A Song of Ice and Fire is one of my favorite book series. I know this isn’t a particularly novel opinion; with the explosive popularity of HBO’s Game of Thrones, everyone and their aunts are giving George RR Martin’s epic saga a read and discovering how rich, complicated, and satisfying the series is.
While my previous look at the book series discussed some of the reasons I love it so much, it did not include a ranking of the actual books. With the show’s fifth season come and gone and the sixth book still on the distant horizon, my hunger for Westeros has been high. Thus, I decided to reconsider the books and put together my ranking.
5. A Feast For Crows (2005, Book 4)
A Feast For Crows is the only book in A Song of Ice and Fire that feels like a massive letdown compared to the previous book — and I imagine that it must have been even more disappointing if you had been waiting five years to see the resolution of A Storm of Swords’ cliffhangers.
Where the first “trilogy” of the series had ended in a way that felt climactic, AFFC slows the pace, resetting the status quo after all the previous shakeups. Pulling back the reins in plot pace is often necessary in long stories but rarely fun; Martin exacerbates the problem by opting to exclude several characters from this book, notably three of his four most interesting characters (Tyrion, Dany, and Jon).
There are certainly some interesting threads and developments, but just as many that bored me or made me weary. Cersei, the most represented character, spirals out of control, Brienne continues her fool’s errand of hunting for Arya and Sansa, and the new characters from Dorne and the Iron Islands fail to leave the impact of the people we know and love.
4. A Dance With Dragons (2012, Book 5)
You can make a strong case that A Dance With Dragons has the most sophisticated character growth and most subtle, layered plotting. (Read the essays on The Meereenese Blot if you’re curious.)
There’s no doubt that ADWD is a major step up from AFFC, with richer stories and more satisfying character development than the predecessor. In fact, by expanding some of AFFC’s themes and stories, ADWD retroactively improves AFFC.
But, in terms of sheer “readability” — compulsive, white-knuckle, can’t-stop-turning-pages intrigue — ADWD still lags behind the earlier books in the series. Dany’s plot is intriguing in isolation, but frustrating in its pace and large-scale implications. Jon and Tyrion’s plots are the best here, especially Lord Commander Snow’s, who seems to be one of a few main characters still on the rise… until that ending, I guess…
3. A Clash of Kings (1998, Book 2)
Martin’s epic series avoided the sophomore slump by ratcheting up the pace, sprinkling in some new POV characters, and building to an absolutely thrilling conclusion (The Battle of the Blackwater).
I still vote for it as the least of the opening three entries, though. Many of the plots are still in slow boil, with the best twists to appear one book later. The emphasis on new characters — Renly, Stannis, the Boltons, a bunch of new faces in Essos — slows the pace a bit, as does a few of the tedious plots, like Jon venturing slowly north and Dany parading about.
In all, though, ACOK is a superior tome and one of the finest entries in one of the finest fantasy series.
2. A Game of Thrones (1996, Book 1)
Sometimes you can’t beat the original. It can be so easy to underrate the accomplishments of the progentior. AGOT gets basically everything right and sets so many important standards and precedents: The diaspora of the Starks, the morally complicated characters, the varied voices from nearly a dozen points of view, the anyone-can-die sense of danger, the gorgeous prose filled with symbolism and foreshadowing, etc. etc. etc.
Sure, there were a few things Martin took a bit of time to figure out: The voice of the characters and overall tone and thematic depth of the story would be refined in later novels. The early chapters feel a bit exploitive, giving us incest and attempted child murder in the first fifty or so pages.
But most everything comes fully formed: The world, the mythology, the vast scope, the sense of danger, the depth of thought.
And all that excludes the series’ most shocking death, the one that has the most impact because it’s the first to affect a main character. Winter is coming, indeed.
1. A Storm of Swords (2000, Book 3)
A Storm of Swords is not only my favorite ASOIAF book, it’s one of my favorite books, period. The series crests as many of its plots reach fantastic climax. Everything comes crashing together in payoffs that you always hope for in stories but rarely find.
It’s hard to say what works best: Is it ASOS’s pace, with the great moments doled out at a gradually increasing pace, until the book’s final third is one hallmark chapter after another? Is it the way the book builds a sense of connected destiny, making these disparate stories feel connected? Is it the incredible character growth, so that characters like Jaime and Jon evolve from evil and boring (respectively) to unforgettable?
Tough to say. But one thing that is clear to me is that A Storm of Swords is ASOIAF’s greatest entry.