Thursday, August 04, 2011

Review: "A Dance with Dragons" by George R.R. Martin

It’s been a long wait for George R.R. Martin’s “A Dance with Dragons” ($35, Bantam), and most fans may not find it entirely satisfying. This, certainly, is not the best or most exciting of Martin’s books, but it was a necessary volume to get the series back on track.

“A Dance with Dragons” runs in parallel time to the last volume, 2006’s “A Feast for Crows.” It focuses, primarily, on three of the myriad characters of the series, the dwarf kinslayer Tyrion Lannister, the exiled princes Daenerys Targaryen and the bastard son of the beheaded Lord Eddard Stark and captain of the Night’s Watch Jon Snow. When I discovered that, I was excited. For me, these three are the most interesting characters in the book. I’ve always found Tyrion, in particular, to be a fascinating character. In a worrying move, Martin also opens a few new subplots, giving me bad Robert Jordan flashbacks, but for the nonce, I’ll keep my faith in him.

Unfortunately, this book does move quite slowly. While I’ve seen reviews that say not much happens, actually quite a bit happens. I’m just not sure how much of it is important. The stalling of Daenerys’ storyline, for example, as she tries to exert her control over the city of Mereen doesn’t seem to be moving her any closer to returning to Westeros to reclaim the throne that was taken from her family. Tyrion bounces around here, there and yonder, and while he eventually gets to the place that he needs to be, it seems to me that there’s not a lot of direction in his storyline. The only subplot in the book that seems to be leading directly to a climax to the story is Jon Snow, who is attempting to protect the world from darkness while the rest of the characters squabble over who should be king and ignore the bigger threat.

I’ve always liked Martin’s head-hopping style of storytelling, doling the tale out in snippets through the eyes of a group of key characters. That, however, turns into a weakness here, simply because of the amount of time between volumes. A lot of books have passed through my head in the five years between “A Feast for Crows” and “A Dance with Dragons,” and I found myself struggling to recall some key plot points. Occasionally Martin will help us out with it a little, but more often we’re expected to remember events of several books ago. That might work when we’re getting one per year or every other year, but when it’s been five years since you read the last one, and more than 15 since the first, things are forgotten.

I think it’s clear from the five-year wait for this volume that Martin lost the thread of the story, and he seems to be meandering across his world here on a quest to find it. In the end, I hope that this book serves to get him back on track. By the end of “A Dance with Dragons,” the split timeline has seemingly merged, and events begin to look as though they’re finally converging again and moving toward a resolution. Those new subplots are concerning, but he’s left the reader with a few very interesting developments to ponder as we wait (hopefully not as long) on the next volume. One of them, in fact, is a bombshell that makes the atmosphere ripe for some chaos.

This one, unlike the early books in the series, proved a slow and difficult read for me, just as it was a slow and difficult process for Martin to write it. I know some fans will be disappointed. That’s inevitable after such a long wait, and I admit to feeling a little letdown myself. When all is said and done, though, I walked away from “A Dance with Dragons” with an optimistic outlook for the series. I could be wrong (it’s been known to happen), but the feeling I got at the end of the book was that the struggle is over and now we can move on. I wish I could take a peek into Lady Melisandre’s flames and see that my hopes for the series are correct.

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