Friday, July 15, 2011

Book Review: George R.R. Martin - "A Dance With Dragons"

"It has been a while between books, I know," George R.R. Martin admits in the introduction to his new novel. One can only imagine this line being delivered wearily, the response to thousands of fans clamoring for the next installment in the epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. It's been six years since the previous book, and that book only featured half the main cast. Long-time readers haven't met up with certain characters in A Dance with Dragons since 2000. That was eleven years ago. Bill Clinton was president. It's been a long time. 

So it's hard to approach reading A Dance with Dragons as one would a regular book. The build-up, both from the long wait and the exposure from the HBO series, has led to increased expectations and a reader base large enough to single-handedly revive the fortune of some bookstores. It's hard for a book to live up to that sort of anticipation. Additionally, there's the personal element to consider. When I last read about some of these characters, I was fourteen years old. It's a bit jarring to pick up the new book and realize that absolutely no time has passed for these characters I left eleven years ago. 

After three immensely enjoyable books, Martin ran into a bit of problems with A Feast for Crows in 2005. The book featured only half of the main cast, and they happened to be the least interesting half. Fans missed their favorite characters, questioned the slowing pace of events, and wondered if publishing a half-book wasn't just a way to sell something while working around some sort of writers' block. Excited as I was about Dance, I was also a tad nervous. Martin's been writing these books for close to two decades. What if he's lost his touch? 

Luckily, Dance at least acknowledges and corrects some of the inherent problems of the previous volume. It's perhaps not up to the quality of the first few installments, but it also speaks of an author who took some criticisms to heart and publicly stated that he wanted to avoid a disappointing conclusion ala Lost. The book is meatier, the characters more interesting, the pace livelier, and the quanity of "Holy Shit!" moments is substantially higher. 

The cast of Dance alone makes for a big improvement. Like Feast, most of the plots feature complicated political machinations and sometimes-directionless travels through exotic locations. Unlike Feast, the cast of characters this time around makes it seem worthwhile. Here we have a horny young queen choosing between suitors who just want her dragons, a drunken patricidal dwarf stumbling through exile, and a sullen young bastard commander preparing to fight ice zombies. There's also prophetic wizard-priests, pig-riding midgets, triple-crossing mercenaries, a fleet of violent seafaring raiders, and a guild of assassins who double as a religious cult. In short, there's a bunch of pulpy, larger-than-life personalities and delightfully complex webs of alliance and betrayal, which make Dance a fast read even with its 1000+ page count. 

Martin has also grown somewhat as a writer in the past decade. He used to work in Hollywood writing for television, and the first book in the series read like a screenplay - fast-paced, dialogue-heavy, quickly switching between one scene and the next. Dance takes more time moving the plot along, but this does not make it dull. On the contrary, this allows Martin to take more time to explore his world, embellish locations and cultures, and let his characters breathe and grow. While the story may not move as quickly, the quality of writing more than makes up for it. 

But if the fifth book in series also makes the best of some of Martin's strengths - vivid locations, memorable characters, left-field plot twists - is also exposes some weaknesses that have been inherent in the series since the beginning. The level of violence, especially sexual violence, still remains uncomfortably over-the-top; I give Martin credit for not whitewashing medieval society, but he has yet to learn that it's often more effective to fade the black and let the reader fill in the details. Dance is still filled with detailed descriptions of death, dismemberment and rape, but by this point in the series these events seem less shocking and more a chore to read through. You can only hammer home the point that life sucked for peasants and women so many times before it grows stale. The most shocking and memorable scenes in Dance aren't the gritty ones.

More importantly, Martin's penchant for employing cliffhangers has only gotten worse. Perhaps again stemming from his screenwriting roots, the first few books in the series were tightly plotted, each character with their own arc and each plot with a beginning, middle and end. In Dance, this sort of plotting is gone, and the novel doesn't reach a conclusion so much as just sort of fizzle out, as if Martin figured he wrote enough pages and sent it off to be published. Each of the first three books in the series can be read as books, well-structured with their own conclusions. With Feast and Dance, the books read more as a continuing serial than a planned narrative. 

How much this bothers you probably depends on how quickly you want the plot to wrap up, because while Dance packs a lot of plot into its pages, it ends with the main narrative seemingly little advanced. Nearly every character is left on some sort of cliffhanger, to the point where it considerably cheapens the narrative. It's like a sword-and-sorcery soap opera, that perpetually leaves you hanging on Friday to convince you to tune in next Monday, the story running in circles without ever developing. (This is most blatant in the chapters about the young queen Daenerys Targaryen, where it's very clear that she's simply treading water until other plotlines intersect with hers). Newer fans might not be bothered, but if you've been waiting years for some sort of resolution to certain plots, you're probably going to still be waiting. Martin has proved he still has it in him to craft an engaging, entertaining story, but not that he has it in him to tie up the myriad of plots and bring everything to a conclusion. 

Martin himself has admitted he is unhappy with the large number of cliffhangers in this volume, but he couldn't reach a good stopping point that would still feasibly fit within a single hardback volume. On the one hand, one might think that if Martin tightened up his narrative a bit, he'd have room for a more proper conclusion. On the other hand, excessive subplots, sizable casts and prosodic bloat are half the fun of lengthy fantasy series such as this one. But the lack of a fulfilling climax makes one wonder why, exactly, this book took six years to write, and whether or not Martin simply pushed back his structural difficulties into the next volume.

In the end, this makes Dance not quite as good of a book as the first three, but certainly more entertaining than the endless travelogues and vapid politicking of Feast. There's some great characters, a truly epic scope, and an urgent feel to much of the story. But the abrupt conclusion and several plotlines that are a little too languidly-paced make for a book that seems to have sacrificed a rousing finale for too much filler and build-up. Martin is back on track in terms of entertaining; let's just hope that he can now work on actually bringing this story to a close. And that it doesn't take another decade to see these characters again.