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A Dance With Dragons by George R R Martin

Well here come the reviews I’ve been delaying. When I organised the pile of arrivals some months ago, I carefully left the three big books to read at the end. Well, actually, that’s not quite right. Only two of the books are relatively big. The third is a monster. We’ll get to that as and when, and then start on the new pile. So with my fallible memory, I confess beginning the onslaught on A Dance With Dragons by George R R Martin (Volume 5 of Song of Ice and Fire) without any clear recollection of what had been happening in the preceding four volumes. Recently watching the HBO serialisation of A Game of Thrones helped a lot. It recaptured some memories of who all the main players are. But reading through this, I kept stopping to wonder if I was supposed to remember who this or that character is. It’s all a bit daunting and not a little frustrating to an old guy like me. More importantly, it highlighted a major truth. If you haven’t read any of the other books, you’ll be completely lost if you start with this. I struggled and I have read the others.

 

To that extent, I think there’s a major problem with the way this particular book has been published. There should be a summary for the forgetful or the merely curious who are picking this up on the back of the HBO television serialisation. Then I think a strong-minded editor should have hacked into this chunk of prose and aimed to produce a narrative that could stand more effectively on its own. Not everyone keeps a card-index system by his side when reading, so while this latest volume may appeal to the geekishly inclined, something shorter and with better internal explanations would be better. Further, I think the pacing could be improved. I know it’s difficult when you have single point-of-view chapters in a rotational pattern but, often, it’s hard to see why some bits are included in this volume. Structurally, it would have been better to publish three separate books dealing with events at the Wall, the continuing Westeros wars, and the plotting affecting the characters who find themselves in Valyria. That way, we could have maintained continuity and built up a more dynamic narrative.

 

Anyway, there’s no sense in complaining about how long it’s taken to get us to this point and whether publication should have been further delayed by a major editing exercise. We must deal with what we have. This starts off with Stannis still at the Wall which is causing serious problems for Jon Snow. As the new Commander, he’s doing his best to maintain the neutrality of the Night’s Watch while feeding not only the Watch and the King’s men, but also all the Wildlings who have accepted the offer of sanctuary on the “safe” side of the Wall. Daenerys is marginally in control of the city of Meereen and even less in control of the dragons. Tyrion Lannister is still struggling with the guilt of killing his father while vaguely making his way in the general direction of Daenerys. And then there’s the continuing fighting in the so-called War of the Five Kings, made more interesting as Aegon unexpectedly appears with the Golden Company and finds an opportunity for seizing the initiative. In 959 a lot of stuff happens confirming what we might call the epic pretensions of this series. Not that going for epic is inherently a bad thing. It’s just that even holding the damn book for any length of time is tiring let alone trying to remember who everyone is and what side they’re supposed to be on. So instead of waiting six years for a blockbuster (and a further few months before I got round to reading it), I would prefer to reduce the size of the instalments and increase their frequency. Two-hundred-and-fifty pages a year will do nicely for me.

George R R Martin modelling a flat cap in a fantasy castle setting

 

Some people make comparisons with Tolkien so I’d better clear the air and say I found sections of The Lord of the Rings genuinely tedious in their attention to detail. Distilled down to their essence, there’s a good story spanning the three books based on the fellowship of a few, but the execution would have been improved by editing down all that mass of background material. For them as is interested, there can be a Tolkien companion volume (or two) to fill in all the gaps. George Martin goes to the opposite extreme with a small army of people to keep track of and multiple plot threads to follow. If I had to pick a more appropriate model, I would say he’s Dickensian in ambition, trying to capture all life in a fantasy world in a few thousand pages. Whereas Tolkien was a gentleman of academic inclination finding a way to capture his sense of the debate between good and evil, and the use of war as a means of settling the argument, George Martin is less interested in the civilised point of view, preferring to mix in with the guys at the sharp end and capture a sense of what it’s like when the shit hits the fan.

 

So while it’s good to meet up with Tyrion again, it’s getting a little repetitive as he’s thrust into containers of varying sizes and carted around without having a great deal of say in the direction of travel. He’s back to being reactive and in survival mode while trying to recover peace of mind. Yes, it’s always going to be a challenge to adjust to the reality of patricide, but this section of the narrative is much less fun. We’ve seen its like before in the sky cell and comparable situations. Jon Snow remains interesting although the politicking is sometimes on the verge of boring. I was pleased to see Arya making progress and Cersei Lannister gets something of a reality check. Bran’s development is fascinating. But, to be honest, a lot of the stuff that happens feels rather like it’s marking time. The whole section in Meereen, for example, doesn’t seem to be advancing us very far and all the Dornish material is genuinely boring. Overall, I kept hoping for a major battle or some large scale catastrophe, but I suppose that’s all being kept back for the last two episodes.

 

Overall, there are one or two nice moments of humour but the entire experience is like wading through a swamp. Although I’ll read what I sincerely hope will be the final two volumes (I’m curious to see how it all does fit together), A Dance With Dragons is not the exciting epic I was hoping for. That said, it has won the 2012 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

 

For thoughts on the television serial, see Game of Thrones.

 

For reviews of the anthologies George R R Martin has edited with Gardner Dozois, see:
Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance
Songs of Love and Death
Warriors

 

  1. May 29, 2012 at 10:21 am

    I am excited to read this series as I collect the books one by one to have a continuous marathon of reading. It is a little sad to see that the 5th book has many fans and reviewers dissapointed.

    • May 29, 2012 at 11:20 am

      I think the wheel started to come off in A Feast for Crows and this merely amplifies the problem. Because he’s trying to cram so many strands into each book, it gets difficult to maintain interest. You get a chapter here and a chapter there, but there’s no real sense of continuity. It’s just stuff happening in different places (and at different rates of time). If you do read the books in sequence over a week or so, you will actually stand a better chance of finding the whole work exciting. You can avoid all these false cliffhangers and just get on with the story.

      • May 29, 2012 at 9:57 pm

        In any series I tend to get my wires crossed with another novel if i don’t read in sequence, one after the other, wihout a novel in between. So your advice to read them in one is definitely sound. Thanks mate.

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