A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin

Bantam Spectra, 2011, 1040 pages, C$38.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-553-80147-7

So, here we are.  After manfully resisting the impulse to start reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series before it was published in its entirety, the TV show made me break down and now I reap the consequences of my folly: I’m done reading the fifth volume, and now I have to wait for the rest of the series like so many other readers.  At the pace Martin is writing his thousand-page doorstoppers, the next volume isn’t expected until 2014 at the earliest, and the planned concluding volume of the series probably won’t hit shelves before the end of the decade.  So it goes; I’m joining the club of impatient Martin fans.

The wait is made even more maddening by the unusual structure of the series.  It started out as a trilogy and then escaped all control, growing into a pair of linked trilogies, then grew even more misshapen when the fourth volume was split up in two based on the geographical location of its characters.  A Dance with Dragons is the second half of this split, and it covers the characters missed by the fourth book A Feast for Crows until its last third, at which point the entire story once again starts moving forward in time.  Readers hoping for significant forward progress may want to temper their expectations, though, since this is really still the beginning of a new story arc: This fifth volume is so busy setting up its pieces that it practically forgets to deliver any payoffs.  The last third of A Dance with Dragons doesn’t really move the story forward in time as much as it sets up cliffhanger after cliffhanger, all leading to… the next volume in the series.  Which is at least a few years away.  But I repeat myself.

Fans of the series will, at least, get to spend some time with familiar characters.  Lovably modern Tyrion is finally back in-narrative after a sorely-missed absence in A Feast for Crows, and the adventures he gets into while exiled from Westeros are good for a few picaresque thrills.  Meanwhile, at the Wall, Jon Snow gets busy with the business of leading the Night’s Watch, preparing for winter while setting up defenses against the foreseen invaders and managing the influx of refugees clamoring for resources and protection.  Alas, A Dance with Dragon also goes back, at length, to dragon-queen Daenerys Targaryen, who has decided to stop traveling for a while and try to lead for a change.  It doesn’t go well, but the Mereen chapters of A Dance with Dragons have a bigger flaw: they’re remarkably repetitive, with Daenerys occasionally reverting back to love-struck teenage moping while the situation around her goes from bad to worse.  Even the convergence of plotlines and characters toward her doesn’t reach a meaningful conclusion in this volume, a long-promised battle being pushed into the next volume.  And that’s without mentioning another battle in a land far away, much-teased but not delivered.

At this point, not having any idea how this turns out, much of A Dance with Dragons is, as with A Feast for Crowd, just set-dressing.  Martin introduces a lot of new characters here, and their importance isn’t particularly clear.  Some of it feels arbitrary, as when another pretender to the Iron Throne is introduced without too much ceremony.  Some of it feels dull, as with the Iron Born racing from Pyke to Mereen.  Some of it feels pointless, as with the entire Quentyn Martell storyline.  None of those new characters can measure up to the ones introduced in the first three books and imprinted onto the readers.  Maybe it will all make sense with the added resonance of the next volume.  At this point, though, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that Martin has lost control of his series. 

At least the novel is more satisfying when it comes to its established characters.  Red Priestess Melissandre gets an intriguing passage told from her own point of view, whereas Arya features in a pitch-perfect chapter titled “The Blind Girl”.  Tyrion is as self-aware as ever, and despite some reprehensible acts at the end of A Storm of Swords, seems to be one of the few characters with a sense of humor about his own trials.  Everyone who went through A Feast for Crows hoping that paranoid sociopath Cercei would get some comeuppance will get their wish here, although in typical Martin fashion the punishment seems rather harsh, and leads to a closing passage with ominous overtones.  Still, her retribution is nothing compared to what happened to a much-hated character after his last appearance in A Clash of Kings: returning as a spectacularly damaged shadow of his own self, “Reek” shows how mean Martin can be to his characters, and how readers’ expectations about some characters can flip from one book to the other.  (Also see; Jamie Lannister)  Finally, the epilogue of the book marks the bloodthirsty return of a character who had disappeared almost completely after the third book, setting up bigger questions about true allegiances and what that means for the rest of the series. 

But, as tantalizing as those developments can be, it’s easy to feel as if the last two volumes have been a spectacularly overblown exercise in throat-clearing.  It’s not clear whether the relevant plotting in this huge split-up mess couldn’t have been condensed in a single snappier tome, or whether the incredible amount of detail in this series has grown too unmanageable to handle.  It’s all nice and well to feature dozens of protagonists, hundreds of secondary characters and somewhere around 1500 named characters spanning an entire world, but keeping up with all of these people takes time, and Martin is still adding more complexity to the mix.  His ultimate success will be judged after he delivers the ending of his saga; in the meantime, it’s not as if any fan of the series will skip a volume on their way to the conclusion.

A Dance with Dragons does at least feel like a step up from A Feast for Crows.  During the last third of the novel, as more and more plotlines were advanced forward, I even found myself getting back some of the pure reading joy I had last experienced in the latter half of A Storm of Swords.  That joy was muted when it became more obvious that this was just another round of cliffhanger-making in time for another long wait.  It’s a bit of a shame, from a reviewing perspective, that appreciation for A Dance with Dragons is so closely linked to unknown factors.  Maybe the conclusion will wrap it all brilliantly.  In the meantime, readers are left hoping that the next volume will step on the gas a little bit.

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