A year and a half ago, I confidently – some would say arrogantly – predicted that the…um…long-awaited fifth volume in George R.R. Martin’s epic series, A Song of Ice and Fire, was going to “suck.” I am unhappy to report that today, after finishing the 959th page of the mammoth tome, that my arrogant prediction was accurate…though incomplete. A Dance With Dragons did suck for the reasons I thought it would suck, but it also sucked for additional reasons.
First, a recap. The first three books in the “ASoIaF” series were possibly the best fantasy ever written by humankind. Tolkien was really the only competitor, and the differences between the two largely came down to personal preference; Martin had more fleshed-out characters, a more realistic society (with sex!), and better fight scenes, while Tolkien had lusher descriptions of nature, more of a feeling of adventure, and more apocalyptic magic. But when American critics started dubbing Martin “the American Tolkien”, it was a well-deserved accolade.
Unfortunately, by the time that accolade came into common use, the fourth volume in the series, A Feast for Crows, had already hit the bookshelves. Feast, though solid epic fantasy, was a clear step down from the dizzying pinnacle of the third book, and everyone knew it. There were clear signs that Martin was losing control of the story, much as his predecessor Robert Jordan had done with his own fantasy-to-end-all-fantasies. The pace was slower. POVs proliferated. Clever little details were repeated until they grated. When Feast was followed by a six-year hiatus, many fans – including myself – believed that Martin had realized where things were going, and was taking the necessary time to correct the problem and get the series back on track.
However, unlike many Martin fans, I didn’t think he’d be able to do it in the fifth book. And, depressingly, I was right.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
Before getting to my grand explanations of what I think is wrong with this book (and what might be improved in the next book), I’d like to review what’s actually in A Dance With Dragons.
What ADWD is missing
What is not in A Dance With Dragons includes the following:
1. More than a few pages of Arya
2. More than a few pages of Jaime
3. More than a few pages of Bran
4. Any magic other than some clairvoyance and a couple face-disguising illusions
5. More than one swordfight
6. A set-piece battle
7. Any action north of the Wall
8. Much adventuring, with the notable exception Tyrion’s POV
9. Any contact whatsoever with the Others
10. Anything that really advances the plot in Westeros at all
11. A cameo appearance by John Turturro
Except for the last item, you may recognize this as a list of many of the awesome things we came to love – and to expect – in the first three books. They don’t even pop up to say hello in the fifth. This means that ADWD starts off at a big disadvantage.
The exotic cesspool of the East
What we do get to see is a lot of Essos, the eastern continent, that before was shrouded in mystery. This would be more interesting if there was anyone in Essos worth caring about. There is not. The bulk of the action takes place in Greece…uh, I mean Ghis, where Daenerys is supposedly attempting to teach herself to be a queen (and actually just trying to get some quality sex). Unfortunately, everyone in Ghis is a moron. I don’t mean they’re stupid. I mean that everyone with any sort of authority in Ghis is cartoonishly corrupt and inhumane and petty in a sort of generic, undifferentiated way, while everyone without authority is servile, pathetic, and pitiable in a sort of generic, undifferentiated way. No one has any sense of duty or compassion or even much individual initiative. But everyone has a weird greaseball haircut, and there are plenty of bizarre customs, weird and gross foods, and confusing political systems.
In other words, as a history professor would say, Ghis is heavily “orientalized”.
But Essos, with its monstrously fat slaver lords and its clanking armies of chained-together slaves, is actually the cool part of the book. The portions of the book that take place in once-enchanting Westeros are little more than garbage clean-up. It has all of the flat and boring cast of minor characters, with none of the guilty-pleasure over-the-top orientalist exotica.
Proliferation of NPCs
In general, ADWD’s biggest weakness is a truly massive proliferation of boring forgettable unsympathetic characters. This includes dazzlingly boring new POV characters like Quentyn Martell, who is easily recognizable the guy at the edge of the frat party sipping beer quietly and thinking about how much he can get for trading in his Honda CR-V. Or Jon Connington, whose only contribution to the novel was the entertaining genre-humor title of one of his POV chapters (“The Griffin Reborn”). But in addition to these less-than-stellar new “bro-tagonists”, we are subjected to a vast unending cavalcade of utterly interchangeable minor characters, the kind of telephone sanitation engineers that fill our daily lives but leave no lasting impression other than a sort of vague, occasional curiosity about whether they have secret double lives with really kinky sex. You know. Human paperweights.
Just to give you an idea, here is a partial list of sellswords that appear in the book: Homeless Harry Strickland, The Tattered Prince, The Widower, Jokin, Kasporio the Cunning, Tybero Istarion, Caggo Corpsekiller, Denzo D’Han, Hugh Hungerford, ”Books”, Lysono Maar, Gorys Edoryen, Franklyn Flowers, Black Balaq, and Trystan Rivers. Not one of these people had anything interesting or distinguishing about them, but their names kept coming up again and again, as if we were supposed to remember who they were, or care. And they do things. Just not interesting things.
And of course, those are just the sellswords. We have an equal proliferation of throwaway characters in Winterfell, another in Stannis’ army, another on the Wall and another among the Wildlings, and yet another in the rest of Ghis and the East. At some point it becomes apparent that the names of these characters are becoming mnemonic decides for the author himself. Big Liddle. The bald Archibald Yronwood.
These characters are exactly like the random useless people who block your path in a town in an old Final Fantasy game, who, when you talk to them, will only say something like “Tra la la, I can’t wait for spring!”, or “Our king is a good king!”. They exist to make the town look like less of a ghost town. At least the makers of Final Fantasy don’t bother giving them names.
OK, on to the list of what does happen in the book:
1. Jon spends 100% of his time dicking around on the Wall, politicking with the Watch and the Wildlings and Stannis and Stannis’ queen, all of whom are extremely boring and obnoxious. He has no sex, has no adventures, has no moments of friendship, and gets in one minor nonlethal sparring match. He spends a lot of time managing stores of food, assigning people to fix up old castles, managing people, and stressing out about stuff. Seriously. It’s like Office Space, with an epic fantasy mod (but without the humor). At the very end, Jon gets mercifully stabbed, possibly by the shadowy Committee to Advance the Frigging Plot.
2. Daenerys spends most of her time trying to get rocks off. Which is cool, she’s a teenage girl, she should be thinking about how to get rocks off. Except the guy she chooses to get rocks off with turns out to be the same boring, generic sellsword schmuck that she briefly ogled in a previous book. He’s basically the guy who the girl considers hooking up with at the beginning of the party, and then finally hooks up with at the end of the party because no other more interesting guy showed up. When she’s not getting rocks off with boring frat boy, Daenerys spends her time doing much the same sort of middle-management crap as Jon, only with cartoonishly evil Ghiscari assholes instead of insufferably priggish Westerosi assholes. She marries a guy who’s so boring that most of his characterization is based on the fact that Daenerys finds him boring. At the end she randomly flies off on a dragon. Fuck yeah! Thus George R.R. the Great unties your Meereenese Knot!
3. Bran continues learning to be a wizard.
4. Arya continues learning to be an assassin.
5. Tyrion takes a trip down a river and meets some slightly interesting people and gets into all kinds of crazy scrapes and situations; this is really the high point of the book. Although we meet a lot of boring sellswords and other scum, we also meet some actually interesting side characters like Penny the dwarf, Moqorro the red priest, and young Aegon Targaryen. Unfortunately, Tyrion has lost a bit of his ability to fast-talk his way out of sticky situations, but his wit still shines.
6. Cersei pops in for a couple of chapters and walks around naked, a scene that was almost certainly written exclusively for HBO.
7. Jaime pops in for one chapter just so you remember he’s alive.
8. Quentyn Martell and Jon Connington deliver a heaping helping of pure boring pointlessness.
9. Barristan the Bold is inserted at the end as a POV to keep track of what’s happening in Meereen (hint: nothing interesting), and as usual performs surprisingly well for an old dude.
10. Theon returns, now transformed into Reek, a pathetic shell of a human being whose main purpose is to A) show what a bad guy Ramsay Bolton is, and B) to remind upstart me-too “dark fantasy” authors like Joe Abercrobie, Scott Bakker, and Richard Morgan who is the REAL undisputed King of Dark. And it works. Very well. It almost makes up for the fact that we knew jack squat about Ramsay Bolton until he suddenly turned up in the fifth book and became the Antichrist.
11. Asha Greyjoy becomes a new POV, and is actually interesting and cool.
Too much villain turnover, not enough adventure
OK, so now on the the Grand Narrative of Why This Book Wasn’t Especially Good. As I mentioned, the two sources of suckiness I predicted 1.5 years ago were definitely in effect.
The first problem is that the third and fourth books essentially removed all the villains. Joffrey was killed. Tywin was killed. Jaime turned sympathetic. Cersei was toppled from power and turned slightly sympathetic. Melisandre showed signs of actually being Gandalf. That left…who? Only the mysterious Others, who haven’t been scary since the prologue of the very first book, where one kills a guy.
Martin apparently realized this, and spent much of the fifth book rebuilding his stable of villains. Ramsay Bolton is basically Joffrey to the power of a million. He’s a great villain. Really, an excellent, exquisite sadistic evil maniac, the kind of psychopath usually only found in books by Jack Vance (in fact, Ramsay seems a little inspired by the incomparably horrible Hildemar Dasce from Vance’s The Star King). The problem is, he’s new. After this book, he will not be. That is good, but it shows a lack of careful planning.
As for other villains, Euron seems slightly scary, but he is also known as Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film. The Others continue to fail to make an appearance; they are discussed exactly once, when a Wildling asks Jon Snow “How do you fight the cold?” (My answer: Invest in a space heater.)
The second (related) problem I predicted was that Martin seems to be in the process of turning an epic fantasy into a historical epic. This is exactly the same problem that happened with the Star Wars prequels – a rip-roaring adventure story (the original trilogy) bogged down into a tedious swamp of politics and intrigue (Episodes 2 and 3).
In A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords, we had plenty of adventure. We had Tyrion becoming the leader of a band of mercenaries. We had Jon going beyond the Wall, getting captured by Wildlings, becoming a Wildling, and falling in love. We had Arya on the run from various brigands and horrible people, encountering mysterious a wizard/assassin along the way. We had Daenerys voyaging from place to place, dodging death and gathering followers and encountering creepy magic. We had Bran journeying across the North, called by a mysterious wizard.
Adventure, adventure, adventure!
Now we have Jon managing food supplies. We have Daenerys dealing with a restless domain. We have Theon being coy with us about whether he still possesses a schlong. But only Tyrion is still out there having adventures. YAWN. In the process, Daenerys and (especially) Jon have actually been transformed from my favorite characters into total nobodies. It was to the point where I was actually glad when Jon got stabbed; maybe now he can come back as an undead asskicker like Beric Dondarrion, and get off the damn Wall and go have some adventures!
And here is a third (and again, related) problem, which I didn’t predict, but which really struck me as I read A Dance With Dragons. George R.R. Martin’s world is no longer any place I’d like to go. The people are, by and large, just horrible people. The condition of the world and the society is dark to the point of apocalyptic. Everyone is always raping or getting raped, eating human flesh, executing and torturing and maiming. Lots of people have been crying for realism in fantasy since the anodyne “light vs. darkness” lameness of the 1990s (Jordan, Brooks, Goodkind, etc.). Martin’s world is realistic, all right – it’s just like the Thirty Years’ War, or the Taiping Rebellion.
That can be interesting. The Thirty Years’ War and the Taiping Rebellion are very interesting. But that’s not why I read fantasy. I read fantasy so I can visit elvish valleys and dwarven ruins and see the mountains in the moon. I read fantasy so I can swing a magic sword and ride in the claws of a giant eagle, and all that stuff (see Heinlein for a more complete list). I don’t read fantasy so I can hear about rape and cannibalism and sleazy politics and the anarchy of war. That’s called “Google News”.
Middle Earth, for all its wars and dire peril, is a place I’d love to visit. Stalingrad circa 1942 is not.
(This realization was really driven home the other day as I watched this cool Danish short film about a pair of fantasy adventurers. The film represents everything that epic fantasy has lost in the age of “gritty”.)
I felt that the first three books of Martin’s series struck a perfect balance between exciting adventure and bleak realism. The fourth and fifth books, though, have gone all-in for the soul-crushing horrors of war. It’s just not fun anymore.
Reasons for hope
Despite being 45% how-to guide for middle management and 45% historical treatise on medieval war crimes, A Dance With Dragons does show a few glimmers of hope for the remainder of the series. Most importantly, it appears that Martin is taking control of his narrative, after nearly losing it in A Feast for Crows. His willingness to leave POV characters and pick them up much later on – Bran, Jaime, Arya – is refreshing. It means that Martin does not intend to pull a Robert Jordan. Also, Martin shows definite signs of rebuilding his depleted stable of villains, with Ramsey and Euron (though he needs to do more in this regard, especially by finally bringing out the Others).
Is it still possible for Martin to salvage the series? Of course! Martin still has the writing skill. (Like a boxer’s punching power, a writer’s ability to bring scenes to life is the last thing to go.) Here’s what I think he needs to do to give this series the finish it deserves:
1. More adventure, less politics. Make it a fantasy series, not a history series.
2. Fewer boring throwaway characters. If they’re not interesting, don’t tell us their names.
3. Steady advancement of the plot. Sidetracks are for spinoffs.
4. Ease up on the “gritty” just a little. Yes, we know you’re the king of dark. You don’t need to prove it every chapter.
5. More magic, please. Magic is supposed to be coming back into the world, remember?
6. More villains. More powerful villains. More magic villains. More Others.
7. Get back to swordfights, battles, etc.
8. Surely Daenerys can find someone more interesting to hook up with. Someone get this girl on OKCupid.
9. Yes, yes, Ghis was cool in its depraved, ridiculous way. Now nuke it from orbit and move on.
10. Six years is not too long to wait for a book (see: Vernor Vinge), but something tells me HBO ain’t gonna wait that long.
In the meantime, I am going to curl up with a nice copy of Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War. After A Dance With Dragons, I need to read something cheerful and light.