Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Dance With Dragons, Finally

Have you ever waited six years for anything?

A college freshman waits less time to earn a degree.  A defeated presidential hopeful, for his next run at the White House.  An underdog Olympic medalist, for a chance to show the world that her triumph was no fluke.  But six years is exactly what fans of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire epic have had to endure since the release of the fourth book in the series, A Feast for Crows.  Worse, due to the narrative choices that Mr. Martin made (not necessarily bad ones), this is the first we've seen of some of the series' most compelling characters since the third book, 2000's A Storm of Swords.

ASoIaF is the best fantasy fiction currently being written (though some of Brandon Sanderson's stuff comes close).  That said, the series has lagged a little in its more recent volumes: A Feast for Crows is the slowest and least interesting book in the series, and Dance is only slightly better.  (Its proximity to the first season of the excellent HBO adaptation only served to contrast it to the fast-paced, at-times shocking first book.) But, as many a fan has pointed out, mediocre George RR Martin is better than nearly everything else out there.

More than half of Dance is devoted to just three characters: Jon Snow, Tyrion, and Daenerys.  Jon has always been among my favorite characters, so it was a welcome sight to see him commanding about a fifth of Dance.  And of the book's three "main characters," Jon's chapters are definitely the best.  There's a sense of progress throughout, from when Jon beheads his old rival Janos Slynt, through his gradual peacemaking with the wildlings and re-establishment of the garrisons along the Wall, to his climactic scene in Castle Black rallying the wildling chiefs to march against Winterfell.

Speaking of Winterfell, why not make a battle at Winterfell the climactic scene in the book?  It would have touched the stories of plenty of POV characters--not only Jon but also Asha, Davos, Theon, and Melisandre--and a massive, pitched battle would have been exactly what the book needed to cram some excitement into its last quarter.  Also, even though the Bastard of the Dreadfort claims it, I doubt very much that Stannis is dead.

The big cliffhanger to Jon's story is that he maybe, possibly, could be dead.  He's not.  His story isn't finished yet, his destiny not fulfilled.  And without Jon, we would have no narrator to describe the events at the Wall and the looming battle with the Others.  Plus, you can't set up a march against the Boltons at the head of three thousand wildlings and Tormund Giantsbane by your side and not deliver on it.  (Also, Tormund Giantsbane for best minor character?  I vote yes.)

Unfortunately, the rest of the "main character" chapters aren't as good as Jon's.  Daenerys has admittedly never been my favorite character--which is increasingly a bad way of looking at the series--but at least her chapters in previous books have constituted a sort of travelogue, a way of getting some insight into the rest of the world beyond Westeros.

Even that grinds to a halt in Dance.  After relatively brisk stays in Pentos, the Dothraki Sea, and Astapor, we find Daenerys settling herself into Meereenese politics.  It would be a fine story if it were told by itself.  But as a handful of chapters in the overarching plot, it doesn't work.  Dany is smitten with a mercenary captain (whom we don't care about because he was just introduced in this book), betrothed to a local noble (whom we don't care about because he was just introduced in this book), attended on by a different local noble (whom we don't care about because he was just introduced in this book), and the list goes on.

All of this is mighty far away from Westeros, which makes it really difficult to become invested in.  One of the many reasons that ASoIaF is so compelling is that Westeros is so very nearly like our own world that there's a sense of proximity to it.  The cultures, customs, and names of the Westerosi are vaguely familiar in a way that makes them seem more human than most other fantasy authors' characters.

But Ghis, Slaver's Bay, and Valyria are distant and bizarre.  Mr. Martin succeeds in creating a foreign, almost alien, culture that's intriguing--but at the price of removing our attachment to it.  Virtually every Daenerys chapter in Dance feels like a speed bump in the book, distracting our attention from the characters and places we've thought so much about over the last fifteen years.  If those speed bumps meant that Daenerys were about to get back on the highway of the main plot, that would be fine.  But what does she have to show for her months in Meereen and her chapters in Dance?  A trio of feral dragons and a marriage to a man who is probably out to kill her.

With Daenerys planted firmly on the throne of Meereen, it falls to Tyrion to be our tour guide through Essos, but our beloved dwarf would rather brood on his past than point out landmarks.  Yes, you shot your father Tywin with a crossbow while he was on the toilet.  We read all about it in A Storm of Swords.  We understand that your feelings about it are mixed and that it's constantly on your mind.  That does not mean we need to read about it in every one of your many, many chapters in Dance.

Nor do we need to read about you choking Shae with her jewelry or your obsession with finding Tysha or how much wine you've had to drink or if you were winning or losing at cyvasse.  Every Tyrion chapter can be reduced to some combination of those thoughts, and after three or four iterations of it, it ceases to be interesting.  Tyrion's personality and occasional encounters with other branches of the plot and POV characters save his story from becoming a complete trainwreck--but barely.

Even his great cliffhanger falls flat: he's going to convince a turncloak group of mercenaries to... turn their cloaks again?  At the end of the book, I realized I didn't even remember how Tyrion's chapters had ended because the "climax" seemed like such a non-event at the time.

Fortunately, not all of Dance is as dreary and inconsequential as the adventures in Essos.  Ironically, the characters with the fewest viewpoint chapters have the most interesting things to say.  Melisandre's lonely chapter shed some important if oblique insights on her relationship with the Red God and even more on the destiny of Jon Snow.  (Hint: if you ask to see Azor Ahai reborn in your fires, and all you see is Jon Snow, maybe it's time to rethink the whole Stannis bit.)

My favorite character in the series remains Jaime, and his one chapter was excellent.  It mattered to the story, it told an interesting detail about the world, it showcased how his character has developed, and it reunited him with Brienne, another POV character (not to mention confirming that Sandor Clegane is alive).  Cersei's lesson in humility was deeply fulfilling to watch and kept its pace nicely.

There's a certain morbid thrill in watching Arya develop into an assassin, and it's going to be a very bad day for her hit list when she returns to Westeros.  And Dance definitely needed more Bran.  His scant few chapters were chock full of mythology and magic, and I look forward to the day when he becomes a flying tree. 

Even Jon Connington's handful of chapters are interesting.  By my own logic, I shouldn't care about him because he was introduced so late in the game... but given that he's already involving himself in Westeros instead of huddling in some corner across the Narrow Sea, he hasn't made himself an unwelcome addition.  The news that Prince Aegon is still alive was a nice twist, and we finally got an answer to the age-old question of "whose side is Varys on, anyway?"

(Maybe that's the secret to bringing back the intensity and excitement of the first three books: limit George RR Martin to no more than five chapters for any one POV character!)

In the end, if fans are disappointed by Dance, it's not because they disliked the book--after all, this is A Song of Ice and Fire, and we would gladly read seven hundred pages of Rickon Stark playing with his direwolf if that's what Mr. Martin gave us.  Instead, the disappointment comes from the dread of what comes next: do I really have to wait another World Cup and a half to get book six?

Currently listening: "The Police and the Private," Metric


Gina said...

Ugh, Matt. Now I'm going to have to make myself wade through A Feast for Crows to get to this book.

I've read the entire series twice at this point. Both times I get to A Feast for Crows, make it about halfway through, and then stop.

Matt Pavlovich said...

AFfC is definitely the slowest book in the series, but even it's not so bad. Arya's chapters are awesome (and even better in ADWD!), and there's a Jaime moment at the end that makes the whole thing worth it.

Seeing some of the cliffhangers in both Feast and Dance, now I have impossibly high standards for The Winds of Winter...