A Dance with Dragons

There are times when you just don’t even want to hear about another book. Each year is much like the last, with the number of should-read and can’t-wait-to-read titles piling up in your mind and on the shelf and under the desk and spilling out of your bag and into the hallway. But word had come from a friend about an author named Naomi Novik. She’d written a novel that he said was just superb historical fiction, with expertly realized descriptions of the arcana of Napoleonic War-era naval combat that landed right in the middle of the Venn diagram of our intersecting interests. Even better, he said, there are dragons, and they talk. I was hooked before even cracking the spine.

That was when the problem presented itself. His Majesty’s Dragon turned out to have six sequels, with a seventh reportedly on the way. Absurd as it might sound, those are the times when some readers—normally thrilled at having found such a treasure trove—begin to have commitment problems. Their questions can change dramatically from normative concerns—Am I going to like it? Will it squander precious resources like time and money?—to a more rarified one: Do I have time for this? The fact that the answer is usually “no” rarely keeps those books from being added to the pile.

This brings us to George R. R. Martin and his daunting novel cycle A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin had been a genre-fiction jobber when he decided to embark on the gargantuan fantasy series to rival them all, commencing with the 1996 publication of A Game of Thrones. It was a clanging-sword adventure set in the decidedly non-Tolkienesque land of Westeros, a sprawling continent that ran from snow-bound wastes in the north, haunted by “wildings” and rumors of the walking dead, to heat-blasted sand in the south. In between lay a jumble of seven kingdoms united under the tenuous rule of King Robert Baratheon, who had dethroned the long-reining Targaryens monarchy many years earlier.

Robert’s installation of his fellow rebel, the unusually honest Lord Eddard Stark of the northern Winterfell clan, as his right-hand man in the capital leads to an assassination whose implications rival those of the Sarajevo shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Coups and murders and plots spread across Westeros with brushfire speed, miring the land in internecine warfare. Meantime, rumors fly about unnatural threats lurking to the north above the gargantuan Wall, a hulking edifice of ice hundreds of miles wide and hundreds of feet high, guarded by the grubby and morose multinational coalition known as the Night’s Watch. All the while, summer is fading in a land where each season lasts years instead of months, and the aptly named Starks mutter, “Winter is coming.”

In the following years, Martin put out three sequels: A Clash of Kings (1999), A Storm of Swords (2000), and A Feast for Crows (2005). They were a commitment, a thousand-odd tightly packed pages each, with desperately needed appendices covering the dozens of major characters, not to mention the minor ones who sprouted like so many weeds from Martin’s densely layered narrative. It was the rare reader who didn’t pause a half-dozen times during any of the books to scratch their head, flip to the back, and wonder, “Wait, who is that again? And which side is he fighting on?”

Making the depth of the rabbit hole that Martin asked his readers to plunge down easier to bear was the considerable length of time between most of the sequels. However, the six-year pause between A Feast for Crows and this summer’s publication of the fifth novel, A Dance with Dragons, was well beyond the capabilities of some. His more ardent fans stomped and howled and pleaded for Martin to up and finish the thing. This April’s premiere of the immediately successful David Benioff-co-scripted  HBO series adaptation only whetted people’s appetites more. As Laura Miller wrote in her New Yorker profile of Martin, many begged him not to “pull a Robert Jordan,” referring to the other bestselling American author of a multi-tome fantasy series (The Wheel of Time), who had the bad manners to pass away before finishing it.

Where Jordan’s work was just as crowded as Martin’s, A Song of Ice and Fire has more in common with dynastic European histories and modern-day pulp fiction. In a genre famous for its prim habit of skipping over vulgar details in favor of grand quests and paper-thin characterizations, Martin brought a fully blooded reality to his fantasy creations. Vanity, cowardice, greed, fear, lust, and self-preservation are the motivating factors in these pages, with incest, rapine, and cold-blooded butchery following in a Hobbesian train.

Much in the same way that Lian Hearn’s spectacular Tales of the Otori series began with a clear sense of good and evil before letting the entropy of human nature grind so much of it into sadness and violence, Martin doesn’t get carried away by pageantry, preferring to mock its hypocrisy. There might be grand clashes of arms where high-born lords lead spectacular charges, but Martin’s narrative is more at home down in the battlefield mud. Although his writing can veer into the purple, Martin is capable of some graceful and moving passages, such as the following from A Feast for Crows,where a man tells how it is for the “smallfolk” always getting recruited to fight in one war or another:

…And one day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. They don’t know where they are or how to get back home and the lord they’re fighting for does not know their names, yet here he comes, shouting for them to form up, to make a line with their spears and scythes and sharpened hoes, to stand their ground. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad all in steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world…

And the man breaks.

In A Dance with Dragons, Martin’s characters appear to have mostly lost what illusions they may have had when the hydra-headed dynastic struggle began. Outbreaks of military violence scud across the land like clouds, while the surviving, scattered Stark children (with darkened eyes and hardened hearts) keep their heads down, and factionalism in the Night’s Watch leaves the whole world under threat.

While the novel as a whole suffers from a lack of cohesion—a likely result of the fact that it was meant to be the second half of one overly long novel (Martin hacked off the first part to make Feast)—bloat is par for the course in the series. Each book is less a stand-alone volume than it is one section in a continuous novel that seems to have the ability to keep spinning itself into multi-strand plotlets forever. What Dragons has going for it is something sorely missing from Feast: Tyrion Lannister. The noble-born but proudly base brother of the proud knight Jaime whose murderous indiscretion kicked off much of the tragedies in Game, Tyrion is a sarcastic dwarf whose quick wits, sharp tongue, and tragic sensibility make him the closest thing the series has to a soul. In Dragons, Tyrion is stuck maneuvering to stay alive on a continent far from Westeros where a parallel drama has been developing. Daenerys Targaryen, long-lost scion of the deposed line of Westeros kings, has risen from being the teen bride of a Mongol-like lord in the first book to a victorious queen intent on reconquering Westeros, with an army of fearless eunuchs and three dragons (a species long thought extinct) at her back.

Each of the drama machines that Martin has set to work in his earlier books keeps humming here with an admirable precision. It’s a thundering good read that sometimes frustrates (focus, George, focus!) but more often than not enthralls as the greatest adventure fiction should. Like most series of this kind—Novik’s tales of dragon squadrons battling over the English Channel, the twenty-odd Aubrey-Maturin adventures, or one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s volumes in the nearly interminable John Carter of Mars serial—one devours it ravenously, a few days or a week, tops, and then the wondering begins anew: what about the next book? And do I have time for it? In this case, absolutely.