A Dance with Dragons by George R R MartinAugust 10, 2011 at 12:26 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 12 Comments
Tags: George R R Martin
If you’re wondering whether you should read A Dance with Dragons, it’s an unusually simple call. If you’re one of the many who love the series, not only should you read A Dance with Dragons, you presumably already have. If you thought the series was too sprawling or wasn’t moving fast enough, my prediction is that nothing in this book will change your mind. If you’ve never read the series and want to know what the fuss is about, feel free to give Game of Thrones a try (or its excellent HBO adaptation), but be aware this is a story that won’t be finished until 2015 at the very minimum (2020 or even later would probably be a safer bet).
Having dispensed with the easy part, let’s turn to specifics that the spoiler-averse will want to avoid. Looking around online, there are plenty of fans who are very pleased with the book, but among those less positive the main criticism seems to be that “not enough happens”. It’s true that some characters spend a very long part of the book traveling, but I would revise this complaint to: “The important things don’t happen.” To really understand why some people, and I am one of them, feel this way we have to go back to something I talked about in my commentary on the first four books and split the series into two stories, the fantasy story and the political story.
“When dead men come hunting in the night, do you think it matters who sits the Iron Throne?” – Lord Commander Mormont, Game of Thrones
The prologue of Game of Thrones suggests we are reading a narrative that is based on a struggle with an adversary. In this case, that adversary is the supernatural evil represented by the Others. This is a very traditional story in fantasy, going back at least to Lord of the Rings, and it has a very familiar outline:
- Evil rises in a remote corner of the world
- Many refuse to believe evil has returned, or indeed that it was anything more than a legend to begin with
- But our heroes are wiser, and do their best to prepare and oppose it
- Though at first the evil acts principally in secret, but it becomes stronger and then bolder
- Finally evil declares itself in earnest, and those who scoffed now beg the heroes for help
- But it’s (nearly) too late as the seemingly unstoppable forces of evil crush all who oppose them
- At the very brink of defeat, the heroes achieve an unlikely victory at great cost
After reading A Feast for Crows I commented that somehow after four books Martin had only managed to get through the second bullet. Well, thanks to the Jon Snow section of A Dance with Dragons, we have now reached the third bullet. Perhaps even the fourth. That’s progress, I suppose. Despite Martin’s reputation for unpredictability, Jon Snow’s desperate preparations throughout Dance are clearly leading to some sort of disaster, and sure enough that’s what happens. There’s nothing wrong with these scenes, and indeed Jon’s execution of Slynt was one of the novel’s high points. But surely no one reading the book thinks that the Night’s Watch has a prayer of actually holding the Wall against the Others? The logic of these stories demands that the Wall, and therefore the Night’s Watch, must be broken, and the wights and Others must march south to teach those who didn’t listen to Jon and Mormont before him to be sorry. Since the biggest culprits are some of the farthest away, the white walkers have a lot of walking ahead of them. Meanwhile, by this point it’s obvious that Martin wants to emphasize the way squabbling over the Iron Throne is dooming Westeros, so it’s fitting that squabbling among the Night’s Watch will doom them in particular.
I admit that I didn’t expect things to start coming apart quite how they did, but frankly I don’t understand why Jon thought it was a good idea to stand up and announce he was breaking his vows. He spent hours planning with Tormund before that speech, so it wasn’t in the heat of the moment. And while maybe, maybe, Jon “We must stop the Others at all costs” Snow might be baited into going south because of Arya, why would the Night’s Watch want to help him? Why not send some wildlings who’ve sworn no vows? They seem quite loyal to Mance. Oh well. I assume this oathbreaking was the cause of the Ides of March business, and I have to say I can see exactly where Marsh was coming from.
The author is certainly very much on Jon’s side. Marsh is portrayed as a bigot too close-minded to see the existential threat posed by the Others even though it’s staring him in the face, unlike the wise Jon Snow (who, incidentally, is only, what, sixteen?). It was only after I finished the novel that I realized there are much better arguments for Marsh’s position than he makes. The Wall wasn’t built to keep out wildlings, Jon says, and in so doing he implies that by defending the Wall against them for Marsh’s lifetime and the thousand years or more before that (Other-free years, by the way) the Night’s Watch was just passing time. Who’s to say that the Others are going to march south? Jon assumes that the dead will rise in ever greater numbers, forming an army that only a perfectly disciplined and prepared Night’s Watch can hold back, but what is his evidence? His best source on this is Melisandre’s apocalypticism, but he doesn’t believe anything she says for much of the book, time he spends desperately preparing. The wildlings, far more knowledgeable about the Others and certainly plenty scared, seem to think that if they can just get far enough south to be able to find something to eat, they’ll be fine. Back when it was thought Mance really did have the Horn of Winter, Jon might have had a good argument that by not using it, Mance proved he knew the Others were coming, but in Dance Tormund says they would have blown it if they could. But no matter what anyone says, as readers we know this is a fantasy story, so Jon is right, and Bowen Marsh is wrong. And until we get closer to the ending, the Bowen Marshes of the story must carry the day.
There’s not much else to say about the fantasy story because not much else happens. When I first read Clash of Kings I was surprised that Melisandre, whose fire religion seemed to make her a natural enemy of the ancient evil in the far north, seemed thoroughly evil herself. That turns out to have been something of a feint, however, and she’s been steadily more sympathetic ever since, culminating in the Dance chapter told from her perspective. She seems to have been strictly on the side of good all along, she’s just got a ruthless pragmatism and some confusion about the meaning of her prophecies. That makes her a more interesting character than the evil sorceress of Clash of Kings, but it makes the overall story somewhat less interesting. The religions all seem to be wrong, which is a bit of a twist, but otherwise things seem very traditional: good guys, ancient evil, prophecies of heroes, and so forth. Personally, I’m not fond of prophecies, but I guess they come part and parcel with the increasing prominence of fantasy elements in the story. This has been a slow build throughout the series, but the fantasy story’s other thread, the Bran chapters, have are now indistinguishable from normal genre fantasy. I have no idea what HBO will do with this material if they ever get to this point. On the page it seems like a pretty standard take on animal links, elves, and nature magic. All right, but a little bland by genre standards. On screen, even with HBO’s budget, I suspect it will look ridiculous. Apparently people who read Martin’s Dunk and Egg novellas found the identity of the three eyed crow to be interesting, but I hadn’t read them, so it meant nothing. Making matters worse, as I’ve mentioned in the past I have an allergy to magical training scenes, so for me Bran’s chapters were a complete dud.
So much for the fantasy story, but as many people told me last year, it’s the political story that keeps them reading the series. This story has the virtue of actually being told, even though Dance has done nothing to dissuade me from my belief that Mormont is correct in the above quote and it’s the fantasy story that matters. But for all its byzantine complexity and endless detail, I was just as impatient with the pace of the narrative in Dance as I was reading A Feast for Crows.
To try to explain this reaction, I’ll have to go back to the series’ structure. At first, the political story is another adversarial narrative in which the Starks and others loyal to the king must stop the conniving Lannisters. The presence of a sympathetic Daenerys who regards the Starks and their king as traitors and usurpers complicates this from the start, and by the climax of Clash of Kings it’s basically out the window as the reader simultaneously roots for Tyrion and Davos on opposite sides of a battle to decide who controls the Iron Throne while Robb Stark is hundreds of miles away doing something or other off screen. If there was any doubt, the Red Wedding ended it.
When I was writing last year, I said the main characters were Daenerys, Tyrion, and Jon Snow, and that the shocking twists and character deaths weren’t so shocking when viewed through this lens. What I was getting at, but not quite putting my finger on, was that although the political side of Game of Thrones seems to be about fighting the Lannister’s usurpation of the throne, the series is actually about restoring the Targaryen dynasty. In such a story, obviously it’s the Targaryens (Daenerys and Jon Snow) who are the protagonists. To this was added Tyrion, because he is cool. I thought the way Dance positions Tyrion as a dragon expert was a little convenient, but I guess this was adequately set up in the previous books, and if short people make the best jockeys it’s reasonable to assume they make the best dragon riders as well. There’s an argument to be made for Tyrion being a Targaryen bastard, incidentally, but this would be such a misstep I refuse to believe it (it explains Tywin’s hostility, but it also cheapens it enormously, and there’s already way too many crypto-bastards in this series).
However, any Targaryen restoration must wait until near the end of the series. In the meantime, the story creates tension principally through the separation of characters. Daenerys is separated from Westeros, of course, but also the Stark children are separated from their mother and each other. The Starks all want to reunite, and because we like them we want to see them do it, so we feel tension until it happens. Well, it still hasn’t happened, and that in turn contributes to the feeling that the series is wandering aimlessly. This brings us back to the series’ unpredictability. The reader is waiting for these things to happen, yet other things happen instead. When the series works, it’s because these other things also capture our interest. When they don’t, the cost on the reading experience can be high. One of Feast for Crows‘ problems was that it introduced a separation between Brienne and Sansa that was only minimally justified in terms of Brienne’s motivation, seemed unlikely in the extreme to resolve just based on what Breinne’s information (Brienne actually finding Sansa by randomly asking people would have been absurd), and worst of all, with the reader’s superior knowledge it was evident it could not resolve because Brienne was never even remotely close to the right place. Even on a first reading, it was obviously a pointless exercise. Now, strictly speaking there was a point, but one outside the narrative: Brienne, like Arya before her, was unknowingly giving readers a tour of the ruined countryside so we could see how both the warfare and the resulting anarchy was devastating the common people. Without a good enough in-narrative justification, this ended up being a lifeless and academic exercise.
I believe this tension issue is the big reason why I enjoyed rereading the series, even Feast for Crows, more than when I read it the first time. Knowing ahead of time that none of the natural tensions were going to resolve, I was able to focus on what does resolve, movement along arcs that are only evident in hindsight: Tyrion toward his confrontation with his father, Cersei toward her arrest, Catelyn and Robb toward the Red Wedding, etc. However, it’s important to emphasize that Martin hasn’t truly subverted reader expectations, he’s merely delayed their gratification. Daenerys will go to Westeros and the Stark children will reunite (except poor Robb, anyway). This is difficult because our minds are accustomed to resolutions that happen in about a hundred thousand words, not two million (and series that end in a couple years, not decades). This is an example of how the huge length of the series distorts the reading experience.
A Dance with Dragons suffers greatly from this distortion. It continues the separations of Bran and Arya while also introducing more as various characters try to reach Daenerys and Stannis goes to fight Bolton. That none of these separations (except the ill-fated Quentin’s attempt to reach Daenerys) end within the confines of the novel has caused a lot of complaints. With Daenerys literally out in the wilderness away from everyone else, the book ends having introduced still more tension than it resolved. Apparently it was coordinating the approach of these various characters that gave Martin problems over the past ten years, but we’ll have to wait for the next book to really see what it is he’s trying to do. I wanted Tyrion, Quentin, Victarion, and Aegon to all arrive, meet Daenerys at the same time, and get to play off each other, but perhaps Martin has a better idea.
Beyond the characters moving slowly around Slaver’s Bay, A Dance with Dragons also sets up two key questions: what should Daenerys do about Meereen, and what should she do about her dragons? The first question is repeatedly posed and never answered, for nothing gets resolved about Meereen despite a huge number of scenes set there. Meereen, it must be said, is not nearly as impressive a creation as Westeros. Martin apparently wanted to tell a story about knights, so I suppose it’s not surprising that the city which is probably the series’ furthest point geographically, culturally, and narratively from Westeros seems the least inspired. But beyond the confusing names of characters and a political situation told in summary rather than the series’ characteristic detail, the actual story struck me as far less convincing than the degeneration of Westeros that Martin has spent so much time portraying. Daenerys spends the novel helpless in the face of what seemed like the anachronistic insurgency of the Sons of the Harpy. Not only does this sort of guerrilla warfare seem difficult to do properly without guns and explosives available to kill from distance, it’s carried out by the wealthy, which goes against everything I know about how this sort of thing works. I’m not an expert, but in these circumstances the wealthy are easy to defeat because they have something to lose: property, trade, and other assets. Daenerys has the backing of the common people, so even if she doesn’t have the stomach to storm the enclaves of the rich, the insurgents shouldn’t be able to operate among a hostile population. Toward the end of the book, it’s claimed that the untamed dragons have turned the common people against her, but I find this hard to credit, and even if it’s true, it doesn’t happen until the Sons of the Harpy have already forced significant concessions (i.e. her marriage). As for the other major question, how to deal with the dragons, Drogon’s arrival at the arena is my pick for the novel’s best scene, but it proves only a further complication. At the end of the novel, the dragons are anything but settled and Daenerys seems farther than ever from achieving her goals in Meereen or Westeros.
Back when the TV show Lost was airing, fans contemptuously referred to this practice as asking questions without answering the ones already posed. I say this by way of analogy, because most fans engaged with Lost in terms of the knowledge it withheld, not the action of the plot (the hermeneutic code, not the the proairetic code, to use the technical terms). A Song of Ice and Fire has some actual questions of this kind (Jon Snow’s parentage, the identity of Coldhands, the prophecies, and so forth) but they are on the sidelines for hardcore fans to debate while they wait for more books to be written. I think it’s a useful analogy, though, because as a six season TV series with a continuous story, Lost had to face many of the same structural challenges that A Song of Ice and Fire faces now, challenges comparatively shorter works like Lord of the Rings did not. It’s worth noting that like A Song of Ice and Fire, Lost built most of its tension of action out of the separation of characters, to the point it was criticized with some justification for being a show whose characters were continually journeying between the same five or ten destinations. Many people have observed that watching Lost episodes as they aired was a very different experience than blowing through the episodes on DVD, and I think it’s clear why: each time an episode of Lost ended, viewers had a week or more to reflect on how the show hadn’t yet answered the questions they cared about. Many readers who finish A Dance with Dragons today will think about how most of what they hoped to see happen still lies in the future, and they’ll have to think about that not for a week or even a year, but however long it takes for Martin to write the next book. I don’t want to make too much of this analogy, because part of the agony of watching Lost was enduring the suspicion that the answers to its many questions were being withheld because there were no answers (and, indeed, this proved to be the case). I have never doubted that there is an ending out there to A Song of Ice and Fire, so this is a case merely of (very) delayed gratification (unless Martin dies, that is).
In light of this caveat, it would be easy to dismiss these criticisms as the inevitable result of reviewing a piece of a story rather than the whole thing, and as my usual policy of reviewing a series all at once should indicate, I’m largely sympathetic to this view. It was something Martin himself said that made me reconsider.
You know, one of the things you learn when you are working for network television, the importance of the act to break because unlike HBO, network TV requires people to come back after the commercial. So you know, you always want to have an act break that it’s a moment of revelation, a twist, a moment of tension, a cliff hanger what it is, but each act has to go out on something, you know. – George R. R. Martin, in a recent interview with Time Magazine
What Martin seems to be saying is that a storyteller should take the medium into account. If A Song of Ice and Fire were all one book, none of this would matter. But it’s not all one book, even though in 2030 people may read it as though it were. Certainly few authors can be more conscious of reader expectations than Martin after the reception of Feast for Crows. Once again, the Lost analogy is instructive, because despite its many faults, it always had extremely strong season finales (the season finale being the equivalent of the end of a novel). They raised plenty of questions and served as enormous cliffhangers, but in terms of their action they always felt like climaxes that paid off the narrative weight of the preceding season. The concluding chapters of A Dance with Dragons don’t have anything like this effect. Aegon lands on Westeros, Jon is betrayed, Selmy betrays the King, and Tyrion signs up with the Second Sons. But these events, important though they may be, aren’t sufficiently weighty to be satisfying. We’ve never met Aegon before this book and his rapid trip to Westeros just rubs in how long Daenerys is taking, that Jon Snow would fail to control the Night’s Watch was obvious throughout the book, Selmy is a very likable guy but Daenerys’ husband doesn’t matter, and while Tyrion getting in a position to make a difference again was nice, what I wanted was for him to meet Daenerys. Considering that unlike Lost this is a story based on action, not revelation, and especially given that Martin has considerable leeway on the length of the novels, I don’t think asking for a better climax is unreasonable. Perhaps the story he’s telling simply cannot be parceled out into satisfying chunks anywhere between one and four hundred thousand words without grossly weakening it. It’s impossible to say until the series is finished, but I’m skeptical.
Having ventured this criticism, it’s worth spending a moment to think about how the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones restructured the storyline. Abigail Nussbaum thinks rather less of Game of Thrones the novel than I do, but she makes an interesting point when she says the novel is a YA story about the Stark children whereas the HBO show is an adult story about Ned Stark. I’m not totally convinced about the novel, since taken together Ned Stark’s viewpoint chapters are longer than any other character’s (18.5% of the novel) and, together with Catelyn, the Stark parents have a third of the novel, only slightly less than the children. But statistics aside, the HBO show necessarily marginalizes the children, especially Bran and Arya, and Ned Stark is the beneficiary of the extra attention. The result is a fairly straightforward story: Ned Stark goes against the Lannisters and loses. The climax comes at the very end of the ninth episode while the last episode serves as a coda to set up the second season, even to the point of including a few scenes from Clash of Kings. By comparison, Daenerys’ story, almost completely independent from Ned Stark’s, has its climax at the very end as it does in the novel.
I never read Game of Thrones on its own so I can’t say how different it felt to read just that novel, but I think the HBO show has a more satisfying structure. What the show will do with the later books, I have no idea. Clash of Kings features Tyrion even more prominently than Game of Thrones features Ned Stark, and has the battle at King’s Landing as a grand climax to Tyrion’s efforts to defend the city, but from there the scope broadens the climaxes get harder to find.
In a novel this large, there’s inevitably a lot more going on than what I’ve mentioned so far. I thought that Dance would have a big leg up on its predecessor just because it had those I allege to be the three main characters (who are also the most sympathetic, generally), but Tyrion, Daenerys, and Jon turned out to have some of the least effective chapters. Tyrion is mostly passive, Daenerys is mostly passive and in the throes of an inexplicable crush on the deeply unlikeable Daario, and while Jon at least works diligently, it’s in service to what is clearly a lost cause. Thankfully the new characters punched above their weight. Barristan Selmy and Jon Connington had interesting perspectives, and watching Wyman Manderly, a previously insignificant character, scheme against the preposterously evil Boltons was more fun than it had any right to be. I could have done with less of all the Reek business, it’s true. All right, I could have done with a lot less, but that’s mostly down to taste. I’m rarely impressed by psychologically damaged characters in fiction unless I have some reason to think the author is especially qualified to understand mental dysfunction. If I have to trudge through page after page of a depraved viewpoint, it seems to me I ought to at least be able to learn something from it. I feel the same way about Arya’s assassin training. That is, unconvinced there’s any psychological fire under all this smoke. But in a story otherwise full of ambiguity, having the Boltons as Gregor Clegane-style monsters to root against was surprisingly refreshing, no matter how the material was presented.
That’s how it goes with sprawling stories like this: which characters and subplots interest you inevitably comes down at least in part to personal taste. Once the series is complete, readers will have the luxury of skimming through chapters they’re not as interested in to get back to whatever they consider “the good parts”, but for now the speed at which the story moves is up to Martin. It’s easy to wish for more editing, but the Manderly subplot is an example of something that is surely completely extraneous to the overall story being told and thus a strong candidate for removal. I suppose the main difference between myself and the series’ big fans may just be where we draw the line in terms of interest.
To the people who have spent years fighting in the trenches of Internet forums over the merits of this series, I’m sure that sounds like a pretty mealy-mouthed way to conclude, but I really do think a lot of this is subjective. It’s great that some people like every part of these books, but I don’t…and yet, I like enough of them to keep reading, and I’ll get in line whenever the next book is released. In the meantime, I’ll keep wondering if this wouldn’t be a lot more effective if it were shorter, and thanks to HBO we may even find out the answer.