Tuesday, July 12, 2011

'Dance With Dragons' gets Martin back in the game

Posted By on Tue, Jul 12, 2011 at 5:22 PM

Dismayed fans of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” who grumble at the nine-month wait until the show’s second season don’t know how easy they have it. George R.R. Martin published the first three books of his Song of Ice and Fire series at roughly two-year intervals beginning with A Game of Thrones in the mid-1990s. Then, as Laura Miller explores in an in-depth New Yorker story, the complexities of the massive fantasy epic got the better of Martin, leading to false starts and delays in the next books. He published the fourth book A Feast for Crows, in 2005, while the fifth, A Dance With Dragons, dropped today, July 12.

The reader’s considerable pleasure in A Dance With Dragons partly derives from a choice Martin made for its predecessor. Rather than cut back and forth between an increasingly huge ensemble of protagonists and antiheroes, the author cut the book in half. Thus, Crows primarily involved characters on the Southern portion of Westeros, while Dragons takes place in the North, at the Wall and in the exotic lands on the other side of the Narrow Sea.

The upshot is that fans have had to wait for 11 years to catch up with some of A Song of Ice and Fire’s best creations, particularly upstanding bastard Jon Snow, tenacious young queen Danaerys Targaryen and especially crafty dwarf Tyrion Lannister. In effect, Crows’ loss was Dragons’ gain. In the fourth book, the war in the Seven Kingdoms ground to a standstill, impeding the narrative momentum. The conflicts of Dragons, however, heat up irresistibly, so it’s like a volume devoted to just the good parts.

Disclaimer: I’m about 600 pages into Dragons, so I have more than 300 to go. I’ll avoid the major spoilers from all the books, but if you only know the story from the HBO series, you may learn things you’d rather avoid.

Some of Dragons’ major plot threads involve the burdens of command. As the new commander of Nightwatch, Jon Snow struggles to form an uneasy alliance with would-be King Stannis, make peace with the Wildlings and mount a defense in case the zombie-like White Walkers launch an attack. Meanwhile, Danaerys has occupied the ancient city of Mereen and broken the local slave trade, an act that has made her powerful enemies from without and within the walls. Jon and Dany both make agonizing decisions when faced with no-win situations.

Having fled King’s Landing in A Storm of Swords, Tyrion broods over the whereabouts of a long-lost love, journeys towards a rising ruler’s court and learns the difficulties of life for a dwarf without the wealth and support of a powerful family. It's difficult to read Tyrion without imagining Peter Dinklage, but fortunately the HBO show is too well cast to make that a distraction.

If you think the books already have more than enough players and locations, steel yourself as Martin more deeply explores a whole new continent. In a recap of a “Game of Thrones” episode, a writer on the Vulture blog declared, “Other shows move "forward." This show just moves ... outward,” a critique that comes to mind with Crows and Dragons, which constantly explore new territory and open new fronts in the various battles. I’ll read a line like ““Oakenfist broke the Planky Town and swept halfway up the Greenblood whilst the main Dornish strength was engaged in the Prince’s Pass,” and think, “You lost me at Planky Town.” (At least the Internet offers plenty of resources for clarifying the books.)

Dragons unquestionably advances the storyline involving the mysterious supernatural antagonists, particularly through the otherworldly education of disabled young Bran. Part of the appeal of the first books (and probably the HBO series so far) was its emphasis on earthy, human credibility, with little of the magicks and folderol of other big fantasy series. The grounding in realism makes the gradual inclusion of mystical forces easier to take. Still, if you’re averse to the sword-and-sorcery genre, you may have trouble digesting lines like, “It is given to a few to drink of that green fountain whilst still in mortal flesh, to hear the whisperings of the leaves and see as the trees see, as the gods see.”

At times Martin’s editors let some repetitious phrases through: Ser Davos, “the onion knight,” refers to the deaths of his four sons twice within two pages, for instance. Fortunately, Martin emphasizes vivid, accessible prose. When a horrific illness sweeps towards Mereen, he writes, “Dany saw one man sprawled in the dirt under a black cloak, but as she rode past his cloak dissolved into a thousand flies.” A recurring phrase like “Words are wind” suggests a shared culture between communities thousands of miles apart.

Two characters in Dragons — Ramsay Bolton and his servant Reek — find prominence, although you’d remember them from their other names from earlier volumes. Ramsay may be the most sadistic, monstrous personality in the entire saga — yes, even including Cersei Lannister — with a terrifyingly plausible ascendance to power. Reek emerges as a hauntingly broken figure, maimed and tortured until he’s been basically brainwashed. Martin can peer so deeply into the dark side of human nature that at times, you want to avert your eyes from the words. In the long term, the Game of Thrones seems to have no winners, just survivors, but Reek reveals a literal fate worse than death.

Between A Dance With Dragons’ page-turning narrative thrust and some cameos from the Feast for Crows characters, A Song of Ice and Fire feels reassuringly back on track, with the final two projected volumes no doubt years away, but still within reach. A renovation of Winterfell even hints at hope for the future, but the predicaments will certainly get worse for most of the characters before they get better. As the Stark motto says, “Winter is coming,” and Dragons renews our confidence that it’ll one day arrive.

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