If you caught the season finale of HBO’s all-time most popular show, you watched Jaime Lannister risk all to rescue his brother Tyrion from certain execution. The two share a quick hug before parting, a small spot of warmth in Tyrion’s devastated life.
We book-readers didn’t get that. In our version, Jamie touches the wrong nerve and Tyrion torches his last real friendship with the lie that he really did kill his son. One parting stab from Mr. Martin.
And you TV fans think you’ve got it bad.
Well, either way things don’t look good for Westeros. At this point the protagonists of the central plotline have been harried, hacked, backstabbed and exiled in turn. The Lannisters end up on top, yet most of them are poisoned, shot with arrows or fleeing for life before the end. Thus, the War of Five Kings reaches the bottom of its arc like the Hindenburg.
Yet we still have Daenerys and her dragons in the south and Jon Snow and his barbarians in the north. These plotlines are humming with tension (the Others have been the evil looming in the back of our minds since chapter 1), and with Westeros in tatters it seems like the perfect time for for one to smash into the central plotline and right the moral scale, either in redemption or judgement, depending on who shows up.
We readers know better: Two books later, the White Walkers are still in the woods, Daenerys is still in the tropics and the Westeros survivors are wandering through odd adventures, their former goals and moral impetuses all but extinguished. A Storm of Swords isn’t a cliffhanger ending, it’s just an end, and not a happy one.
At first that seems to be the point. Fantasy writers tend to spin Aragorns and Frodo Bagginses because they fit nicely in a place where evil comes in warts, fangs and black cowls. But Martin doesn’t aim for heroes and villains, just humans, struggling along, alone in the universe. Here, as on Shakespeare’s stage, even the noblest intentions sometimes end in tragedy.
The problem is that these people aren’t alone in the universe. They have a god named George R. R. Martin. And he is an ass.
As each effort of love, loyalty and self-sacrifice meets an antagonist perfectly tailored to smash it, we begin to sense that the game is rigged. Yes, the characters are morally complex, but Martin arranges them like roosters in a pit with a few razors on their ankles for good measure. Othello has his share of bad luck, but his tragedy ultimately follows from the natures and choices of people. When their fates are determined by shock value, you just trade cliche fantasy for a season of 24. Though it comes from a demon, it’s still deus ex machina.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the first three books. The ending didn’t really bother me until I read the next volumes and realized how the rest of the series will pay for these sins. Whatever new saga is brewing, readers are going to come into it afraid – not that justice won’t overcome, but that the characters’ goals and decisions won’t actually mean anything.
And if that’s the point, we should have quit when Eddard’s head hit the ground.
That’s why I’m glad D.B. Weiss and David Benioff might get a crack at it first.
Martin is still 2000-odd pages ahead, and while these contain some exciting new factions and characters, they spend most of their time in isolated adventures, lengthy bouts of introspection and entire chapters of political exposition. I think of these books less as a finished product than a pile of stones and fresh mortar for the HBO team to work with. And since they took about a decade to write, the producers might end up leading the vanguard in a season or two. In a way, I hope this happens. Martin has been an interesting villain in his world, but I’m ready for a hero to show up.