(If you haven’t read the books, you may consider some of what I have to say here spoilery. Consider yourself warned.)
This is a little sketchy, but if memory serves, I began reading George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire somewhere around 2001, during my first break between stabs at college. Thinking back, I’d interviewed for a job and had something else scheduled for later in the day (maybe another interview–the world was crazy like that before the Great Recession). That left me in downtown Coeur d’Alene with time to kill. What else was there to do but stop by Hastings and grab a promising-looking paperback to read over lunch at Taco Bell while the clock ran down? I may have seen GRRM recommended on one of the forums I visited back at the time, maybe FFO or Something Awful; the more I try to remember, the older I start to feel. Point is, I was a sweet summer child, fresh off the tales of Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan and Tad Williams. When I picked up that copy of A Game of Thrones and dove into it over gorditas, I was as clueless about what I was getting myself into as Ned Stark leaving Winterfell for King’s Landing.
Fast forward a dozen years and now A Song of Ice and Fire–oh, excuse me, Game of Thrones–is the new hotness of American pop culture. The third season wrapped up on HBO with the Red Wedding, an event that sent many a copy of A Storm of Swords flying across the room over the past decade. I only started my re-read of the third book last night and don’t intend to talk about that volume today, but the RW is an undeniable sign of how different a series ASOIAF is from most of the fantasy genre. Main characters die in these books, often in terrible ways, often without achieving their goals, and often in ways that make things more difficult for their allies instead of acting as plot devices to ease the other protagonists’ struggles. I almost wrote “the heroes’ struggles” there, but of course that’s also part of what makes this story so engaging: it’s hard to tell who the heroes are, and some of the characters we’re most eager to root for are the most tarnished. Even in the rare event when you do have a noble heroic character in the series, chances are s/he isn’t long for this world. I’ve heard this story a couple times now and Wikipedia backs it up: when GRRM was growing up his only pets were turtles. He’d use them as characters in the stories he made up, but his pet turtles had a high mortality rate, so as a child he imagined they were killing each other in underhanded ways. Kind of puts ASOIAF in perspective, doesn’t it?
As I suspect show-only followers are beginning to understand, this isn’t the type of story where you pick one “side” and root for your favorites to come out on top (no matter what t-shirt vendors might have you believe). This is an ensemble epic where factions rise and fall, characters come and go and most of the plans the various puppetmasters are hatching will probably come to naught by the end because, as the Starks warned us at the beginning, Winter Is Coming.
The main thing that hit me over the head on rereading the first book, A Game of Thrones, is the amount of foreshadowing. In the first hundred pages Martin namedrops Stannis Baratheon, a claimant to the throne who doesn’t appear onscreen until book two, and the Unsullied, the slave soldiers who will later form the backbone of Dany’s army, along with a host of other families and characters who will show up later in the story. Descriptions of the Stark children emphasize how some of them look more “Tully” (Robb, Bran, Sansa and Rickon) and some more “Stark” (Arya and Jon), which sets up the genetic recessive/dominant trait business that becomes important later when Ned realizes Joffrey and his siblings are the result of twincest. The fates of the Stark girls’ direwolves predict what will happen to Sansa and Arya down the line; obedient Lady is singled out and executed simply for being a wolf just as Sansa later finds herself abandoned and alone as a hostage to the Lannisters after unwittingly betraying Ned to them, and like Arya, Nymeria is left to fend for herself and goes somewhat feral in the process.
Likewise, Dany’s trip through the House of the Undying in A Clash of Kings includes a brief vision of “…a feast of corpses. … In a throne above them all sat a dead man with the head of a wolf.” When that prediction came to pass on the show, there was plenty of schadenfreude to be had thanks to reaction videos on YouTube. There are probably other visions from that sequence that are meaningful as well, references I either missed or forgot in the week since I read them. The bit that sounds like it’s about someone with greyscale rings a bell; I’ll have to cross-check it when I get to book five, which is where I remember that topic coming up in more detail. Regardless, a re-read makes it clear Martin had a number of the series’ plot points mapped out years (and books) in advance. We hear Tyrion’s side of the story of his first marriage in AGoT, and Ned leaves Winterfell in the opening chapters to discover who murdered Jon Arryn, but we don’t get the resolutions to either plot until near the end of A Storm of Swords. Who’s to say what future events the books have hinted at that we readers won’t realize were foreshadowed until after the fact.
One of the main reasons I wanted to re-read the series was to refresh my memory on the prophecies that creep around the edges of the mythos. The identities of Azor Ahai’s reincarnation and the Prince Who Was Promised, and whether or not both prophecies refer to the same person, is perhaps the series’ central mystery and probably the big hint as to the endgame. Melisandre is in Camp Stannis, but I think most of us can agree that Melisandre is something of a nutbar and not the most objective interpreter of prophecy. (Hell, I’m going to take a stab in the dark and guess she’s as wrong as she can be and Stannis may be the future Night King based on another of Dany’s visions: “Glowing like sunset, a red sword was raised in the hand of a blue-eyed king who cast no shadow.”) The smart money is on either Dany or Jon Snow. If I had my guess, it’s Dany, at least in some figurative way (prophecy is never literal in fantasy, after all). A red comet appears on the night of Dany’s “rebirth” at the end of book one, and references to it are sprinkled through book two. Different characters in the early chapters of ACoK notice the comet and interpret it according to their biases. Many of the main characters interpret it as a sign that their particular sides will win, while secondary characters often say it’s a sign of “fire and blood.” I seem to recall Maester Aemon has something to say on the matter too, but I’m not there yet. Based on the foreshadowing, I suspect it’s Dany’s fate to sweep in and save Westeros from the Others–though I have a hunch she’ll never sit the Iron Throne.
That leaves the mystery of Jon Snow’s role in the greater narrative. The show hasn’t touched on Jon’s parentage much, but the first book is bursting with hints to the effect that Jon was Lyanna Stark’s son, not her brother Ned’s, and that Ned swore an oath to keep Jon safe before Lyanna died. Why did Ned have to keep Jon safe? Probably because Jon’s father was Rhaegar Targaryen, and it was open season on infant Targaryens during Robert’s Rebellion. The show didn’t touch on that in season one, but they probably thought inserting the bits about events in the Tower of Joy would make it too obvious. I seem to remember more details about Lyanna and Rhaegar’s romance show up in book three, so maybe season four of the show will finally drop a few hints. Or not. It’s not like most of the current POV characters have a clue who Jon’s parents were. The only other living character who knows what happened in the Tower of Joy is Howland Reed, and I’m guessing he’ll show up sometime before the conclusion. But this is something else I want to watch for on my re-read: I could have sworn at some point in book four there was a line about a law making the bastards of nobles legal heirs to their houses. Wouldn’t that give Jon a claim to the Iron Throne as a Targaryen? Hmm…
Re-reading the books after watching the show has made keeping track of some of the characters a lot easier. I have a better picture of things in my head and I don’t get the characters so confused. For some reason when I originally read ACoK I spaced on who Theon was; he blended into the background for me when I read the first book years ago, I guess. I remember being fairly perplexed during Davos’ chapters too, though now he’s one of my favorite POVs. Having more familiarity with the books and knowing where these characters are going probably plays into that as well, but I suspect the show has given me an easy subconscious reference for the settings and the “feel” of these characters. I suspect the show will continue to color my reading of these books just as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies tended to fill in the gaps last time I read about Middle-Earth. And I certainly think of the characters as being older, like they are in the show, than the ages given in the book.
But there are definite differences between the two versions. The first major difference that stood out to me was the end of Dany’s wedding. In the show, well, it kind of feels like Drogo rapes her. In the book, he’s presented as being a bit more tender, and it’s clear he leaves the decision of whether they consummate their marriage up to her. Of course there are still all kinds of issues we can raise here–how Dany’s brother sells her into the marriage to begin with, how the normalcy of this in the culture presented relates to the concept of rape culture, etc.–but Dany in the book still retains more agency than Dany in the show in that scene, even though Dany is a few years younger in the book. So… hmm.
Speaking of Dany, her story in season two of the show was almost entirely original material. Book Dany goes into the House of the Undying willingly, not because of treachery and dragon-napping. On examination, the second season seems to have moved about several plotlines to fit everything into ten episodes while giving characters from the first season who wouldn’t otherwise have appeared something to do. Arya’s tale changes almost as much as Dany’s, and her scenes with Tywin were all new to the television adaptation (in the book, she fills a similar role for Roose Bolton); Tywin is mentioned a few times in ACoK, but doesn’t show up onscreen until the closing chapters. The Reed kids show up and befriend Bran in book two, but don’t show up until season three in the show. Though Dontos appeared in the show, the storyline where he plays the Florian to Sansa’s Jonquil is absent from the show AFAIK. Theon’s homecoming is a bit different as well; in the book it’s his uncle Aeron “Damphair” Greyjoy, who is yet to appear on GoT, who takes him to his father, and his sister Asha (whom the show renamed Yarra) gets her own introduction in a later chapter. Robb is mentioned several times but never appears onscreen in ACoK; we get word on his war’s progress via Catelyn’s chapters and random hearsay. I could go on, but I won’t. In retrospect, season one was probably the truest to its source book of what’s aired thus far, and I suspect it’ll stay that way.
Considering the books as stand-alones, now that I’ve read through the first two volumes I feel like I’m coming to the end of act one of a three-act story. In AGoT and ACoK, the balance of power in Westeros shifts and various factions arise with their own motivations and goals, and it looks like any one of them could come out on top. Yet by the end of ACoK, with Stannis defeated and Highgarden pledging support to the crown, the Lannisters seem the obvious victors, even if the Starks are still in the field. A sense of doom begins to settle over the Starks even before the Red Wedding; Bolton and his men discuss the fact at Harrenhall late in the second book. If I had to put my finger where act one “ends,” it would probably be the Red Wedding, which marks the fall of House Stark, halfway through ASoS. I’ll see if I still feel that way when my re-read takes me there. The first two books also feel thematically united by the centrality of the King’s Hand to their respective plots. Even knowing his fate ahead of time, book one still seems to focus on Ned, and I can’t help but feel book two is largely Tyrion’s story. Both men have the office handed to them despite not being traditionally fit for its duties–Ned hates politicking and wants to be left alone, and Tyrion is an alcoholic with a taste for gambling and prostitutes (okay, on second thought, Tyrion is the epitome of a career politician). Both men do what they can to live up to the office and meet violent ends to their tenures (though at least Tyrion survives his). I’m wondering if I’ll feel the same way about Tywin by the end of my ASoS reread. Again… hmm.
I seem to say “Hmm…” a lot when I start thinking about these books.