Winter is coming in August this year with the release of Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon (premiering August 21 on HBO), which means it’s a superb time to look back at the beloved fantasy books by George RR Martin that spawned the massive hit TV series. While fans have been in an agonizing kind of purgatory waiting for the sixth novel, Winds of Winter (it’s been 11 years since the last one released!), all eight seasons of the show have come and faded away like the last vestiges of summer.
The main difference between Game of Thrones on the screen and on the page is that showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss had to wrap up the plot of the final few seasons without source material to base it on—with, shall we say, mixed results. Endings to popular series are notoriously hard to pull off, and ever since Happy Days inspired the term “jump the shark,” stellar TV shows from The Simpsons to Seinfeld to The Sopranos have perfected the art of taking something audiences love and leaving them with as much disappointment as Jorah Mormont on Daenerys’s wedding day. That said, it’s difficult to imagine a finale less satisfying than the final two seasons of Game of Thrones. It was almost enough to make waiting for the rest of the books to come out feel not so urgent. (Just kidding, GRRM: Hurry up and deliver the goods!)
While we suffer the long night waiting for Winds of Winter to be released and try to keep an open mind about the new HBO prequel, here are the first five books in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series ranked so you can rekindle your love of the glorious Seven Kingdoms.
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A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3)
If GRRM were to never write another book, this one would be the spiritual apex of ASOIAF. Each of the characters you’ve come to know and love (or hate) over the first two parts reach a pivotal moment. The Red Wedding, one of the most notorious literary gut-punches in fantasy history, is a passage that is impossible to forget reading for the first time. Jon and Ygritte’s ill-fated, heartbreaking story of romance and loss could be a stand-alone novel. GRRM’s vision is epic in scope and complexity, and he ties everything together with cinematic expertise in the third ASOIAF volume. A Storm of Swords is the high point of the series, which is ironic, considering it comes before the halfway point of the seven planned novels. (Seriously, when is book six coming out?)
A Game of Thrones (Book 1)
This is where the ranking gets hard. Book one is a flawless introduction to the political intrigue and looming conflict that embroils the occupants of Westeros. Reluctant readers turned off by the idea of elves, orcs, and other mythical beasts find themselves in a hard-boiled, compelling thriller that happens to take place in a fantastical setting. From the first few chapters, when Jaime Lannister, in the throes of a truly toxic relationship, heartlessly throws young Bran Stark from a tower window “for love” to the shocking ending (let’s just say it involves an execution and some dragons), every paragraph is packed with jaw-dropping moments of violence and courage and characters that jump off the page. It will capture you, enthrall you, and pull you into the intimate struggles and conflicts of each character to a degree rarely experienced in a fantasy series (or any genre).
A Clash of Kings (Book 2)
GRRM initially planned ASOIAF as a trilogy, and book two is the middle chapter. It’s paced solidly, moves the plot forward, and fully delivers on the promise of the previous volume. Tyrion having his Rudy moment and embracing the moniker “Halfman” while leading the defense of King’s Landing and burning Stannis’ fleet with his homemade version of Greek Fire, and Arya strong-arming a foppish, trained assassin to retake Castle Harrenhall come to mind as high points. GRRM packs a Mountain-sized number of thrills into this one, but it falls just shy of the next two on the list.
A Dance with Dragons (Book 5)
While the fifth book is a return to form, GRRM is still recovering from a climax hangover after book three (which was originally intended as the final installment), like an addict trying to chase the Targaryen’s family sigil, the heights of A Dance with Dragons are shallow and pallid next to the intoxicating crescendo of what came before. Some of the plotlines are boring (Tyrion and Penny’s pseudo romance) or superfluous (Quentyn Martell being introduced, hyped up, and promptly turned into Dornish barbeque by one of Dany’s dragons). It leaves several characters in cliffhanger situations…that we’ve waited over a decade to see resolved.
A Feast for Crows (Book 4)
Nothing against everyone’s favorite Lady Knight, but this installment has eight chapters of Brienne of Tarth wandering aimlessly around Westeros rather unventfully—at least from the reader’s perspective, as poor Brienne does get her nose chomped off by a guy named Biter. Come to think of it, A Feast for Crows is probably her least favorite entry as well. Fan favorites Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, and Tyrion Lannister are entirely absent from the book, which feels very much like a transitional point in the series, merely setting the stage for the characters we care about to return to the narrative. It’s a diverting read but frustrating in that the overarching plot that galloped through the first three volumes stumbles and stalls.
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