Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin

Standard warning – spoilers ahoy.  Possibly more than usual this time.

Here it is, the long-awaited fifth book of A Song of Ice and Fire.  Given that it’s what I’ve been reading recently it was all fresh in my mind and I didn’t have the six-year wait that so many despaired of.  Overall I’d say it’s as good as the fourth book, probably a little better as it does resolve some loose ends and deals with major characters, but it doesn’t reach the levels of the first three.  It also suffers somewhat from the fourth book’s flaws and doesn’t resolve as much as it could have.  This is probably a result of its creation as a joint book with A Feast for Crows, but perhaps there are other issues.

Let’s talk prophecies.  For all intents and purposes an author is God of his creation, and whether or not the author knows when every sparrow falls the reader doesn’t know unless we’re told.  But the author knows what’s coming, and can make the characters know what is coming to a greater or lesser degree.  The trouble with prophecy is making it organic to the plot; otherwise the prophecy becomes the story and the characters are chained to a course of action even if they’d probably rather be doing something else given what the reader’s been told about them.  By this point in A Song of Ice and Fire, there are a large and ever-increasing number of oracles, visions, greendreams and foretellings that are threatening to kill the movement.  Sure, many are vague and trying to chase prophecy can burn you but it’s apparent that at least some of them are going to come true and they constrain what can happen.

At this point Martin is setting up all the characters for the epic and awesome climax of the series.  The only problem is, they aren’t necessarily where he needs them and they aren’t necessarily up to what they need to be doing, so to a greater extent than the previous novels, many of the characters don’t seem to be behaving properly.  The plot is tugging them along rather than their organic actions driving the plot, and to the extent that this contradicts what we’ve been previously told about them it makes their behavior inexplicable.  This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “carrying the idiot ball” and it can be the bane of otherwise well plotted and excellently written fiction.

For instance, consider Tyrion Lannister.  He’s possibly the most wanted man in Westeros.  His sister wants him dead because she blames him (correctly) for killing their father and (incorrectly) for killing her son.  She’s got the resources to put a huge bounty out on him.  So it makes perfect sense that he falls in with a crew of revolutionaries; after all, he’ll never be able to go home again unless he gets a royal pardon for his actual and perceived crimes, so he’s got to be involved with regime change since his immediate family holds the throne and he’s burned that bridge pretty permanently.  Furthermore he’s an extremely clever person with a well-honed sense of self-preservation.  So what on earth possesses him to get incapacitatingly drunk in a brothel by himself in an area where Westeroi are fairly common?  He’s a dwarf who had his nose cut off, it is difficult to think of someone more conspicuous, and you’d think he would be keeping a low profile (no pun intended).  For that matter why would his companions allow it?  If he got taken by an agent of the queen rather than a bounty hunter then they might ask him some serious questions about who was hiding him and it could ruin their entire scheme.  Of course he gets captured, but fortunately it’s by someone he was very unlikely to meet who doesn’t immediately kill him and thereby puts him where the plot needs him – notably at one point alongside someone who points out that he’s appallingly conspicuous and he needs to stay out of sight.  Nonetheless, he does manage to display all the qualities that make him so beloved as he is forced into worse and worse situations.

Daenerys is only a young girl but she has to carry the idiot ball most of all, poor thing.  If her eventual goal is to make herself queen of Westeros, she’s headed in a pretty roundabout way.  (More prophecies.)  At this point she’s got three dragons that are probably ready for combat, a good sized army, access to ships, connections in Westeros, and what she does is . . . wait.  She does do some things in this book, but her primary function is to be a lure to a vast number of other characters who want to meet up with her and meet their own agenda checklists (sleep with her, marry her, advise her, steal her dragons, etc.)  Some of those folks arrive, some are still on the way, and some decide to give up and go do something else.  Daenerys is an autocrat, she demands respect for her personal authority by divine right of birth.  She’s personally ordered the deaths of hundreds, occasionally through torture, burning, or other brutal means.  And she has indirectly caused the deaths of thousands or even more throughout her various campaigns of conquest.  Given all this, her sudden overweening desire to watch over the freed slaves in a city she’s conquered but has no personal connection with doesn’t make all that much sense.  She’s made hard decisions which cost lives before.  Her indecision in dealing with her enemies is also uncharacteristic, as is her “solution” to her dragons becoming increasingly large and aggressive.  Also, she has a long and ever-increasing list of powerful people who are threatened by her or who have a personal grudge against her, so staying put in a city whose population is ambiguously loyal is not a wise choice – she’s no stranger to assassination threats and of course there are more.  It’s probably time to make her move but instead she’s got to wait for a prophecy to come true before she can.

Cersei doesn’t personally make many uncharacteristic moves, but everything around her in her subplot doesn’t ring true.  At the end of the fourth book she’s about to be on trial for her life, and that situation is not resolved in this book, she’s still about to face that trial.  So why not simply face trial for all the accusations and avoid the rather nasty business she goes through?  Furthermore, why would her family allow it?  I understand that they want to limit her personal power but the way they go about humiliating her makes them look bad and it undermines the king too.  It’s not a good idea, and I can’t help but think that Martin wants to make her go through the wringer because she is such a terrible person rather than because it’s something that her uncle would agree to based on what we know of them so far.

Anyway, that’s all character business.  This book is mostly as well written as you’d expect given the consistent high quality of the series.  Something that did creep into my experience this time was a lot of repetition of phrases.  Remember that Jon Snow knows nothing?  It’s not just Ygritte who says that.  As I mentioned above, Daenerys is only a young girl and it seems like on every other page one character or another notes that [character] was not wrong.  I was able to overlook this and it’s not entirely unprecedented in the series, but for whatever reason it stood out for me a lot more this time.

The death toll is somewhat similar to A Feast for Crows as opposed to the crazed bloodletting of the first three volumes, probably because it’s a pain to keep creating new characters, and it really does seem like the final two volumes are going to really burn through at least some of them.  Nonetheless, I’ll present the guide to cliffhangers:

1)    If someone is not stated to have died, they are alive.
2)    If someone is stated to have died or been killed offstage, they are probably still alive.
3)    If a POV character ends a chapter in a situation when they are in mortal peril and would realistically be expected to die, they will be alive in the next chapter in which they appear.  Unless they are in a prologue or epilogue.  Then they are screwed.
4)    If a character is claimed to have died and their head and/or other parts are produced as proof, then the character is dead only if the part presented would prevent someone from living if they didn’t have it and it is affirmatively recognized by other characters who actually knew the person.  Otherwise, the character is still alive and the head belongs to someone else.  This rule is also applicable to public executions if there is any way that the person being executed could actually be disguised.
5)    A character who unquestionably sustains a grievous injury, is treated for several days and dies in front of witnesses is probably dead.

Oh, and if a character does happen to die then they might not stay dead any longer.  Part of what made the first volume in this series was the tension that anyone could die at any time, and the constant fake-outs, healings, and resurrections are removing some of the tension.

This book together with the fourth is pretty obviously the calm before the storm.  A lot of the power of Westeros burned itself out in the first rounds of the civil war, but there’s new blood and some new claimants, and by the end the new war has begun.  There is a great deal of tension-ratcheting but not a lot of release of that tension in this novel.

Because of the dual structure with the fourth volume, the plot seems more constrained than in the previous novels.  Daenerys can’t lead an airborne dragon assault on King’s Landing at the beginning of the novel because we saw King’s Landing in the last book and that didn’t happen.  So there’s something of a limitation on who can go where and what they can do while there.  Nonetheless there are a lot of interesting plot elements in this novel that you don’t typically see in fantasy.  Daenerys and Jon Snow are trying to wage peace and bring change to massive institutions, with all the pushback you’d expect from such an endeavor.  The series has dealt heavily with power, who wants it, what they will do with it, and so on.  This book suggests that making peace is at least as difficult as making war and requires no less skill.

So, I certainly don’t regret reading this book but I feel that it’s an excellent extended trailer for the sixth volume rather than being a completely satisfying read on its own.  Once the narrative got past A Feast for Crows it picked up considerably, although most of the characters ended on some sort of cliffhanger.  Nonetheless it seemed static in parts and probably could have tied up a few more plotlines.  Hopefully the sixth one will be here before 2017 and live up to the promise shown here.  And now I can move on to something shorter.

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