Thursday, January 19, 2012

George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

I just finished the exhausting experience that is George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume of his gigantic epic, A Song of Ice and Fire. I enjoyed it; the time I spent listening to the book was the best part of many recent mid-winter days. In places it sent my imagination soaring. But at the end I find myself more annoyed and frustrated than pleased.

A Song of Ice and Fire is not like other books. Reading any volume of this monstrous epic is something like climbing Mount Everest, weeks of grueling effort enlivened by glimpses of wonder and the odd shooting pain. Or like one of those World Cup soccer matches that goes on for 89 minutes of brilliant but scoreless play, your tension and frustration growing with each passing minute, until at the end the other team scores and you fall into mourning over your side’s loss.

By my count Martin’s epic has now reached 4,839 pages, and it is nowhere near finished. The story is immense, with dozens of memorable characters who travel across a continent’s worth of fascinating places, doing many amazing things. Even told sparingly it would amount to over a thousand pages. Martin’s style, though, is so far the opposite of spare that I cannot even think of a word for it. An example: toward the end of the most recent volume, one character enters a hall that was once, long ago, lined with the shields of knights, and Martin lists dozens of the heraldic devices that adorned those shields. And when you get to the end of this paragraph-length list, you remember that these are not there any more, but disappeared so long ago that no character in the book can even remember them. The whole epic nearly drowns in descriptions: of food, clothes, weapons, armor, banquet halls, boats, buildings, ruins, trees, flowers, and every other sort of irrelevant detail. Characters can never drink wine without our being told of its color and quality, nor eat bread without our being told how long it has been out of the oven. Everyone who appears must be named, from the cup bearers to the boatmen to the corpses that wash up on the beach. When one second-rank character tries to train a bunch of orphans to be knights, Martin tells us not only the names of all the orphans but their strengths and weaknesses in swordfighting.

Nothing happens for vast stretches. Martin uses an ever-growing repertoire of tricks to keep things from happening: characters fall into months of indecision or go on long sea voyages, commanders are assassinated just as their armies are about to march, and when armies do march they bog down in the snow or get mired in interminable sieges. The dragons of Daenerys Targaryen represent the possibility of things happening rapidly, so in the latest volume a way had to be found to render them impotent for 900 pages. Daenerys spends the whole book stuck in a side eddy to the main plot that I found so frustrating I started skipping whole paragraphs of her story. Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf who may be Martin’s greatest creation, spends most of the book traveling on various boats, wasting his witty conversation on merchants, mercenaries, and whores. And in the end another of my favorite characters is killed.

Martin has, I think, a strong sadistic streak. He can’t resist subjecting his characters to one terrible ordeal after another: torture, rape, betrayal, agonized death. The story began back in Volume I with the noble Stark family of Winterfell, and I just loved them. But they unravel like a sock as Martin pulls ever harder on their loose threads, losing one member after another until, by the end of Book V, there is little left of them. And this is not like one of those Russian novels in which a family fails through dissipation, lechery, and bad investments. No, the Starks remain noble, honorable, and true as they are felled by assassins, treacherously slain, executed by murderous tyrants, and generally ground under the heel of fate. Not that the wicked characters fare much better, and most of the criminals end up dying so painfully that it’s hard to keep hating them. Martin’s only soft spot seems to be for his dragon queen, whose ordeals turn out to be less unpleasant, and victories sweeter, than anyone else’s.

So why do I keep reading? Because there is nothing else like it. The sheer size of it gives it a richness that few other stories have, and also a quality of realism. Most novels that deal with politics radically simplify the action to fit it within a reasonably-sized book, so we end up with a cardboard conflict between two or three people out of a whole kingdom. But Martin, who recognizes no reasonable limits, can give his Westeros a full suite of political actors: half a dozen great families, each with its own internal squabbles, loyal followers, and traitors; scheming exiles; knightly families whose loyalties are sought by various lords; old institutions with their own agendas; and so on. Each great family has its own family drama, and each family member has a distinct personality. Martin also knows enough history to give his noble characters plausible motivations. They act like real noblemen acted in times of civil war, balancing their desire to be on the winning side with their ambition for office, their greed for gold, and the honor of keeping oaths and fulfilling old obligations. I have read dozens of novels that were supposed to be about courtly intrigue, written by people who know nothing about what aristocrats were really like, and I am sick of them. It is a huge relief to read Martin’s descriptions of political action and feel that, yes, this is what a nobleman from an old family might really have done. The scale also allows Martin to tell us more than just the few crucial events that generally make up a historical narrative, filling his pages with the kind of minor but possibly portentous events — a lord changes sides, a castle is taken — that would have dominated the conversation of the people who lived through such times.

Martin brilliantly balances real-world grittiness with the possibility of wonderful magic. His soldiers are gruff, his jailers cruel, his thugs brutal. City streets are dirty, peasants are poor, and rotten, broken teeth are everywhere. The main political conflict is carried on almost entirely by mundane means like bribery, flattery, assassination, and war. Yet off on the edges of the map are wonders: the great Wall and the wild men beyond it, the dead things that lurk in the heart of winter, Daenerys and her dragons. A few artifacts linger from the lost age of Old Valyria, when dragon lords controlled their beasts with magic horns and fought with shining swords. There are omens, prophecies, and prophets. It is enough to give the story a glow of magic without overwhelming the deeds of ordinary, non-magic men and women.

Martin’s artistic brutality also helps to keep you on the edge of your seat. There is nothing so mean, horrible, or grim that he won’t do it, nobody too important to kill (except, I think, Daenerys), no plot twist too shocking for him to employ. The great length also allows him to give important scenes the slow treatment they deserve, drawing out suffering until it really feels like suffering, making long, arduous marches seem truly long and arduous. Because of the length of the sections and the threat of authorial cruelty hanging over every character, it is easy to feel their pains and fears. The future looks confusing and scary to almost every character, and it does to the reader, too.

So if there is ever another volume, I will probably slog through that one, too. But I venture to predict that Martin will never finish A Song of Ice and Fire. The story has so far grown like a bush, with new branches sprouting off in every direction; in just this latest volume we meet three new claimants to the throne of Westeros. A few things are resolved at the end, but more are left hanging. By my count there are as the book ends two long voyages still under way, two other major characters lost in mysterious circumstances, two more on the run we know not where, two fleets on their way to battle, two pending trials for treason, and three major land assaults still in suspended animation. This is not the work of a man eager to bring his story to an end.

Martin started out saying this would be a trilogy, and when this fifth book came out he said there would be two more, but I was just told by another fan that he is now saying there will have to be an eighth book. Martin was born in 1948, so he is already 63, and each of the last two books was five years in the writing. One look at the guy and you know he’s not likely to make it to 78. Even if he did, he would probably decide that a ninth book or a tenth or a fifteenth was really necessary to tell the story as he imagined it. Let’s face it, he is enjoying stretching out this story to unheard-of lengths, and so that is what he is going to keep doing, for as long as he has the strength to keep typing. I will probably read every word.


Jason said...

Thanks for the great review. I read all nearly 5,000 pages in 2011 and have similar feelings on the series. The first 3 books were a different experience for me than 4 & 5 which are more, as you describe it, a slog. But I too am now totally invested in the series. There will be no way I could not read additional installments. If you haven't seen it yet, he has a sample from the next book, The Winds of Winter, on his web site.

John said...

Thinking it over, I agree that the first three volumes were tighter and faster-paced than the last two. Which is probably a bad sign; as Martin's fame has grown, he has, like other authors, more fully indulged his own uncommercial tendencies, which in his cast seem to be stretching out the story forever and filling it with mind-numbing detail.