George R. R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons

I become a serious Song of Ice and Fire fan whenever there is a new book out (so not very often) and manage to push it to the back of my mind the rest of the time. When I do remember it, it’s with impatience; this is the only fat fantasy series I’m still reading and I would like to get it over with. Martin’s plot is convoluted enough that I’m genuinely interested in knowing how he plans to bring it all together, and as I’ve said before, at this point I will even accept a bullet-point version of what is to happen.

The latest book in the series doesn’t do much to advance the plot. But it has reminded me of the other reasons I began to read Martin in the first place. So at least there’s that?

A version of the review below was published in yesterday’s Mint Lounge. I think it’s as spoiler-free as the header claims: unless the very fact that some characters are still alive counts as a spoiler. In Martin’s world it probably does.

 

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This is a good year to be a George R. R. Martin fan. Game of Thrones, a tv series based on the first book of his epic fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire, aired on HBO earlier this summer. This week the fifth book in the series, A Dance With Dragons, finally came out after fans had waited six years.

The history of A Dance With Dragons is a strange one. Between the third and fourth books in the series there had been another long gap. This was in part because A Feast For Crows, the fourth book, had grown so long that the publishers suggested splitting it into two books. Martin’s story is told from the perspectives of multiple characters, and rather than simply split the book in the middle, the author decided to divide it according to the many subplots the make up this sprawling epic.

This meant considerable rewriting, and several delays for both books. As a result A Dance With Dragons is oddly placed within the series timeline – while the first half overlaps the previous book chronologically, the second moves ahead, and towards the end continues subplots from A Feast For Crows.

This is sometimes disorienting, but dividing the books in this manner may have been a good artistic choice. After the cataclysmic events of the third book (A Storm of Swords), A Feast For Crows was something of a dénouement, with plot threads being wound up and rounded off. A Dance With Dragons, on the other hand, seems to be setting things up. There are a number of characters journeying toward the centre of action, and many scenes of people preparing for war. On the Wall in the North, Jon Snow is rallying forces to face the threat posed by undead creatures known only as the Others. South of the wall the great house of Winterfell has been taken over by a deranged sadist. In the East, Daenerys Targaryen struggles to keep control of a city she has conquered. Daenerys, Jon and Tyrion Lannister, Martin’s three most prominent characters (all notable exclusions from the last book) each receive a number of contemplative viewpoint chapters. And fans will be optimistic about all the setting up for future action –great events are clearly set to take place in the next book. The sense of anticipation is heightened by the author’s apparent addiction to the cliffhanger.  But none of this can change the fact that hardly anything happens in this book. At over a thousand pages it feels like the world’s longest prologue.

Yet this book also contains some of the finest writing in the series. The chapters documenting the trauma and the subsequent mental and physical collapse of one character are powerful and difficult to read. Martin’s habit of giving characters a particular phrase that is repeated throughout their chapters sometimes feels affected, but here it is startlingly effective.

Fans of the series often praise its ‘grittiness’; this is a fantasy world where characters are morally ambiguous, war is more messy than glorious, and people occasionally use the toilet. While this is true, it is not the whole truth. For a set of books so often praised for its realism, A Song of Ice and Fire deals rather well with the surreal. There is a marvellous, nightmarish sequence in this book in which a character sails down a cursed river that never seems to end, and whose dangers are physical as well as psychological.  Another subplot has a character ‘dreaming’ disconnected scenes from the distant past. And there are touches of the absurd and the gloriously over-the-top; a banker in a ridiculous purple hat occasionally shows up as a most unlikely bystander and at one point there’s a sly nod towards a Titus Andronicus-like situation. With a plot as huge as the one he has saddled himself with there was always the risk that Martin would abandon these fine aspects of his work in order to focus on the plot. If he’s strayed too far in the opposite direction (and he has), at least he has erred on the side of good writing.

Martin’s fans also frequently praise his unpredictability. I don’t know where this plot is going, and I don’t know if the planned final two books in the series will be enough to provide a resolution. Today I can declare A Dance With Dragons an enjoyable book. Faced with another six-year wait for the next; or worse, the dreaded announcement that the series is to be extended to eight books, I might still change my mind.

 

 

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While on the subject of Martin’s “apparent addiction to the cliffhanger” I feel I should add that he rather cruelly chooses not to address one of the biggest cliffhangers in the series, from all the way back in A Storm of Swords (I fail at keeping track of what is in which book. Someone has just informed me that said cliffhanger is in A Feast For Crows – I bow to his superior memory!) I was not amused.

5 Comments to “George R. R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons

  1. I’m clamoring for a spoiler-full bullet-point version of this text because I can’t bear to read the damned thing and sink into a delphinium blue funk again (AKA WhatHappensNext, ReaderlyCowardice).

  2. I was trying to find reviews online about the book and came across this post.. your post has just increased curiosity levels. sigh I’ve to wait three weeks for book to be delivered.

  3. John Hodgman’s suggestion might be worth a thought – http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-august-16-2011/borders-goes-out-of-business

    At the end of this book, which I finished a few days ago, I was wondering how many one might have to wait for the next book.
    At least, I still have five books of the Malazan series that I still need to read.. :)

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