Friday, August 5, 2011

A Dance with Dragons

Contains spoilers for A Dance with Dragons.

Short review : Better than A Feast for Crows, not as good as A Storm of Swords.

Long review : Where to start?

With the good, mostly Jon Snow’s chapters. Developments at the Wall are fascinating, and they tie together well with the return of Roose Bolton plus fake-Arya. Towards the end, though, Jon alienates some of his own men, pens up his direwolf and is then backstabbed by said men - in other words, Robb Stark errors and a Jeor Mormont ending. But at least he’s not likely to be as dead as either of them.

Another interesting character was a complete scum, but he’s captured and maimed by someone even worse. This results in a redemption of sorts and he saves an innocent woman who’s similarly a captive. He’s called Jaime Lannister or Theon Greyjoy, but despite the déjà vu, Theon’s chapters were gripping. His terror and degradation came through vividly, and Ramsay Bolton vies with Joffrey for the Most Hated Character award, though I could have done without the endless “Reek, Reek, it rhymes with…”

Tyrion and Dany fare less well. Tyrion’s chapters are a travelogue wherein he meets many, many people, at least one of whom was previously thought dead. And although he’s heading for Meereen, he doesn’t get to meet Dany.

Though perhaps that’s for the best. Dany was amazing in previous novels, but here she’s trying to recapture all her tweenage years, especially with Daario. She also marries one of the Ghiscari (which means he’s dead meat one way or another), vacillates endlessly about whether to open the fighting pits and takes dozens of hostages whom she cannot bear to harm, so they end up being much safer with her than with their own people. Finally she imprisons two of her dragons because they’re growing wild, which naturally makes them even wilder. Her story does end on a more promising note, though, and I still want to see how she eventually conquers Slaver’s Bay.

Not to mention Westeros, because Cersei’s days as queen there seem to be coming to a well-deserved end. The High Holy Septon makes her pay dearly for what she did… and that’s only the start of her troubles. I don’t think even FrankenGregor (who makes an appearance) can get her out of this.

Minor characters fare as can be expected. Victarion Greyjoy is still en route to Dany, Davos Seaworth is still the universe’s whipping boy and Melisandre is still mistaken. But Wyman Manderly and his pies were shocking and delightful.

All in all, though, there’s no way this series can be concluded in only two more books, not even if Martin tightens the prose to the squeaking-point and every character refrains from their favorite catchphrase forever. There are simply too many characters – for each one killed off, three new walk-ons are introduced and someone else rises from the dead.

And there’s too much description – granted, it’s usually well-written, imaginative description, but it’s only padding the book. In A Storm of Swords, what happened in Tywin Lannister’s privy was a darkly ironic joke that finished the chapter with a snap. In this book, what is achieved by describing the results of Daenerys taking a squat? The story’s realistic enough without all the body fluids.

I’ll still buy The Winds of Winter, but I’m not likely to shell out for a hardcover again. If you've read ADwD, what did you think of it?


Randall said...

Welcome back, Marian!

I didn't read A Dance With Dragons because Martin failed to convince me to finish the first volume, never mind buy any others. But I didn't want to leave you hangin' here with no answers.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, Randall, that was nice of you. :) I'm so exhausted from trying to finish a manuscript that I haven't yet returned to the blogosphere, hence the silence around here. But I'll be back completely soon.

JH said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JH said...

Dany's chapters were actually the best not because of her character per se (actually in spite of her, really) but because they stand up to class conflict, imperialist/postcolonial, and global economic realpolitik analysis. I was astounded at how real everything that went down politically was. The Sons of the Harpy were the fantasy KKK, counterpart to Dany being like fantasy Sherman or Patton, and her rule in Mereen has the global presence of the American and Hatian Revolutions. It was a relief because the thing I loved about this series is its subversion of hero legendry in fantasy, and what worried me was a sort of "creeping hero prophesy" in the later books. Here, despite everyone in the known universe converging on her for practical and mystical reasons, Martin is brutally deconstructing the hero fairy tale. Good Queen Dany frees the slaves from the evil masters and takes the great city, oh man, this is great! This would be the end of a standard heroic fantasy, everyone would Live Happily Ever After. Not here, because Martin makes her deal with the fact that she did the equivalent of conquering the Middle East and shutting down all the oil rigs. The global economy basically runs on slaves, and she just fucked with it. Everyone is going to want to end her, and even if they are "paper tigers," she can't deal with internal and external threats or even threats to her "sister republic" of Astapor. (Meanwhile, in reality, the big world changing revolutions all invited foreign attack from the rulers of the status quo, spooked by the possibility of inspired slaves or bourgeois democracy or communism or w/e knocking over their apple cart.) In the first few books he was crude and ungraceful about this: the fates of Ned and Robb are simple and bloody parables of his nihilistic morality, but Dany gets put through the wringer with a realistic detailing of why heroic fables about changing the world are fables, and how hard radically changing the status quo really is. She pretty much only held on as long as she did because she has the fantasy equivalent of nukes.

JH said...

Other thoughts: I think Tyrion's chapters were overlong and exposition heavy (this is me saying that there's too much worldbuilding, that should tell you something!) but I think they worked. What I liked about all the major character arcs was that they all detailed the character dealing with some new role and growing into it, with varying levels of success. We're used to action and scheming and high drama in this series, so a plot focused on an internal conflict stands out, might seem dull and pointless. The point isn't really what any of these characters are doing, though. It's what they are feeling and learning. That's the real conflict. Jon is the standard bearer here.

The whole book Jon has been getting more and more ambitious in his plans. He's doing stuff no Lord Commander has ever done, legendary stuff, the type of stuff Old Nan would talk about, and he's doing it for the most grandiose of reasons: the salvation of the entire human race! But he's working with an organization that has been saving some parts of the human race from other parts for centuries, and now he wants to let those other parts in and ally with them. He's basically subverting everything his subordinates have expected from the Night's Watch within the span of a few months. The whole book he's been tempted to forsake his vows for personal gain, but he resisted. And as long as he stayed true to his oaths, he could expect at least grudging support. The second he said he was going to lead a host south with whoever wanted to follow was the tipping point, when those who had suspected them felt they had to act (or, they had been planning to do something like this if Jon went too far, and then he went and did). Now he's going to take part in the wars of kings and lead wildlings against them; he is completely betraying what the Watch stands for, not just shocking it with bold and strange ideas. He was swollen up with his own power, totally confident in his ability to do whatever the hell he wanted (again, just like the Great Hero archtype that Martin and Melisandre had been hinting at, and that shit just won't fly in Westeros, son) and once he abused his authority and influence, once he threw away every lesson he had had to learn before taking command, he was cast down. And killed in the style of another ambitious, prideful leader.

Dany I already talked about, but it's interesting how you can see her story of growth and adaptation and internal conflict in her relationship to her dragons. They have been the source of her power from Clash and they symbolize her use of power. The very same chapter where she puts on her "floppy ears" (a phrase I needed to read much less frequently than I did), she learns that Drogon went berserk. There's a very clear relationship between her putting aside her own values and trying to compromise with those of Mereen (from the first chapter symbolized by her "floppy ears," the tokar, a style of dress rooted in the corrupt and decadent lifestyle of the slaveholding class she just overthrew), and her losing control of the dragons. The more she wallows in these foreign and regressive mores, the less of a handle she has on them. Then, at the end of the fighting pit scene, when she finally puts her foot down against the barbarity of her new home and stops trying to accommodate a brutality she hates, Drogon shows up again, and she tames him. That was really well done.

(more below)

JH said...

So, Tyrion. There's too much talking and sight-seeing, sure, but underneath that is a story of a man who has lost the one thing that had always been a touchstone for his values and self-worth and character - his family - and dealing with how to remake himself without it. It's a story of overcoming suicidal depression, something that seems very out of place in high-action fantasy. And he has to hit rock bottom, as a slave doing dwarf minstrel tricks in a pit arena, to begin to fully remake himself. The degradation he endures cuts away all his prideful ties, all the vestiges of the world he lost, so he is free to develop as a new man. Penny is pretty key here, as a foil and a sort of "guide" in his new, humbler existence, and the sign that he's coming back into his own is when he has to guide her. In the end, he makes a play for a return to power on his greatest ambition, becoming Lord of Casterly Rock, with greater confidence that he ever would have had before.

The real flaws in the book imo are matters of style. The best example is the second page of the chapter "The King's Prize." There’s a whole paragraph of someone talking about how Robert would have done things way better than Stannis, and then then Asha thinks, "This king lives in his brother’s shadow." No, really? I didn’t catch that, thanks for explaining Martin! Also for letting us know that asha is "blessedly unraped"! Normally, I’d assume that someone hasn’t been raped unless explicitly told otherwise, but this whole book the word “rape” has practically been a punctuation mark. Every other chapter it’s rape this, rape that, whenever a woman is at any possible risk of danger the Rape of Damocles hangs over her head. So you’re already primed to think that Stannis’ army must have run a train on Asha by now, you have to be explicitly told that this is not the case. Blessed be! But all of this is a side dish, for the main course: someone tell me how it’s possible for "cold fury" to be "boiling."

The other big flaws are chapters where nothing happens. There's a Jon chapter that was all about describing people going through through the wall. So much potential tension here: the wildlings and the Watch don't trust or like each other, the Watch doesn't like this whole plan, there are zombies and ice demons on their trail. So much could have happened! A fight between Watch and wildlings that Jon has to bring under control! A bunch of tiny little problems that the steward thinks is going to blow up but Jon handles it, slowly convincing him this is a good idea! The others attack! All of these things!

None of them happen, just page after page of dudes walking by, chit chat between Jon and Tormund. Everyone who went into this chapter came out exactly the same, nothing changed but a bunch of peoples' location. At the very end we find out that somewhere far away, there's a shipwreck and cannibalism and zombies in the woods and the sea, an attack on a ship, accusations of slavery from witches... holy crap! If only I could have read about that!

Contrast to Cercei's last chapter, which was awesome. She's taking a walk, right? Just walking? This walk breaks her. It completely destroys her character, no matter how much she mustered up her old pride in the beginning. The greatest accomplishment in the book, right there, because I actually felt bad for her.

You know what, at this point, I should just write my own review!

An author's worst nightmare said...

Oh i would pick anything from George. cool review. I'm a new follower here. Be sure to visit my blog and pay me a comment, lol. I buy literary coffee for my visitors...

Marian Perera said...

Man alive. I got caught up in a brutal editing session and forgot to read all of this. Jordan, so sorry to have missed your take on this until now.

JH said...

I have already marked you down for several demerits. Replying to blog posts comes first, write your novels on your own time!!

(Also I actually am interested in what you think of my take on it!)

Marian Perera said...

OK, I sat down, drank tea and read through your essay.

Now that you explain it, I see what Martin is doing with Dany - and thanks especially for pointing out the significance of her Meereenese trappings. As you said, it's realistic and just the kind of thing Martin would do to undercut the fantasy trope of the hero who frees the slaves and allows everyone to live happily every after.

It was still disappointing, though, because I'd gotten used to thinking of Dany as the one person who would get things right, somehow. She made a huge miscalculation in Book 1, but she was smart and determined in Book 2 and ruthlessly clever in Book 3. On the other hand, handling the Meereenese situation calls for different skills unless she wants to start killing off her subjects, and Dany has always been a little too soft for her own good.

Also, love the phrase "the fantasy equivalent of nukes". It's like you're a writer or something. :)

As for the relationships between Dany, Daario and the Ghiscari guy whose name I can't remember... well, in Book 1, I was hoping Khal Drogo would take her home. Here? We know neither Daario nor Ghiscari guy will be the other two heads of the dragon, so I was just waiting for them to either betray her or die.

I also liked your discussion of Jon's character arc. I cheered for him at the start, where he dealt with Janos Slynt - been waiting for that for four books - and the block was the perfect, ironic touch.

After that, though, it was as you said; Jon got carried away with the changes he planned to make. I kept feeling he was sitting on a powder keg, and when he shut Ghost away, he was just asking for trouble. But I read somewhere that there's a chance he'll be reborn as Azhor Azhai (the knight whom the giant ripped apart had stars on his tunic, and didn't the prophecy say something about a bleeding star?).

I'm sure Cersei will recover some of her power. There's so much more of the story to be told, and with Kevan's death, she'll fight even harder to stay on top of the crumbling Lannister midden heap. Plus she has FrankenGregor to be her champion. But you're right, she won't be the same again, not even if she exacts revenge on the High Septon and his cronies. That was a stunning downfall.

JH said...

"As for the relationships between Dany, Daario and the Ghiscari guy whose name I can't remember... well, in Book 1, I was hoping Khal Drogo would take her home. Here? We know neither Daario nor Ghiscari guy will be the other two heads of the dragon, so I was just waiting for them to either betray her or die."

This is why I really don't like meaningful prophesy, there is something that rubs me the wrong way about treating the plot and characters like elements in a logic puzzle. Once you have several cryptic symbolic prophesies about a character, a recurring mystic/trickster to remind her of them, and the character herself trying to interpret the events of her life according to prophesy, it just becomes... meta. You're not reading the story, you're solving it. The best way to handle this IMO is for a character to meticulously and superstitiously order their life around the prophesies they have received and end up being dead wrong. They were all bullshit, the only seemingly correct prophesies either coincidences or very tenuous interpretations of events to fit.

For what it's worth, I don't actually think Jon is dead, given that there are a number of means of resurrection within a few miles of him. My guess: Melisandre resurrects him and shapes him to be the hero she imagines he must be, since it seems like she's been moving away from backing Stannis. There's something interesting about the Red Priests: none of them seem to be following the same script. Melisandre seems out of line with most of her faith, who have endorsed Dany as their chosen one. So she probably believes in an outcome so strongly that she will make it happen.

Also Martin needs to do a spinoff series entirely about the turtles of the Royne.

Marian Perera said...

What did you think about the Cersei prophecy in AFfC - you know, the one where all her children died and her younger brother killed her? I liked the drama of that, but it detracted from the story somewhat, because now I'm waiting for Tommen and Myrcella to bite it.

You're right about prophecies being problematic. Once they're written (especially if they're this explicit and the author goes out of the way to remind us of them), either they're fulfilled or they aren't, and both choices are disappointing in different ways.

JH said...

Well I didn't even remember her prophesy until you brought it up, if that tells you anything. I don't like it any more than Dany's many, many pronounced destinies, unless it turns out to be mostly garbage and she makes a lot of paranoid mistakes in trying to avoid fulfilling it, especially if her efforts to thwart fate result in the prophesy coming true. The probable outcome here is that she imagines Tyrion will kill her, but for some reason Jamie does, she's so busy trying to thwart Tyrion that she doesn't notice Jamie turning against her. (iirc Jamie is the "younger twin" but if not then this is nonsense.)