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A Dance with Dragons - George R.R. Martin

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Dance with Dragons - George R.R. Martin

I first read A Game of Thrones when I was a 16 year old high school student. My mother had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and who couldn't use a little escapism at a time like that? A Clash of Kings was already on the shelves by then and I blew through them both. My mom recovered and I fell in love with a genre that would become a huge part of my life.

I remember my second year in college waiting eagerly for A Storm of Swords. Like any college kid I was still finding my way. I hated where I was living and was searching for some direction. I bought the hardcover on release day at the Barnes and Noble down the street. To this day, hundreds of book later - I have yet to be more blown away.

By the time A Feast for Crows was released I was an adult working in Washington DC. Better read and more mature, I reread all the first three books before starting the fourth. It was better than I'd remembered. By now Martin's world was as familiar to me as our own. It was alive in a way few authors could ever hope to create. And I was better for having read it.

I only tell this story because I think it's important for anyone reading this review to know how long A Song of Ice and Fire as been with me. If Harry Potter is the story of today's youth, and Middle Earth was the majesty that was my parent's, then Westeros is mine. It's the world I have escaped to more than any other in my life and I want nothing more that to love each book Martin gives us.

So this past week, when A Dance with Dragons was released, I found myself a husband and a father. Successful (or close enough) and happy, I waited up on July 11 refreshing my Kindle every minute until it arrived. I read the prologue that night and two more chapters over breakfast. I read at work and at the gym. I read while watching Dora the Explorer and while lounging on every piece of furniture in my house. This morning, as I turned the final page to the heraldry of the Boy King, I put down my Kindle and said out loud - seriously?

Strangely enough I was reminded of Tiger Woods. One night he got in a car accident. He came up with a story, but couldn't get himself out. He was in so far that the only way out was to tell the whole story no matter how long and sordid. He ended up on national television doing a tell all press conference. Dance is Martin's press conference.

The reckoning of Dance is the response to what he calls the "Mereenese Knot." This knot was tied when Dany decided to stay in Mereen and rule instead of continuing her march to the Seven Kingdoms. As the rest of Westeros became aware of Dany and her dragons, many different factions began to coalesce around her. How, why, and most importantly when all these factions arrive in Mereen is the knot Martin struggled to untie. Instead of choosing to cut the knot like Gordian and thus impeaching Dany's character, he actually untied it. Well, tried to untie it.

This untying is why as a novel(as fifth installment in a series, its success remains to be seen), Dance is a failure. The book's pace is abysmal with over half the chapters existing as travelogs. Tyrion on the ocean, Tyrion on a river barge, Tyrion on a horse! Several POVs are far longer than necessary and some exist for seemingly no reason. The timeline is convoluted with the first half of novel coinciding chronologically with the events in Feast. This leads to scenes being rewritten, word for word in some cases, in an alternate POV. All that aside, the most unfortunate part of the novel is that 1100 pages later Martin still has yet to bring all the disparate pieces together that compose his "Mereenese Knot." For all the talk about the second half of Dance advancing the story beyond Feast, the plot only advances a few days with none of the promised conflicts among the King's Landing crew coming to fruition.

Additionally, some of his tricks are getting a little tired. The imminent death fade to black has been used about ten times too many with survival being the end result nearly every time. There also seem to be some reoccurring themes that successful governing is irreconcilable with honor and duty. Or perhaps that honor and duty preclude the ability to compromise. This is of note most significantly in the Jon and Dany chapters where neither seem capable of or willing to listen to those around them. Given their ages, this is probably an accurate characterization. Nevertheless, I find it a bit dogmatic.

Despite its shortcomings in storytelling, Dance is beautifully written, as always. Martin litters his pages with suburb foreshadowing and Easter eggs. Nothing I've read urges a reader to comb through paragraphs for hints like A Song of Ice and Fire and nothing here changes that legacy. Some of the POVs are stunningly good - especially Reek/Theon and Victarion. There are exciting seminal moments for the series (dragons!) and in true Martin style he's not shy about putting his most cherished characters to the sword.

Like Tiger, I think Martin made the decision to tell the ENTIRE story instead of creating a compelling narrative. The difference being Martin has the ability to change his story at will. If this was the only way through the knot for my favorite author, so be it; but I can't help but be disappointed after seven years of anticipation. Does my disappointment reek of reader entitlement? Maybe, except the fact remains this just isn't a very fun book to read. I don't mind Martin's lack of progress with the plot so much as I lament the excruciating detail with which he wrote what is still the "first half" of a novel. My complaints have nothing to with what happened, only about how they happened. Had Martin written this same book with two thirds the word count minus a POV or two, I would surely be trumpeting the novel as the next great installment in the most brilliant series fantasy has ever seen (like nearly every other blogger is).

Instead I'm here saying to anyone who hasn't started A Song of Ice and Fire, wait until the it's done. A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, while being eminently better written, are the functional equivalent of the Wheel of Time post Crown of Swords and pre-Sanderson takeover. Martin has thrown so many balls into the air that to keep any from dropping he's got to painstakingly orchestrate all his chess (cynasse) pieces before he can go on the attack. If I were a new reader, I'd want to make sure the pieces start moving before I invest in 5,000 pages of reading.

On the other hand, to current fans of the series, I'll be hitting refresh on my Kindle at 12:01 the day The Winds of Winter is released. What can I say? I'm pot committed.

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At July 18, 2011 at 10:53 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm didn't read the entire review because I'm still reading Crows...but why would someone who is such a fan buy 1's and 0's instead of buying the book?

At July 18, 2011 at 10:57 AM , Blogger Justin said...

I don't read hard copies anymore unless someone sends me one. I live in a DC townhouse without any significant storage that isn't already taken up by my daughter's toys and/or my wife's clothes.

I'd enjoy having all of Martin's hardbacks. Maybe when we move to Texas and I can build myself a reading room complete with smoking jacket and liquor cabinet.

At July 18, 2011 at 1:08 PM , Anonymous Jared said...

Really interesting counterpoint to a lot of the super-positive reviews I've been reading - this all sounds utterly reasonable. I'll still be reading it (of course), but glad to have my expectations managed accordingly...

At July 18, 2011 at 1:17 PM , Blogger Justin said...


I appear to be one of the few dissenting voices. Makes me nervous out here. I need some company on this limb.

At July 18, 2011 at 4:28 PM , Anonymous Night said...

I always enjoy reading critics from other individuals. Especially those that can give honest critism and not just aggressively bash. It gives good insight, and another PoV to take into account. And from my experience with Martin's books, each point made is valid. So thank you for being honest. Although, I think you could of found a better person to compare to than Tiger Woods....
I am still planning on reading all of the novels. And expecting to enjoy them all, even with all of the trips in the road.

At July 18, 2011 at 4:59 PM , Blogger Justin said...

I can't disagree. I'll be reading right along with you no matter how many bumps there are. I hope it comes through that my complaint is with Dance the novel, not Dance the fifth installment in a larger series. I think it's entirely possible that Martin will be completely vindicated when WOW is amazing.

And yes... tiger was perhaps an unfortunate choice on my part. Blame my editor... Uh, who?

At August 9, 2011 at 10:09 AM , Blogger RM said...

You echoed almost my exact sentiments:

I find it a bit strange, actually, how unapologetically positive most professional reviewers are being. I, like you, am a massive GRRM fan, and I found it extremely difficult to actually mouth the words "It's okay."

At November 22, 2011 at 3:10 AM , Anonymous the_hound said...

Its taken me THREE weeks to read this book. An absolute slog. Usually I power through books this size in less than a week - and similarly, a MASSIVE ASOIAF fan. Keeping Daenys in Meereen is a BIG mistake, and just took all the urgency out of read ing it (and presumably writing it!). I think I prefered AFFC!

At January 23, 2012 at 12:47 AM , Anonymous Italia said...

I have read the entire series, and this book left me hanging. What happened to everyone in the end that wasn't killed or died. I want to know what happened to them.

At May 29, 2012 at 8:53 PM , Blogger Jordan said...

I have read the first three Ice and Fire books at least a dozen times over the years. Feast, maybe three. I don't think I'll even read Dance a second time before Winds. I kind of want to forget it even exists. I was somewhat depressed for a couple weeks after finishing it. I too will buy Winds the day it is out, but I'm not tapping my foot impatiently like I was between Feast and Dance. I can wait another five years for Winds. I feel a bit burned after the last book. Martin is still my favorite author, however. Nothing can ruin AGoT, ACoK, and ASoS.


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