Friday, July 15, 2011

"A Dance with Dragons" by George RR Martin (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official GRRM Website
A Song of Ice and Fire at Wikipedia
Order A Dance with Dragons HERE

INTRODUCTION: As I mentioned in other posts, there are only two authors that I regard as iconic in fantasy and one of them is George Martin since before A Game of Thrones appeared - and especially before it started taking off in the late 90's, early 00's - I found very little genre fantasy to read. I am not a Tolkien, Feist, D&D, Jordan, Erikson, etc fan since I prefer my fantasy to be with little magic and closer to historical fiction - my main problem with magic is that it suffers from the "works at one clock, but not at two a clock" syndrome as well as the authors rarely exploring the implications on societal evolution of having unambiguous, "I can kick it" proof of mind's ability to influence matter directly, not through technology and science.

Before AGoT, I knew about Mr. Martin from his awesome Sandkings novella which was one of the defining texts of my childhood that made me a lifelong sf fan, so intrigued by the blurb I bought AGoT on release and never looked back, while thinking, that, "yes, this is the fantasy I want to read". On the other hand I do not tend to agonize over unfinished series and I read the books as they come, so after A Feast for Crows and the rereads of the earlier three books in 2005, I kind of forgot about ASoIaF until this year's superb TV series put me back in a Westeros mood and I've reread the four earlier books in two languages each for good measure since I happen to have a full Romanian language set too.

So very, very high expectations for A Dance with Dragons and after the first two reads, I have to say that the book while not perfect and quite transitional and expanding the story-lines rather than starting to pull them together as one would expect in a fifth out of seventh series novel, delivered more than enough to be my top fantasy of the year so far.

In the following I will try to avoid major spoilers for the novel itself, though there will be of course major ones for the series up to AFFC and as befitting a novel of such huge scope with action taking place in many locales, lots of characters, etc, the "review" will be more of a collection of impressions and highlights, as well as some of the stuff I thought worked less well. As usual, whatever counts as spoiler for a person may not count as such for me, so if you have not read A Dance with Dragons so far, read what follows at your peril!

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The first thing that surprised me when reading A Dance with Dragons is that the book does not have the "each word counts" finished feel I expected after the very public six year struggle of the author with it; for the first 600 pages I felt like almost nothing happens as the big picture goes, just going back and forth to mark the time until the timeline gets to the end of A Feast for Crows and things can start happening; when things start to happen, yes the action is mostly awesome, but there is some silliness too.

Now, "almost nothing happens" would be an indictment for many authors since it would mean bloated verbosity, but in GRRM's case, the world building, the character dialogue and the nuggets of action that we see are more than enough to make the pages turn by themselves and keep one absorbed.

Yes, not all story-lines are equally absorbing and for me the North alternates between very interesting when we see the actions of various Northern lords, most notably the Boltons and lord Manderly in the new circumstances, while Stannis prepares to assert his rule and confront his enemies and the more boring parts of Jon trying to be "humane" and integrate the starving, fleeing wildlings with their historical enemies, the Night Watch whose commander he happens to be. Never a big favorite of mine, I have to say that "Lord Snow"'s arc is one of the best realized in the book and it will be a highlight for many.

Or Tyrion's wanderings where maybe because of him being still in shock after the dramatic events of A Storm of Swords, he is far from the sharp operator we got to know and love and seems more like a comic relief persona thrown there to be blown away on the wind by whatever current is stronger at the moment. This was the part I was looking forward the most and maybe because of that, it was the most disappointing thread of the novel.

The other main story of the novel, Daenerys' rule of Meereen is quite interesting though, even if it is not what what is generally assumed that happens in fantasy - where the destined one comes, conquers, snaps his/her fingers and all live happily ever after. No, here we see "reality": conquering with a strong army and better weapons is easy, but holding on what you conquer is very hard and requires sacrifices; this point of "is it worth to conquer hoping to give people a better life, only to realize that most want the lives they led before and having peace may mean compromising all you hold dear?" that we see repeated throughout history up to the present, is one that GRRM keeps making and as mentioned above there is no "out of jail card". I found this thread excellent and very realistic though I am sure that people wanting traditional fantasy will hate it the most.

Daenerys' peregrination and decisions were simple so far - she acted true to her principles and despite hardships she has won - but now that she decided to actually rule, she faces two equally unheroic choices: bath Meereen in the blood of her enemies, including the hostages from her entourage that she came to like, or compromise with the slavers and their allies and allow a more relaxed form of what came before. And the way this dilemma plays through the book was to me one of the highlights of the novel; without easy choices, the author's handling of it was as good as possible within the constraints.

Interspersed with these three main stories, there are a lot of other characters stories and those mostly work well, but here and there I was wondering at the structure of the novel and how quite a few of those (Bran and Cersei's chapters for example and maybe even Arya's) could have easily been included in A Feast for Crows since they are tangential to this book, while leaving space for expanding the intrinsic stories of A Dance with Dragons and sparing us the "unfinished feel" we get in the end, feel which the author clearly indicated was due for lack of space.

A Dance with Dragons is not short on great lines and there are quite a few scenes that hold with the best to date in the series but I will leave that for everyone to discover them. For myself, besides the obvious ones, Cersei's arc was quite memorable for example especially still having clear in mind Lena Hadley's arrogant but great performance of the queen in the TV series...

As for characters, for me the best one - in the heroic fantasy mode - was Ser Barristan who has several POV chapters and he is given ample scope to show why he is so famous after all. The most disappointing one was Tyrion as mentioned above.

Now for the things that worked less well - I think that Mr. Martin's decision to split the story geographically rather than chronologically was misguided and A Dance with Dragons shows it since until the timeline catches with AFFC, nothing major we do not know about can happen and this - what I call the prequel's bane - makes those first 600 pages or so much slower than the rousing finale.

The wrap up to most stories is another issue - here the culprit is the page count which basically forced the author to postpone lots of events to the next book - so there is a feel of incompleteness and while it bothers me less than others, I think that will be easily seen as the major shortcoming of the novel. The good news is that once The Winds of Winter will be out, this aspect will be forgotten, the bad news is that we have no idea when that book will be out...

And here we come to the last thing of concern, namely that at the current pace, I have a hard time seeing it finished in two more volumes, even of 1000 pages like this one. Now that is not a bad thing since I am happy to read at length about the wonderful characters of GRRM and their world, but one thing I hope is that the author will not try again to be over ambitious and stick with a "I said seven, seven must be" plan and then realize he simply does not have the space to tell all the stories he wants, the way he wants. When in a fifth out presumably seventh book and in 1000 pages+, the story and characters expand, sometimes quite a lot, rather than starting to get together, this is something one has to mention.

Overall I think that if you are an obsessive fan who discusses the finest points of the series in great detail in various forums, the book will be acceptable but not totally awesome for the reasons mentioned above, but if you love a grand scale epic series where the author keeps his "action have consequences and there is no get out the jail card" stance that so shocked people including myself in the earlier volumes, A Dance with Dragons (A++) will be the one novel you want to read this year indeed!