This was a recent rule of mine. It was based on manuscripts I’d been reading that ended on cliffhangers, without providing any sort of satisfactory conclusions to the events of the novel. But what about “A Game of Thrones”? Our POV characters never come together. One dies, but the other seven are all spinning off in different directions when the book ends.
Does the book get away with it? Yes and no. The reader is definitely left frustrated and unsatisfied. There’s a reason that the very first edition (pictured below) prominently said “Book 1 of A Song of Ice and Fire”. They’re saying, “No, this won’t wrap up satisfactorily, or really at all, but don’t worry, more are coming.”
So why was the book a success? In this case, I would say it’s a special dispensation of the genre. And I would argue that it’s only this very specific genre: epic fantasy. They get away with it because Tolkien got away with it (though he wanted to publish “Lord of the Rings” all at once.) I don’t think any similar genres, not even epic science fiction, can really get away with this.
Of course, the frustration has only grown over the ensuing twenty-two years. Book after book ending in cliffhangers, with the characters and storylines getting more and more diffuse, no Stark child ever again meeting up with any other Stark child four books later. Now we’ve had six years without a new book and an aging, physically unfit author in no hurry to finish. Never before has there been a case where the biggest fans were more furious with their favorite author.
But let’s stick with this book: Are there more satisfactory ways this installment could have wrapped up? Obviously, the good guys could have definitively beaten the bad guys, or vice versa, but clearly that’s not the story Martin wanted to tell. Given that this was intended to be the first book in a long series, was there a way to end it more satisfactorily?
- The books ends neither at the beginning nor the end of the war. There have been two major battles and each side has won one. The good guys have Jamie Lannister captive, but they’ve backed off and hunkered down. The ending may have been more satisfying if it had ended with the very outbreak of war. That would have said, “Okay, this was the pre-war book, and next we’ll have the war book.” Ending a few battles into the war feels odd.
- The main mystery that drives the book is who killed Jon Arryn. By the end, we think we’ve solved it (Cercei doesn’t deny it), but many books later, we’ll find out that it was actually Littlefinger and Lyssa. I think the most satisfactory ending would be to have Littlefinger admit that to someone and gloat that he had manipulated all the events of this book to create a Civil War. It would definitively wrap up this book’s storyline with a big shocking ending. This would also be good because Littlefinger’s actions aiding both sides, which are so key to the plot, are pretty baffling in this book. Martin owed it to us to let us know what Littlefinger was doing and why, and it would have potentially made for a great ending.
- The great injustice of the book is that Cercei gets away with putting her bastard incest-born son on the throne because she seems to lop off the head of the only person who knows. But then, a hundred pages into the next book, Stannis reveals that he knows too and sends ravens all over the kingdom announcing it. I think that should have happened at the end of this book: Ironically, all Cercei’s work was for naught, and now the shit has really hit the fan, really escalating things for the next book.