Winter is coming: Why reading A Song of Ice and Fire is as rewarding as watching Game of Thrones

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f there is one television show guaranteed to make me drop everything for the great magic box, it has to be Game of Thrones. A masterful fantasy drama, it is full of intrigue and compelling characters, it has also introduced me to one of my favourite series of all time, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Yes, I freely admit it. The show got me hooked on the novels. Sorry to disappoint the book purists.

I thought that reading the first book – from which the show took its name with the minor adjustment of dropping the article A from the front – after it was already spoiled for me was going to be a bore. It was only my obsession with reading each series completely that prevented me from directly picking up the second book, A Clash of Kings. As it turns out, it was not a decision I would regret.

Martin’s world was extraordinary. The sheer scale of it could very well rival Tolkein’s, and it was much easier to follow. What made it such a joy to read was that despite its magical aspects – the dragons, the witches, the shadow babies and the zombified White Walkers – it was surprisingly grounded. The characters felt real and so did the actual conflict that was central to the plot. If there was no element of fantasy, it would have read as a convincing pseudo-history of medieval Europe. The fact that important characters were just as likely to die as anyone else made it all the more believable.

Game_of_thronesTo be fair, this is praise that can be given to the show as well as the books. Some might even argue that features such as the linear chronology of the show makes it better than the sometimes convoluted nature of its source material. However, as someone who has experienced both sides of the debate, having had the first book “spoiled” by the television show and having subsequent seasons “spoiled” by the books, I can confidently say that each is its own unique experience. And, with the show getting as much attention as it does, I am here to tell you why you should pick up the books too.

For starters, there are more characters. In order to streamline the episodes, HBO had to cut down some key people and merge others in order to let the story continue at the pace they needed. While this works on screen, the expansive world on paper allows for a larger collection of characters, each of whom is surprisingly unique. It also makes Westeros a richer world from the very start. We do not have to wait several books to meet the Tyrells or the Martells, for instance; we know of them from the very beginning.

Another aspect of the books that follows directly from having a wider cast of characters is that there is a more complex backstory to the entire universe. With regards to the show, we are aware of the fact that the Baratheons are new to the throne, having defeated the Targaryens during Robert’s Rebellion. But beyond a few facts that are only brought up when they are relevant to the plot, we do not really know about anything that happened before the first episode. By contrast, the books have a rich history that makes the intrigue and back-stabbing all the more compelling. Over the course of the five books published so far, we not only get a complete sense of the plot that is happening in the narrative present but we also have substantial information about the decades immediately preceding it as well as fascinating chunks of Westerosi lore and history.

No one can fault the show for creating suspense. When the biggest stars and most important characters are the likeliest to die, there is no sense of security. But one thing the book manages to do even better is use sub-plots and a non-linear timeline to throw in red herrings. Due to the time constraints and the shortened cast (and perhaps the budget), the show is not able to delve into the smaller storylines. This is not a problem with the on-screen universe – and Martin himself has signed off on all the changes – but a quick look at the books is enough to show that there are a few things that would make the narrative even stronger if they could have been included.

All of which is not to say that Martin has created a perfect universe. There are definite flaws in the novels. And if there is one element of the show that is indeed superior to its written counterparts, it is that all the characters on-screen are allowed to develop in front of the audience equally, as opposed to having them introduced through the point of view of other characters, which is how the books are presented. Perhaps the best part about A Song of Ice and Fire is that reading it does not ruin the viewing experience. Yes, the plot is revealed, but the show is its own beast and can be enjoyed as a separate work of art. So remember, my sweet summer child. Winter is coming and you better start reading.

Comments (7)

  • I love all the books, each one is fantastic. Can’t wait for the next one. I disagree with Jill D. but to each their own I guess. Keep up the good work Mr. Martin and get busy. We’re waiting.

  • Some of the best character development I’ve read.

    I remember seeing an early promo of the logo and the Winter is coming theme on HBO about 4 years ago and thought, “that looks pretty awesome, I will totally enjoy that.” This show started me on watching television shows again. I really had no idea how much of a fan of this series I’d become.

    I watched the first season of this show and immediately went out and bought all 5 books and read them in a few weeks time. Enjoying this saga. Cannot wait for the next chapter…

  • These books are quite possibly the worst books I have ever read. It is a minor miracle that somehow they’ve turned into this extraordinary show. Just read one chapter allowed to somebody that you respect and you will never read another word.

    • ronnieblowhard

      Did you mean out loud? You really give no reason why you disliked the books. So I’m just going to say this is an opinion and there is no other reason why someone else wouldn’t like them.

      • Sorry. You’re right. I should have been more specific. After watching the first season of GOT, probably the best television series we have ever seen, my husband and I were excited to read the books. We didn’t want to wait for the next season to see how the story unfolded. After a few chapters I began to realize I was not nearly engrossed into this book as I thought I would be. The writing style was very disappointing. It felt like I was reading a creative writing assignment for as junior high student or a book that they sell in a liquor store next to a Fabio style romance novels.. I passed the book to my husband (we are both avid readers) and he too felt the same disappointment. The sentence structure was very basic an amateur. I remember thinking, who was the editor for this? How did he let this slide?
        We decided to try reading it aloud to each other as some books are better that way – a sort of grown-up bedtime story of sorts. After two nights we looked at each other with the same thought, that was a stupid idea. I have never tried so hard to get through a book. It is also the only book I can remember not finishing. The story is compelling but the writing style is far from developed. We decided to enjoy the show and the suspense it brings. I wish I could be more specific but it has been several years now. Since then, I have talked to several other people who also love GOT and books and were equally disappointed. I have yet to meet someone who has read them that didn’t feel the show far exceeded the quality of the books.

        • Andres Leonardo Lopez

          Well then here nice to meet you, I love the book series (thus far, since it’s not finished yet) much better than the TV series especially now that Weiss & Benioff have clearly deviated so much from the source material, by cutting or merging characters or skewing the timeline of events. You and you husband of course have all the right to not like ASOIAF, but since you yourself wrote, you have NOT even finish reading the books I can’t take your word too seriously.
          Sincerely, fellow book reader who happens to love ASOIAF books.

    • Clinton Mills

      Jill Devlin – that might be one of the dumbest reviews I have ever read. The show is derived from the books. The series is great because the source material is fantastic. It is one of the best series I have ever read in my life but you can stick to your Twilight Saga since it is probably closer to your reading and understanding level.

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