Title: A Dance with Dragons (Book 5 of A Song of Ice and Fire)
Author: George R. R. Martin
Publication Date: 2011
LC Call Number: PS3563 .A7239
It probably wasn’t the best possible time to read this book–it put me way behind when I should have been reading Little Women, and then that stressed me out a little, and I think it diminished my enjoyment of the book, do if its assessment suffers here, well, it’s not really fair. But I was behind,so I plowed ahead.
So. A Dance With Dragons is the fifth (fifth!) installment of George. R. R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Two more to go. It’s a long series of long books, so by now we’ve had the opportunity to become fairly immersed in the world, we can recognize a political configuration that bears almost no resemblance to the one that we first encountered, we are pretty sure about which characters we like and dislike, and we have had plenty of time to pick up on Martin’s irritating habits–both linguistic (say, his use of contemporary colloquialisms and his conviction that “wroth” is a noun)–and plot-based (abandoning interesting plot lines, constantly threatening all female characters with rape–though admittedly there is less of that last in this installment). It’s risky to try to write something so big, and even riskier the way that Martin does it. This series attempts to deromanticize the fantasy genre, so aside from the periodic deaths of characters,* there are plot twists that are meant to be twists because they are realistic and in general an aim for grittiness–sometimes more successfully and sometimes less so. The end result is that it’s rather hostile to the reader, who is assumed to be a fantasy fan, and therefore both able to recognize the things he turns on their heads and sensitive to these criticisms. In that sense, it’s a little surprising that it’s been so popular. In any case, it doesn’t feel as if Martin is negotiating with readers to get them to keep reading–but of course he is. Sometimes I wonder if he remembers that, but this may be intentional.**
This particular volume is the other half of A Feast for Crows; the story is that Martin eventually realized that the prior book was getting too long and decided to split it in half, with some characters appearing in one book and some in the other. Ultimately, this split was a mistake that harmed both books. Here, the first third of the book is distributed among an uncharacteristically small number of characters, so that even if you missed Jon in the prior volume, there’s a feeling of “oh, Jon again?” that I think could have been avoided if the book had been split the other way. The other effect of this decision, of course, is that the plot can’t progress that far beyond where it was at the end of the fourth book because it needs to spend most of its time catching up. The good news is that by the end of this book, the plot finally begins to pick up again, but if there’s one thing that Martin is good at, it’s making it seem as if the next book will be better. A useful skill.
I’ve written before about Martin’s use of more and less powerful characters. In my earlier posts, I noted that I’m not a huge fan of the character type I described as the badass warrior, and that I’d been relieved to find that the book focused mostly on important but less powerful characters, though I was amused that he relied so heavily on making them prisoners. The complexion of the work has changed quite a bit over the course of the last several thousand pages, and it’s gravitated much more toward the major players than earlier, partly because of the introduction of new, more politically significant characters, partly because the original characters have come to cast larger shadows, and partly because the political events are beginning to have more direct effects on people. So, while the Arya plot is still largely about the adventures of one girl, everything else is about the fight over the North or the fight over Daenerys, except for the few glimpses of the infighting at King’s Landing. Somehow, imperceptibly, the series has shifted from one about how extreme political maneuvering affects the people involved in or located near it to one about how the politics themselves work. So you’ve got Jon mostly showing us the relationship between Stannis and the wildlings, rather than asking how Stannis’s army will affect Jon. Even Tyrion seems to be there to set up the Jon Connington plot (which, by the way… How did we decide we need morecontenders for king of Westeros?) and to provide a better view of the camps outside the walls and, of course, the dragon attack. We’ve lost the sense that these are things that happento Tyrion. This may explain the absence of Sansa, even though she was left at a dramatic reveal at the end of the last book.
I’ve sometimes said that it seems as if this series will end when all the characters are dead and zombies lurch freely around the kingdom. I don’t really think that is true, but what seems more likely is this: many characters will die,and the characters who survive will become less and less sympathetic, and by the end we will hate most or all of the survivors, and this will be true almost by definition because characters will only survive by becoming worse. I already kind of hope that nobody will win at the end because seriously, this monarchy thing does not seem to be working out. But there is also the fact that there is really no character I would be happy to see in charge, with the possible exception of Mance Rayder, who may be dead again.
Of course, it’s also possible that I’m simply annoyed that Martin didn’t give me what I wanted, which was Beric Dondarrion, or Sansa learning to scheme, or Sandor Clegane and how he is surviving, or more of that stuff with Davos and Manderly that was set up early in this book, in one of the scenes that keeps me reading. Even Tyrion is less fun when I’m mad at him for murdering Shae (I didn’t like Shae, but I’m not going to forgive him for her murder just because he feels bad about it) and for patronizing a slave brothel (so much for understanding consent!). I did enjoy his chapters, though–maybe it was just the cyvasse. More about that later. Arya is still good. Martin needs to use her chapters as chasers to the stuff he knows we don’t want to read, like the Theon chapters, to a much greater extent than he does.
I’m also a little troubled by the introduction of new challenges that appear much like the old ones. A Clash of Kings had many pretenders showing up, raising armies, and contending for the throne and eventually killing each other off. Now Aegon appears and we’re going to start that all over again? Similarly, the series so far has been haunted by the sense that these factions are spending too much time fighting each other and ignoring the real threat, that is, the zombies. Now, we have the disease grayscale as another, very similar, threat. It feels as if we’ve been here before, and it makes me wonder if this will really get resolved in another two books. After all, it’s taken us five to get here.
Anyway, that’s the fluffy opinion stuff. My real post to come.
*This is the first thing that fans will tell you they like about the series, which strikes me as a little weird. Yes, sometimes it’s necessary and useful to kill characters off, but there is no need to make a virtue of it.
**One interesting deal that he makes is this: he has developed quite a long list of people who had been falsely reported dead. In this book, he brings back Theon and lets him hang out with the thoroughly repulsive Ramsays. Maybe some fan somewhere was happy to see this, but it’s hard to imagine. In return, Martin also gives us back Davos and then Mance. This makes the deal look a little more fair, but ultimately, I’m not sure it was. Close enough, I suppose, to get at least some of the readers to keep going.