Here be Dragons

Anachronist’s review:

Synopsis or something like that:

It is he fifth volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy epic series which has been made very popular nowadays. If you have read the previous four parts you know that summarizing the fifth would be close to impossible; if you haven’t read any of them, well, just let me tell you no summary an no TV series can prepare you for the complexity of those books. In fact the plot is so convoluted as to defy synopsis. Really even the work of Tolkien pales in comparison. What can be said…winter is coming and the seven Kingdoms are hardly prepared for it because they plot and prepare for a war – every ruler wants to assure the Iron Throne, currently occupied by a child, Tommen Baratheon, will fall into the hands of their man or woman.

What I liked:
(spoilers ahead, beware if you don’t like them)

Just several chapters, really; and if I described them in more detail I would spoil you horribly so just the most important facts from my point of view:

        Finally we know for sure Brienne is alive but we still aren’t told how and why – she meets with Jaime and informs him that Sandor has Sansa under his care. Now I wonder…how would Petyr Baelish, lord Littlefinger, react if he knew? Does he know? Is he still among living?
         Arya is progressing on the path of Braavos Faceless Men (assassins trained in the Temple of Black and White). Now we are told that she was made blind on purpose and then that process is reverted. She is also shown how to change her face and sent as an apprentice on her first mission. Go Arya, GO!

Cersei was humiliated for her sins: she was shaved bald and led, naked, through the King’s Landing. Still she is alive. Ok, great, I can’t wait for her meeting Tyrion again.

-Tyrion was first sold as a slave and then joined the Golden Company of sellswords and other scum. He will have an interesting life for sure but he is one of the best characters around so small wonder. If only it took him less time….

What I didn’t like:

General remarks, spoiler-free:

This story is becoming so huge, so convoluted, so Byzantine that it is really difficult to keep your interest, especially that different parts have been published several years apart. I really struggled reading this one – too many inner monologues, too many info dumps, too much info about secondary characters who were hardly germane to the story. It seems the author, after a tremendously good start, tripped over his own pen. Ok, I understand, it is more likely than not THE story of his life and he did plan it as a panorama rather than a portrait or a simple landscape but really he went over the top with the number of sub-plots, different trivial descriptions of this custom or that and all those strange names of strange foreign people I hardly remembered or recognized at all. What’s more the author started to repeat different plot devices – sometimes I felt as if I breathed recycled air; officially everything is fine but your nose recognizes the same particles and starts to itch…

More particular remarks which include serious spoilers;

          The death (?) of Jon Snow was a horrible scene; still maybe he survived; rings a bell?
– I’ve had enough of Cersei in the previous books and here she got three more chapters or so; really unfair, I would prefer more Arya/Tyrion chapters
– Sometimes the narration was so slow that almost sleep-inducing (e.g. the journey of Tyrion to Mereen or the whining of Theon aka Reek)
         Danny was reduced to a goody-goody Snow White who cannot determine her priorities because she is too occupied bedding Daario; her inner dragon had to go into a coma; her little flying adventure on a big, bad, black Drogon made me despise her even more;
         Too many witches/priestesses/prophetesses/greenseers/whiteseers etc. around, too many different prophesies. Boring.

Final verdict:
It took me almost a month to get through this book. I didn’t want to start reading and I forced myself to finish it. Some chapters were worth the effort but most of them I found too long and boring and let me tell you I was never bored by the previous novels. In my humble opinion a determined editor should have cut out at least half of the material, making the story more compact and edgy. Will I continue reading? Yes, some characters are worth it. Still it seems the series is deteriorating and it is a bit sad. Three stars.
Pauline’s review:

And so book 5 of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ arrives, with 2 more projected at some unspecified time in the future. Since the last two books took 5 and 6 years apiece, no one is holding their breath. Was it worth the wait? The good news is that this is better than ‘ A Feast For Crows’, much better, in fact. Some, at least, of the many sprawling plotlines weave in and out in a much more satisfying way, the most important new characters are introduced in a less contrived manner, and there is both more backstory and more action. It feels like a denser read, for sure, with a lot less fluff and filler.
The bad news (there had to be some, didn’t there?) is that there are still many characters and plotlines left adrift from the rest of the story – notably Bran, Arya and Sansa (missing altogether from this book). There are still too many disparate plotlines altogether, and way, way too many characters. Some might see it as adding richness and depth, but I regard it as a pointless distraction to introduce a raft of characters for a chapter or two, only for them to disappear, sometimes for ever. And even if we need to meet yet another minor lord, surely we don’t also need to know the names of his entire family, his maester, his knights, his bannermen, his guards, his sword and all the other paraphernalia. It’s extraneous bloat.
There is still a great deal of ambling around the countryside, Brienne-style, but it leads to a lot of extra information and anyway, ambling north of the wall or around the free cities is a great deal more interesting than around the small-holdings of Westeros. And ambling anywhere with Tyrion is always fun.
I have never been a great fan of the practice of jumping from one character’s point of view to another, chapter by chapter. At its best, in ‘Clash of Kings’ and at times here, the plot flows seamlessly from one chapter to the next. At its worst, in ‘Feast for Crows’ and occasionally here, the cuts are abrupt and jarring. And frankly, the technique of ending a chapter on a near-death moment gets tired very quickly. It’s a cheap trick, and not even very effective.
Martin’s magic has always been a bit of a muddle of dreams, prophecies, blood magic, shadow killers, seers and several kinds of undead, but previously it has been sparing enough that I can just go with the flow. But now it’s much more in your face, and it’s becoming increasing a plot device, to the point of deus ex machina. The ability of the red priests and priestesses to see the future in the flames is particularly ‘convenient’ from a plot point of view, and feels like a cheat. And although some of the special effects are clearly non-magical, there is enough magical capability that it feels as if any difficult situation, no matter how dire, could be resolved instantaneously by a wave of Melisandre’s hand. However, I’m reserving judgment until I see the final destination.
The characters, as always, are wonderful. Even the new ones, like Quentyn Martell, are finely drawn so that they have our sympathy. And Martin’s ability to make us like even the most hated characters is legendary (if annoying). He’s already done it with Jaime, now we sympathise with Cersei and even Theon, who seemed entirely beyond redemption. The writing, too, is well up to Martin’s usual standard. His prose is clear and straightforward, his descriptions are vivid, and as for his dialogues, no one does it better. But when did he get so repetitive? If I had a gold dragon for every time I read ‘much and more’ or ‘words are wind’, I could probably buy out the Lannisters. And the overused archaic terms, like ‘leal’ and ‘mine own’, are simply jarring in language that is otherwise straightforwardly modern.
But what about the story? True, it’s absorbing, and it flows along pretty well. There are some great moments with the dragons, there are some genuinely moving episodes, especially Bran and Theon, there’s a lot of humour and even the slower parts are entertaining (a great improvement on Feast). I wasn’t counting, but my impression was that the death and dismemberment count was lower, at least among significant characters (a lot of the unwashed masses died horribly, but that’s par for the course).
But then it ends, and virtually nothing is resolved. People move about, things happen and then it just stops in mid-stream, and we get another multi-year wait until the next episode. It may be churlish in book five of seven to grumble that there is no resolution, but a book that’s sold as a single entity should at least have a discernable structure in its own right, even if it also aims to advance the larger plot and set the pieces in position for the next stage. Each of the earlier books had a simple theme – book 1 was about the naive Ned Stark at court, book 2 the defence of King’s Landing, book 3 the aftermath of war, book 4 – well, book 4 was free-form plot-drift, and it has to be said, this book tends that way as well. Meereen would make a good central focus, if only it came to some kind of conclusion. The theme of the difficulty of ruling pervades the book, but that’s tired – we’ve seen the same idea worked out already with Ned, Tyrion and Robb. More progress is made, but it is simply a few steps along the way towards the ultimate ending, with no coherent story of its own.
It’s not that it’s bad – it’s actually good, entertaining stuff, with very few dull chapters, the new point of view characters are a positive addition, there is a lot of meaty background detail and a fair amount of action. But in the end, my reaction is – that was good, but so what? There was no emotional resolution here at all. And it’s so painfully slow, and the vast size of it only underscores that. Feast and Dance together would have made one terrific book, if the author could have brought himself to prune it down to – oh, about a fifth of the size. At this rate, it’s hard to see how the overall story can be completed in just two more books. And Westeros is still a depressingly awful place. I would love to give this four stars, but the rather incoherent use of magic, the dangling plot-threads and the sheer bloat drag it down to three. [First written July 2011]



Comments on: "Fantasy Review: ‘A Dance with Dragons’ by George R.R. Martin" (5)

  1. I'd suggest maybe putting those spoilers in a colour close to the background, so that they're easier to avoid.

    – regarding your first spoiler: it never occured to me that they might actually be telling the truth! I just assumed it was a lie to lure him to his death.

    – we differ considerably in tastes, it would appear. I found this probably the easiest of the five to read, and I particularly enjoyed Tyrion and Theon. I too had problems with the book, but they revolved around its place in the series (ie the complete lack of any sort of plot progression whatsoever, the fact that the entire book (and the last one) could easily have been replaced with one sentence saying 'five years later' and some brief flashbacks, etc), rather than quality of the book in itself. The book itself I thought was pretty fun. The chapters in the north (your 'whinnying' (not making fun of the (assumed?) typo, it's just funny)) in particular I thought were among the best Martin's written.

    – I'm glad that not EVERY fantasy story these days has to be 'edgy'. And I thought the length was a very welcome change of pace, after some overly-plot-driven sections earlier in the series. It's certainly a lot less boring than the first volume in the series!

    – I know it looks complicated, but I think when you think about it it's pretty straightforward – it wouldn't take more than a page to outline the plot of the series so far, I don't think. I'm currently reading the Silmarillion – which has a more complicated plot in 300 pages than ASOIAF does in… however many thousand it's up to now!

    – not making these points to pick a fight, just offering a complementary perspective.

    – faster, Arya, kill, kill!

  2. Incidentally, if anyone's curious my own views on the book (short version: generally good as a book, though with some annoying features, not sure how succesful it is as an installment of the series) can be found here:

    I hope that's not in violation of etiquette – if you don't want the link here, feel free to delete it.

  3. I enjoyed your complementary perspective and I am glad you don't intend to pick a fight because I strongly believe we can exchange ideas without fighting. About a different colour of the spoiler points: yes, I considered doing it but then half of my review would be just a blank space. ;p.

  4. Indeed, fighting should be both unnecessary and unappealing, particularly in such minor matters as book reviews.

    Unfortunately, I often find that either I am overly brusque and forceful in sharing my opinions or else many others are overly protective of their own, or perhaps a little of both, and I wanted to make clear that any perceived aggression in my disagreement with you was not the consequence of any conscious and purposeful belligerance, but simply of my own inadequacies in polite conversation.

    [*reads back last paragraph.* Hmm, I appear to be channelling a regency gentleman there. Sorry about that. Hope the meaning is clear nonetheless]

  5. Crystal clear 😀 And being a clutz I almost deleted your comment instead of answering which would be such a shame! Moreover I must say I rather like your style – at least one knows that you really care!

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