Musings on “A Song of Ice and Fire” vs. “Game of Thrones”

I kill a stark

WARNING: This post will discuss George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series in varying degrees of detail, often in direct comparison with its TV adaptation, HBO’s “Game of Thrones”. I will endeavor to avoid spoiling events that have happened in the books but not yet on the show, nor to use prior knowledge gained from the books to speculate on the upcoming season of “GoT” in anything but the most general terms. Fair game for discussion will be any events occurring through the end of “GoT” season four, which roughly parallels the second half of “ASoIaF” book three (“A Storm of Swords”). FYI – Mentioning that something happened differently in the books than it did on TV does not, in my view, qualify as a bombshell anymore, merely a point of interest. I’m pretty sure there are no do-overs forthcoming. Valar spoilhaeris.

Now that its ubiquity in the popular mindset and conversation has marked it as not just a phenomenon, or an institution, but rather as cultural shorthand, it is tempting and altogether too easy, on the eve of its fifth season, to discount the intoxicating complexity and bottomless intrigue of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Both aspects are gifts passed down from its literary forebear (and, interestingly enough, contemporary…as we’ll get into later), George R.R. Martin’s towering A Song of Ice and Fire series, and though a great many fans of the HBO adaptation are not nearly so bewitched by the history and machinery behind Martin’s curtain as I am, the world of Westeros, in itself, remains a fairly breathtaking achievement. The rich and almost impossibly deep history of Martin’s perpetually warring island is tied inextricably to the power plays, palace intrigue, and brute force survival of present day principals. In Westeros, ancient slights and grudges, stubborn, sometimes delusional, adherence to/pursuit of chivalric notions of honor and unbreakable birthrights, lingering familial mistrusts and hardwired blood feuds, both poison fragile periods of peace and invariably inform modern conflicts, in some cases powering them outright. Martin the author and Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ply their trades in the same gritty world but approach their work with differing, yet strangely complimentary, inherent strengths. Martin’s strengths are in world building, attention to detail, and complicated plotting. He turns the merely black and white into something rich and sensual, and his authorial voice informs the show from stem to stern. Weiss and Benioff’s strengths lay in character development, construction and visualization, and in delivering reliable thrills with highest possible impact. They turn the two-dimensional into something visceral. In attempting to discuss the show – which most everybody with a passing interest will have likely seen by now – in comparison with the books – which, despite their own wild popularity, are much less known by the masses – I plan to focus on the best parts of each, for ASoIaF vs. GoT is one of those rare instances where not only is neither the book nor its filmed adaptation superfluous, it can be argued that both are equally crucial components of a greater whole.

First though, indulge me in a history lesson, which should hopefully double as both a primer for the few brave fools who intend to soldier on here without knowledge of either source, and a demonstration to absentminded and/or overfed Thrones fans of just what kind of world we’re dealing with here: The island continent of Westeros is a medieval-inspired (think 15th Century England) feudal/vassal monarchy in near-constant turmoil due to friction between prominent competing houses. It is comprised, famously, of seven “kingdoms” – 1) The wealthy Westerlands, ruled by the power hungry and ruthless House Lannister, 2) The strategically located Riverlands, ruled by fair-minded House Tully, 3) The Reach, an agricultural hotbed ruled by the controlled but no less ambitious House Tyrell, 4) The arid southern lands of Dorne, ruled by the hot-blooded and vengeful House Martell, 5) The Stormlands, which separate Dorne from the capital of King’s Landing, and are the ancient seat of House Baratheon, 6) The Vale, lush, isolated and defiantly neutral in times of war, ruled by House Arryn, and 7) The Northlands, the largest and wildest of the Seven Kingdoms, ruled by the grim but just House Stark, ascending in area from the northern edge of the Riverlands until it meets a man-made border in the imposing form of The Wall, an 800-foot tall barrier of solid ice between the Seven Kingdoms and the deadly, untamed wilderness expanses that lie further north. The Wall is guarded and maintained by The Night’s Watch, a solemn order of black-clad protectors culled from the dregs of society and called to keep the various threats of the far North – the mountain clans known colloquially as “Wildlings”, now joining their massive strength for the first time in memory, and, even more concerning, a race (swarm?) of pitiless, advancing ice zombies known as “The Others” – forever separated from society below The Wall. Also of note are The Iron Islands, the seafaring historical scourge of Westeros, known for their periodic mainland invasions and acts of rebellion, ruled by House Greyjoy, and the southern island of Dragonstone, historical seat of House Targaryen, the longtime but recently deposed rulers of Westeros, who, centuries earlier, launched their regal, incestuous bloodline from a place of unquestioned power, having originally razed and brought the continent to heel with the aid of dragonfire.

Still with me? Good, because that is merely the bare bones backdrop, making no mention of the various ties of marriage, friendship, and self-interest that bind House Baratheon, which usurped traditional Targaryen power in a far reaching coup d’etat in the years just before Ice and Fire begins, with Houses Stark, Tully, and Arryn, or the shifting allegiances and bloody betrayals that led House Lannister from a position of honor within the Targaryen court to an enhanced seat in the new Baratheon regime, ultimately wresting effective control of the Iron Throne itself, and in the process making itself an object of scorn and distrust to Houses Stark and Tyrell and a hated enemy to House Martell. It is only at this point that discussion can even ratchet in from the macro level of contentious houses and simple geography to focus on the actual players in this saga. What appears set up early to be an ongoing rivalry between the villainous House Lannister – iron-willed patriarch Tywin, secret twin lovers Cersei and Jamie (she the sitting Queen and he the captain of her guard), and scheming, sharp-witted, endlessly appealing dwarf Tyrion – and noble, stoic House Stark – honorbound patriarch Eddard, strong-willed wife Catelyn, his bastard son, and their five legitimate children – evolves, with the king’s tragic death and the ascendance of his evil son, Joffrey, to the throne, into an ongoing, continent-wide play at power, position, and, eventually revenge, involving all the aforementioned noble houses, innumerable supplicant houses rallied to their respective causes, and no fewer than five claimants on the Iron Throne.

Peter Jackson blew J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Battle of the Five Armies” up into something, I thought, fairly unworthy of the level of spectacle he afforded it. Martin’s “War of the Five Kings” never lacks for tactics or substance, though he takes a decided longview of the conflict and its repercussions, and prefers most often to view battlefields in terms of their aftermaths. The show followed suit, at least until it gained the acclaim and budget to be able to visualize the heart-rending Battle of the Blackwater in season two. Martin uses medieval history as a lens through which to inform and project his ever-widening conflict. He invents no fewer than four incompatible major religions to be practiced in Westeros, and draws clear philosophical battle lines among their adherents. He expends great energy on the personal and practical politics around bastard children, which is to say noble children born out of wedlock, and how they affect and are treated by their lordly parents. This sort of world building is as inclusive and immersive as I can comfortably imagine, and Martin often gets lost in the weeds merely describing things – clothing, meals, people* – but the overall effect is staggering to the imaginative reader. All this before also revealing the existence of a parallel Afro-Asiatic continent across “The Narrow Sea” called Essos, which contains its own diverse ethnicities and allegiances, ancient rivalries and bloody history, not to mention, lately, a certain young girl named Daenerys, said to be the last living member of the decimated Targaryen dynasty and actively seeking to reclaim the stolen throne of her homeland…with the aid, conspicuously, of dragonfire.

*As a reader, I’m often amused by how physically odd or even grotesque Martin occasionally makes his characters sound, though I realize that it’s just a function of wanting to clearly differentiate them in the moment. “Ice and Fire” has so many blessed characters that, at some point, you have to go off the rails in describing them, just in hopes they’ll make any kind of impression. The show, obviously, has a leg up in this regard. It has done a terrific job of matching actor to character – Peter Dinklage as “halfman” Tyrion Lannister, Rory McCann as the burned, imposing “Hound” Sandor Clegane, Gwendoline Christie as the six-foot tall warrior maiden Brienne of Tarth, among others. One advantage of experiencing both platforms is that faces and voices from the show begin to seep into and naturally populate the book the further you read. It’s a great help.

Though I realize I’ve already gone the complete other way here, I’ll mention, for the record, that I have seen the cheeky video clip “Game of Thrones cast explains show in 30 seconds”, wherein Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner, and Peter Dinklage – now beyond famous for playing Ned Stark’s fate-stricken daughters Arya and Sansa, and the diminutive, scheming delight that is Tyrion Lannister, respectively – appear in a raggedly edited compendium of on-set interview excerpts. Their flip series recap goes a little something like this: “Death, sex, death, death, sex, death, sex, betrayal, death.” Much like the 30-watt bulbs who seemingly spent the entire run of The Sopranos consumed with little more than who would be the next character to get wacked, this reduction of Game of Thrones to only its most basic (and clearly basest) elements holds a lot of appeal for folks who either can’t or won’t follow the labyrinthine structure Martin has imagined and the HBO brain trust has so ably implemented, but recognize and endorse the show’s ability to tantalize, to terrify, and to entertain nevertheless. There are numerous ways fans can attack this material. They might play armchair archaeologist, fantasy historian, or treat it like the bloodiest soap opera in existence; they can analyze and draw connection after abundant connection, or they can just let the show wash over them like the oncoming tide. Options are necessarily fewer for readers of the books, who, having jumped into the ocean after perhaps mistaking it for a public pool, must learn to swim early on or else risk drowning in Martin’s overdeveloped and hyper-detailed plotting, where events decades past conspire to create inescapable currents and eddies that suck present day principals into a whirlpool of unfolding lust, greed, corruption, and grim, violent acts.

This is the diverse and fascinating world that Martin has created, a world that, in its scope and context, pretty much cries out for literary treatment alone. The road to cross-platform success is a particularly precarious one, littered with the remains of hot book properties that failed to ignite for whatever reason. With A Song of Ice and Fire, the potential obstacles were both glaring and myriad. As its televisual caretakers, HBO installed showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, tasking them with a formidable responsibility. The show has both maintained its previous momentum and somehow gained confidence in each of its seasons, all of which roughly correspond to one of Martin novels. Ice and Fire’s first volume, A Game of Thrones, was released in 1996 and made immediate inroads and impact amongst the Fantasy-reading community, every bit a work of grand scale and surpassing creativity, though its cruel narrative economy and lack of sentiment would ensure it a place of distinction amongst its fellows. A Clash of Kings followed in 1998 and the truly epic A Storm of Swords in 2000, stoking fan anticipation for subsequent volumes to a fever pitch even as Martin began to strain and flail under the pressure of extending his massive undertaking beyond the confines of what was originally conceived as a trilogy. The delayed arrival of books four and five of the reformed septology, 2005’s A Feast for Crows and 2011’s A Dance with Dragons, alone demonstrate the daunting nature, circumstances, and herculean effort of their creation.

Now, taken as a given that any comparison between the two of us is laughable – and I’ll heartily lead the chorus when it erupts – I have to say I feel some kinship, if not necessarily with the creative gauntlet Martin is required to run, then at least with his thousandfold workload and presumed timeline limitations. I’m a writer who takes some degree of pride in his work. I write long habitually. I choose my words with care, between 1500-2000 of them for a standard post. I read and reread my entries, and, when working, am in a near constant state of tinkering and editing. One day I’ll learn the crucial skill of judicious subtraction instead of forever grafting more and more on, but today is not that day. When I am not working on it, the blog is still usually never far from my mind, though I am also by nature a procrastinator, and my deadlines are all self-imposed rather than being predicated on any sort of marketplace demand. I have to report that I greatly enjoy not working. I try to post once a week, and my average missive, depending on the amount of time I can dedicate to it and how thoroughly the spirit moves me, takes between one and three days to complete. Some have taken far, far longer. No points for guessing which column this post falls into.

I only bring up this personal bookkeeping minutiae in an attempt to illustrate what Martin is looking at when he sits down to write the newest volume of ASoIaF. I tried writing fiction for a good while, though I eventually became irreparably frustrated with the results. I came in with grand designs, wrote enough notes out longhand to choke an industrial paper shredder, and worked my fool butt off, yet produced comparatively mediocre returns. I’d envisioned a trilogy of dark novels sharing a common setting, and pushed hard until I reached the point where I was forced to recognize that the world I’d created kinda stunk, or at least was no longer the same kind of fun to play in. This blog is much more to my speed and taste. I think of myself more as a craftsman than a dreamer, and for a writer of high quality fantasy or horror or high adventure, it helps immeasurably to be both. George R.R. Martin is happily unafflicted by either limitation, but still seems to have painted himself into a corner of his own devising. His world is simply too big, too dense, too teeming with rich detail and memorable characters, a voracious furnace in need of constant stoking and prone to periodic explosions – the jaw-dropping plot twist, the unforgettable pivot event – the kind of creative pyrotechnics that can become a drug to any author, and, for some, a crutch.

Both Fire and Thrones have, by now, presented more than their share of dramatic kindling for public consumption, yet the story grows ever larger, ever more potentially unwieldy, and demand remains insatiable. Martin probably doesn’t have the luxury, as I did, of scrapping countless months of work for the sin of it seeming slightly substandard to a prejudiced audience of one. For as much as I’m sure my writing can still sometimes seem a lot to sift through, I’ve seen it estimated that the average Martin chapter pushes, and often well surpasses, 5000 words long, or 2.5x that of my standard entry. A Dance with Dragons, his latest tome, had 73 of them. The paperback edition was cunningly single-spaced in order to fall within the 1000-page range of his previous volumes, but an estimated 365,000 words can only be camouflaged so far, particularly when “normal” novels generally fall somewhere between 100,000 and 175,000. I still occasionally wince over my own word choice or a certain turn of phrase months after posting, so I can only imagine with what kind of obsessive, fastidious care Martin must review and polish his own chapters – each its own robust, evocative and impeccably crafted short story, dripping with five different kinds of detail – before daring to possibly consider one “finished” and sending it off to the editor. Each piece of ASoIaF is itself a standalone short story, and reads like it was edited ten times, minimum. The mind reels.

Ice and Fire’s next chapter, The Winds of Winter, is, one presumes, currently under feverish production, with at least a seventh, A Dream of Spring, still to follow, by which point the HBO series will not only have long since overtaken its source material but probably have ended altogether. Martin’s stated goal with Winds of Winter is to beat season six’s premiere date** to press, which actually seems doable, and a big fuss was raised earlier this year when it was reported he had already met extensively with Benioff and Weiss to impart to them (and only them) the ASoIaF launch codes (i.e. to tell them the rest of the story). Despite Martin’s longtime skepticism that they were even adaptable, the first two books in his series – A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings – are near perfect blueprints for a season of television. Each chapter economically breaks down into 10-15 minutes of screen time with some revelation or other salient plot point at its end. Because the show was never subject to Martin’s established, POV-centric style – wherein for an event to be remarked upon, the chapter’s POV character (Arya, Daenerys, Jon, Tyrion, Cersei, etc.) must either experience or witness it outright, remember it after the fact, or else be told it explicitly by another character in the form of arriving news – Benioff and Weiss are able to jump around the landscape with far more dexterity, chopping up a standard POV book chapter into several pieces in the process.

**He’s already drastically curtailed his public appearances and declined the opportunity to write a “GoT” script for the second consecutive year. Yet the (mostly good natured) internet snark persists. Search for the author’s name at avclub.com and you’re treated to an endless procession of shots both brazen and veiled – “Martin finds new way to procrastinate, is producing new HBO series”; “Martin skipping Comic-Con to actually write a damn book”; “Martin finally finished writing (his first tweet)”; “Martin to host free screenings of every ‘GoT’ episode instead of working on next book”, and so on. All authors wish for their work to be read and to resonate, and then they also dream of conventional success as a byproduct. Martin is as scrutinized a modern writer as anyone this side of J.K. Rowling, who can at least relax a little bit now that the “Harry Potter” franchise is theoretically closed for business. Martin is still writing from the pressurized middle of an ongoing, and accelerating, phenomenon.

Many of the show’s most prominent characters – Lord Ned Stark’s son and future king Robb, King Robert Baratheon, his brother/rival Stannis, his heir King Joffrey, Lord Tywin Lannister, Petyr Baelish, Prince Oberyn Martell – were never point of view characters in the books. The show’s umbrella structure affords Benioff and Weiss the opportunity to add dimension to these characters that arguably was lacking in the books, and the oft superb acting helps immeasurably to that end. Jamie Lannister, Lord Tywin’s dashing, devil-may-care son, is captured by Northern armies at the end of book and season one and is only mentioned in passing throughout A Clash of Kings, though, in no small part due to the magnetism of actor Nicolai Coster-Waldau, he was written into season two of Game of Thrones anyway as the first real example of extracurricular alterations from page to screen. Other changes were made to make Martin’s context-heavy plotting translate more comfortably to the show. For example, the character Roz, a sympathetic prostitute not mentioned in the books, was invented to provide entry into the seedier backrooms of King’s Landing not always afforded by Tyrion’s POV, and “sexposition” – the process of disguising Westerosi history lessons as idle conversations between lovers – became an oft and perhaps overused expository tool.

Martin’s clockwork mechanism finally began to veer a little more toward the unruly end of the spectrum with book three, his magnum opus***, 2000’s A Storm of Swords, and Benioff and Weiss were pressed into heavier lifting than they’d been used to in order to make it conform. First and most obviously, they decided to tell the book’s story over the course of two seasons instead of one, which makes sense given the sheer amount of material they have to cover. Some choices, such as the decision to make the infamous “Red Wedding” the centerpiece of season three’s penultimate episode, then begin season four with the Lannisters ascendant – a perch all the better from which to knock them down – proved perfect. Others, such as the decision to characterize Jamie and Cersei’s grief-stricken sexual congress just after Joffrey’s death (and in the shadow of his dressed corpse to boot) differently than it was in the book****, were actively upsetting. Yet others, such as the decision to end season three with contender to the throne Stannis Baratheon apparently deciding to suspend his quest and defend the realm from the Others, only to have him revert for the bulk of season four to his former posture as a decimated military player whining about fickle fate – including a weird detour across the sea to petition the Iron Bank of Braavos for a loan – before magically materializing to reinforce the Night’s Watch and preempt a second battle with the Wildlings, was beyond clumsy.

***I have a friend, a longtime Fantasy reader and Martin enthusiast, who, soon before I started, told me without hesitation that “A Storm of Swords” was the best book he’d ever read. Not his favorite, necessarily, but the best. It really is magnificent. In my own humble opinion, fans of the show kind of owe it to themselves to at least read Martin’s original trilogy, whether or not they then want to proceed into the altogether murkier waters, frustrating but still rewarding, of “A Feast for Crows”. Although, if they make it to the “Swords” epilogue, a mind blowing revelation that I cannot in retrospect conceive didn’t make it into season four – and am in utter disbelief at reports it won’t be part of season five either, since it’s the kind of corker that “GoT” fans absolutely froth over – odds are they’ll want to stampede ahead into the remaining books, as I did. The good news, such as it is, is that “A Feast for Crows” and “A Dance with Dragons” technically take place simultaneously, and, as such, can be fairly easily read at the same time, alternating (119) chapters strategically in order to keep plot points hidden for the proper amount of time, which is the way I did it. The web is full of suggested reading orders. Mine came from boiledleather.com, and worked out quite nicely.

****So, when Jamie takes Cersei in the sept, is it rape or is it consensual? On screen, it’s undeniably a bracing, ugly scene – reading rape in my eyes, as well as many others’ – which has the effect of instantly reconfiguring viewer opinion on Jamie after the show has taken pains over the course of multiple episodes to portray the self-involved swordsman in a much more positive light. Benioff, Weiss, and the actors involved have since protested that the critical commentariat misread the scene as presented, that it’s complicated, but that it’s also, in the end, consensual. Their certainty is, in my opinion, not reflective of anything on the screen but rather because it most assuredly is consensual in the books. This can be blamed in part on another odd deviation in timing, wherein Jamie returns from his harrowing adventures in the Riverlands just in time for a surprise reunion with Cersei at the end of “GoT” season three. In the book, however, Jamie doesn’t return at the same arbitrary time, is therefore not present at “The Purple Wedding”, does not witness his son dying of poison, and later arrives in King’s Landing only at that precise instant, piecing together the news as he encounters a grieving Cersei, and, because s#!+ has been and continues to be real, suddenly forcing himself on her. She resists for a moment, then encourages him, excited to be reunited, torn apart as a mother, not to mention a little naturally twisted, worried for the most part that someone will wander into the sanctum and catch them in the act. It also helps, obviously, that the book chapter is written from Jamie’s POV, one of those rare moments where the show’s innate objectivity actively worked against it. The rest I’d chalk up to an equally rare moment of inept direction on a show that usually hits its emotional beats with clarity and precision.

In truth, the onscreen digressions already abound, even with the books around to serve as guides. Ironborn turncoat Theon Greyjoy’s story advanced to awful ends on screen in seasons three and four despite not really being mentioned until book five, and the (always seemingly disconnected) story of Ned Stark’s son Bran, the paraplegic child who can commune with animals and even see through their eyes, reached a complete stopping point well ahead of schedule. Though she hunted him, Brienne of Tarth and The Hound never encountered each other in the books, let alone fought to the death atop a majestic Scottish hill. Now there’s a show invention that was an unqualified success, imposing economy of action on and choosing a sense of thrilling closure over Martin’s established predilection to never have his characters take shortcuts, to focus on the journey (and, again, the fascinating history that rushes out as a byproduct) and to arrive at their various waypoints and destinations honestly. Again, there’s so much ground to cover here. The decisions can’t all be winners. I won’t be terribly surprised if the bloodiest red meat of A Dance with Dragons similarly spills into season six, because, as we’ve already established, there’s a metric ton of plot and action in play. But then it’s also entirely possible that, by the time season six (and, with any luck, The Winds of Winter) rolls around, Game of Thrones the show and A Song of Ice and Fire the book series will resemble each other in cast and setting alone. For better or worse, season five will write that story.

At this point, ostensibly the end of Martin’s original imagined trilogy, where the show finally appears ready to diverge from its source material to a far greater extent than it had previously dared, fans of the show are primed for merely the next chapter while fans of both book and show are placed in an interesting position, the luxury of precognition having now been callously stripped away from them. I feel confident in saying I probably couldn’t even broach a similar discussion at this same time next year, because so much of ASoIaF’s foundational text will no longer be in play in anything but the broadest possible strokes. On the one hand, this is a worrisome proposition, because I’ve become such a fan of the books over the course of my prolonged immersion, though on another, if met with the right context and attitude, it is potentially thrilling. It’s unrealistic to expect wholesale change this season – A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons are both written, after all, not to mention standard-upholding bestsellers – though lately creative types on both sides of the coin seem to have taken up teasing fissures and digressions as a sort of sport. Just today, I saw a report where Benioff and Weiss confirmed that certain as yet unwritten events would occur on the show before they were ever published, and earlier this year, Martin asserted that season five’s tower of corpses would include at least one character of some prominence that was still alive in the books. The mind reels again, of course, and anticipation theoretically grows, though, assuming it happens, that wouldn’t be the first such occurrence.

I’m thinking here specifically of Robb Stark’s young queen, the source of all his enmity with the treacherous Freys, who not only was conspicuously absent from Swords’ recounting of the “Red Wedding”, she wasn’t even the same girl to begin with. Talisa Stark, see, was another invention of the television brain trust, and one must admit that even though her presence at the Red Wedding could’ve been read as a needlessly provocative move on Robb’s part, or at least patently stupid, it was also dramatically convenient, as her poor pregnant belly would’ve been damned near impossible to shockingly stab to death from hundreds of miles away. Her literary doppelganger, Jeyne Westerling, the former Queen of the North, actually remains the most minor of players in A Dance with Dragons, occasionally referred to by others during Jamie POV chapters and eventually offered a pardon in return for a promise of fealty to the crown (and, more importantly, to House Lannister). I don’t bring her up because she’s the least bit important, or even solely because she’s a loose end between book and show, but mostly to demonstrate Martin’s ridiculous commitment to continuity and to world building, an effort at which he pretty much stands alone by now (though it’s arguable the HBO interpretation of the Red Wedding was the more gutwrenching because of the creative choices that went into it). To wit, the paperback version of A Feast for Crows is 1060 pages in length. The final 79 of that is merely cataloguing all the prominent Westerosi households, complete with brief histories, arms and sigils, and a thorough recounting of all players contained therein, whether or not we’ve even met them. House Frey, given its Lord Grandfather Walder’s proclivities as a womanizer and continually rebounding widower, takes up seven pages on its own.

Between book and show, the broad strokes are sure to be similar, at least in the near term. Season five promises our first glimpses of Dorne (locations shot on the Spanish Riviera), home of the late Red Viper, Oberyn Martell. By preliminary indications, Dorne, its lord, Doran, and Oberyn’s vengeful daughters, “The Sand Snakes” – not to mention Cersei’s daughter, Princess Myrcella, the political pawn who you may or may not recall was made a ward of Dorne and betrothed to its young Prince Trystane during Tyrion’s brief but eventful term as Hand of the King – will be far more a part of season five than they even were in A Feast for Crows, even as another prominent new character is left out of the show altogether. I seriously doubt he (or she) will be the last. Arya ended season four on a merchant ship crossing to Braavos, and season five appears to pick her story up from there, more or less as Crows did, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see it expanded and/or deepened from what little philosophical placeholding Martin was able to accomplish with her while other, far more pressing matters attended him. Sansa, now firmly in the care of slimy former King’s Landing Master of Coin/current Lord Protector of the Vale (and, for fans of The Wire, former Baltimore mayor) Petyr Baelish, was barely glimpsed in the intervening books, though in the season five trailers we’ve all watched a couple dozen times by now, Littlefinger is actively entreating her to “avenge” her dead relatives. So that’s probably new.

Dragons, of course, offered a heaping helping of Meereen under siege, with Daenerys Targaryen under nonstop assault by assassins, encroaching armies, and sweaty, incredibly forward suitors from both sides of the Narrow Sea. At some point, I’d imagine the show has to expand her royal cabinet/coterie beyond former Kingsguard knight Ser Barristan Selmy and laid back mercenary Daario Naharis. In the books, Daenerys has, in addition to her actual small army, another small army of colorful advisors and hired muscle almost beyond counting (including her Bloodriders, remnants of her past as a Dothraki queen, which is a period that hasn’t been relevant to the show since the “where are my dragons?” dregs of season two). Martin always makes the most of his extended time in Essos. His exotic port city of Braavos teems with life and political intrigue, and Slaver’s Bay – the unforgiving geographical area containing Meereen, Yunkai and Astapor – is imagined as a dusty deathtrap as perilous to enter as it is to escape. I’m excited to see what the show does with Essos now that it has to regularly juggle multiple locations on both continents. Martin also devotes a ton of book time to the continuing pirate-y exploits of the cold, brutal Iron Islanders, though, with their non-Theon arc seemingly neatly tied up in season four, I have to wonder how much they’ll see the screen, or even should. Interestingly, the show has thus far seemed a bit more attentive to the existential threat posed by the encroaching Others above the Wall than Martin has – the CGI renderings of (if you’ll pardon me) “HBO’s The Frozen Dead” have ranged from slightly hokey to undeniably eerie to downright spectacular – though I imagine it’ll be a focal point of The Winds of Winter.

This is all pure but wonderful (informed) speculation, for a few more hours anyway. I can’t wait to get season five underway. As it turns out, this post marks the belated launch of yet another DAE feature column, which I’m probably going to call “Musings Deathmatch” until something better occurs to me. There’s ample juice to be squeezed, after all, in comparing rebooted properties to the originals, or in pondering identical stories presented across different platforms. The first edition of this column, written by accident a couple summers ago, probably isn’t the model I want to hold up for how it’ll proceed, but I have noticed that DAE visitors still click on it with some regularity, and I like the concept. I already do a lot of indirect comparison in my various reviews, but a periodic dedicated venue might be just the thing to get the nerdy juices flowing. The point of these pieces isn’t to proclaim a winner, or at least it hasn’t been yet, but it’s an interesting question to at least broach. I make no bones about the fact I much prefer Wrath of Khan to its J.J. Abrams-helmed pseudo-remake – hardly a controversial position to take – though I think both films have value.

If the matchup is to be Game of Thrones vs. A Song of Ice and Fire, then we’re engaging in some excruciating nitpicking to little actual end. Both properties are addictive, rewarding, and dependably terrific, and as I mentioned earlier, actually complement one another by deploying their respective strengths to deepen, color, or reinforce the other’s occasional deficiency or flaw. Neither is perfect, but the only way you’d really know that is by prolonged exposure to the other. It’s remarkable what Benioff and Weiss are able to accomplish dramatically with their annual allotment of a mere ten hours of airtime, and Martin’s peerless (and gigantic) creation is a fictional world that will be discussed and dissected just as much by future generations as it is by this one. If I must claim a preference between the two, I’ll choose a third way instead, and say that whichever I’m currently experiencing is my favorite. That’s an awful hedge, I know, even if it has the limited benefit of actually being the truth. At the time I started writing this post, I was four chapters away from the end of my first readthrough of A Song of Ice and Fire, some 5000 pages in total, completely immersed and hungry for more. I’ve read the last three volumes in the year since season four of Game of Thrones ended. So there you have it. A Song of Ice and Fire, in all its depth and splendor, is my unqualified favorite of the two…at least until the Game of Thrones season five premiere Sunday…or until I conceivably crack under the pressure of both their absences mid-summer – the first time in two solid years I would neither be watching nor reading a tale of Westeros – and invariably begin re-reading the whole saga anew.

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