Monday, 20 February 2012

‘A Dance with Dragons’ – George R.R. Martin (Bantam/Voyager)

Last year saw some pretty big fantasy and sci-fi releases and none more so than a certain book called ‘A Dance with Dragons’. How could it not have been the book that every self-respecting fantasy fan had to get their hands on? Especially after the wait that had to be endured while GRRM actually polished the book off… Didn’t that divide the fans…? ;o)  ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ was either an astonishing series that had the misfortune to seriously stall or a series that was slowly getting worse and obviously required some major effort from GRRM to turn around. Which camp did you fall into? Personally I was somewhere in the middle; I wasn’t too keen on ‘A Feast for Crows’ but it had been so long since I read the series that I couldn’t for the life of me remember all the issues I had with it in the first place (ok, apart from Brienne’s travelogue and the fact that nothing really seemed to happen). It wasn’t like I didn’t have enough other stuff going to worry about the lateness of a book…

This was probably the reason why I didn’t immediately jump on the book, and start reading, as soon as my copy arrived. It had been a while after all and, like so many other thick hardbacks, ‘A Dance With Dragons’ does not make for practical reading material on the tube! That excuse went though when my job came to an end and I had a little more time on my hands. It was several months late but the time had finally come to crack open ‘A Dance with Dragons’ and get reading.
You’ve doubtless already seen comments here about my experiences with the book but I’ll sum them up one more time by saying that ‘A Dance with Dragons’ had many moments of sheer brilliance but was ultimately a very frustrating read…

The fate of the Seven Kingdoms hangs on a knife edge while petty lords and knights scheme for more ways to grab a little extra power. Queen Cersei must put herself through the ultimate shame if she is to briefly win free from her prison before her trial begins in earnest. A Prince of Dorne must believe in his very blood if the heist to end all heists is to be in any way successful. An exiled lordling journeys into the untmost north to learn about the uncanny power that he holds and an exiled Queen fights to hold onto her territories as well as fighting to remain true to her own ideals.
All the while such scheming is going on, winter is coming and the Others grow stronger in the cold places of the north. It seems that only Jon Snow will do anything to halt the tide and there are men (that he calls brothers) who will do anything to stop him.

I have had a couple of days to ponder ‘Dance’ since I finished the last page and wondered, ‘what went wrong there?’ I think the bottom line and root cause lies in GRRM’s very own words on ‘Dance’ in his introduction…

‘…this volume does not follow that one in the traditional sense, so much as run in tandem with it.’

Not a lot happened at all in ‘Feast’, it was very much the ‘Crossroads of Twilight’ of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ with people being moved into position for events to come. As ‘Dance’ runs in tandem with ‘Feast’ it was inevitable that this would be the same case here…
There are a lot of people saying that they would like to do something but that they are scared of the power of the Lannisters. There are scattered moments where things actually start to happen but don’t get your hopes up too much as these moments inevitably become cliff hangers that won’t be resolved until the next book and, as such, feel like a real anti-climax (apart from the last ‘Jon Snow’ chapter that is, that was a real cliff hanger moment that I can’t wait to see resolved).
There also seems to be a lot of eating and feasts and this wouldn’t be too bad if we weren’t subjected to a dish by dish account of what each course entailed. If that’s your thing then all well and good but I really don’t care what was served at the table. It got to the point where I didn’t feel sorry at all for King Stannis’ snowbound army (all either eating their horses or each other) as their meals were over very quickly, I just felt grateful.

I also wondered whether some chapters should have appeared in ‘Feast’ instead of ‘Dance’. Was it just me or was Sam’s story told the wrong way round just so we could get Jon Snow’s perspective in ‘Dance’…?

 ‘A Dance with Dragons’ was a stodgy read then, as stodgy as the dubious looking stew the small folk eat in Kings Landing. So why did I keep reading?
Well, I’ll be the first to admit that when I get to a certain point in a series then I’m there for the duration; especially when it’s a series that I’ve enjoyed like ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’. I’m here until the bitter end.
It’s not just that though. ‘A Dance with Dragons’ was an unnecessarily slow old read but there were moments where it felt like GRRM not only got his groove back but was on fire with his storytelling and plot. It’s this that will have me picking up the next book in the hope of more of the same.

Tyrion’s chapters show that GRRM definitely hasn’t lost his touch in terms of writing characters that you really want to root for. Tyrion’s tongue is as acidic as ever but GRRM takes care to balance these moments out with the inner turmoil Tyrion goes through not only as a kinslayer but as a man who has just found out that a large chunk of his life was based on a lie. It’s been far too long since we saw Tyrion last (not that I’m blaming GRRM, a writers perogative and all that…) and he makes a more than welcome return here.

I may be amongst the minority here but I really enjoyed Dany’s chapters (and other chapters set in and around Meereen) as well; chapters that showed us that GRRM’s ability to write gripping intrigue and subterfuge haven’t died away. I got the sense that anything could happen in the lands around Slaver’s Bay and while the main events plodded along perhaps a little too predictably there were still enough surprises on the periphery to keep things interesting. The ‘big heist’ chapter in particular was stunning, really powerful and intense stuff.

The world building, away from Westeros, has some real potential as well with the landscape defined by its history instead of the lineage of its inhabitants. This approach makes for reading that you can really lose yourself in and I did on more than one occasion. I know GRRM has enough on his plate for now but if he ever found the time to write more about ancient Valyria then I for one would be very grateful.
I also enjoyed the air of horror in the shadows as magic slowly makes its presence felt in the world again. Whether it was Bran’s meeting with Lord Brynden, the Others picking off the survivors of the battle at the Wall or the practicalities of dealing with three very large and hungry dragons, it is clear that GRRM’s world is still a dangerous place and one that is only likely to become more so.

‘A Dance with Dragons’ is a bloated affair and I’d say that GRRM needs to grasp the reins a little more firmly if the rest of the series is to live up to early promise. There are moments though where GRRM seems to do just that and that’s what has me excited for the future. A very frustrating read then but one with potential at the same time.

Seven and a Half out of Ten

6 comments:

Cursed Armada said...

I agree with most of your review. I thought that Martin did a good job with the more "minor" characters in this one... The Prince of Dorn, Theon, and Victarion were all very good chapters imo... I also think that Martin should reveal more of the threat from the North. I mean the others are pretty much just zombies and the tension of what exactly is beyond the wall is loosing its edge. I also thought that there needed to be more Davos;)

Nick Townsend said...

I agree with the review but must admit the bolton and theon chapters were great.

Xenophon said...

Immensely enjoyed the first three, but A Feast for Crows was a nosedive that continued to lose altitude With a Dance with "Disappointment".

Martin really needs a better editor. he created something wonderful that has overtaken him and grown out of control. The prose drags on and on with very muddled and convoluted plot lines. If he organized his thoughts and had clearer direction it may live up to the earlier installments, but I really don't see this happening as long as the novels are selling. Sometimes success isn't necessarily a good thing...

Elfy said...

Graeme that is one of the best most even handed reviews I've seen of Dance since it came out. I can't agree about the Dany chapters, all but a couple of those were painful to read, but Theon, Bran, Davos and of course Arya redeemed that for me. I do agree with you that Dance is to a certain extent the book readers need to have to get a conclusion that may live up to the promise shown by the 1st 3 books of the series.

Lynn said...

Remember when Dany was a really great character? When she walked through her husband's funeral pyre to hatch the dragons? She was awesome! Now she just sits around and wonders what dress to wear and moans about which lord to marry. Biggest waste of a character ever!

Anthony said...

I agree with many of the points in your review. I hope Martin turns things around in the next book.