Review: A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin
At the end of A Feast For Crows, the previous novel in George RR Martin’s epic medieval fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, an author’s note explains why some characters had barely been mentioned. Basically, Martin had written too much to be publishable, so he’d decided to divide his planned plotlines in half, promising that the other characters would return in A Dance with Dragons, due out in a year.
That was in 2005. Martin has always struggled to maintain control over an increasingly sprawling narrative. Beginning as a trilogy, it has blown out into seven books, of which this is the fifth. Meanwhile, his fans have noisily, sometimes aggressively, berated the grandfatherly author about why he’s taken so long.
The Enthusiast‘s Chris Wenn has pointed out that the demands of realist world-building, multiple perspectives and a large cast of characters can overbalance an epic fantasy narrative if they’re not tightly reined in. Basically, Dragons teeters. While it’s definitely more satisfying than Crows, its events feel rather arbitrary until familiar characters begin to reappear and the gears of the narrative mesh once more.
What saves the whole edifice is the story’s relentless forward momentum. Nobody sits on their arse in these books; they’re always fighting, questing, scheming, attempting reform and disastrously miscalculating. At 1040 pages in hardback, Dragons is an excellent advertisement for e-books, but its unwieldiness didn’t stop me finishing it at 4am, thrilled yet heartbroken, after having utterly failed to limit myself to “just one more chapter”.
Martin’s background in TV scriptwriting means that chapters end on cliffhangers – as does the entire book – and characters are unsentimentally killed off (and, occasionally, resurrected). As a result, the Ice and Fire fan community is paranoid about spoilers, even more so now that Game of Thrones, the high-res HBO TV adaptation of the first book in the saga (currently screening on pay TV in Australia), has inspired a new wave of fans (me included) to catch up with the story so far.
It’s an unenviable task to boil the plot down to a single, spoiler-free paragraph, but here goes… Young, idealistic Jon Snow has just become Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, the sworn order of men who defend a vast northern wall of ice against terrifying creatures of cold and darkness. But he’s pissing people off by doing things differently. Meanwhile, Daenerys Targaryen, heir by blood to the Iron Throne currently being fought over by various noble houses, rules in exile in a troubled former slave city. Suitors vie for her hand and her three dragons are entering their peasant-crisping adolescence. Also seeking Daenerys is wily dwarf Tyrion Lannister, freshly escaped from the execution planned by his appalling sister Cersei, whose grip on the throne is looking increasingly tenuous.
A large part of these books’ appeal is their medievalist realpolitik; I’ve always imagined the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros as a version of England riven by the Wars of the Roses, and the nine prosperous and cosmopolitan Free Cities in neighbouring Essos to be analogous to European centres of culture and commerce. Martin incorporates feudalism, chivalry and religious turmoil, and the question of whether he also unproblematically represents racism and misogyny has been fiercely debated. But whether his characters are admirable, contemptible, terrible, pitiable or a mixture of all these, Martin’s point-of-view narration underscores that they are all just individuals struggling to assert themselves in a Hobbesian world.
These imaginary realms are also richly palimpsestic, overwritten by competing impulses and traditions. And their symbolism is atavistically satisfying, even if it’s sometimes very obvious: the pageantry of colours and heraldic devices; recurring motifs of fire, water, light and darkness; stories and songs; dreams and visions. Martin loves describing the details of people’s weaponry and armour, their outfits and their meals.
Dragons is best read as another beguiling immersion in this fascinating world; it’s by no means the best in the series, and I felt that Martin’s writing, always pulpy and often enjoyably so, has grown more mechanistic (or was just edited in a hurry). Particularly, he really leans on the stock phrases ”little and less” and “much and more”, and to show a character’s thoughts dwelling on something, he italicises certain sentences over and over again. Still, the audacious scale and colour of Martin’s overarching project dwarfs this instalment’s weaknesses.