Jul 31, 2011

A Dance with Dragons

This novel is the fifth in an epic dark fantasy series, so I assume that anyone interested in it has read at least one of the previous Game of Thrones novels. You probably don't want spoilers. To read the spoilers, simply highlight the blackened text with your mouse.
"I'm just a young girl, innocent of the ways of war."
"A Lannister always pays his debts."
"Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling, Ser Gregor, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei."
"The things I do for love."
If you're a fan, like me, you know exactly which character each line above belongs to, and you're eager to pick up their story where it last left off. I pre-ordered A Dance With Dragons and read all 957 pages (from prologue to epilogue, hardcover) in a week. Now I have mixed feelings. Some of the story was very satisfying, especially in regards to Tyrion and Bran. Some of it progressed slowly or stalled. Theon got served a heaping pile of justice, but it went on for too many chapters. Half of this novel follows minor characters through machinations that are only tangential to the overall plot, which made for a frustrating experience, despite the high quality of the writing. I was tempted to flip through pages to get back to a favorite character. My tolerance for over-description is very high, so my impatience worries me. If I was tempted to skip parts, I imagine that some readers will drop the series after this book.

The fourth and fifth books are actually one volume, a fact which in and of itself signals a slower pace.  The new plot developments are interesting and well worth reading, but they're interspersed between myriad rich descriptions of palaces, dungeons, exotic feasts, and outlandish warriors.  Otherworldly descriptions are part of the appeal of fantastic fiction, of course, yet they lose a bit of magic when they fail to propel the plot forward.  Without story tension, the outlandish details become merely a list of curiosities.

The first three books in this series seem fast-paced because each chapter had a situational change, or value change.  Each chapter ended with a new plot development.  By contrast, A Dance With Dragons contains many chapters which only deliver new environmental details without new plot developments.  These areas could have been reduced.  Several chapters contained a single new character insight or plot development, which could have been boiled down to a paragraph of exposition or dialogue.  This is especially true for the scenes taking place in the land of Dorne, and to a lesser extent, the Greyjoy fleet, the city of Meereen, and the Dreadfort/Winterfell.  I don't think it was necessary to go into the point of view of Areo Hotah or Arys Oakheart at all.

The names of minor characters are overwhelming in some places, particularly in the Daenerys chapters.  While the complexity of her political situation is admirably realistic, the names are tedious and hard to remember.  Instead of listing every noble family in Meereen, only the most important one should have been mentioned, with the rest summed up as "noble families."  The same would be true for various sell-sword companies.  Most readers will have enough trouble distinguishing between the Second Sons, the Brazen Beasts, and the Golden Company, let alone remembering the names of multiple officers in each one.

Now let's get into the meat of the story.  I like the implication that Bran might someday be able to communicate to faraway people through talking birds.  Right now, I'm pondering the prophecy of "the dragon has three heads."  If this means three Targaryens, I assume it would have to be Daenerys, Jon Snow, and Aegon.  If this means three wargs who are capable of controlling dragons, it might be Daenerys, Jon Snow, and Bran, or maybe Arya.  Victarion has a horn that can supposedly bind a dragon to his will, which opens up an interesting potential for him to become a powerful antagonist.

Overall, this book sets up a lot of potential bad-ass scenes for the next book.  It hums with possibilities.  Although Jon Snow was stabbed multiple times, he seems too much of a central character to die.  I figure Melisandre is the only one who can save him . . . with blood magic.  She might use Jon to rescue Stannis, or maybe she's decided that he must be Azor Ahai.  The only other possibility I can think of is that Jon will come back as a wight, a la Cold Hands, and become the first undead Lord Commander of the Night's Watch.

The introduction of Aegon Targaryen in this book feels late, since he will presumably play a major role in the final books.  But I understand the need to withhold his existence from the main characters, and I think the surprise works.  His appearance is satisfying in that it answers a number of plot questions, and sets up interesting possibilities for war or peace in the final books.  I'd like to know if Tywin Lannister spared his life, and why.  Just to make sure I have everything straight: Varys and Ilyrio have been working together for years, along with Jon Connington, planning to restore the throne to the boy Aegon Targaryen.  I'm not sure why they're so loyal to the Targaryen family.  Ilyrio claims that he was friends with Varys when they were both street rats; it's possible that Jon Connington or Rhaegar saved their lives in the past.  Maybe they swore to serve House Targaryen in return.

I like the potential for self-revelation that Tyrion has with Penny.  He's unaware of his own hypocrisy; that he's treating Penny exactly how most women treat him, as a disgusting chore, or someone to pity.  But I also find myself losing respect for him.  Tyrion is set up as a clever character, and I have trouble with him remaining self-deluded for an entire book.  Beyond that, I was a bit angered by his lack of remorse for strangling Shae, and his lack of personal responsibility for the gang-rape of his first wife, Tysha.  He believed the lies of his brother over the wife whom he claims to have loved.  I'm still rooting for Tyrion, but less so.  His self-reflection seems overdue.

Bran is being set up to be a greenseer, and Arya is becoming a Faceless assassin.  They have a lot of potential, and I'm excited to see how their characters will play out in the final books.  But neither of them seems worried enough, considering the lessons they're learning.  Bran ought to be worried about losing his body forever, and Arya should be very worried about losing her true identity, her past and her future.  They're both such deep and insightful characters, I was a little bit disappointed by their seemingly blithe attitude.

The Jon Snow chapters particularly frustrated me.  I was impressed by the way he handled the various important people who tried to manipulate him, and he'll remain one of my favorite characters due to his compassion.  However, I foresaw that mutiny from a mile away.  While I read his chapters, I kept mentally yelling at him to keep Mance Rayder close, to let the wildlings at Hardhome die, and so forth.  I understand why he made those decisions--compassion--but I wanted to see him at least think about the consequences.  If I foresaw that mutiny, he should have foreseen it, and kept his wolf nearby.

Queen Daenerys is often shown bathing in her pool or giving commands, repeating the line that she is just an innocent girl who knows nothing of the ways of war.  After so many of these scenes, her concern for suffering people began to ring hollow for me.  I especially had trouble with the way she dismisses her dragons, hardly sparing them a second thought.  How can she pity slaves, yet abuse and neglect her "children"?  She should have made an effort to train them; that should have been high on her priority list.  I had trouble believing her miraculous ability to control Drogon after he attacked people.

I get the uncomfortable sense that George R.R. Martin is losing focus on his epic, shying away from the meat of the overarching story, either out of fear that he won't be able to give it a satisfying wrap-up, or because he's reveling in the rich environment and losing his path in his own creativity.  If the plot spins out of control, buried beneath the weight of subplots, some readers might shrug and say "it's impossible to control an epic."  Other blockbuster and best-selling epics have ended in disappointment.  The Star Wars movie franchise took a nosedive, and many readers would agree that the same tragedy befell the Wheel of Time series and the Dark Tower series.  

I think it's possible for the next Song of Ice and Fire book to match the stride of the first three.  As a writer of an epic (four books completed so far), I understand the temptation to discover and explore new details within my created universe.  Creation is fun.  It's addictive.  Self-editing, on the other hand, is a painful and difficult chore.  Creators want to share every detail of their invention, and set out to impress their audience . . . but sometimes readers are bored by a scene that the author found absolutely riveting.  This is when objective criticism becomes essential.  Right now, I feel fortunate to have two "neo-pro" advantages.  One is that I can get objective criticism.  The other is that I don't have to rush through edits due to deadline pressures from a publishing house.  I keep wondering what obstacles George R.R. Martin is facing, in regards to critiques and deadline expectations. 

Anyway, I'm hooked on this series, and rooting for the sympathetic characters who've managed to survive so many battles and treacheries.  In a dark world where the strong rule and the meek get slaughtered, one can't help but admire Tyrion the dwarf, Bran the cripple, Sam the coward, and ugly Brienne.  Then there's Daenerys, whose brother sold her into slavery, and Arya, who believes herself an orphan among foreigners, and Jon Snow, who believes himself unwanted by the family who raised him.  These characters are far more complex and compelling than the typical heroes of epic fantasy.  George R.R. Martin has a formidable talent for creating unique characters, and a knack for setting up dire situations and then twisting the plot in surprising, unpredictable ways.  

The first three books had me on the edge of my seat, turning pages.  These latest two books are a comfortable return to the world where wights walk and familial schisms lead to global warfare, and they might be connective tissue to an awe-inspiring grand finale.  The first book has practically become a modern classic and inspired a popular HBO miniseries.  If this series ends as strongly as it began, it will earn a place among classics, worthy of study and influential on western culture. 


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Rygor Mortis said...

***spoiler alert***I just finished reading the book yesterday and like you, am a little disappointed. I will say that overall I enjoyed the book but I wanted more. Call me crazy but I expected more plot development to occur in 957 pages. And reading tyrions chapters was like reading an infinite loop in java code, he's with this group, then that group, then this group, then that group, and nothing of significance really happens. Daenerys chapters also dragged on quite a bit, and like you the never-ending character naming boggled my mind. In my opinion though, I really enjoyed the Theon chapters. They were a needed change in Plot and scenery from the endless drab contained elsewhere, and I love how Maarten can take such a hated character and make the reader feel sorry for him(somewhat,lol). All in all, a great read, very well written, and once again I'm left with so many questions and can only hope the next tome isn't too far off!