This is a good year to be a George R.R. Martin fan. Game of Thrones, a TV series based on the first book of his epic fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire, aired on HBO earlier this summer. Last week the fifth book in the series, A Dance with Dragons, came out, six years after the fourth.
The history of A Dance with Dragons is a strange one. There was a long gap between the third and fourth books. A Feast for Crows, the fourth book, had grown so long that the publishers suggested splitting it into two. Martin’s story is told from the perspectives of multiple characters, and rather than simply split the book in the middle, the author decided to do so according to the many subplots of this sprawling, complex epic. This method of dividing the book meant considerable rewriting, and several delays. In the finished product, while the first half overlaps the previous book chronologically, the second moves ahead, and towards the end continues subplots from A Feast for Crows. This is sometimes disorienting, but dividing the books in this manner may have been a good artistic choice. After the cataclysmic events of the third book (A Storm of Swords), A Feast for Crows felt like something of a dénouement, with plot threads being wound up and rounded off.
A Dance with Dragons: Bantam, 1,040 pages, $35 (around Rs 1,560).
A Dance with Dragons seems to be setting things up. There are a number of characters journeying towards the centre of action, and many scenes of people preparing for war. On the Wall in the North, Jon Snow is rallying forces to face the threat posed by undead creatures known only as the Others. South of the Wall the great house of Winterfell has been taken over by a deranged sadist. Daenerys, Jon and Tyrion Lannister, Martin’s three most prominent characters (notable exclusions from the last book) each receive a number of contemplative viewpoint chapters.
Fans will be optimistic about all the setting up for future action—great events are clearly set to take place in the next book. The sense of anticipation is heightened by Martin’s apparent addiction to the cliffhanger. But none of this can change the fact that hardly anything happens in this book. Yet it contains some of the finest writing in the series. The chapters documenting the trauma, the subsequent mental and physical collapse of one character are so powerful that they are difficult to read. Martin is in the habit of giving many characters a particular phrase that is repeated throughout their chapters. This sometimes feels affected, but here it is startlingly effective.
Fans of the series often praise its “grittiness”; this is a fantasy world where the characters are morally ambiguous, war is more messy and people occasionally use the toilet. While this is true, it is not the whole truth. For a set of books so often praised for its realism, A Song of Ice and Fire deals rather well with the surreal. There is a marvellous, nightmarish sequence in this book in which a character sails down a cursed river that never seems to end, and whose dangers are physical as well as psychological. Another plot has a character “dreaming” disconnected scenes from the distant past. There are touches of the absurd and the gloriously over-the-top; a banker in a ridiculous purple hat occasionally shows up as a most unlikely bystander, and at one point there’s a sly nod towards a Titus Andronicus-like situation.
With a plot as huge as the one with which he has saddled himself, there was always the risk that Martin would abandon these fine aspects of his work in order to focus on the plot. If he’s strayed too far in the opposite direction, at least he’s erred on the side of good writing.
Martin’s fans also frequently praise his unpredictability. I don’t know if the planned final two books in the series will be enough to provide a resolution. A Dance with Dragons is an enjoyable book. Faced with another six-year wait for the next book; or worse, the dreaded announcement that the series is to be extended to eight books, I might still change my mind.
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