The Best & Least Best “A Song of Ice and Fire” Books

Ranking time again because it’s where my writer’s intuition took me and totally not because I’m having trouble finishing the seven hundred other more “substantial” posts I have half-written.

Hey, at least this time I’m going to be working on something that’s both topical (like “Silent Hill” wasn’t) and popular enough (like “Friendship is Magic” wasn’t): the “A Song of Ice and Fire” books that inspired the badass HBO show “Game of Thrones”.

I read most of the first book, “A Game of Thrones” back in ’04 when I was a junior in high school. I don’t remember why the hell I didn’t finish it and continued the series, because what I do remember was thinking “Holy shit, this is awesome.” (it might have been because it was far from finished). I re-started the series a few months ago and finished “A Dance with Dragons” (the fifth and most recently published book) last week.

Bet you forgot Robert Baratheon was a huge badass.
As a result, I’m obsessed with the series. Both books and TV. The universe is complex enough to warrant a shit-ton lot of exploration, and the fact that it’s still unfinished gives a lot of room for theories, speculation, and discussion.

I remember back when I was still in the middle of reading, I was always interested in seeing others’ opinions on which were the best and worst books; I suppose knowing it gives you a certain spoiler-free idea of where the best and worst parts of the story are, and something to look forward to.

Also, I feel that I have some complaints about some narrative choices that were either taken by George R. R. Martin, or that he was pressured into taking, that I don’t agree with.

With those additional excuses, I feel sufficiently justified to write this on my own personal blog. As always, the ranking goes from worst (or least great, as there are no bad books in this series) to best.

I am aware that because of the unpredictable nature of this series, SPOILERS are a particularly touchy subject. Any major spoilers are going to be blacked out according to severity (green are very minor [mostly “this character is alive at this point”], orange are medium, red are huge [don’t highlight reds unless you’ve either read all the books or don’t give a shit]). However, if you’re one of those guys who doesn’t want to know anything, even back-of-the-book stuff, what are you doing here?

Bugger that. Bugger you.

5. "A Feast for Crows" (Book 4).

GRRM got into some trouble when he wanted to publish the fourth book. “A Storm of Swords” made a sh*tload of noise when it was published in 2000, and followers of the HBO show only know half of why. The trouble here came from two sources: first, the current version of “A Feast for Crows” is the product of a dramatic re-write Martin decided to do after his first version (which started five years after “Storm” but relied too much on flashbacks to be coherent) didn’t really work out.

Secondly, when Martin was finishing up this new draft, he found the book to be absurdly long, even for the standards of high fantasy. Martin and his editors decided to split the book into two. As he explains in the “epilogue”, Martin chose to split the book geographically instead of chronologically. This means that both book 4 and about 70% of book 5 take place concurrently, just in different locations and with entirely unrelated plot threads.

While this does sound interesting, the problem is that we were subjected to a 1000+ page book that didn’t include, in any way, four of the series’ main characters, three of which are some of the most popular. The bigger problem is that what’s left feels padded and unnecessarily long. There was also the baffling choice to have way too many chapters dedicated to the least interesting plot threads, whereas the ones you want to read the most get only a handful of chapters (minor spoiler: Arya’s very interesting story doesn’t get nearly as much page time as Brienne’s, which could’ve been trimmed significantly).

This book, considered with 5 a bridge between the first and last ‘arcs’ of the series’ whole narrative, also started the trend of telling some aspects of the story through the POV of entirely new characters, naming each something cryptic instead of using the character’s name as he did in books 1-3 (for instance, instead of having a chapter named “Victarion”, it’s named “The Reaver”; “The Drowned Man” instead of “Aeron”). While this does shed some much needed light onto the semi relevant goings-on outside of the established plotline, some were a tough pill to swallow.

Namely, the chapters taking place in the Iron Islands were a torturous read. A lot of somewhat important shit is explained out of context, and it’s really hard to follow unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of the series’ universe, and a perfect memory of the details that have already been mentioned, which you’re not likely to have on your first read. To be fair, some of the Iron Islands characters, especially the ones that are going to become important (mainly Victarion Greyjoy) are too fucking cool, and make me wish they had more page time.

I think there were only two “outsider” chapters in the whole book that I enjoyed. The rest I wanted to skip. Blergh. It must have been disappointing/infuriating that nearly 10 years passed without reading a Tyrion, Daenerys or Jon chapter.

However, this book maintains and even improves the top-of-the-line writing of the first three books; you can see how Martin grew more comfortable as a writer, and managed to create some of the most atmospheric and richly detailed scenes in the series. “A Feast for Crows” contains a few of my very favorite scenes/chapters in the entire series, both involving Brienne (to be specific, the beautifully serene scene in the Quiet Isle in which The Hound’s fate is discussed, and her surreal final chapter that ended on a cruel cliffhanger). Cersei’s plotline, though drawn out, was very funny to read, and the last paragraph of Jaime’s was a huge shock.

“A Feast for Crows” is a great book, but by far the least enjoyable of the bunch. I would have loved to see the story split chronologically so that it maintains the same groove without isolating characters; this is an issue in book 5 as well.

4. “A Clash of Kings” (Book 2)

Way above “A Feast for Crows” in terms of sheer enjoyment, I’m ranking “A Clash of Kings” down here because while it does contain what’s probably the second best action scene in the series (the Battle of Blackwater Bay), there really weren’t a whole lot of narrative surprises, or truly unexpected developments. Hell, even as far as character deaths go, there was only one relevant demise—though to be honest that one death was pretty fucking shocking (I’m talking about Renly’s).

Not Rule 34; actual scene. Kinda.
This isn’t really a bad thing, and it wouldn’t be in a lesser series, but “Clash” is a very logical continuation to “A Game of Thrones” (book 1), which is kind of disappointing considering how each subsequent book took the story and characters to really unexpected places. I know this sounds contradictory, but the worst thing about “Clash” is that it’s the best possible logical-next-step.

It suffers from being the middle child in a coherent three-book arc. “A Game of Thrones” was brilliant in its structure, having a reasonably standalone narrative, and “A Storm of Swords” (book 3) was an absolutely perfect culmination to it. With “Clash”, it’s hard to really find that dynamic narrative that makes this series great; a lot of plot threads go nowhere by the end of the book and aren’t picked up again until after the book ends.

I know; I’m reaching for straws here to find things that are really wrong with “A Clash of Kings”, but the truth is that it would be hard to imagine how it could have been much better. The action sequence in its climax is phenomenal, the new characters are all likable (Davos, Brienne and Melisandre are all awesome), it focuses on the war with a lot of thematic resonance, gives some space to Stannis the Mannis (underrated character), and sets up some great plots for book 3.

Sure, some plotlines are boring for most of the book (mainly Bran’s and Daenerys’, who doesn’t do squat in the entire book), and at this point Ned was still sorely missed, but there’s more to enjoy in book 2 than not. Honestly, the entire book is worth reading if only for the Blackwater and House of the Undying scenes (which is worth a re-read after you’ve finished the series).

I only wish it had wrapped a bit more tightly like the first and third books do.

3. “A Dance with Dragons” (Book 5).

Considering most readers, myself not included, had to wait over six years for this book, and over ten for most of its content, it was practically impossible for it not to be at least a little disappointing—which it is. A little. Not a lot.

This book is fucking awesome.

Seriously. I was warned that, having not enjoyed the narrative devices in “A Feast for Crows”, I would find some of the same problems in book 5, which commits most of the same sins. However, at least here it commits those crimes with characters we’re more familiar with, who have stories we’re more interested in following. After the end of book 3, there was nothing I wanted to know more than where the hell Tyrion’s plotline would go, and not only was the question answered, I couldn’t have wished for something better.

But the real reason why I fell in love with “A Dance with Dragons” was because it’s comparable to “A Storm of Swords” in being the one of the most incredibly unpredictable books I have read. The sheer amount of twists—twists that aren’t limited to unexpected character deaths, though there are those if fewer than book 3—is staggering. By this point, Martin became much better at setups and punchlines, and managed to end several chapters with shockers that are both logical, consistent with previous developments, and completely unexpected (the Mance Rayder switcheroo, or the sudden existence of Aegon Targaryen, for instance; I don’t even want to talk about the scene in which Jon Snow gets Caesar’d, which, coupled with the Red Wedding, is the only time I’ve ever gone “Holy shit” out loud while reading a book).

"The Sorrows"
I also like how Martin kept introducing new, wilder supernatural elements, without them seeming out of place.

Oh and best thing about it is that all these twists are peppered throughout its epic length and not saved for the finale, which was surprisingly quiet for almost every character.

One problem for me here is that Daenerys’ plot in particular, which I felt lagged like a motherf*cker in books 2 and 3, doesn’t really get any better until very late in the book. Most of those chapters could have been skipped entirely, but at least it had a massive pay-off leaving a shitload of promise.

Oh and seriously, Martin, how about some answers for the questions we’ve had since book 1? Unless Jon’s parentage is ultra important for future events, it’s not an interesting enough mystery to warrant 5 books. Just confirm our suspicions already.

Another big problem is that, like book 4, this one suffered from some undesired snip-snip, and two extremely promising scenes (the battle for Meereen, and the battle at The Wall) that were supposed to wrap the book were left for “The Winds of Winter” (the as of now still unpublished book 6). This also caused too many cliffhangers that felt inelegant and abrupt because they were not written as cliffhangers. Too many questions were left unanswered while only wrapping a handful of threads (I’m so glad we finally find out—if barely—what happened to Rickon Stark).

But other than that, “A Dance with Dragons” is infinitely enjoyable. Tyrion’s story alone is the very essence of “A Song of Ice and Fire”: you never know where it’s going to go, and it never goes where you don’t want to. I loved to see some of my favorite characters get entirely new faces (Arya, no pun intended, who becomes more and more powerful, or Jon Snow finally growing some balls), and some others getting a better payoff than anyone could’ve wished for (Bran’s deification floored me; it could be the best-written scene in the series, and ripe for speculation).

2. “A Game of Thrones” (Book 1).

“A Game of Thrones” is the perfect high fantasy “Book 1”. I have never read anything like it. The process of conceptualizing and then writing something like this without missing one beat just wrecks my fragile little mind.

Seriously, yo. Writing such an elegantly structured story in a world this large, with such an epic scope, while yelling “Your tea ain’t shit!” to every single established fantasy convention with one hand on his balls and another flipping the bird, can only be the work of the most ambitious genius. Unlike every single book in the series, “A Game of Thrones” tells a story with a coherent beginning and end.

The heart of this story is as simple as “A man tries to solve a murder”, but the brilliance lies on how well Martin accentuates on every single detail of the focal plotline. Not one character is there for the fuck of it, the pacing is lightning-fast, and the culmination both satisfying and heart-breaking. Even if we really wanted the story to go elsewhere (Drogo’s death was, for me, the most disappointing surprise in the series; I really wanted that story to go where it promised to go), it’s hard to argue that it didn’t end like it was supposed to. With the ending of “A Game of Thrones”, George R. R. Martin basically said “Fuck your expectations; I feed on your tears.”

And Old Gods bless him for it.

The character of Eddard Stark in itself is kind of a triumph. He might be the single most likeable character I have ever read in a book. Considering the relatively small amount of screen time he gets, the fact that four books later you’re still mourning his death and miss him, speaks for itself.

I’m having a lot trouble finding something to legitimately fault “A Game of Thrones” with. Despite its relatively short length, it’s no less ambitious than even the biggest books in the series or genre. The second half is one big climax, so you don’t even have to read too long for it to get extremely dramatic. With balls of brass, it created the staples of the series, ridding itself of any “good vs. evil” bullshit. It has too many surprises to name. It’s just perfect.

The only reason why it’s not #1 is because “A Storm of Swords” has an edge on pure balls.

1. “A Storm of Swords” (Book 3).

I think I’m repeating myself, but I think that the reason “A Song of Ice and Fire” is so unique and successful is because it focuses on unpredictability in a genre that’s known for recycling stories and having them be hugely successful, no matter how formulaic or poorly written they are (the fact that “The Sword of Truth” by Terry Goodkind had 12 best-selling books baffles me).

“A Storm of Swords” tries really hard to emphasize the unpredictable nature of the series, and succeeds every step of the way. Anyone who’s seen the show’s third season, which only covers about 70% of this book, gasped in surprise three or four times at the big twists (Jaime getting his hand cut off, or Sansa marrying Tyrion), and more likely than not completely shat their goddamn pants during The Red Wedding, which took place in “The Rains of Castamere”, episode 03X09, as the season’s climactic moment.

What most people don’t believe is that the horrifying event in “The Rains of Castamere” is barely the beginning of what has to be the most intense and lengthy climax in any book I have ever read. Of course it’s still the biggest, most unexpected and probably most devastating event in the entire series, but it’s in truth just a stone in a pond.

Admittedly, it’s a pretty huge fucking stone, because the ripples are enormous. Martin wasn’t just fucking with you when he wrote The Red Wedding; it’s the foundation of the series. And the ripples begin immediately. Never mind the obscene amount of main characters that bite it during the last 300 pages of “A Storm of Swords” (about 6 or 7 other main characters die after The Red Wedding. A feast for crows indeed), the story redirects itself with almost every chapter, and the revelation that takes place during the last paragraphs of the epilogue made me drop the book and go poop in the corner.

Seriously, the last quarter of this book is a complete clusterfuck. Season 4 should be insane.

But “A Storm of Swords” wasn’t just about twists and unexpected deaths; it was way more than that. It was the perfect wrap-up to a trilogy, it was the climax to every main character’s arc, leaving only set-ups and no cliffhangers (except maybe Daenerys’, but that goddamn story doesn’t go anywhere until book 5).

Martin also does a phenomenal job at shedding light to past events that completely changes the way we appreciate certain characters (Jaime having saved the lives of all of King’s Landing, or the truth behind Jon Arryn’s murder (, for instance). Who would’ve known in book 1 that Jaime would turn out to be one of the best characters in the show?
Add to that several of the best action scenes in the genre (The Hound vs. Beric, and The Mountain vs. Oberyn Martell to name a couple), the introduction of several of the series’ coolest characters (I know they had technically appeared before but The Brotherhood Without Banners is the shit), the introduction of more, weirder magic that didn’t feel out of place, very fun couplings of characters (Jaime/Brienne and Hound/Arya) and a lot of focus on The Hound, my personal favorite character.

Books 6 and 7.

It’s difficult for me to express my feelings towards “A Song of Ice and Fire”; as a fantasy writer, they’re both inspirational and crushing to read. Even when they fail, they succeed—it’s stupid how well crafted they are. It’s gotten to the point where every other fantasy series I’ve read or am reading seems inadequate.

I can’t wait for the final two books: “The Winds of Winter” and—tentatively—“A Dream of Spring”. I’m sure Martin will know how to wrap this story satisfyingly. Hopefully he doesn’t cling too much to his “LOL FUCK YOU!” reputation, because the ending of his magnum opus is something that, I think, should really focus on making the entire thing worth reading.

I hope he realizes that “unpredictability” shouldn’t be the main focus of something as grand as this. While it’s incredible how easily he trades enjoyment for shock (“enjoyment” being the badass shit we’d love to see, but never get to [e.g. Drogo and Dany never reaching Westeros]), there is a point of diminishing returns. If the series ends with the Red Comet falling on Westeros and killing everyone, we’ll all be shocked, but it won’t be satisfying.

But I’m writing out of my ass (impressed?); he wrote 5 incredible books, and I have every faith he will know how to write an incredible ending that makes all the heartache worth it. With a title like “The Winds of Winter”, you just know everyone will fucking die.

I hope I look back in 4-5 years and be able to put book 7 high up in the list. I’m a sucker for endings.

Thanks for reading! Sometime soon I’m going to write, with the help of a ASOIAF nerd, a series-specific preview of how I/we believe season 4 will unfold. It’s a huge tossup, all things considered. Stay tuned!

All art shamelessly stolen from here.
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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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