Ok, so I’m late to the party, but I just spent the last six or eight weeks (I’ve lost count) reading the 1,123-page paperback edition of George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, book five of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, mostly because my obsessive-compulsive tendencies prevented me from abandoning the door-stopper. I wasted about half that time.
You know there’s a problem when the author has to explain himself on the first page of the book. After the dedication, itself a tome (31 names!), in what he titles a “cavil,” an obscure word meaning “trivial objection,” he nearly apologizes for what he’s about to do: give you virtual whiplash by taking you backward then forward in time and into parallel universes. Off you go, don’t get lost!
From that point on, A Dance With Dragons is about 500 pages of catching up with characters going all the way back to the second book, A Storm of Swords, but if you’ve read those books, you already know what happened to them, and if you haven’t read them, you probably abandoned the novel at about page 100. A solid introduction at the beginning would taken care of all this stage business. Instead, Martin feels the need to repeat himself in his waggish style.
Don’t get me wrong. Many of Martin’s characters will go down as classics in the fantasy genre: Tyrion Lannister may be the best dwarf ever written. I find Jaime Lannister a compelling character for his evolution as a human being. Smuggler-turned lord Davos Seaworth, bastard-turned-garrison-commander Jon Snow, and knight-who-should-have-retired Barristan Selmy all hold my attention. Many scenes in A Dance with Dragons, such as Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame, are vivid. However, Martin seems uncertain what to do with these characters, except place them in stressful situations, just to see what kind of smart-alec remarks he can wring out of them. He’s taken the Act Two problem to a new level.
Martin’s storytelling lacks discipline. A Dance With Dragon’s length suggests he barfed many of his words on the page without any real editing, beyond proofreading. He leans on crutches of his own making. I played a game of watching for his favorite phrases, such as “mummer’s farce” (and variations), “much and more,” “little and less,” and “He/she was not wrong.” Some pages have a dozen or more of these Martinisms, and they are turning into Westerosi cliches. Is the language of the Seven Kingdoms really that stingy? He recognizes his issues with the novel in his acknowledgements: “The last one [A Feast for Crows] was a bitch. This one was three bitches and a bastard.” If this story is such a pain in the ass, why don’t you end it, George? Kill it like you kill leading characters, unexpectedly.
Martin’s problem is simple: His fans won’t let him quit, and his world has metastasized like a cancer into other media. HBO is producing a fifth season of the TV version of GoT. A GoT virtual experience produced by Oculus Rift is touring museums, including Seattle’s EMP. A gaming company released the first trailer for a Game of Thrones video game. Rumors are flying about a movie version of Game of Thrones. Martin is smart. He knows a meal ticket when he sees one. He deserves to milk it for all its worth. I like the Game of Thrones franchise (Isn’t that the word used to describe McDonalds?) But at some point, the whole sprawling mess goes rancid. It’s time for readers, at least, to check the story for its sell-by date.
What do you think? Does Game of Thrones still have life in it?