Thursday, July 21, 2011
George R.R. Martin's A DANCE WITH DRAGONS
So now you know why I haven't blogged much here of late. I've been eyeball-deep in the lastest installment of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Now, though, I am done, and I am weirdly tired.
I'm going to strain after a physics metaphor here, for which I apologize.
The first book of this enormous series (each volume is around 1000 pages), A Game of Thrones, more or less as I have observed in other posts here, set up something big and then blew it apart. The pieces flew and collided with stuff all through A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords with immensely satisfying effect, and then...
Then came A Feast For Crows, Martin's placeholder book, clearly published to placate the fans who were howling for the next book and getting very impatient. He hacked out, the conventional wisdom said, the less important and mostly less interesting bits of his original planned fourth book, which was getting just too big and unwieldy, and assembled them into a section of story (or, as some have observed, really just a pile of pages) and tossed it to the direwolves outside his door. The good stuff, we were told, was waiting for us in A Dance with Dragons and meanwhile, hey, enjoy these B rolls -- which did admittedly contain some good stuff but at the expense of a lot of oomph. The energy propelling the fragments sent flying by the explosions of A Game of Thrones was dissipating anyway, and sadly, A Feast for Crows didn't so much as let the force and velocity dwindle as artifically retard it further.
So this fifth book (or really, fourth-and-a-half) needed to find a new source of energy before everything stopped altogether. It needed it badly.
Did it? Ehh, not so much.
A Dance with Dragons, for my money, wound up relying too much on the readers' gratitude to finally be walking alongside the (remaining, as in still alive) core characters who first enchanted us and most of whom original readers have been missing for... let's see, eleven years (since A Storm of Swords was first published in 2000, yeah, eleven. As in this one goes up to. Ugh. My heart truly goes out to the fans who were with this series from the beginning, who endured that wait. My own wait was a mere and merciful month). Our reunions were sweet and joyful; just seeing a beloved character's name as a chapter heading was enough to make me squee as I started reading. But is that enough energy to propel a story through another thousand pages?
So what else is supplying the needed force now? Well, much like in A Feast for Crows, there is a lot of traveling -- marching, sailing, riding. But as the fans know, Winter Is Coming so this is a lot more arduous and slow. Chapters following one party from the Wall to Winterfell feel three times as long as they are even without the point of view character constantly chanting to herself that the distance is 300 leagues. This isn't quite "A highborn maid of threescore and ten..." territory but border skirmishes are possible.
A fan favorite (if not the fan favorite) character spends a lot of this book playing cyvasse, which as far as I can tell is this world's version of chess. It has somehow become his primary means of interaction with other people: sitting in a room - a tavern, a ship's cabin, a tent - moving a bunch of pieces around on a board and, usually, letting the other guy defeat himself.
It's really hard not to see this as a metaphor for what Martin is doing here. Which is too bad. He's obviously got big plans for all of his characters. The story is awash in prophecy and everything is still very much up for grabs; we are still nowhere near that point where a system settles into its new ground state at this point. There's still lots at stake. And the consistency with which his characters act and his situations develop really do argue for an eventual grand finale. I'm pretty sure he knows what's coming for everybody. But like his cyvasse player, he is cautious, whether because he doesn't trust his game plan as much as he arguably should, or because it's fun watching his opponent (that would be us) squirm (I suspect the former; he doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would deliberately torment the multitudes). And so he feints. J'adoube.
All of that said, Martin did not forget to continue exploiting the strengths developed in the prior books. No character is safe, so when one is in jeopardy the reader feels it. And there is one beloved character who may well be dead now. Another may be captured, another may be executed, another may never leave his found sanctuary again, another whom we have loved for four books may be becoming a baddie. And as in every one of the books so far there are some new characters, many of whom are just as fascinating as the ones we have lost (and yes, one theory about a certain someone was definitively proven false, but it was an outside chance anyway that it was true and, oh well)... there is good stuff in here. And because of that, because I care about these characters and my heart is in my throat over the fate of a few (lots of cliffhangers!), god damn it, I'm looking forward to the next one.
And it's going to be a long-ass wait.
And, well, as I've said before, the waiting may all be for naught.
But god damn it, we need some new spin.