Friday, July 29, 2011

Book Review: A Dance With Dragons

So, it actually came out. After 5 years after the previous instalment, and after various drama on the internet, rampant speculation from all sides, and for a lot of fans, simply a damn long wait, A Dance with Dragons is upon us. Having basically ignored the very existence of the series for years, I finally succumbed to A Game of Thrones last year, and then reading the rest nearly back-to-back ever since, I didn’t really suffer from all of that, and was able to roll straight from A Feast for Crows into this one. Which as we will see, is probably a good thing.

First off – I’ll try and keep this as spoiler-free as possible, at least from the point of view of this book. If you’ve not read the series at all, many plot comments will be gibberish anyway, and if you’re still reading them; well even a cast list could contain pretty big spoilers given the series’ casualty rate, but I’ll try to keep it a general as possible. That said, this whole series is, for me, a “journey” sort of experience. Sure you can go to Wikipedia and get a plot summary, and find out who lives and dies, and what happens to whom, and where, but for all A Dance with Dragons contains a couple of big revelations and a couple of shock deaths – which you’d expect from George R R Martin – really it is the pleasure of spending time in the world that I find attractive, and this is no exception.

Wait, did I just say “pleasure”?

Sure I did. Yes, this is a series steeped in death and despair and betrayal and anguish.  Martins’ big themes reoccur across aDwD  - that you never get past your true love, the fickle nature of identity, that war sucks – but there is such a complexity to the storytelling that it engages parts of my brain that race ahead trying draw conclusions and connections, trying to read the meta-narrative, and that gives me a sort of protective shield from the awfulness of some of the experiences the characters go through. That probably sounds weird, but the most affecting book I read recently – On the Beach – keeps it’s core story so simple there is no escape for you, the reader, from the fates of its characters. Here you can retreat back to looking at the “big picture” which is fascinating in its own right, and maybe hide a little from people dying in ditches.

So story-wise aDwD is a parallel book to A Feast for Crows for about the first half of it’s length, focusing on events in the North and on Slaver’s Bay that are occurring whilst Jamie is wandering the ruins of the Riverlands and Cersei is screwing up things in Kings Landing. It’s a little weird to flit back in time like that, as the events of the end of A Storm of Swords come back into focus, and I can’t help but wonder if say, the parallel reactions of Tyrion and Jamie to those events would have had more weight if they were actually parallel in the books. The other big stars of aDwD are of course Jon and Dany, whose physical and emotional separation from the main plots are less problematic, although there are early signs that perhaps these plots may start to flow back sooner rather than later. 

And of course a host of the lesser PoV characters, including token chapters continuing the events of A Feast for Crows, keep the story moving forward. Personally I really liked the insight into the Lords of the North and what is going on up there between The Wall and the Trident, and it’s a story told with a lot of craft, various PoV characters only getting part of the story and only the reader getting what passes for a full picture. It’s probably the cleverest strand in the book and is left on a somewhat frustrating cliff-hanger rather than a satisfying one. 

The rest of the stories are all about moving pieces into place. It is certainly no co-incidence that the Chess-analog “Cyvasse” becomes a recurrent motif in this book. It’s not to say that things don’t happen, because they certainly do, and with this level of complexity already in place almost every chapter feels significant in some way, but this feels like the middle of a series insomuch that not much new is brought in and not much major is being resolved, and threads are staying defiantly separate from each other. And I’m wary enough of GRRM’s tendency to bluff you at the end of novels that even many of the deaths I just don’t believe. In one case I will be impressed if it sticks, however much I doubt that it will. 

Five books in, and A Song of Ice and Fire remains, for me, one of the most staggeringly impressive series of novels I've ever read. Its not just the length, it’s the care and craft behind them, that weaves the narrative together, both within the story, and thematically. Yes, it’s grim, no question – bad things happen to good people, but bad things happen to bad people too, and for me it never feels simply gratuitous, something you often get in “dark” genre work where the author is trying to establish “mature” credentials. Hell, I read a 1,000 page novel in less than a week, that should tell you something!

Now if only I didn’t have to wait 5 years for The Winds of Winter