The beginning of a new year tends to be a time when we make promises that are more hopeful than realistic. But novelist George R.R. Martin has earned a reputation for undercutting such optimism in his Song of Ice and Fire novels, which take a broadsword to the sanitized conventions of the chivalric tradition.
And he kicked off 2016 with the real-world equivalent of one of his famous plot twists: an announcement that he was nowhere near done with “The Winds of Winter,” the latest novel in the saga that began with “Game of Thrones,” and that the HBO adaptation of the series will bypass his books starting in this new season.
This doesn’t exactly come as a surprise to Martin-watchers. The installments of “A Song of Ice and Fire” have slowed down over the years: while there were two-year gaps between “A Game of Thrones” and “A Clash of Kings” and then “A Clash of Kings” and “A Storm of Swords,” it was another five years before the fourth book in the series, “A Feast for Crows,” arrived, and then another six before “A Dance With Dragons” was published in 2011.
Readers and even other authors, including Neil Gaiman, have been debating whether Martin has an obligation to pick up the pace for more than half a decade. This latest development will certainly sharpen the cries of “Finish the book, George!” but it’s hardly the first time they’ll have echoed through the fandom.
While I’ve previously shared that desperation, Martin’s latest missive made me feel something different. I’ve long been unsure that Martin will ever finish the series. And if he can’t do it to the standards he wants, I’m not sure I care if I ever get a final installment of “A Song of Ice and Fire.”
I can’t imagine that this will be a popular opinion. But Martin’s post reveals a man under considerable pressure, and not of the productive kind.
“The writing did not go as fast or as well as I would have liked,” Martin acknowledged. “You can blame my travels or my blog posts or the distractions of other projects and the Cocteau and whatever, but maybe all that had an impact … you can blame my age, and maybe that had an impact too … but if truth be told, sometimes the writing goes well and sometimes it doesn’t, and that was true for me even when I was in my 20s.”
And while he says that his publishers “can have the hardcover out within three months of delivery, if their schedules permit,” that’s not a timeline that permits for any editing and polishing. “I am going back to my stance from last March, before all this,” Martin finally declares. “It will be done when it’s done. And it will be as good as I can possibly make it.”
That may drive a lot of you completely bananas. But this is how it ought to be.
At times, it seems as if our rapacious hunger to know the fates of Martin’s colossal cast of characters could just as easily be satisfied by a carefully annotated list as by another book. When you’ve come to prize outcomes over the journey that leads to them, and to fetishize being spared the dread specter of so-called spoilers over the quality of prose, character development or carefully established themes, what you’re really admitting is that you care less about engaging with a work as a whole than knowing the basic facts of the story.
If that’s really what you want, then I suppose it doesn’t matter to you if “The Winds of Winter” or “A Dream of Spring,” the planned final novel in the “Game of Thrones” saga, are any good. All you need are the raw data about what happens to who, and when, and how those puzzle pieces fit into the final battle. And while those things are interesting to me, they’re not exactly what “Game of Thrones” is about, and they’re certainly not why I’ve dedicated so much of my career to the world that George R.R. Martin created.
“Game of Thrones” for me is less about the Red Wedding and more about how Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) reacts to it, the ruin not just of her family but of a world that operates by any rules she can recognize. It’s the quiet moment when Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) passes the tattered mantle of his nobility on to Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), recognizing in the lady knight someone actually worthy of the facade Jaime’s used as a disguise for so many years.
It’s Arya Stark’s (Maisie Williams) rough camaraderie with Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) and the loneliness of the moment she leaves him to die and sets out on her own, a grand staging of the melancholy all of us experience when we begin our voyage into adulthood. “Game of Thrones” isn’t really a story about the Others and some resurrected dragons for me; it’s about what happens when a world falls apart, and how, up and down the social ladder, everyone scrambles for advantage at best or a scrap of safety at bare minimum.
And that’s why I’d rather have “The Winds of Winter” and “A Dream of Spring” be strong rather than merely done. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” will get us to the end of Martin’s story; what I want from Martin now is the wonderful writing and storytelling that characterized the early “Song of Ice and Fire” books, giving them thematic resonance that elevated them above other entrants in the genre.
And if the books can’t be strong; if Martin has written himself into a tangle from which he can’t extricate himself; and if his publisher is more concerned with getting them out than making them great? Well, then I think I’ve reached a point where I’d be all right not having those books at all.