A Song of Ice and Fire: Can You Stop Reading at Book Three?
HBO’s Game of Thrones has introduced millions of people to the brutal fantasy world of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, and it seems that many viewers have joined the legions of fans that lap up Martin’s astonishingly complex and epic story of the war for the Iron Throne of Westeros – since the TV series aired, all the books in the series have entered the New York Times bestseller list.
Yet the huge scope of A Song of Ice and Fire’s story has come at a price – the past two books in the series have taken Martin over five years to write each, and there are still at least two more books to go.
What are fans to do until the new books comes out? Martin has told Game of Thrones’ showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss the ending to the series, which the TV show is likely to reach before Martin, but that will hardly be the most satisfying solution for die-hard fans. Even worse, it might stop potential new readers from ever reading the books – and they would be seriously missing out.
A Song of Ice and Fire is a fantastic series, and its unmatched density makes it absolutely worth reading for fans of the TV show who want to explore the world of Westeros in more depth – but they must wonder how much point there is in committing to a book series which has no end in sight.
It’s also easy to see why many fear that the final book may never get written, and though those fears are largely unfounded it would definitely be another offputting thought for new readers.
What are people to do until the new books come out? And what if, for whatever reason, the books are never finished, and we are left with one of the most popular fantasy series of all time ending with countless loose ends left hanging? Both situations are especially hard for long-time fans, but for new readers they might mean they never read the series at all, which would be a great shame.
One solution could be to stop reading at book three, A Storm of Swords – or, if you’ve already read past it, simply think of it as the ending for now.
It might seem insane to stop reading a series when you’re not even halfway through, but there are plenty of reasons why A Storm of Swords can make a perfectly satisfactory, if not exactly flawless, conclusion to the series for new readers and old fans alike. It might even be a good way to view the series while the wait for the final books drags on.
It is generally agreed that the third book is the best in the series. It focuses on the climax of the War of the Five Kings, with more dramatic plot twists and character deaths than most other authors could fit into an entire series.
Even better, as it was originally intended that the next book would jump forward five years in the story (a plan now abandoned by Martin), A Storm of Swords ties up many plot threads that had been running since book one. They might not all be completely conclusive, and most of the characters are facing a gloomy future by the end, but Martin himself has said that the final book will not have a happy ending for everyone, and knowing the writing style of the entire series it is unlikely that every single loose end will ever be neatly tied up.
This applies to almost every character, and with a little bit of creative thought readers could easily convince themselves that A Storm of Swords was how A Song of Ice and Fire was always meant to end.
Warning: the rest of this article will contain spoilers for every book in the series
The Lannisters’ storyline in book three is actually surprisingly conclusive, and the place where readers could most easily be satisfied with the ending. The War of the Five Kings is over, bringing an end to the central conflict of the first three books. It might be the antagonistic Lannisters who are in power, but the two worst of them, Tywin and Joffrey, are both dead.
It is now the young, kindly Tommen who sits on the throne. His mother Cersei might still influence him to darker ways, but he might be as easily influenced by his more bearable fiancé Margaery. Either way, he will likely be a better king than Joffrey ever was.
This is actually quite a positive note to end on, while still maintaining the series’ penchant for never having the true ‘good guys’ win (it’s hard to believe that it will be anyone the readers actually like sitting on the Iron Throne at the end of book seven).
The more likeable members of the Lannisters are arguably even better off. Tyrion has finally escaped his abusive family and exacted vengeance on his father. He leaves knowing that the woman he loved actually loved him back, and with the possibility that he will one day find her again. Jaime and Cersei’s troublesome relationship is over, and Jaime is looking forward to a future where he can redeem himself and contribute something to the world, partially through helping to find the Stark children.
In other words, both of these characters have now had complete arcs. Arcs are fundamental to any story. In their most basic form they involve a character starting off in a place where either the reader or the character themselves is dissatisfied with their situation. The character then goes through several trials and tribulations that change them significantly. A story usually ends when the main character has fulfilled his or her arc and completed this change, either escaping their previous situation or learning to live with it. Think of The Hobbit, where Bilbo Baggins starts off as timid, then during his journeys learns to love adventures and overcome his fears, eventually proactively helping the other characters in the story by its end.
Tyrion starts off dissatisfied with his place in the world, but bearing it, and ends with him finally showing the world what he is really capable of. Jaime starts off as a deplorable character, but over the course of the series learns the importance of the chivalry and honour that people – mostly the Starks – constantly berated him for lacking (therefore also providing a way for Catelyn and Ned to get a posthumous victory by showing him that there is a place for honour in the world). Arcs are important for the protagonists in a story, and as by book three both Jaime and Tyrion can be considered as protagonists these changes in their characters are very satisfying for readers.
All in all, it’s not a bad way to leave things in the series’ most important location, and likely to be no more or less conclusive than the true ending.
If the Starks can be considered the closest thing that A Song of Ice and Fire has to true heroes, then their situation at the end of book three is also strangely comforting. Robb Stark might have died but his siblings are all still alive and more-or-less safe – and his death comes in one of the most spectacularly impactful scenes of the entire series, the likes of which many books would love to have in their endings.
Arya has managed to escape the last in a series of men to hold her captive. She has no chance of regaining her old life, but she is able to move on and cross the sea, escaping Westeros for good, with the possibility still remaining that she will one day return to exact revenge on the last people on her list who are still alive. Like Tyrion and Jaime, her arc is complete. She wanted to learn to be a warrior, and through many trials and tribulations she has finally become powerful enough to fend for herself in the world.
Similarly, we don’t know Rickon’s fate, but the last we saw of him he was alive, which is more than we can say for many of the Starks.
In one of the book’s happier conclusions, Jon Snow is named Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch after defeating the wildlings once and for all – making his arc more complete than almost any other character’s. The fact that the Others remain a threat could, admittedly, be annoying to readers looking for a truly conclusive ending – however, they are safely behind The Wall, which is now defended not only by an intact Night’s Watch (with a very competent leader) but also by Stannis Baratheon and his army. Even better, they now know that they can be defeated using dragonglass (which Stannis has an abundance of), and when we leave Bran Stark is safely on his way to a place where he can – supposedly – become powerful enough to face them.
Stannis is problematic in that he remains the only king from The War of the Five Kings who has not been killed, and he is therefore still a contender to the throne. However, thanks to Melisandre’s guidance, he now sees that his true battle is with the Others, another example of a transformational arc leading to what seems to be one of A Storm of Sword’s biggest themes – letting go of personal goals for what is truly important for the wider world. This can also be seen in Arya leaving Westeros and Jon giving up the opportunity to become legitimised in favour of leading the Night’s Watch.
Sansa’s storyline is also hard to reconcile with a true ending, as she is one of the few characters left on a real cliffhanger, having just witnessed her new guardian Littlefinger killing her aunt Lysa. This actually takes place in the final chapter proper of the book, making it harder to see A Storm of Swords as a proper conclusion to the series. However, like Arya and Rickon, it’s easy to see that she is still in a better situation than she has been in for a long time – she has escaped King’s Landing and the clutches of Cersei and Joffrey, and is now living in hiding with someone who seems to genuinely care for her. Her arc is not as complete as others, but the fact that she is learning to let go of Winterfell and the dream of being a queen gives her storyline thematic unity with Arya, Jon and Stannis’, making it feel more like an ending.
Stopping at A Storm of Swords will also mean readers never get to find out what happened to Theon Greyjoy after he was captured by Ramsay Snow at the end of book two. Perhaps it’s best that they don’t, though – after all, he was essentially one of the villains of that book, and leaving him as he gets his comeuppance is fairly reassuring.
A Storm of Swords’ epilogue reveals that Catelyn Stark has been brought back from the dead as a vengeance-mad walking corpse, and is systematically killing off those who wronged her family. This acts as the big tease for the next book, and will inevitably leave readers wanting more. However, this is actually a happier ending than it might first appear – the other Stark family members might not get their old lives back, but they are safe, and through Catelyn they can have their revenge.
Another potential problem is Daenerys. The books have been leading up to her coming to Westeros, but by the end of A Storm of Swords this has yet to happen. The ending of the book implies that she will wait some time in Mereen before leaving, but it could equallybe taken to mean that she will stay there for good.
And why not? She finally has what she wanted – a kingdom to rule and a place, potentially, to call home. She has freed thousands of slaves and won the love of the people of Slaver’s Bay. She reaches the same point in her character arc that she would have reached if she’d sailed to King’s Landing in book two and taken the Iron Throne in book three. In Mereen, however, she too learns to let go of the past and stay where she is needed, not where she personally wants to be – another example of this conclusive theme.
Of course, that ignores all the prophecies associated with Danearys and her destiny to (supposedly) fight the Others. It’s difficult to overcome this, but A Song of Ice and Fire wouldn’t be the first series to end with many prophesised events still to happen. The Wheel of Time immediately springs to mind – Robert Jordan requested that several plot threads and mysteries remain unresolved. This helps to foster fan discussion long after the series has ended. It’s also good to remember that in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire prophecies are not set in stone, as the Stallion Who Mounts the World proved.
Similarly, the question of Jon Snow’s parentage could continue to be a point of fun discussion among fans without ever being solved. Like Daenerys, the important point in his storyline is that he no longer worries too much about his parentage or his status as a bastard – he has more important duties now.
This is taking a very general view of the characters, and of course there are hundreds of other, smaller details that remain unresolved by the end of A Storm of Swords. It is not the perfect conclusion to A Song of Ice and Fire, and it never could be – after all, Martin never intended it to be the end.
Still, it seems pointless to worry about the future of the series when A Storm of Swords is such a suitable place to stop for new readers or old readers who want some comfort from an ending. It shares the characteristics of many endings – character arcs are complete, the world is at peace and there is unity in the narrative theme of letting go that feels right for a conclusion – but with that trademark A Song of Ice and Fire bitterness than fans have come to love. It’s certainly better than the alternative – having a whole generation of readers not being able to read one of the best fantasy series ever written.
What do you think? Leave a comment.