it is far from glamorous; the city is filled with peasants, liars and traitors.
Warning: Spoilers below
The tension between the Starks and Lannisters is amplified when Ned’s son Bran mysteriously falls from a tower. Lady Catelyn is convinced that this was a Lannister attempt to kill her son. After travelling to Kings Landing, Catelyn is led to believe that Tyrion Lannister sent an assassin to finish the job, and as a result she hunts the man and captures him. She takes him to the Eerie, in the Vale of Arryn to face charges for killing Jon Arryn and attempting to kill Bran.
Towards the end of the book, the fragile bond that holds the Seven Kingdoms together shatters when King Robert dies, causing the ascension of his son Joffery Baratheon, who is an ill tempered young boy with a lust for violence. When Joffery comes into power, events come to pass which result in the events which occur in the second book, a Clash of Kings. One of the most note worthy events is the execution of Ned Stark, who is accused of treason after attempting to take the Throne from Joffery, who is revealed to not be the rightful heir of the Iron throne, but rather the result of incest between Queen Cercei Lannister and her twin brother, Jaime Lannister of the Kingsguard.
End of Spoilers
This execution rallies the North, causing them to break off from the seven kingdoms to become an autonomous kingdom. While all of this is occurring, word reaches Kings Landing of a last living member of House Targaryen, who fled Westeros when the rightful king was usurped. A girl, by the name of Daenerys Targaryen poses a threat to validity of the iron throne, and if she were to return to Westeros she could undo everything that Robert Baratheon’s rebellion had worked to achieve.
With the threat of Daenerys across the sea, and discontent upon the shores of Westeros, readers are compelled to read the second book of the saga and find out how long this kingdom can last.
Book II: A Clash of Kings
Cover for ‘A Clash of Kings’
A Clash of Kings picks up where A Game of Thrones left off, revealing the extent of disorder in the Seven Kingdoms. A bleeding star can be seen in the skies of both Westeros and Essos. Each culture considers the crimson star to be a sign of a different prophesy. As a result of this,there is not one, not two, but five kings in Westeros. King Joffery of House Baratheon and Lannister, King Robert Stark of the North, King Stannis, brother of Robert Baratheon, and rightful heir to the Iron throne, King Renly, youngest of the three Baratheon brothers, and King Balon Greyjoy of the Iron islands.
With five kings fighting, three of whom want the Iron Throne, one of whom wants justice and one of whom wants revenge, this book is filled to the brim with fighting as the kings compete for power. All the while, rumors are reaching Kings Landing from across the sea, speaking of Daenerys Targaryan and her three dragons. As dragons have been extinct for over 150 years, most write off these rumors as fishermen’s tales, turning their concerns to the more pressing matters of rebellions arising in the North and East. Rob stark marches south, defeating every army who dares face him without suffering a single loss, while Renly’s fierce host mobilizes in the East. Few pay attention to King Stannis, who has but a few banner men, and fewer ships, however letters sent by Stannis to be circulated through the kingdoms prompt people to question the validity of Joffery’s rule over the Iron Throne.
Warning: Spoilers Below
Stannis meets Renly at Storms End, the seat of House Baratheon and demands him to surrender, claiming that the throne is his by right of law. Renly ignores Stannis’ request, but soon comes to regret it, as he meets an untimely end through mysterious means that elude to magic, an art which was believed to have died with the dragons. With Renly dead, Stannis consolidates his power and makes for King’s Landing, bringing with it the climax of the book, the Battle on the Blackwater.
While the battle wages on, chaos and dissent spread through King’s Landing, resulting in riots and acts of cruelty on behalf of the King. With hopes of quelling this, Queen Cercei and the current kings hand send an envoy to House Tyrell of Highgarden, a powerhouse south of Kings Landing. The Tyrells were allied with Renly though after his death they withdrew rather than siding with Stannis Baratheon.
When the battle on the Blackwater seemed to be in favor of the invading forces of Stannis Baratheon, the Tyrell and Lannister forces converge and smash the remainder of Stannis’ forces from their unprepared flank, thus effectively repelling the invading forces, and sending Stannis to retreat in shame.
End of Spoilers
After the battle on the Black Water, things are far from normal in Kings Landing, as Lord Tywin’s host along with the fierce Lion Lord himself settle in Kings Landing, attempting to pick up the pieces from the chaotic and disastrous reign of Joffrey the Boy King. Mean while, the armies of the North continue along their victorious path.
Book III: A Storm of Swords
Book cover for a Storm of Swords
Book III is one of my personal favorites, much to the disgust of many fans. This book takes place during the aftermath of the Battle on the Black Water. King Stannis’ army is fiercely depleted, Rob Stark’s attention is turned towards trouble in the North and Balon Greyjoy meets an unexpected end. Even so, the threats are not over just yet, as the Nights Watch, who ventured North of the Wall in the second book come across the grizzly foes that Martin reveals in the prologue of the Game of Thrones. White Walkers. When dead men rise in the North, the Nights Watch is forced to face the threat that it was originally intended for, yet they are horribly unprepared.
Meanwhile, in the South, King Joffery Baratheon is arranged to be wed with Margaery Tyrell, daughter of Mace Tyrell, Lord of Highgarden and one of the saviors of Kings Landing. Along with this, Jaime Lannister, who was previously held captive of Robb Stark’s army in the North makes is way back to Kings Landing, to assume his role as the Lord Commander of the Kings Guard, though an injury he sustained keeps him from returning in to the true glory of his previous self.
Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen begins to follow in the footsteps of her legendary ancestor, Aegon the Conqueror. Purchasing an army of legendary eunuch slaves known as the Unsullied through a suggestion made by Ser Jorah Mormont, Daenerys begins to conquer and sack the cities in the slavers bay, quickly adopting the title ‘Breaker of Shackles’.
Warning: Spoilers Below
A Storm of Swords is filled with regicide. As Rob Stark marches back North to deal with a problem in Winterfell, he seeks to mend his relations with House Frey, an ally who was spurned as King Rob betrayed a pact with Lord Frey, marrying a western girl rather than one of Lord Frey’s own daughters. Lord Frey invites them into his keep, honoring the tradition of giving them salt and bread, which is a symbol that no harm shall come to them as guests. Unfortunately this gesture meant nothing to the Freys and King Rob met a similar fate to his own father as a result of a ghastly massacre known as ‘The Red Wedding’. It is later revealed that this wedding is one of the machinations of Lord Tywin, Hand of the King, who tells his son Tyrion a famous quote: “Some wars are won with swords, others with quills and ravens”.
Rob Stark is not the only king to meet an untimely end at a wedding, as King Joffrey is also killed at his wedding with Margaery Tyrell. While the exact nature of his death is unclear, it is implied that he was poisoned. Lord Tywin’s son, Tyrion Lannister stands accused of the act.
Towards the end of the book, Tyrion is imprisoned and chooses to endure a trial by combat. For his champion, he chooses Prince Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper of Dorne, who sits on the small council representing. His opponent is far more daunting, as the Queen selects Gregor Clegane, commonly known as the Mountain that Rides. This fight is more than meets the eye, as Oberyn seeks revenge upon Clegane for murdering his sister and killing her children during the sacking of Kings Landing, in King Robert’s Rebellion.
Even with fifteen years of bitter hate in his soul, Martell is slain by Clegane, though not before poisoning the man (a trick that the dornishmen are known for). As a result of this loss, Tyrion is sentenced to death though just before it, Jamie and Varys, the Spider, free him from his cell, and allow him to escape. Tyrion’s escape ended up striking a blow against the kingdom, as he killed his lord father before leaving .
Meanwhile, North of the Wall, White Walkers have the men of the Nights Watch on the run. The Old Bear, Lord Commander of the order is murdered, and in his stead, Jon Snow is selected to be Lord Commander, and helps guide the Nights Watch through one of its darkest winters.
End of Spoilers
Once again Kings Landing is left in a state of utter chaos. Queen Regent Cercei takes it upon herself to run the kingdom in her father’s stead, while white walkers and treason force the Men of the Nights Watch to elect a new lord commander to face the threat of a great Wildling Host. Once the new lord commander is elected, and the battle begins, it is clear that the Watch could be over whelmed, however salvation came to them, as King Stannis’ armies, which had sailed North after the Battle on the Blackwater, all but destroying the great host of Wildlings.
Book IV: A Feast for Crows
A Feast for Crows book cover
A Feast for Crows came out in 2005, and is the fourth book of the series. This book takes place immediately after the death of Lord Tywin. While Tommen, Joffrey’s little brother, is the king of the Iron Throne, due to his age, his mother rules the kingdom for him. Cercei is overwhelmed by paranoia as a prophesy she was told as a child appeared to be coming true. One of the first things the Queen Regent does is offer a reward for the head of Tyrion Lannister, who has gone missing from his cell. Along with this, she attempts to displace any and all men who are not loyal to her on the small council.
In the South, Dorne is in uproar over the loss of Prince Oberyn. In the North, Stannis’ host grows strong as it lingers at the Wall. Tales of Daenerys grow more fearsome as she conquers one city after another in Essos. In the face of these threats, and her own paranoia, Cercei attempts to strengthen her own allies, granting the Holy Order the right to reestablish it’s military orders, which were disbanded during Targaryen rule due to the threat they posed. She sends Jaime to take care of the last remaining stronghold of the Kingdom of the North, Riverrun.
On the Western Sea, the demand for a new king of the Iron Islands leads to a Kingsmoot. Some of the major participants of this moot are Asha Greyjoy, Victarion Greyjoy and Euron Greyjoy.
Warning: Spoilers below
In an attempt to sew further chaos in the seven kingdoms, the daughter of Doran Martell abducts Princess Myrcella, Daughter of Cercei, and attempts to raise her as the queen, as she is entitled to rule by the laws of Dorne.
A combination of grief, fear and a lust for power drive Cercei to her demise. She attempts to plot the downfall of Margaery Tyrell, Tommen’s wife and soon to be queen. Her plotting eventually grabs the attention of the Faith, which results in Cercei’s imprisonment due to the betrayal of her secrets by one of Cercei’s agents, who’s tongue was loosened by torture.
Far away, a knight seeks the daughters of Catelyn Stark, armed with the blade of Jamie Lannister, and assisted by the page of Tyrion Lannister. She has the misfortune of stumbling upon a group of Outcasts, previously under the guidance of Lord Berric Dondarrion. However with Dondarrion gone, they have a new leader, one who the knight knew. Though shrouded by a hood, she revealed her tattered face, the face of a woman presumed dead. The face of Catelyn Stark. Catelyn sentences Brienne and her companions to death, though just before being hung, Brienne utters a word.
End of Spoilers
The book ends with a note from George RR Martin, who notes the absence of major characters and explains that the original copy of Feast For the Crows was too large, and because of such, he separated the book, adding the narrative of the other characters in the first section of the following book, A Dance with Dragons.
Book V: A Dance of Dragons
A Dance of Dragons book cover
Unlike previous books, A Dance with Dragons does not start immediately after the actions of the previous book, but rather at the same time. This book has characters that were not mentioned in A Feast for Crows such as Jon Snow, Bran, Tyrion and Daenerys.
The beginning of A Dance with Dragons focuses on the events that occur on the Wall, and across the Sea. Stannis and his host bring the Wildlings south of the Wall and settle them in the Gift, while they take up residence in some of the abandoned castles along the wall. Stannis has plans to retake the North, yet first he must consolidate his power. Jon Snow, who is the new Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, is faced with difficult decisions, as he faces the threat of White Walkers looming in the North. A threat which he is horribly unprepared for.
Unbeknownst to Jon, there is something else that lingers North of the Wall. His younger brother, Bran, who is presumed dead marches North in search of the Three Eyed Crow which he sees in his dreams. Accompanied by Meera, Jojen, Hodor and a mysterious rider with cold black hands, the group travel deep in the Lands of Winter, seeking Bran’s fate.
South, across the sea, we find out that Tyrion Lannister has been smuggled out of Kings Landing to Pentos, where he is met by the familiar face of Magister Illyrio. From the appearance of the magister, it is clear that Tyrion is mean to assist Daenerys in her conquest. He leaves Pentos in a matter of days to join up with a secretive group that is travelling down the Rhyone. However his journey doesn’t go according to plan as he is abducted and begins a new journey to a different destination.
Daenerys, who had settled in the city of Mereen to act as a queen is finding her people to be cruel and hostile towards her new policies. Freed Slaves are being murdered in droves, and while her advisors wish for her to go to Westeros, she feels obligated to see Mereen to peace.
Warning: Spoilers below
When Stannis marches for Winterfell with his host, he comes across Iron Born who were fleeing castles to return to the sea. Among these Iron Born was Asha Greyjoy, who Stannis captures. He continues towards Winterfell though a winter storm stops them in their tracks, three days from Winterfell.
Jon Snow, who heeds to the advice of the Red Priest, Lady Melissandre, sends the Lord of Bones (later revealed to be Mance Rayder) along with several spear wives, south of the wall to Winterfell, with the hopes of rescuing his sister from Lord Ramsay, the Bastard of Bolton. Unbeknownst to him, however, the girl is an imposter, and Arya is safe across the sea in Bravos, training to become a Faceless Man.
The group that Tyrion was travelling with consists of one of the old Hands of the King, exiled Lord Jon Connington of Griffins Roost, as well as another passanger who is presumed dead for over 15 years (That spoiler is too good to reveal here).
Tyrion, who was captive of Jorah Mormont, on his way to Daenerys Targaryen, is taken by slavers when their ship gets damaged in a storm. Tyrion, Jorah, and a dwarf companion are forced to become slaves of a Yunkai Slave master who is outside of the walls of Mereen, along with a great Yunkai force that wishes to over throw Daenerys and make Mereen a slave city once more.
In order to end the killing of her Freed men, and stop the seige from Yunkai, Daenerys gets married to a Mereen noble, though this marriage is short lived as an incident at the pits results in Daenerys going missing.
End of Spoilers
The fifth book of Martin’s saga is one of the most gripping of them all, having surprises at every turn. It does well to pull together elements of a much broader story, while allowing for the diversity in characters and settings that A Song of Ice and Fire is known for
Book Series Review
After reading this series, I can see why Time Magazine would dub Martin as the American Tolkien, and I find myself agreeing with that author. Martins creates one of the most enticing indepth fantasies of this age, building a world filled with unique lore, culture and stories all from scratch. Well, actually, perhaps saying it was built from scratch is inaccurate. Martin’s writing eludes to influence from multiple real world stories and individuals.
The most notable of these is the parallels between the Game of Thrones and the War of the Roses, as House Stark and House Lannister compete with one another much like the Houses York and Lancaster in the ancient civil war that took place in England. Even the land of Westeros looks similar to the Isle of Great Britain.
Even with these real world influences, George RR Martin creates a unique work of fiction that has a place on the shelves of Fantasy greats. What makes his work so unique is his deconstruction of Fantasy conventions. Where most fantasy models follow a generic code of good versus evil, covered in a layer of magic and myth, Martin’s work takes a far more realistic edge to it. Realistic? I know, it is an strange description for a fantasy saga, yet where most novels are crammed to the teeth with magic, the Songs of Ice and Fire merely have touches of it. This is most notable in the first book, where Dragons and Magic are all but extinct, until the very end. In the place of heavy magic and heavy myth, Martin gives us complex characters, and an even more complex moral environment. Every character has a little bit of both in their heart, even the honorable Eddard Stark who fathers a bastard after being wed. Even in later books, when magic is more prominent, it does not take away from the gritty realism of the relationships between characters, and the nature of the land of Westeros in general.
George RR Martin
Martin’s unique story is coupled with excellent writing that paints amazingly detailed pictures; where as most authors who seek to provide images go into expansive, almost exhaustive detail, Martins manages to use short bursts of powerful words to embed images in our memories. Few readers will have a hard time visualizing Lord Eddard cleaning his Valyrian Great Sword ‘Ice’ in the Godswood, yet Martin never halts the story to depict these things.
Another admirable feature of Martin’s writing is his framing. Each of the saga’s books are filled to the brim with surprises, yet even when these surprises are revealed, it is never done so in a blunt fashion that is common in the works of lesser authors. Martin never says something out right, but rather hints at it, and allows for the reader to figure it out. Along with this, there are many unsolved mysteries that allow the readers to create their own theories and assumptions.
It is not a surprise that these brilliant works of literature have encouraged the creation of a HBO hit, as the tale of Westeros is compelling, gripping, and always leaves readers wanting more. Be warned though, these books are not for the faint of heart, as they touch on tabooed subjects such as regicide, kin slaying, murder, betrayal and even incest. Also, no character is truly safe in these books, as main characters meet sudden unexpected ends. Each book is roughly 800-1000 pages, though with the masterful writing of George Martin, readers will breeze through hundreds of pages without taking a break. Each book offers a breath of fresh air to the enticing saga, as old characters are killed, new characters are introduced, subplots thicken and surprises appear.
This book series is definitely a must read, and while the HBO adaptation of it has its merits, the books plunge into details that the TV show cannot. You can find the books in any decent sized book store, as well as online. Discover the fate of Westeros, learn the secrets that I never revealed, and find your own favorite character!
Each item that is reviewed is analyzed and rated in five categories: Originality of Story, Characters, Technical Originality (how the film/show/story is framed), Artistic Quality (Visuals and Writing Quality), Simplicity of Content (How easy or hard it is to grasp the content). The scores are then compiled into a greater score of 50. For every 10 points of the total score, a star will be given to the rating of the item that is being reviewed.
Originality of Story: 8 out of 10 – While the story is based on certain real world influences, it is still extremely original in each character’s individual story, as well as the greater arc story.
Characters: 10 out of 10- As Mentioned before, each character has a complex moral personality. There are no generic good and evil characters. While at first glance some characters may meet the description, as the story continues those characters will gain depth and originality.
Technical Originality: 10 out of 10- George RR Martin does a brilliant job of breaking through the tropes of Fantasy writing, creating an invigorating and original framing of the story.
Artistic Quality: 8 out of 10- George RR Martin paints a beautiful picture for us in A Song of Ice and Fire, using dialogue and writing that suits the genre and story. The descriptions are vivid and sweet though they could go more in depth on certain occasions.
Simplicity: 6 out of 10- A Song of Ice and Fire is far from a simple story; with a character roster of over 20 major characters, each with their own unique story and path, it is next to impossible to pick up any of the subsequent books without reading their predecessors. This list of characters comes with numerous sub-plots and story arcs, and a new set of moral complexities. The stories go to a depth that even the Song of Ice and Fire Wiki cannot hash out.
Total Score: 42 out of 50 (Four Stars)
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