Book Review: A Dance with Dragons

Author: George R.R. Martin ~ Pages: 1016pp ~ Publisher: Harper Collins ~ Year: 2011

A Dance with Dragons UK Cover Art George R R Martin A Song of Ice and Fire Volume Five[xrr rating=5/5]

The Low-Down: It’s been six years coming, but the latest volume of A Song of Ice and Fire has arrived, just in time to follow the acclaimed HBO TV adaptation of Game of Thrones – and George R.R. Martin is showing no sign of softening his approach. As bleak, complex and brutal as ever, this is still one of the most demanding and adult epic fantasies out there, but A Dance with Dragons is also a compulsively gripping ride for those willing to take it.

What’s it About?: In the wake of the war that nearly tore the Seven Kingdoms apart, the surviving members of the Stark family are still scattered, desperately trying to survive in a world of lethal danger. But, while Tyrion Lannister sets out on a long and unpredictable journey, and Jon Snow struggles to keep control in his position as Commander of the Night’s Watch, Daenerys Targaryen’s quest to regain the throne of Westeros is struggling as she finds herself with enemies on all sides, and her now-grown dragons slipping out of her control…

The Book: (The following is, essentially, a longer version of the thoughts that went into my review of A Dance with Dragons for SFX Magazine, which you can read online here. Plus, for anyone worried, the following is spoiler-free…)

George R.R. Martin is not your bitch. It’s been said before, plenty of times (and first said by Neil Gaiman, back in 2009), but it bears repeating as the lengthy delays between volumes of this fantasy saga (with the resulting amount of bitching from fandom at Martin’s perceived ‘slacking’) have become one of the major criticisms of this series. Indeed, it’s not an ideal time to be an epic fantasy fan, as a number of series have ended up with delayed volumes (most notably Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear, which finally arrived earlier this year, and Scott Lynch’s still-delayed The Republic of Thieves), with lots of rebellious muttering and complaining from fans about “why can’ these dratted authors just hurry up and get on with it”, and “it’s all rather unprofessional”, and “really, it can’t be hard to plan, can it?”

Well, you can get books quickly, or you can get them right. A Dance with Dragons has been massively delayed, but just looking at a physical edition of the boom makes it fairly obvious why – this is a big book, weighing in at over 400,000 words (the equivalent of three average-sized fantasy novels – as pointed out by author John Scalzi here) and almost packed to bursting with plot, characters and incident. The level of storytelling craft on display in A Dance with Dragons is pretty astounding, and while it may be a pretty big investment of time, there’s certainly no doubting that it’s a worthwhile one (or that there’d be just as much complaining going on if Martin was cranking out sub-standard volumes on the schedule fandom demanded). You simply don’t get this kind of work  on a yearly basis, especially when the scope of the novel is quite so massive. Fans may not like it, but Martin is going to go at the speed he’s going to go, and does seem absolutely determined to not compromise for a second.

Of course, one factor that does need to be born in mind is that while A Dance with Dragons is massive, it is – like many books in sprawling fantasy series – a middle volume, one that picks up plot-threads from previous books, continues them along for a while, and then leaves them. Indeed, it’s made more complicated by the fact that this story is so big that A Dance with Dragons is essentially the second half of the story Martin began with A Feast for Crows, a tale so big that it had to be split across volumes, and which has meant that longtime fans have had to wait almost eleven years to find out what happens next to characters like Tyrion and Daenerys. This is emphatically not a new-reader-friendly book – the fact that the appendices listing the various family trees go on for fifty pages should give a clue as to exactly how massive Martin’s sprawling and ambitious fantasy epic has gotten. Epic fantasy is notorious for this kind of narrative sprawl, and even fans would do well to have a copy of A Feast for Crows to hand to refresh their memories, as there’s an absolute minimum of hand-holding – Martin throws us back into the action, and it’s up to us to keep up with a narrative that once again leaps between over a dozen perspectives.

The level of detail and the sheer size of the cast is demanding and can get a little exhausting at times (especially when, once you’ve gotten used to the current collection of characters, the perspective shifts and a whole new bunch suddenly turn up), but while it may not always be the easiest read in the world, Martin never makes it anything less than solidly gripping, wrapping a web of plot developments, betrayals, twists and shocks around the central thread of Daenerys’ determination to hold onto the power that she’s gained (and the political mistakes she ends up making). Yet again, what’s most impressive about Martin’s saga is the simple fact that while it has all the ingredients for a fun, cosy escapist epic fantasy, this is brutal, full-blooded, unforgiving and frequently savage stuff. A lot of the grittier epic fantasy in the last fifteen years has been influenced by Martin’s series, and yet he’s still capable of delivering gut-wrenching shocks and a sense of unrelenting horror at what human beings are capable of doing to each other. He’s also as unflinching as ever when it comes to presenting a realistic medieval world, where rape, incest and child-marriage are facts of life – the world of A Dance with Dragons is vivid and thrilling and exciting, but there’s not a single point where you actually want to go there.

Even the characters are uncomfortably real, full of contradictions and multiple layers – none more so than bitter dwarf Tyrion Lannister, who continues to be simultaneously charismatic, sympathetic, pitiable and repugnant. He’s a terrible person at heart, and yet is unapologetic about it, and the level of humanity (both positive and negative) that Martin is able to give his cast makes this a fascinating, engaging and sometimes traumatic read. The hundreds of characters in A Dance with Dragons are put through the wringer, and not all of them make it out of the book alive, but Martin keeps the tension up, carrying off a selection of memorable setpieces while also filling in more mythological detail on the more fantastic aspects of the book’s world.

It all builds up to a series of cliffhangers which are both brilliantly played and, of course, horribly frustrating (especially considering the potential wait for the next volume) – but Martin has done his job in keeping the quality of the series at an incredible level. This is absolutely not a saga for everyone, and about the only major question mark that really lies over A Song of Ice and Fire is whether or not Martin can actually wrap up the boggling number of plot-threads he’s left hanging in the next two books. At the least, Martin hasn’t unequivocably said that it will definitely be done by book seven – it’s possible that the size of the plot may soon start working against the series, and he certainly isn’t going to get any less criticism if the plot balloons any further.  But, whatever lies in the future of A Song of Ice and Fire – whether it’s two more volumes or three (or, lord help us, more), the fact is that sometimes epic fantasy is going to be really, really big, and sometimes good things take time. Sometimes fiction is hard. And sometimes, if you like something, you’ve simply got to wait. It isn’t going to get easier to wait for the next volume – but A Dance with Dragons certainly gives enough to keep longtime fans and new converts plenty to be going on with…

The Verdict: An epic fantasy that redefines the word epic, George R.R. Martin once again shows that he is one of the best fantasy writers currently working in the genre. The sprawling massiveness of A Dance with Dragons’ multiple plotlines is not going to be for everyone, and this fifth volume may have taken a very long time to reach the bookstores, but it’s a detailed, sweeping and full-blooded tale that’s worth the wait. Now, time to sit back and see exactly how long book 6, The Winds of Winter, takes to arrive…

[amtap book:isbn=0002247399]

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