This is a pre-review for George R.R. Martin’s latest book, A Dance With Dragons. By “pre-review,” I mean that I will predict what the book will be like, and how good it will be, without having read a word of it or any spoilers about it. After writing the pre-review, I will read the book and write an actual review, at which point I will probably recant a good bit of what I write here. So what’s the point of a pre-review? Well, to set expectations, for one thing, but also to illustrate some of the constraints under which writers operate, and the way in which the choices they make affect the flow of their narratives. And also, because I just really, really enjoy ranting.
As the more perspicacious among you may have already gleaned from the title of this post, my hopes for A Dance With Dragons are not high. The rant explains why.
Warning: This pre-review contains massive spoilers for A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, and A Feast for Crows, but no spoilers for A Dance With Dragons. It also contains liberal use of profanity, potentially obscure references, and probably a good number of spelling and grammatical errors.
Fantasy series suffer from a peculiar disease, which is that they tend to build up expectations that they can’t fulfill. This is much more true of big, sprawling, open-ended epics. Here’s what happens. An author dreams up a huge, luscious, fleshed-out world, and some cool characters to go in it. He thinks of some things that happen to those characters, and a Big, Overarching Conflict that looms in the background. He writes the first book or two or three, which contain basically all of his specific ideas for plot and character development, and which give a taste of both the luscious fleshed-out world and the Terrible, Looming Background Conflict.
After they read the first one or two or three books, readers are positively salivating with anticipation. Here, they think, is a sort of super-duper-Lord of the Rings, a world that is just as easy to get lost in as Middle Earth, combined with a narrative that goes on for much much longer and has characters that resonate more with modern sensibilities (e.g., they have sex). This, in other words, is The Next Michael Jordan. The ultimate Dungeons and Dragons campaign. The Star Wars prequel that doesn’t blow goat cock.
The problem is, like those other shibboleths, the super-duper-Lord of the Rings does not exist. As the first book in the New Big Fat Fantasy Epic stretches into a trilogy and then into a sextilogy and then into an open-ended series, savvier readers start to realize that this author did not know where his story was going when he started it. Having shot his plot-and-character wad on the first couple books, the author has no idea how to actually get from there to the apotheosis of the Big Overarching Looming Conflict that he’s been foreshadowing all along. Just when it comes time to step things up, the author falters. Not knowing what to do with his early characters, he allows the number of POVs to mushroom, since creating characters is much easier than making existing characters grow and change. The tight web of plot threads gives way to meandering noodling wandering and repetitive intrigues, and the Big Background Conflict stays conveniently in the background. The author continues to collect checks from the diehard fans who remember how great the first couple books were, even as a steady trickle of them bite the bullet, admit that the whole thing was a cock-tease, and move on to the Next Big Epic. The author either dies before the series ends, or wraps the thing up with a distinctly underwhelming anticlimax.
Learned readers will recognize that I am describing what happened to The Wheel of Time, the defining fantasy series of the 1990s. But the phenomenon is by no means limited to Robert Jordan’s bore-fest. Terry Brooks’ Shanarra series, Raymond E. Feist’s Midkemia novels, Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth (which actually was never good), Stephen Erikson’s Malazan series, and the T.V. shows Lost and Battlestar Galactica followed similar arcs of enticement and disappointment.
The basic problem in all of these is the same: Writers are better at starting things than they are at ending them. The few series that we remember as truly great – Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars trilogy, Harry Potter – were written with the endings in mind. If you start with a really kick-ass ending, then you have a chance, because the rest of the plot becomes a way to get events and characters to that point. But if, like so many authors, your passion for world-building and character-sketching outstrips your ability to dream up a purpose for it all, then your massive epic suffers precisely the same fate as most Dungeons and Dragons campaigns – everyone’s characters either die or get to 20th level, and then everyone goes off to college.
We thought George R.R. Martin was different. I did, at any rate. The reason was not just that his skills as a writer equal or exceed that of any other fantasy author in history (yes, including Tolkien). It was that the first three books were on an upward trajectory of quality. A Game of Thrones was very good; A Clash of Kings was truly excellent; and A Storm of Swords was so mind-blowingly amazing that it made a lot of people lose their taste for every other recent fantasy series. Those books did everything right. The world was one we believed in. The characters were people we could love, hate, and (most importantly) understand. The magic was real, powerful, and cool, but always shrouded in mystery. The fight scenes were classic, the battles epic. And most importantly, by killing some of our favorite protagonists early on, Martin convinced us that This Was Serious Business, that no cows were sacred, that this was a world in which bad things happened to good people. When Ned Stark got his noggin chopped off, we started fearing for all of our other favorite characters, and that fear made their triumphs all the sweeter.
This was finally It, we thought. The One. The fantasy series to end all fantasy series. Then came A Feast for Crows.
In order to understand why A Dance With Dragons is probably going to suck hairy baboon butt, it is necessary to understand the suckiness of A Feast for Crows. The first sucky thing that happened was that the pace slowed down dramatically. Each of the first three books pushed the narrative forward substantially – the first book starts the civil war between the Starks and Lannisters, the third one basically ends it. But at the end of A Feast for Crows, nearly nothing is different than at the end of A Storm of Swords. Cersei is in jail, and that’s about it. It’s mainly just people walking around seeing how badly the civil war fucked up their country.
Which means we know that A Dance With Dragons is going to be more of the same shite, because A Dance With Dragons is really Book 4b. It is divided from A Feast for Crows not temporally, but character-wise, so we already know that dick-all happens in terms of big sweeping macro events, because if something big happened we’d have read about it in Book 4a. So we know that the Others do not breach the Wall, Daenerys does not sail to Westeros, Khal Drogo does not wake up with a really bad hangover and decide to open a chain of Mongol-themed clothing stores, etc. It’s going to be Jon Snow intriguing with Stannis, Melisandre, and the Wildlings, Daenerys dicking around in Ghis,
Miles VorkosiganTyrion Lannister doing who knows what, and Arya learning to be the ultimate killing machine. Plus we’re going to get a few new POV characters who are kind of interesting but not quite interesting enough to have made it into the first three books. (Personally, I’m hoping for a Hoder chapter, that will just be the word “Hoder” repeated, with various punctuation marks, for three solid pages. It’s what James Joyce would have done.)
So that’s the first problem that ADWD is going to suffer from. But it’s not the only one, or even the biggest one. The big problem is the direction the whole series is going.
First, a note about characters. George “Arrhh Arrhh” Martin is famous for killing off his protagonists. But what he’s actually done a lot more of is to kill off his villains. In the first three books, the bad guys were basically the
RepublicansLannisters. We had three main evil Lannisters. Tywin Lannister, i.e. the powerful old guy behind the scenes, was bad; Cersei Lannister, the scheming sadistic Tiger Mom, was worse; and Joffrey, the Kim Jong-Il of Westeros, was the worst. But now Tywin is dead, Cersei is suffering well-deserved humiliations in a dungeon somewhere, and Joffrey is deader than rock music. So who is left to hate? The guy left in charge of the Lannister usurpation squad is…Kevan Lannister? There are precisely 1.7 readers who give a flying flipping foo-foo about Kevan Lannister. And then there is Tommen Lannister…the Five-Year-Old of Darkness? Or maybe I’m supposed to hate Peter “Littlepenis” Baelish because his driving motivation in life is to take upskirt photos of Sansa Stark with his cell phone?
OK, then, but what about the Really Big Bad Guys over the horizon? Those would be the Others, the weirdos from up north who are getting ready to sweep down and wipe humanity from the planet. So far, all we know of their powers are that they can create zombies (meh), they are quick with a sword, and they are destroyed by contact with obsidian. This does not exactly make them intimidating. The Others will overrun humanity until and unless they happen to run into a gang of obsidian-chucking cavemen, at which point they are precisely fucked. Maybe if they had some other, scarier shit up their sleeve, like a Supergun, or Shai-Hulud, or an army of a million sub-humanoids, etc., they would exert more of an influence on the story. And as for supernatural baddies, the Others are basically it. Evil wizards, then? Well, Melisandre was scary but now she’s sort of a protagonist, and the Warlocks of Qarth were sort of creepy until they got offed by a
hairspray blowtorchbaby dragon.
So where does this leave Martin? His Big Bad Baddies can be killed by the cast of Quest for Fire, and he’s killed off every hate-able human villain in the story. He can whip up some new ones real quick (Euron Greyjoy?), but they won’t be the people we came to know and hate in the first three books. Or – and this is what I predict he will do – he can leave us without any real villains. He can make his world a “realistic” world, where, as the cliche goes, there is no good or evil, only shades of gray. The story will cease to be about our beloved heroes struggling against our hated enemies, and it will become a chronicle of a bunch of complex, gray-shaded people struggling for power against other complex, gray-shaded people, and periodically dying, until finally the story ends and the lucky, most recent of the revolving cast of complex, gray-shaded people happen to be the ones who get to live and rule at the end. Yippee.
There is a name for this kind of story: a historical epic. It is different from a fantasy in many ways. Historical epics are not by definition worse than fantasies, and there are many excellent ones. What sucks is when you think you’re getting one and you end up getting the other. Like ordering an LED TV and getting a unicycle. Unicycles rock, it’s just really hard to use one to watch The Daily Show.
Earth to fantasy authors: Nobody who is reading your books cares what happens your fantasy world! The reason is simple: It can be easily replaced. We can just make up another medival fantasy setting. All those peasants who died in the wars? We care about them even less than we care about all those peasants who die in real wars that we read about on Google News. If the Others march through and slaughter every living thing in Westeros, or if Jaqen H’ghar decides to spell his first name with a “k” and the resulting explosion destroys the planet, the only reason – the only reason, now that the villains are toast - that we will be sad is that we won’t get to see interesting, right-feeling stuff happen to Jon Snow, Arya Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, and Tyrion Lannister.
In other words, if all we want to see is a bunch of gray-shaded people struggling over power, we can just read Google News. We want our fucking fantasy.
I did not have these qualms when I finished A Storm of Swords, though. Let me explain why. The first book starts with an account of the coming of the Others. So all throughout the Westerosi civil war, I was thinking “Look, you idiots, there’s an army of supernatural creepies massing to your north, you’re wasting time and resources slaughtering each other, you better pull together and learn how to slang some obsidian real quick!” And that was good. That frustration, the feeling of knowing something that the characters didn’t, lent an air of delicious futility to the civil war and an air of dreadful importance to all the stuff going on at the perimeter of the war, with Daenerys and Jon and Bran.
So at the end of A Storm of Swords, when Tywin Lannister gets shot and Joffrey pulls a Mama Cass, I thought “OK, so now the civil war is over, the next books will be about the remnants uniting to face the Others.” And that would have been a good story. In fact, “humans fight among themselves while supernatural enemies of humanity gather to strike” is a really damn good fantasy plot. It is the story of an extremely good, extremely little-known series called The Dark Border, by Paul Edwin Zimmer. I was hoping – and still am hoping, despite the evidence - that Martin is doing something along those lines. (I am also hoping that Martin’s supernatural baddies will show some small fraction of the awesome arsenal of destruction possessed by the bad guys in The Dark Border; these include a mile-tall pillar of smoke with a dragon head, an actual dragon the size of a village, goblin armies, huge spheres of negative energy, a living tornado, and some even nastier shit called “The Sabuath” that we never even get to find out what the fuck it is!)
But anyway, then out came A Feast for Crows, and my hopes were dashed as I realized that the next two books (4a and 4b) would still basically be about the goddamn civil war, even though that war was over and almost all of the players in it were dead or neutralized. The civil war plot was going to become a zombie storyline, shuffling along aimlessly, shedding new second-string POV characters like lumps of rotten flesh. That’s when I realized “Oh shit, maybe the stupid civil war isn’t a distraction, maybe it’s the whole damn point of the whole damn series. Maybe Martin isn’t trying to write the super-Lord of the Rings, maybe he’s trying to write the super-War and Peace!”
The super-War and Peace might be an interesting book, but it is not a book that I want to spend my time reading. What’s more, I feel like if that is what Martin’s series continues to become, then it will spell the death knell for the epic fantasy novel series as a cultural phenomenon. After a certain number of Next Michael Jordans don’t end up panning out, fans forget about the original Michael Jordan. Martin’s series is/was the last, best hope that Lord of the Rings was not actually the pinnacle of fantasy fiction. Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, Raymond E. Feist, and others made valiant attempts to dethrone Tolkien but ultimately failed. If George R.R. Martin doesn’t have the writing chops to make a bigger, better epic than Tolkien’s trilogy, then it’s quite possible that no human does.
Which I suppose would be fine. Lord of the Rings is a damn good series, sex or no sex. And there are lots of other good, solid, fantasy series out there, and I’m sure there will be many more. They just won’t come with the same expectations attached. Maybe that would be a good thing. Authors would get back to writing characters and worlds and stories that they could handle, and stop biting off more than they can chew.
But it would be nice if I were proven wrong, and Martin pulled this series out of the trudging-historical-epic doldrums in which it has mired itself, and made it back into a truly excellent fantasy. Just don’t expect that to happen in A Dance With Dragons. A Dance With Dragons is going to suck. It will get rave reviews, everyone will love it, and then a couple months later we’ll all admit that it sucked.
Of course, I reserve, and even relish, the right to recant everything written in this pre-review after I actually, you know, read the book.
Update: Reviewers on Amazon are totally vindicating my predictions.