A friendly warning to those who might be bothered by spoilers: this post about the A Song of Ice and Fire book series will contain no spoilers from the end of the first book onward, since that is where the series currently stands
Like many, I had no idea A Song of Ice and Fire existed before HBO chose to produce a series based on the books. Like many, as soon as the first season reached its breathtaking end I decided I could not bear waiting for more episodes of the series to come, and so I bought all of the available books. Like many, I was so hooked by what I read that I blasted through the 5,000 pages that the series currently contains in less than two months. And like many, I now impatiently wait and hope that George R. R. Martin will not take as much time to finish writing the sixth book, The Winds of Winter, as the five years it took him to complete each of the latest two volumes in the series.
It is hard to pinpoint what makes the series so fascinating. Maybe it is its decision to focus on intrigue and politics rather than your average battles - that do occur occasionally; maybe it is its ridiculous amount of great characters that are all somehow wrapped into one fierce struggle over power on the Seven Kingdoms; or maybe it is the astonishingly epic scale of the tale Martin decided to tell. Whatever reason one might elect as the central factor that makes the series so appealing, I find it hard not to give most of the credit to the seemingly innocent, and often overlooked, fact that all of the characters are so delightfully human. Differently from most fantasy stories, and maybe most literature, there is no clear hero in A Song of Ice and Fire. Sure, as the story develops, we grow found of certain characters and pray to the death of a few others, but here there is neither black nor white. Instead of arranging themselves in the usual spectrum of good and evil, all beings that appear on the series fall into a midway point between both groups, and end up being as grey and complex as a human being can be.
If there ever was an image that strayed away from this neither-good-nor-evil norm, it had to be Ned Stark. The patriarch of the Stark family symbolized law, justice, fairness and - most importantly - honest duty. For the entirety of the first part of the series we were led to believe that he was the lone righteous hero that was destined to bring balance to the kingdoms, but, in the ultimate display that the world he was building was cruelly real even in its fantasy, the paladin lost his head due to the actions of the series' most cunning and downright heartless people. The message that his execution sent was clear: here, nobody is safe, and happy endings are not guaranteed for those who deserve it. Human nature makes up for a conflicted mean reality, and the sum of the humanity of all Martin's characters will - more often than not - lead the plot into holes where there is no reasonable positive outcome for the good people. And in the shadow of enraging events, other good-hearted characters will be unable to produce heroic actions to turn things around, being limited to at best show their dutiful just nature or reveal flaws and emotional outbursts that will be their downfall.
To build believable characters with so many different nuances, Martin does major exercises in psychology, because having someone make a decision just because it is the right one would not cut it in this flesh-and-bone fantasy. For every political move or seemingly meaningless sentence, there has got to be reason, whether it simply comes from character or from past experiences; nobody ever makes a move that cannot be dissected by dedicated fans, and in that the series gains a huge amount of depth. Sometimes - as I found out for myself not too long ago - one read through all of the five books is not quite enough to grasp all twists and turns that the story takes during its lifespan, therefore, A Song of Ice and Fire is a book series that demands a lot of dedication, but it gives back whenever it receives, because it rewards dedication by revealing layers of reasoning and intrigue that cannot quite be noticed at first glance.
To further dive into the psyche of its characters, and to give his readers eyes to all sides of his gargantuan storyline, Martin developed an interesting way to tell his tale. Contrary to most books that focus either on a omniscient narrator or on a major character, the books are divided into chapters that have no title but the name of the character who stars in it. It is an effective way to give us a glimpse into the thought process of many pawns involved in the storyline, and it cuts the story in sort of an episodic manner, cutting the storyline of a certain character in a tense moment only to then go around the kingdoms dealing with other plots to, then, come back to the character once again and give resolution to what was left hanging out there. It allows each of the chapters to feel like a standalone tale, having a beginning - where players that will be important to that chapter are pointed out and the setting is laid out; a midway point - where an event of significance starts happening; and an end - where something of significance happens.
However, on the latest two books of the series - A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons - that engaging structure has become somewhat of a problem. The first three titles of the series are nearly flawless masterpieces, but on its last two volumes A Song of Ice and Fire has become a little bit too big for its own sake. The ambitious tale has developed into so many subplots, kingdoms and characters that it has become increasingly difficult for Martin himself to give satisfying pace to his books, leading some fans to even think that the story has become a monster of its own and that it has suddenly gone out of control. While great, especially on a re-read, the two most recent books have to deal with so many threads and characters that they just fail to move smoothly, and when the end of the book is reached it is possible to look back and notice that some characters - as important as they might be - just did not develop enough, sometimes going on journeys that are not wrapped up by the end of the book or appearing so little through over 1,000 pages that fans do not feel content.
That issue can be mathematically shown with ease. The first book was told through the eyes of a mere eight characters, which made the story move along quite nicely to all of them and the secondary characters that surrounded them. The second book saw the loss of one of those point of view characters, but got a new pair and en extra two characters gained chapters all for themselves on the third book - arguably the best one in the series. However, the fourth book presented us with eight new points of view and the fifth one gave us a few more, which made the total of point of view characters on the fifth book come to a whopping eighteen, and it could have been much worse if four characters who had previously had chapters of their own had appeared in the book, which they did not due to page limitations. It is hard to evaluate those two last books as weak, but it is easy to notice that due to the size the story has acquired and maybe Martin's unwillingness to listen to his editor, their pace suffers dramatically.
The author has promised that the series will reach its conclusion within another couple of books, but it will - by no means - be an easy task. The original goal was to do so in six volumes, but the plan was scratched when the initially planned fourth book had to be split in two titles - A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons - that mostly handle the same period of time, only viewed in different locations. Wrapping up all loose threads into one satisfying finale will certainly be one of the most daunting tasks in literary history, but whether it is done in two, three or four volumes, one thing is for sure, there is a nation of fans out there hoping Martin will pull it off. And everyone who has any love for literature should also do so, because in spite of its recent struggles, A Song of Ice and Fire is certainly one of the most ambitious, engaging and humane stories ever told.