This week we’re looking at the novels nominated for this year’s upcoming Hugo Awards. Today we look at the wildly anticipated fifth volume in the Song of Ice and Fire series, George R. R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons
There’s a way in which reading a book you’ve been anticipating for a long long time is very strange. At first I couldn’t relax and read A Dance With Dragons because it was new news from Westeros—I was so excited about reading Tyrion’s point of view and Bran’s point of view that I couldn’t settle down and concentrate on what was happening to them. That didn’t last long. Before long I was so completely wrapped up in what was happening to everyone that I was only looking up to grunt.
I’ve been reading Martin since reading his short story “Sandkings” in a year’s best collection in 1980. I’ve read everything of his since, pretty much as soon as it came out. I have therefore been waiting for this book longer than you have—but we’ve all been waiting for it impatiently for six years. Even those of you who only started reading the series because of HBO will have been racing through the books and be waiting now with everyone else. And the question you all want answered right now, when I’ve been lucky enough to get my copy two weeks ahead of you, is “Was it worth the wait?”
To that I can only say: You’re going to love it.
This is going to be my review without any spoilers. I’ll be posting a spoiler review when the book is actually out and other people have had a chance to read it. [Edit: In the meantime, we’ve opened a spoiler thread for those who have read it.] I’m longing to say—well, I’m longing to say all sorts of things and tell you who all the POVs are for a start. But I really don’t want to spoil your experience of turning the pages and finding out for yourselves. If you care enough to be spoiled, then I don’t want to spoil it. I want to talk with you about it, not tell you about it. This is a book that unfolds, let it unfold.
This is a terrific book. A Feast for Crows (post) has some problems with pacing and focus. It felt smaller scale and fuzzier than the earlier books. A Dance With Dragons is back to the kind of scale and control was saw in A Storm of Swords (post). But what we have here is half a book that is the chapters about the characters who were left out of A Feast for Crows, followed by another half a book where the whole thing comes together. A Feast for Crows becomes in retrospect half of the set up, with the climaxes deferred until now. I think this has caused a pacing problem for the series that isn’t fixable, but also isn’t going to be a problem once we have all the books in our hands.
There’s ice here. Fire, too. There’s lots of really cool stuff. And there’s evidence that the series is heading towards some kind of actual closure—I was worried that things were opening out and out and nothing was coming back together, but I can see hints of the shape of how it will be coming together. Martin’s been calling this book “Kong” and talking about it as a monkey, but I was afraid it was more of an octopus squirming out of his control—but I see signs of tentacles being nailed firmly down.
One of Martin’s real strengths, right back to the beginning of his career is getting inside the heads of characters and making them seem real. It’s not so hard to do this with a sympathetic character, it’s very impressive when he does it with an unsympathetic character, when he takes somebody you’ve been hating from outside and makes you sympathise with them from inside. This is one of the real glories of this series, and this is something he’s doing better than ever here. There are nice people and awful people and mixed up people, people trying to do their best and people out for what they can get. There’s death and betrayal and dragons and duty and history and complications and pride. These are things nobody does as well as Martin—things I think of as Shakespearean. Council scenes that set up huge complicated betrayals and battles. Heroism and treachery. And you see so much of it from inside people’s heads that it all feels absolutely real and grounded, even the most melodramatic moments. Speaking of which, you can be pretty sure when you see a fantasy cliche here that it’s going to be turned on its head and choked to death. (But winter is coming.)
Something else I noticed here is use of repetition almost as kennings—this is a trick Guy Gavriel Kay does, and I haven’t noticed Martin doing it as much before. He has been—think of “You know nothing, Jon Snow” and “Valar morghulis”, or Arya’s litany of people she wants to kill for that matter. But this is the first time I really became aware of that.
Bad things. Well. I only just finished it; I may think of some when I have some more distance from it. There are some unnecessary cliffhangers, the same as there were in A Feast for Crows—if nobody is going to believe that somebody is really dead, it’s not a good way to leave them. Apart from that, well, the book weighs half a ton and my shoulder hurts from lifting it. And now that I’ve finished it I’ll have to wait another umpty-ump years for The Winds of Winter to find out what happens next—getting this one early has just made my next wait longer.
Some people are sure to hate it—epic fantasy with this kind of scope isn’t everybody’s thing. But if you’ve enjoyed the series so far and you’ve been waiting for this volume, then I feel confident in saying that you’re going to love it. Because I do.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning and Hugo nominated Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.