George R.R. Martin's "A Dance with Dragons": Complexity, Strangeness, and Adventure
This morning the blogosphere, the review-o-sphere, and just about all of the major print media outlets exploded with reviews and articles about George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, the fifth novel in his Songs of Ice and Fire fantasy saga. It’s perhaps the most anticipated title of the last few years, with the hype reaching the proverbial fever pitch in part because of the recent conclusion of the first season of the intelligent, brilliantly executed HBO series based on the books.
My own review just appeared in the Los Angeles Times and after some context about the series, I asked the question of whether A Dance with Dragons was worth the wait. My answer?
“Absolutely. Indeed, Martin's decision to release a sizable chunk of his story-in-progress as the fourth installment---the underrated A Feast for Crows (2005)---now seems wise and actually generous to readers. Originally intended for release as one novel, Feast and Dance overlap in terms of the time period covered, but they are vastly different. Feast chronicled aftermath, the dying fall after the great battle that ended the third book, A Storm of Swords. But A Dance With Dragons, which overtakes Feast chronologically after about 600 of its 1,000 pages, functions more as a novel about exploration and quests.”
In addition to noting that Martin is now only two books away from completion of one of the best fantasy series in history, I wrote that “Martin's love for sophisticated, deeply strange fantasy permeates Dance like a phantasmagorical fever dream.” Although there is now plenty of non-escapist heroic fantasy being written, Martin’s work stands a step or two above not just by dint of his scope but also this enduring, wonderful strangeness--something you don’t see much of in NYT bestsellers, if we’re to be honest.
Coupled with this ability is Martin’s willingness to use horror tropes, which layers in additional depth. When you throw in his commitment to making his places seem real through great description, the moral ambiguity of his characters and what I would say is a lack of editorializing--he inhabits his bad guys as honestly as his anti-heroes--you begin to understand why the series is not just so popular but so good.
And, although I didn’t have room in my review to address this subject in depth, the fourth novel, A Feast for Crows, takes on a completely different luminosity and velocity when read now rather than within the heat bubble of reader desires when it was first published to, for example, read more about the dwarf Tyrion. Feast doesn’t feature Tyrion or several other popular characters. I admit I experienced the same disappointment, and that disappointment affected my reaction to the novel. Instead of a willingness to invest in some of the new and previously minor characters, I dismissed Feast as a mistake on Martin’s part. But a recent re-read reveals that, by chance or by design, Feast is most definitely its own novel--a novel about aftermaths and the spark of new beginnings, about maintaining integrity in the face of there being little left to fight for but survival. It is also a beautifully written novel and now one of my favorites in the series.
Perhaps more importantly for readers now coming to A Dance with Dragons, once part of Feast, the severing of a book originally meant to be presented with all character threads in strict chronological order has created better thematic resonance for both. The parallels between the constraints on power between Jon Snow and the dragon queen would have been lost if the two books had been published by incorporating all character threads and then chopping the narrative in half. Instead, we have the frisson of recognition and paralleling between the two, which makes Dance much more powerful while also preserving by exclusion Feast’s own specific focus.
All of which is by way of saying that some critics may legitimately still see a fracture point between the two novels, but most readers should find that those very elements leveled as criticisms--regarding delays in publication and artificial divisions of storylines--ultimately contribute to their enjoyment of this epic series.
For my part, I am going to contribute to buying a giant padded, sterilized clear bubble for Martin to travel around in until well after he finishes the series. No airplanes. No random buses tearing around corners. The best possible health care. Let not a hair on his head be disturbed for the duration and long after.