George R.R. Martin: A Dance With Dragons

A Dance With Dragons, the long awaited fifth volume of George R.R. Martin’s epic Song of Ice and Fire series, finally reached bookshelves and e-readers across the world in July, with much fanfare. Indeed, it was hard for a thoughtful reader to avoid the book last summer. ‘Fantasy is ascendant!,’ The New York Times proclaimed, apparently having never heard of the genre before. Some reviewers breathlessly declared the book a masterpiece and dubbed Martin ‘The American Tolkien.’ Who knows what that means, but everywhere one looks there is an image from the new HBO series, a dust jacket, a billboard, a card game, or a comic book based on Martin’s fertile imagination. In merchandising the books, Martin may be fantasy’s answer to George Lucas.

Surely Martin deserves credit for the intricately detailed, staggeringly huge canvas that’s created a legion of devoted followers. In interviews he’s said that after his career in television, he wanted to create a vast story without the constraints of a teleplay. By now it’s clear he’s succeeded about as well or better than any fantasist who’s ever tried writing one of these series. The strength of the books so far has been all that detail coupled with his episodic storytelling. Each short, third person point of view chapter feels much like a television show—they keep you guessing, and more often than not end with a suspenseful twist that leaves the reader wanting more.

The main weakness of the series is the same strength that so many readers love—the sheer size of it all. After five thousand pages, it’s becoming difficult to tell where the story is going, or if it’s even moving anymore at all. Like Robert Jordan’s unfinished Wheel of Time series, each new chapter of Martin’s books introduces more characters, moves the plot along by small increments, and often leaves one with the feeling that important characters are getting the short shrift. One can only hope Martin will be able to finish his ambitious series in a timely way, and not leave his fans wondering for eternity what happens to all those dragons in the end.

There are many things for readers to enjoy about A Dance With Dragons, though its florid title may not be one of them. Readers see a lot of their favorite characters, including Jon Snow, Dany, and everyone’s favorite patricidal dwarf, Tyrion. Stannis Baratheon has installed himself as King at the Wall, and pressures Jon to join his cause. Some of the book’s best moments take place here, and without spoiling things I’ll just say that Jon has his work cut out for him as Commander of the Watch. Wildings, red witches, disgruntled soldiers, and the strange army of undead that keeps threatening to overrun them all are a volatile mix.

Of course, there are dragons, and Dany does her best to nurture them, as always. In Meereen, she has a difficult time keeping the peace and feeding her people, but one does begin to wonder why she dallies so long there. Impatient readers may find themselves wishing she would unleash the dragons on anyone at all, just at random for a bit of fun. I enjoy courtly intrigues as much as anyone, but was hoping after a while for a fiery end to the many discussions of how to nourish the Meereenese and keep them loyal to Dany’s cause. Tyrion, meanwhile, is reliably antiheroic, (and drunk through much of the book), and gets caught in a web of lies and scheming so odd it strains a reader’s credulity, even for a fantasy novel.

Martin’s prose is often enjoyable, and of course his descriptions of place, setting, and characters are beautifully done, as they have been in all the volumes. Consider passages such as this: “To the East, the first pale light of day suffused the sky above the river…As nightingales fell silent, the river larks took up their song. Egrets splashed among the reeds and left their tracks along the sandbars. The clouds in the sky were aglow: pink and purple, maroon and gold, pearl and saffron.”

The romance novel elements of the book are less appealing. Too often in this series, characters are moaning and thrusting, desiring and pleasuring, and the scenes read like the fevered, gross-out fantasies of a fourteen year old boy. Perhaps that’s part of the trappings of the genre, but Martin is a better writer than that; I’m no prude and while I don’t doubt that people sleep with a variety of partners of differing sexes, proclivities, and ages, I don’t need loving, purple descriptions of such things for verisimilitude. Thankfully, the newest volume has less of this kind of thing than previous installments.

Needless to say, A Dance With Dragons ends with a lot of questions and suspense. Readers will have to hang on a bit longer to find out the ultimate fate of Jon, Dany, and the rest of Westeros, but how long they will wait is anyone’s guess. There are two more installments planned, but it’s a bit hard to see how Martin will close out all the many plot threads in just two books, even if they’re both over a thousand pages long like this one was.  For now readers will have to take a break from Westeros and the five kingdoms–they can always watch the show or pick up the board game if they need a Tyrion fix.

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