Let the dance begin
It’s fair to say that A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in George R.R. Martin’s acclaimed Song of Ice and Fire series, is the most-anticipated fantasy release since—well—the fourth book in the series, A Feast for Crows (2005). The anticipation is well-earned. The first three books in the series were an exhilarating, gritty combination of quasi-historical fiction and high epic fantasy. The brisk publication pace—A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords were released in two-year increments—kept the burgeoning population of fans fed even as the books themselves challenged the conventional hero/villain dichotomy of traditional fantasy.
I mention publication pace—usually irrelevant to a review of anything but web comics—because after the 2000 publication of A Storm of Swords, it would be five years before the release of A Feast For Crows. The delay was cause for much teeth gnashing amongst an already fervid fan base, but even that only served as proof of the degree to which Martin had succeeded in creating a powerful work of epic fantasy. Then came the afterword of Feast, in which Martin admits a lapse of discipline and editing, announcing that Feast was half of the awaited book, and the second half—A Dance With Dragons—would “be along next year (I devoutly hope).” It turns out that “I devoutly hope” is Martin-ese for “give or take five years.”
Now, six years later, A Dance With Dragons has arrived. Not surprisingly, it shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of its “first half.” There is the engaging character building one expects from Martin—seldom has an author given his readers so many characters to care about (before, of course, maiming and/or killing them). There are the complex lineage-a-thons not seen since that book in the Bible with all the “begats.” There are the in-depth descriptions of castles, demesnes, harbors, passages and the people who occupy them. (I long to read the chapter on scenic Harrenhal in the next edition of Rick Steves’ Westeros.) Tongue-in-cheek comments aside, Dance is further proof that Martin is a world builder of the first order.
And A Dance With Dragons has one immediate advantage over its first installment. Whereas A Feast for Crows had an almost maddening focus on characters who were less central to the story (and in the hearts of readers), Dance returns us to the “big three”—Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen. For the most part, it’s so very, very satisfying. Tyrion could spend the entire book talking about food allergies (My Dinner with Tyrion?), and it’d be amusing. Jon Snow’s battle to man the Wall and navigate the treacherous waters of leadership—while not as quippy—keeps the pages turning. Daenerys’s chapters are a bit more frustrating, as her march to reclaim the throne has turned into more of a squat and fret.
The Queen’s relative inactivity reflects a slackening of pace characteristic of both Feast and Dance. Though there are many developments in A Dance With Dragons—plenty of things happen—there’s also a paucity of events. The first three books present a number of large-scale set pieces—the Battle for King’s Landing, the defense of the Wall against Mance Rayder’s horde, the horrid events of the Red Wedding, the wondrous reveal of the dragons of Daenerys. Even the smaller events possess great heft, be they duel, beheading or de-handing. And though there’s no law saying every book needs a Helm’s Deep, Chain of Dogs or Triwizard Tournament, the 1,500-plus pages of exposition, positioning and skirmishes seem somehow uneventful compared to what has gone before (a certain dramatically placed crossbow bolt or two notwithstanding). All in all, events do not seem to be moving as apace as in the earlier books. In Feast, that’s defensible—it’s the aftermath of a major struggle, and the crows of the title require a certain lull during which they can settle down to feast. But in Dance, one expects a little more movement. In too many places, the dance is more akin to that guy standing against the wall moving his knee in time to the music.
All in all, A Dance With Dragons will do little to ease the minds of those readers who have worried that Martin’s grasp on the immensity that is A Song of Ice and Fire—or at least his ability to steer the narrative of the series—is slipping. For all the deserved praise garnered by Martin as a writer and his series as a captivating work of fantasy, Dance leaves the reader with plenty of questions about the health and trajectory of A Song of Ice and Fire. Can an author discard too many characters in whom readers have built a substantial investment? Is there a line where the thrill of the unpredictable becomes resentment at yet another investment squandered? (Would Tolkien’s epic have had the same impact if Gandalf had stayed dead, Frodo bought it early in The Two Towers and Aragorn died later in the same book?)
Given Martin’s penchant for dramatic reversals, it’s only appropriate I left A Dance With Dragons feeling still up in the air. Is that the Grand Canyon below? Is Martin is in the midst of completing a legendary leap, or are we going to crash into the cliff wall? Or is that just a shark we’re jumping over? And how long will I have to wait to find out? (I devoutly hope it’s not another six years.)