A Dance with Dragons: Page 419 and no end in sight

A Dance with Dragons: A Song of Fire and Ice Book Five, George R.R. Martin (Bantam Books, 2011).

P.S. my final review of this volume can be found by clicking on this statement!!!

Grade: Δ THUS FARSolid read, but only buy it if you like the genre.

In Brief:

This is an atypical post for me, because it is not truly a review of the book.  At page 419 — a veritable number of pages that would have seen me to the end of most books, I am now actually only just over 1/3rd of the way through this novel.  It would be totally unfair to review a book that is not completed, however, I found myself in desperate need to express an opinion: GET ON WITH IT!!!

Setting:

An increasingly complex and very well fleshed out High Fantasy world.  It includes magic, but not in the typical D&D High Fantasy style. Neither are there Tolkienesque non-humans (i.e. no elves, dwarves, orcs, etc., but does include fae like creatures, dragons and undead).  The story follows the human drama and political complexities between the multiple power factions that exist in a medievalesque kingdom that very vaguely resembles a scaled up geography of the UK (in that it is divided into three sections: The South, the North and Scotland… err… sorry… Beyond the Wall). 

In Depth:

NPR recently ran a review of Dance with Dragons that called George R.R. Martin the American J.R.R. Tolkien.  This is an interesting comparison that is true in some elements and totally false in most others.  Martin is a truly gifted writer, but has a considerable weakness that is beginning to take its toll.

He has a remarkable ability to give back story and reveal information while also moving the plot forward and developing characters (though admittedly, I am a bit tired of hearing Tyrion’s already countless revisits to the past that we’ve already experience in the narrative of the last book).  I remain amazed of how much I know and understand of both the politics and mechanics of this world despite the fact that I could not tell you a single instance where the info-dump could be detected. Genius.  To this end, he surpasses the Great Tolkien himself, whose info dumps were obvious (albeit some of my favorite parts of the series).

More importantly, Martin a wonderful crafter of characters and has a marvelous skill in allowing us to sympathize with even the most vile of people.  I cannot tell you how many times I have found myself hoping that one of the many cast of villains in this story manages to succeed before realizing what, exactly that would mean. To this end, the whole of the Song of Fire and Ice saga could be defined as a Literary Novel more than a genre novel, as that the tale truly is character driven (though one must wonder who came up with that definition anyway… don’t get me started).

But alas, there also lies the problem.  At page 419, Foucault’s Pendulum (Eco, 1988), one of the most complex and intricate stories I have ever read, had only 108 pages left in its telling. Dune (Herbert, 1965) had a mere 45 pages left to go.  Paradise Passed (Oltion, 2004) had been finished for 109 pages. Yet Dances with Dragons, the fifth book in the series, is only 1/3rd of the way through and I see no signs of the book coming to completion, not to mention the series. 

Indeed, at around page 245 there was a perfect opportunity to begin moving things to a conclusion that was not only ignored, but was outwardly thwarted by the author.  Then on page 267, there was a completely unnecessary plot complication added that promises to add at least another 500 pages to the book.  That is not to say that the developments are not interesting, or even realistic, it’s just that I begin to wonder if they really add anything to the story. 

The books have now seemed to cross that boundary between Sword Opera and Soap Opera.  After Fifteen years, twelve of which were spent waiting for the next set of volumes to be published, I cannot help but wonder if this book is dragging on because the author is trying to spin out more volumes for more money, or if it is due to his having no real idea what is going to happen next. 

Either way, it is disappointing, and completely un-Tolkien-like.  While Tolkien certainly let his story spin its own web (as it were), he always had a clear idea of where it would end up.  A scholar of epic sagas, Tolkien had a clearly crafted and traditional pattern that he was following.  The same does not seem to be the case for Martin. Indeed, if he is following any pattern it has more in common with Days of Our Lives than it does with Egil’s Saga.  I wonder if his next volume will also take six years to produce (as the last two did), and if it will be the penultimate in the series or merely the set up for another sequel.

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in Fantasy, High Fantasy, Identity, Opinion Piece, Political Drama, Post Modern, Ripping Yarn, Serial, Series, Strong Characters and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Dance with Dragons: Page 419 and no end in sight

  1. JoJo says:

    I love a good, honest review! I will remove that from my list!

  2. texasdruids says:

    I stopped reading Martin’s saga after book three. While his work is meticulous and engrossing, it does begin to drag after a while. And he’s not Tolkien! I’ve read The Lord of The Rings trilogy and the Hobbit several times and never tire of it. I wouldn’t do the same with Martin’s books. It’s strange that while Tolkien’s tirlogy covers wars, evil doings and any number of heavy subjects, it still vibrates with beauty and light. On the other hand, Martin’s books leave me feeling exhausted and rather depressed. Maybe if he went into less detail and moved things along at a faster pace, I wouldn’t end up with that feeling.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      I think that most post-modern works tend toward the depressing side, and indeed any work of post-modern fantasy has to be bleak by its very nature.

      Traditional High Fantasy is about heroic behaviour by galant protaganists. To that end, post-modern High Fantasy has to be about foul behaviour by anti-heroes and/or heroic deeds failing dismally.

      The problem with Martin is, all the heroic individuals fail (except maybe Jon Snow) leaving little room for hope. Indeed, once you start to like a character, they pretty much end up dead every time. After a while, that gets boring and all the desperation wears away.

      Actually, I recently listened to Luke Burrage’s podcast review on the Science Fiction Book Review Podcast and he made a very good point: This is an epic tale about Evil vs. Stupid. It’s true, particularly of books one and three. There are a hundreds of chances for the good guys to win, but they do something moronic and the whole world pays for it.

      Still, I find myself drawn to read on…

  3. Thomas Evans says:

    Besides… it is the pointless side-tracks that leave me getting frustrated.

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