Back in January I recorded my thoughts on the latest volume of George R.R. Martin's enormous epic, The Song of Ice and Fire. Since then I have re-read the first volume, The Game of Thrones. I bought the audio cds to listen to with my daughter as we embarked on a marathon round of college visits and interviews in New England, and it made the miles fly by. Despite the length of the journey we were, of course, only half way through the book when we got back home, and it took me quite a while to finish listening during odd bits of driving to various archaeological sites around Maryland. What a fabulous book it is.
The first volume is very different from the fifth. At the beginning of the story, things happen quickly. Decisions are made and carried through, battles are fought to a decisive end, and characters are killed off at a frightening rate. If Martin had sustained this pace, he would be done by now. Pondering what I remember of the second and third books, it seems to me that they slowed somewhat but kept the story moving. It is only when we reach the fourth and fifth books -- which cover one unit of time, and are split between various parts of the story -- that we sink into the sands of indecision, stasis, and irrelevant detail. This is a bad sign. When authors are obscure they must discipline themselves to the demands of the marketplace, which include an expectation that things will happen in a story. But as they get famous they can indulge their weaknesses more and more, until they end up like Anne Rice. Martin's weakness is for drawing out the story and telling us too much, and the more famous he gets the longer and slower his books become. Unless he has a change of heart, his next installment is likely to consist of 4000 pages divided among three volumes, covering only a single uneventful week.
One thing I wondered, as I slogged through the fifth volume, was how much of the story Martin had planned in advance. He says that the whole thing existed in his head, from beginning to end, before he typed the first sentence. I doubted this until I went back and listened to the first few chapters. The fates of the Starks, the Lanisters, and Theon Greyjoy seemed to me to be foreshadowed in the way they were first described. So maybe he does know how the whole story goes. I hope he tells somebody before he drops dead of heart disease, so the story can eventually be finished in the way he intended.