A Dance With Dragons

Title: A Dance With Dragons

Author: George R. R. Martin

Genre: Epic Fantasy

Length: 959 pages, circa 400,000 words

Read: July 12-23, 2011

Summary: Awesome, but not without issues.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

My charge through book 5 of Martin’s epic fantasy series was a bit drawn out by my need to concentrate on the second draft of my new novel Untimed, but I finally finished. Before I launch in, it should be noted that this review is full of spoilers.

Dance is huge, weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages. This itself is actually a welcome and comforting fact because these books are something to savor. Overall, I would rate this volume as better than A Feast of Crows and slightly worse than the first three. Still, it’s a fantastic book. Prose-wise, Martin is still a master at both people, places, plotting and reversals. It’s just that this book suffers from a few pacing and structural issues.

Most of these stem from his controversial decision to pull out half the characters from the bloated manuscript of Feast and push them into Dance by themselves. So the first two thirds of the new book is everyone who didn’t get a turn in Feast. Now, for the most part, this saved the best for last. Dany, Jon, and Tyrion make up the bulk of the book, particularly this first two thirds, and they are some of my favorite characters. But overall this leaves both Feast and Dance feeling a little more threadbare than the first three books. Personally I think he would have been much better off winding out the story chronologically, trimming out some useless threads (Aeron Damphair, Victarion, and probably the Dornes), and rearranging the plot so as to have some kind of sub-climax at the end of each book.

As it is, Dance reads excellently for the first 2/3, feeling fairly focused on its three mains. But it’s weird to rewind in time and revisit certain happenings from Feast from the other side (for example Sam leaving the Wall). When we get to the cut off point, however, some of the characters from Feast start to weave back in. This mostly has the effect of slowing the narrative and making it more diffuse. At least until the set of cliffhangers and deaths that come in the final chapters.

I also think that Martin is letting his pacing slip a bit. It’s not that each chapter isn’t entertaining and well written — they are — but many threads there have multiple chapters where the happenings could’ve been collapsed without loss. If we hadn’t known a few of those details were there, we would never have missed them. Worse than the pacing issues, however, is a weirdly increasing fondness for skipping some of the big moments. Now Martin has always done that (the Red Wedding, the “death” of Bran & Rickon, etc) but it’s worse than ever. He has a real tendency to build slowly toward a big event, then skip the event itself, showing what happened to the characters obliquely through other eyes at a much later point.

I’m going to go through some of my opinions and analysis thread by thread.

Prologue

I don’t really understand why fantasy authors are obsessed with these. It was kind of interesting, but didn’t advance anything.

Jon

His thread is fine (until the end), but it does feel a bit static. While he’s certainly grown into command, he mostly sits back at the wall and fields interference between factions (Stannis, his queen, the Red Priestess, the Wildlings) etc. Then at the end, he mysteriously decides to rush off to Winterfell. This is a move that makes no sense as he has refused to enter into family entanglements about six times before, and while he is goaded, there is really less at stake for him. Then out of nowhere comes a reaction to this decision that leaves us in a bad cliffhanger. Boo.

Tyrion

The Imp is funny as always and now I can hear Peter Dinklage cracking each and every droll line. Still his thread is also a little dragged out, although it does involve some great sightseeing and is certainly entertaining all along. In the first part of the book it feels like he (and everyone else) is heading toward Dany, but then he gets within inches and turns back. Using him to introduce us to Griff and “Young Griff” is however an excellent device and works much better than an extra POV would have. It is mostly through Tyrion and Dany that we get a sense of the complex and old slave societies of the mainland. Unlike Westeros which feels like late Medieval England, these realms feel more like the ancient east (perhaps an updated Babylon vibe).

Dany

Her chapters are mostly political. She does feel a bit passive. I don’t really understand why she doesn’t try to get a handle on her dragons earlier, this is obviously a key move which could trump all of her political problems. Instead she dicks around (literally and figuratively) with various factions. This is all fairly entertaining, but feels like treading water. Then “a big event occurs” (at least this one is on screen) and she rides off on Drogon. That’s all great, but her narrative disappears until the last chapter. When it returns nothing is resolved at all, but a new out of the blue cliffhanger is introduced. I do really like the world of Meereen and the slave cities, although it feels like we are lingering here a bit long.

Barristan

The hero serves to replace Dany as the POV in Meereen. He’s actually a great POV character with all his lingering thoughts about events during and before Robert’s Rebellion. I really enjoyed his chapters. But they didn’t come to any resolution.

Theon

The hier to the seastone chair returns to us, a few bits worse for the wear. I hated Theon in books 2 & 3, but I enjoyed his chapters immensely here. His transformation into Reek and back again is very deftly handled, with a very proper (and sordid) period quality. It isn’t for no reason that Tarantino used the phrase “medieval on his ass” and that is exactly what the Bastard of Bolton has done to Theon. His pseudo redemption is good. Still, we have classic Martin avoidance of the action with the actual escape from Winterfell. In the cut between Theon jumping from the wall into the snows and his delivery to his sister is a big blank. Not that we needed the travel, but whatever battle happened at Winterfell needed some detailing.

Asha

I could have lived without her POV. It mostly serves to fill in some parts of Stannis’s story when he leaves the wall. The technique is sketchy and I ended up having no idea what really happened during his brutal snowy march and the seige of Winterfell. This I thought was the weakest part of the book structurally, as I’m basically confused.

Quentin and the Dornes

Cut! Dull for the most part, except for some info about the cultures they traveled through. I couldn’t have cared less for these characters. The attempt to steal a dragon was interesting, but was also vaguely described. I’m thinking that Martin, for all his brilliance as a character and world builder, isn’t actually the best at action scenes.

The Dorne chapter back in Dorne: It was okay, but we didn’t really need it.

Jaime

This sucked. I like Jaime’s POVs, but this single chapter had a bunch of crap, followed by one of those annoying Martin reveals that just serve to highlight the gap in information. Brienne returns and they ride off. You don’t find out how she escaped her predicament, what she knows, anything. It just kinda sucked. The effect of her cliffhanger was entirely spoiled.

Cersei

These were pretty good, and I enjoyed seeing her get hers. Martin certainly knows how to throw in the creepy little details so your mind fills in the rest.

Victarion

Cut! I could have lived without these, and they basically just told you he was heading off to Dany with a horn and a Red Priest. Although he’s better than his brother — I’d take any chapter over Aeron Damphair.

Arya

These were great. I have no idea where they’re going, but that’s fine. Arya has always been one of my favorites. Give us more. To be honest it felt like these were the chapters that should have gone in Feast and this the conclusion that book should have had for Arya’s thread. Probably that was Martin’s original plan.

Bran

His chapters were good, but so little, and it all felt dropped as his last chapter is about midway in the book.

Davos

I’ve never been a fan. I think we could have just had these told by raven.

Epilogue

This was actually very good, really being a Kevan in King’s Landing chapter in disguise. I loved the return of Varys at the end — particularly his dialog.

Some observations: There is more magic of sorts in this volume. Martin has a real thing for nubile slave girls — but then again, what self respecting fantasist doesn’t? The scope of this book, with it’s gigantic foreign cities reminiscent of the ancient world is going to make for some hard adapting should the TV series get this far. As I noted in my series reviews the show already has problems with handling large scale people scenes. These slave cities and the like will make that even harder. Likewise with the slave sex and slave violence. I’m all over it (in fiction) but some of it will undoubtedly have to be cut/changed. Sigh. I like that Martin at least highlights some of the sad reality of actually being a nubile slave girl.

Overall, Martin’s books are among my all-time favorite novels. I enjoyed the book immensely, and eagerly await the the next volume (and I’m sure I’ll be waiting for a long time), but I can’t help but think it could have been SO much better if Martin had taken all the material in both Feast and Dragons and reedited them together into two chronological and slightly leaned down volumes.

Also check out my reviews of each episode of Season 1 of Game of Thrones (the HBO series):

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Game of Thrones – Episode 2

Title: Game of Thrones

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Watched: Episode 2 – April 24, 2011

Status: First Season now airing on HBO

Summary: Amazing!

ANY CHARACTER HERE

After watching Episode 1 three and a quarter times, I was eagerly awaiting the continuation. This week’s installment, entitled “The Kingsroad” didn’t disappoint, although this is an extremely transitional episode.

In “Winter is Coming” (Ep 1) we were introduced to the major players in what amounts to two major settings and story lines, one at Winterfell with the Starks, King, and Lannisters, and the other across the sea with Daenerys. About midway in this second episode the main Westeros storyline splinters into three: Ned and the girls, Jon & Tyrion heading to the wall, and Cat, Robb, and Bran back at Winterfell. This fragmentation will continue a bit in further episodes, but for now everyone is moving into place. I suspect in the long run this will be one of the “duller” episodes of the series. But all is relative, and it still contains a number of very powerful scenes.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion continues to delight with his ironic tongue and sharp delivery. The queen shows both her calculating side, and her cruelty. Joff is appropriately loathsome and Arya every bit as spunky as she should be. While new viewers might not be totally aware of it. This episode really starts to drive home the consistant notion in the books that all choices and actions have consequences, and that those are never what they might seem.

Jon chooses the wall, but even from the start, it isn’t the romantic knighthood he hopes. Tyrion chooses to side, even if by default, with his own, and that will play out with fiery results. Sansa choses to stay out of the fray, Arya to enter one, with drastic consequences. Dany chooses to try and make the best of her miserable situation. I do wonder a little how new viewers (those who have not read the books) will take all this, as even in this long (10 hour format) the incredible richness of the characters, their interactions, choices, and consequences.

For example, despite spending an entire hour on this transitional moment the writers still have to rush Dany’s realization that she can take control of her situation. Married off by her abusive (and more than slightly creepy) brother to a mongol-type warlord who takes her every night “Dothraki-style” (like a Stallion and a mare) she isn’t in the best place. Some reviewers have issue with this, but personally, as this has been the plight of millions (or billions) of women throughout time, nobel and pauper alike, I think it belongs here. Some wonder, why does she stay? Well, what is she supposed to do, married to a warlord, virtually alone in a camp he controls with 40,000 of his people in the middle of nowhere? She does the only strong thing possible, she starts to seize on some measure of control in her relationship. One must not interject the modern conception of mariage is mutable into it. For much of history a sort of grim fatalism pervaded most people’s being.

The final bit of the episode too, with the crucial play out of various childish personalities having dire consequences in both the youthful and adult worlds is very well handled. Joff’s cruelty and impotence, Arya’s headstrong nature, and Sansa’s passivity clash. Who suffers? A cute doggy and the peasant boy. But this will have long standing consequences for everyone involved, including the adults. We can see it in the seething looks exchanged between Ned Stark and the queen. The very end rises to a nice emotional tieback. Still, I would have enhanced the mystical a bit here (almost totally downplayed by the producers). Perhaps showing all five of the other wolves howling and/or linking with one of Bran’s dreams as in the books. I suspect that because of a fear of being labeled too fantasy the producers will continue to soften the fantastic elements, subtle as they are even in the original books.

Still. I can’t wait for Episode 3, which with the arrival at both Castle Black and King’s Landing should make for some good stuff. Littlefinger!

For my reviews of other episodes by number: [1, 2, 3, 4]

Click here for some trailers for and about the series.

Or find out about my own fantasy novel, The Darkening Dream.

Game of Thrones – Episode 1

Title: Game of Thrones

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Watched: Episode 1 – March 31, 2011

Status: First Season coming to HBO April 17

Summary: Amazing!

ANY CHARACTER HERE

I had the privilege to get an advance screening three weeks before the premier of the first episode of the new HBO miniseries Game of Thrones. For those of you living in a hole, it’s based on the stunning (and huge) series of novels by George R. R. Martin called the Song of Ice and Fire. The TV series is named after the first volume, Game of Thrones, and the first season covers the first novel. Currently there are four books to the series, with a fifth due this July.

These are arguably my favorite fantasy books (read them all twice) and fantasy is my favorite genre. I’m not reviewing the books specifically here, but it is worth noting that they are stupendously good. Political, dark, complex, and full of very human characters. While this is fantasy, set in a sort of medieval-England-like kingdom, the fantasy is light. There are no armies of trolls and orcs. Just good old fashioned human sex and violence and a touch of the magical.

Which makes it perfect for HBO, and if the first episode is any indication they have done a stupendous job of adaption. I was blown away. I wanted to like it. I love HBO dramas so I hoped I would. But I’m critical by nature, so I was thrilled to find it exceed my expectations on all accounts.

This is a very faithful adaption of fantastic source material, but the series also plays to television’s strengths. The production is lavish, landscapes, sets, costumes, food, everything looked tremendous. And sounded tremendous. I saw a 35 mm print on the big screen with a serious sound system. After the titles alone (gorgeous) and the pitch perfect music I had goosebumps.

The casting/acting is also fantastic, and combined with the great writing is going to make this ambitious show work. These books have a lot of characters, and very well written ones. There is no big Sauron-type villan, there are only conflicted people. The Lannister brothers are awesome. My favorite character is Tyrion, the  Imp, brilliant, sharp-tongued youngest son of the land’s richest (and meanest) Lord. This is a tough role, and made even more difficult by the inherently limited roster of actors short enough to play it. Peter Dinklage is off to a tremendous start, stealing every scene he’s in. Awesome, and cudos Peter! Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is also superb as his taller and prettier older brother Jaime. Both are complex characters, and it’s good to see them nailed out of the gate. The Stark daughters and Jon Snow were also great, plus Sean Bean dominates with all the powerful gravitas that Ned Stark deserves. Emilia Clarke is gorgeous and appropriately vulnerable as Daenerys Stormborn — I’ll be interested to see if she can handle the character changes in store for her. Some seriously good casting across the board.

The writing is also great. This episode pounds through a LOT of material. A lot of introductions, and a good amount of setup and action, and it does it without feeling rushed. I’ll be curious to see how viewers who have not read the books cope with the staggering array of characters. It seemed to me that D.B. Weiss and David Benioff (they had the writing credits) did an incredible job unfolding the parallel threads of the book’s many viewpoints into one seamless narrative. They’ve linearized the story a bit, which actually makes it clearer. I hope that newbies give these characters a chance to unfold because as startling and brilliant as the first novel/season is, it’s really with books two and three that things really get crazy.

The atmosphere was perfect too. Detailed and moody. Filmed mostly in Ireland and Malta (across the narrow sea) it feels authentically “celtic.” And there is the now HBO standard hefty dose of nudity. We’ll also see what the producers make of some of the books’ more sordid moments — which are one of the things that make them such a dark pleasure to read. Now the only problem is that I have to wait a couple weeks for the second episode!

Congrats HBO and George R. on such an awesome job. Now just make sure to green-light the next 6 or so seasons!

For my reviews of other episodes by number: [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10]

Click here for some trailers for and about the series.

Or my review of A Dance With Dragons.

Or find out about my own fantasy novel, The Darkening Dream.