More than a quarter-century since the 1996 publication of A Game of Thrones, the influence of George R.R. Martin’s grimdark fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, cannot be overstated. A Song of Ice and Fire brought a monumental shift in the fantasy genre, which for decades had been following the blueprint laid out by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. While we (patiently) await the publication of Book Six, The Winds of Winter, I would like to share my personal ranking of A Song of Ice and Fire books by George R.R. Martin.
#5 – A Feast for Crows (Book Four of A Song of Ice and Fire)
A Feast for Crows is the fourth and most polarizing volume in George R.R. Martin’s epic grimdark series, A Song of Ice and Fire, which began with A Game of Thrones and continued with the excellent A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords. Although A Feast for Crows falls short of these three previous volumes, there is still a lot to love here, particularly in the detailed psychological portraits painted of Cersei and Jaime Lannister.
On the negative side, several of the main characters from the first three books are simply not present in A Feast for Crows. Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, and Tyrion Lannister are all sorely missing from this fourth volume. As the most compellingly drawn character in the series, Tyrion’s absence is particularly regrettable.
Instead, A Feast for Crows grants point-of-view status to a cadre of side characters who aren’t even provided names in their chapter headings. These chapters are given titles such as “The Prophet,” “The Captain of the Guard,” and “The Soiled Knight.” With such a large cast of characters already in A Song of Ice and Fire, it is difficult to justify the page space devoted to these new additions. It’s also frustrating for readers who just want to find out what happens to the main dramatis personae of the series. Unfortunately, the chapters devoted to these side characters mostly serve to slow down the main plot and interrupt the flow of the story. Despite its slow start, A Feast for Crows picks up the pace later in the book and has an especially strong finish.
Cersei Lannister steals the show as a first-time point-of-view character in A Feast for Crows. George R.R. Martin thoroughly immerses us in Cersei’s twisted mind as she descends deeper into jealousy, paranoia, and hysteria. Martin’s analysis of Cersei’s psychology is superb and, frankly, worth the entire book. The relationship between Cersei and her brother Jaime is damaged beyond repair in A Feast for Crows. Jaime is obsessed with Cersei’s many infidelities, unable to force the list of her illicit lovers out of his mind. Ever the loyal knight, Jaime is also trying to find a new purpose for himself after losing his sword-wielding hand in the previous book. The phantom sensations that Jaime feels from his missing hand brought me chills.
Brienne of Tarth is another favorite character in A Feast for Crows. After spending A Storm of Swords guiding Jaime back to the Lannisters, Brienne now sets off in search of the missing Sansa Stark. The highlight of Brienne’s story occurs when she meets Lady Stoneheart, the zombified Catelyn Stark who is hellbent on revenge against those who betrayed her at the Red Wedding massacre in the previous book. I’m surprised that Lady Stoneheart was left out of the HBO series, as she is such a haunting and menacing presence in A Feast for Crows.
The Stark sisters, Sansa and Arya, are given three chapters each. Littlefinger has rescued Sansa from the Lannisters and rechristened her as Alayne Stone, pretending to be his illegitimate daughter. Littlefinger is captivated by how much Sansa looks like her mother, Catelyn, for whom he has a longstanding infatuation. Littlefinger’s interactions with Sansa alternate between creepiness and education in the fine art of political manipulation.
Despite its flaws, A Feast for Crows is still a great book. Although it falls short of its predecessors, the chapters devoted to Cersei, Jaime, and Brienne are all outstanding, and it also carries the story forward for Sansa and Arya. If readers can forgive the unnecessary diversions from the side characters, there is still much to love here. Read my full review of A Feast for Crows at Grimdark Magazine.
#4 – A Storm of Swords (Book Three of A Song of Ice and Fire)
The strong momentum from A Clash of Kings continues in A Storm of Swords, the third volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, as George R.R. Martin chronicles his epic War of the Roses-style competition for the Iron Throne and control of Westeros. Although many important events occur on the battlefield, the more consequential tactics involve the forging and breaking of interfamilial alliances through strategic marriages and a healthy dose of backstabbing.
After spending most of A Clash of Kings imprisoned by the Starks at Riverrun, Jaime Lannister becomes one of the main point-of-view characters in A Storm of Swords. George R.R. Martin has accomplished a nearly impossible feat with Jaime, making the reader feel sympathy for this obnoxious, arrogant, incestuous Kingslayer. Despite all the terrible things he has done, Jaime still has a shred of honor, and I actually felt compassion for him by the end of the book.
Another highlight from Jaime’s chapters is getting to know Brienne of Tarth, an imposing warrior who has sworn to deliver Jaime safely to the Lannisters in exchange for release of the Stark girls. I especially enjoyed seeing how Brienne manages her distaste for Jaime while fulfilling her promise to the Stark family. As Jaime’s situation becomes increasingly out of hand, Brienne’s strong commitment to his safety never falters.
Tyrion Lannister remains as one of the most intriguing characters in A Storm of Swords. Tyrion’s fraught relationship with his family is brought to the forefront, especially with his siblings, Cersei and Jaime, and his nephew, the insufferable boy-king Joffrey. The relationship between Tyrion and his father, Lord Tywin Lannister, is particularly tragic.
Among the Stark children, Sansa is essentially a Disney princess caught in a grimdark world. Originally hoping for a happily-ever-after with the pouty-lipped Joffrey, Sansa’s delicate innocence only brings her suffering. In A Storm of Swords, Sansa finally escapes the clutches of the Lannisters but is left to deal with the creepy Littlefinger, who harbors a lifelong infatuation with her mother, Catelyn. It’s hard to tell which situation is worse for the unfortunate Sansa.
Sansa’s younger sister, Arya, is the most Dickensian figure in A Song of Ice and Fire, orphaned and destitute, trying to survive in a cruel world that never does her any favors. Arya’s only glimmer of hope in A Storm of Swords—her arrival at a family wedding—proves to be an ill-timed disaster.
Love and violence are inexorably linked at Westeros weddings, especially in A Storm of Swords which includes the infamous Red Wedding massacre. We lose several major characters during nuptial festivities, although one of them has trouble staying dead.
Meanwhile up north, Jon Snow struggles between honoring his Night Watch vows and acting on his love for Ygritte. Unbeknownst to Jon, Bran Stark is also traveling north to the Wall in search of the three-eyed crow from his dreams. George R.R. Martin also introduces a third point-of-view character at the Wall, Samwell Tarly, the loyal friend of Jon Snow who serves as the Samwise Gamgee of the book. I found Sam’s perspective to be unnecessary given the other already-established point-of-view characters.
I also question George R.R. Martin’s decision to go all-in with Davos Seaworth, Stannis Baratheon’s favorite onion-obsessed confidant. There are many layers to the Onion Knight, but none of them are particularly interesting. The Davos chapters serve as a window into the matters of Stannis and the red priestess Melisandre. With her powerful magic and shadowy intentions, Melisandre would have been the more interesting choice to become the point-of-view character for these chapters.
Fortunately, we get to spend plenty of quality time with Daenerys Targaryen in A Storm of Swords. The exiled Mother of Dragons continues to amass power as she overcomes treachery within her own ranks. Daenerys becomes a favorite with everyday people as she frees enslaved populations en masse and exacts justice for crimes committed against them.
A Storm of Swords is another high point in George R.R. Martin’s enduring saga of war and betrayal. Read my full review of A Storm of Swords at Grimdark Magazine.
#3 – A Dance with Dragons (Book Five of A Song of Ice and Fire)
After the uneven A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin is back in peak form with A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in A Song of Ice and Fire. Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, and Tyrion Lannister are all back as main characters after being excluded from the previous volume.
A Dance with Dragons kicks off with a bang as Tyrion Lannister is smuggled across the sea to the neighboring land of Essos, seeking refuge after the harrowing events at the end of the third book, A Storm of Swords. Tyrion discovers much about himself during his time in Essos, especially as he meets the charming Penny, a dwarf woman who initially attacks Tyrion but later befriends him. Tyrion and Penny experience terrible hardships together as they are sold into slavery.
Up at the Wall, Jon Snow struggles in his role as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, being torn between honoring his vows of neutrality and allying with Lord Stannis to rescue Winterfell. Jon has been put in this leadership role before he was truly ready. His story arc in A Dance with Dragons is both extraordinary and tragic. I especially enjoyed the interactions among Jon, Stannis, and Melisandre, one of my favorite side characters who receives her first point of view chapter in A Dance with Dragons, a very welcome addition to the book.
In a novel with many high points, I think Daenerys Targaryen’s storyline was my favorite. I love her growth throughout the book as she fights against slavery while also managing the more nuanced elements of politics. The final chapter from her point of view was absolutely perfect, one of the most beautifully written chapters of the entire series.
While Arya Stark has adopted many different pseudonyms over the course of the series, in A Dance with Dragons there is a new twist as a different girl assumes Arya’s identity. This plot thread also features Theon Greyjoy, similarly disguised under a new persona. Meanwhile, the real Arya is doing her best to survive in a foreign cult. Although she is only given two chapters in A Dance with Dragons, they are both excellent.
Regarding the other Stark children, Bran only has three chapters in A Dance with Dragons, but they contain some of his most interesting scenes since A Game of Thrones. Sansa Stark is missing from the book, but fortunately she already had a great story arc in A Feast for Crows.
Cersei Lannister was the star of A Feast for Crows, where we witnessed the dramatic descent of her psychological wellbeing in tandem with her loosening grip on power. George R.R. Martin picks up Cersei’s storyline in the second half of A Dance with Dragons, which is just as captivating as in the previous book. Cersei finally faces justice, suffering the ultimate humiliation as punishment for her many transgressions.
With action spread evenly across two continents, A Dance with Dragons has the most expansive worldbuilding yet in the series. Despite multiple cliffhanger endings, I found the conclusion of A Dance with Dragons to be highly satisfying as we (patiently) wait for the upcoming sixth volume of the series, The Winds of Winter. Read my full review of A Dance with Dragons at Grimdark Magazine.
#2 – A Game of Thrones (Book One of A Song of Ice and Fire)
Life is full of insignificant events, small perturbations that are rarely of any consequence. But occasionally the conditions are right for a small perturbation to escalate into something that alters the entire world, leaving a permanent mark on history. Whether it’s the start of a World War or the beginning of a global pandemic, the impact of a single, seemingly insignificant event can grow to outsize proportions, pushing the world out of its delicate balance.
The same is true for A Game of Thrones, the first volume of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. A society full of opposing political factions and personal deceit hangs precariously on the assumption that hidden duplicity remains behind its shroud of secrecy. But then a seemingly insignificant event shatters that illusion—a young boy climbs a wall and sees something that he shouldn’t see and doesn’t even understand.
In A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin embraced Tolkienesque worldbuilding while taking an antithetical approach to character morality. The main difference comes in the gritty approach that Martin has taken toward character morality, making A Game of Thrones one of the first true grimdark fantasies. Whereas Middle-earth is a world of black and white, Martin uses a full palette of gray to paint his cast of characters.
George R.R. Martin is an outstanding writer. Given the complexity of the world and the plot, this book could have easily become unreadable in less capable hands. But Martin does a wonderful job introducing us to the characters and worldbuilding in a natural and accessible fashion. A Game of Thrones is never a chore, and the pacing is remarkably consistent throughout the book.
A Game of Thrones is driven by its wonderful cast of characters. George R.R. Martin has crafted some of the finest characters in all of fantasy, including the inimitable Tyrion Lannister, whose astute political skills are coupled with a keen wit and a genuine kindness toward the less fortunate.
One of the interesting choices made by George R.R. Martin is that, out of the eight point-of-view characters in A Game of Thrones, five are children. Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen are both 14 years old at the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire. Among the Stark children, Sansa is 11, Arya is 9, and Bran is 7. Beyond these point-of-view characters, Robb Stark is 14 and Joffrey Baratheon is 12. This may be surprising for fans of the HBO series, since all the actors portraying these characters were significantly older than the characters themselves. Considering their young age, the terrible situations experienced by these children in A Game of Thrones become all the more harrowing. I particularly admire the way Daenerys overcomes unspeakably terrible abuse to grow into the strong, self-assured leader that she becomes.
A Game of Thrones is one of the finest and most influential books ever published, and its impact only continues to grow. If you have somehow put off reading A Game of Thrones, please put aside whatever reservations you may have and just dive in. You won’t be disappointed. Read my full review of A Game of Thrones at Grimdark Magazine.
#1 – A Clash of Kings (Book Two of A Song of Ice and Fire)
A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin’s epic second volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, is a masterclass in grimdark fantasy, somehow improving upon the already excellent first volume, A Game of Thrones, in every respect. Having already established the key characters in A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings jumps right into the action and never lets up.
The scope of A Clash of Kings is enormous: six warring families, all vying for power following the deaths of King Robert Baratheon and Lord Eddard Stark. The battles and strategic maneuvering among the six families are accompanied by a healthy dose of intrafamily drama and betrayal.
Although the storylines are sprawling, they work so effectively because they are presented from the eyes of a vibrant cast of well-realized characters. All the same point-of-view characters from A Game of Thrones are retained in A Clash of Kings, except for Eddard Stark. There are also two additions: Theon Greyjoy and Ser Davos Seaworth. Theon is the more interesting of the two, and his sister, Asha Greyjoy, is a delight.
Davos serves more as a vehicle for learning about King Robert’s brother, Lord Stannis Baratheon, who declares himself to be the rightful King of Westeros. These chapters also introduce us to Melisandre, a red priestess and powerful shadowbinder in the service of Lord Stannis. She is one of the most fascinating new characters in A Clash of Kings, bringing additional elements of magic to the story.
The real star of A Clash of Kings is Tyrion Lannister, who has been appointed by his father to serve as Hand for King Joffrey. Over the course of fifteen chapters, Tyrion becomes the most fully realized character in the series so far. Ever witty and insightful, Tyrion is a cunning master at political maneuvering, especially in the face of his sister, Queen Cersei. Tyrion also has a warm heart. His love for Shae is especially touching, as are his attempts to protect Sansa Stark.
Poor Sansa. She is betrothed to the temperamental boy-king Joffrey, who abuses her both physically and psychologically. Sansa is essentially a hostage and used as a bargaining chip for the Lannister family in trying to free Jaime Lannister. Although presented as a rather superficial character in A Game of Thrones, Sansa grows a lot during A Clash of Kings and starts to see how she is being manipulated by the Lannisters.
Sansa’s younger sister, Arya, is given significantly more focus in A Clash of Kings compared to the previous book. Arya has escaped the clutches of the Lannister family and now assumes various false identities as she attempts to find her way back to her own family. Arya spends much of the book disguised as a peasant boy, Arry, trying to survive in the cruel world of Westeros.
Meanwhile, Bran Stark oversees Winterfell while his brother Robb, now King of the North, is leading their military campaign. Bran has developed a mental bond with his direwolf, Summer, giving him unusually realistic dreams from the direwolf’s perspective. He soon learns that the bond with Summer is much deeper than originally thought.
Further north, Jon Snow helps lead the Night Watch’s exploration beyond the Wall to investigate the disappearance of several rangers, including Benjen Stark. Like Bran, Jon develops a powerful bond with his direwolf, Ghost, enabling him to control the direwolf’s actions.
Of the main characters established in A Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen is the only one given significantly less page time in A Clash of Kings. Daenerys has named her baby dragons after her deceased husband and brothers and spends most of A Clash of Kings laying the groundwork for an eventual return to power in Westeros.
A Clash of Kings is a feast for grimdark fantasy fans, masterfully building upon the already strong foundation of A Game of Thrones while taking the story and characters to new heights. Read my full review of A Clash of Kings at Grimdark Magazine.