I finished reading this after more than A YEAR, but that’s what happens when I read way too many books in parallel, drop them for a few months to pick them up later.
Here I only wanted to comment a particular aspect of how the series got a bit off the rails, accordingly to most(?) fans. For sure something went wrong since Martin didn’t release the following book for many years, and when he did he promised the next would be out within one year… when it didn’t come out for another six. This triggered a lot of discussions about readers’ “entitlement”, but it’s pretty obvious something went wrong regardless of what readers think.
Keeping my own glacial pace I now finished this third book, the one that the fans loved the most. For me the first has been the best book by a good margin, the second one was good but not as good, and when I started reading this third I felt quite underwhelmed. There are very good chapters even in this third book, especially Sansa, Jaime and Tyrion (in this order), but in general I couldn’t understand what in this book was supposed to push it well above the previous two. This continued up to page 700 or so (1100 total in the paperback I read).
There’s not a big convergence in the book, or a single turning point, but I agree the last 400 pages are in a different category. Instead of reaching some overall plot culmination what happens is that every major PoV reaches a turning point in its own self-contained story (there are repercussions from one to the other, but often it happens indirectly). What Martin did was about aligning these story-lines that, even if kept well separated and following their own trajectories, they all reach the highest tension is a rather quick succession. So these last 400 pages are intense because of the speed the plot picks up, because there are so many deaths, and because they are really well organized as a whole, without feeling jammed forcefully. The story has a very different intensity compared to the first half of the book.
But one aspect I noticed is that this is different from simply reaching some culmination of a plot as you would expect. This isn’t merely a good book ending, the function is different, and I think it’s this function that has then created the problems the series has with book 4 & 5. These parallel stories reach their culmination, often with well executed (if a bit trite) plot twists, but in particular to “reposition” all the major characters. I mean it’s not a plot trajectory, it’s about set-up a brand new state. In fact some of these end-of-book set-ups (what comes after the respective plot twists) are even quite bad, bordering fanfiction (because they are a bit too forced and mostly fanservice, see Jon’s “election”).
What happens is completely different from the good finales and plot twists you see at the end of book 1 and 2, that’s what I mean. The first two books have their own satisfying culminations but it was just that. In this case instead book 3 almost wipes the board clean because these major characters all end up in a novel position. It’s no more a journey, it’s a definite new beginning. Less about what is left behind and more about the blank, undiscovered state ahead. The same story continues, of course, but all the premises have been changed, all these characters have been uprooted from their familiar places and roles, and each pushed into a totally new context. Also in the other two books this was the most relevant (and effective) plot mechanic: the balance and familiarity is radically upset. But this time there are less immediate concerns and dangers, it’s not a twist that sends characters directly into action same as every previous book finale was setting up the stage for the next. This time the blank state is dominant across all the story-lines, all of them being expertly juggled to reach this coordination.
What I observed in this third book finale matches what I read about Martin’s original plan. That was about creating a few years gap, after book three, so that the story would continue with characters starting well into their new lives. It seems evident that this is how the ending of book 3 was written. The new set-ups are so radical that the attention of the reader is not on the immediate tomorrow. It’s a starting point meant to eventually build up to a different context, and that was where the fourth book was meant to pick up.
I imagine Martin went on with that plan but, because of what it required, it’s not like he could publish the third book and then start writing the next as he would usually do. He needed to painstakingly track what happened in those “hidden” years between the books. Martin said this himself, he said he figured that the amount of work plotting those years wouldn’t be that different from the amount of work actually showing them in a book. Again, I imagined he tried sticking to his plan, but all the added work to set up the new world must have meant he made little actual progress in the book writing. I imagined that months passed and he grew frustrated and at some point he gave up. He might have felt as if he needed to actually produce those pages that would go into the book itself, rather than just “worldbuilding” the hidden gap. That gap of the plot turned into a necessary gap in the production. Taking too long not being able to resume writing because he was still assembling the pieces needed. He probably got anxious about that and might have felt like he needed something to get back on track.
How do you get back on track? By going back to what you always did. I’m just imagining how things might have gone, it’s just speculation, but I think that after having struggled to write the story between the books he eventually gave up because it required way too much work. He felt the pressure of writing the book itself, and in the end the only immediate solution was to fall back to what he always did. That meant that he had to scrap the jump forward in the story and follow through with the events right after book three.
That’s my interpretation of “what went wrong”. I think that it was Martin’s own self-consciousness about taking too long that paradoxically made things worse. He felt he needed to start writing new pages, but that required building what happened in the gap, so he had to remove the gap to minimize all that work, but that consequently presented its own issues, as the plot would need to be wrestled and adapted to the new plan. The story was not structured this way, and even if some readers think Martin eventually did an excellent job, it’s still likely far from ideal. This type of mid-series re-planning might work if you can go back and adapt the whole thing, but it’s obvious to me that the third book was written for a different goal, and that going in a completely new direction still exacts a not irrelevant toll on the whole.
I imagine it as a self-feeding anxiety that made Martin sacrifice his initial plan to fix the problems he had in writing what came next, but in the end this didn’t actually help because the following two books still took a very long time, and still upset that balance in the original plan.
At first he stuck to the plan following the way, he got anxious because it was taking a too long time, so he decided to take a shortcut, only to realize the shortcut made things even worse. It’s probably the pressure he felt that was the primary cause of the delays.
We, the fans, messed it up. (Indirectly, for the most part, of course.)
Out there there might be an alternative timeline where Martin stuck to the original plan. It is likely that that version has an edge over what we got/will get.
(The removal of the timeline gap was done to deal with the tribulations that came up while writing the fourth book, meant as a solution and a fix, but it also messes up with the way book three itself is written, because book three explicitly builds toward that timeline gap. It requires it. It’s not just what comes after that is upset, but also what comes before.)