Wednesday, July 25, 2012

On the Slaying of Dragons

So, more than a year after receiving A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin in the mail (from the now defunct Borders, may they rest in peace), I've finally finished reading it.

First of all, I was in no rush to finish this one. Why? Because who knows when GRRM will finish the next book in the series! What's my motivation to finish? So I can sit around for years waiting for the next installment? No thanks. So I took my time with this book.

What did I think of it, now that my year-long read is over? Well, I'm very torn. And frustrated. Martin is, to me, a Pygmalion figure. Like the aforementioned Greek legend, he's fallen in love with his creation. Which is fine, I suppose. I am sure I would feel the same as Martin were I in his shoes. I mean, we're talking a legacy in the making here. His writing is still superb.

And that's what's so frustrating: his work is incredible, but the way he's told his tale in this novel (and the novel before this one) has become bogged down in detail and secondary characters.

I understand if Martin wants to cement his legacy as someone who elevated the fantasy genre to new literary heights. I understand how someone would want to show off a world they have painstakingly created. Heck, isn't that what any GM worthy of his binder wants to do at some point? And part of me was very curious and excited to see more of Martin's world.

But does all of the above really make for a great story that still engages long-time readers? I'm not so sure about that. Is it possible that Martin could have show us his world in a more focused, shorter narrative? I think so.

The books in the Song of Ice and Fire series have always been long, but the last two have included an increasingly large number of viewpoint characters, some of whom were minor figures in earlier novels. I know that such events occur often in real life, where individuals can be thrust into the spotlight after the demise of those who stand above them. But does this serve a story when it happens over and over? Much is made of how willing Martin is to kill off characters, but can this attrition go too far? I think you can kill off reader interest if you kill too many central characters, or if those characters live but are laid low (i.e. become down on their luck figures) over and over by events.

It can also be very jarring to have to reorient oneself in space and time at the beginning of each chapter, due to Martin's huge cast being spread out across two continents. The series has seemingly become a travelogue. We see characters on journeys that never seem to end. I know this is supposed to be fairly realistic with regard to travel in a medieval world. But is all this realism starting to undermine the story? Ultimately, readers want a cohesive narrative that moves forward at a good pace. The backdrop is secondary. Yes, we want a lived-in, authentic-feeling world in which the characters and plot to exist. But when the world begins to overwhelm the story, things become muddled.

One other nitpick: the repetition of certain phrases is irritating. Words are wind. Much and more. Little and less. Leal (meaning loyal) subject. Dark wings, dark words. Mummer's farce. Over and over and over.

I read the first Ice and Fire novel, A Game of Thrones, around 2002. Long before the series gained its current notoriety. I'm a long-time fan. I really want Martin's series to succeed as a coherent body of work that will stand for years to come as a paragon of the genre. But I also want it to end, and end well. All good things must do so. I just hope that he doesn't drag this on much longer.

1 comment:

  1. I'm taking my time with those books too. I read A Game of Thrones over five years ago and just got a copy of the 3rd book recently. I too have a sort of love - hate relationship with Martin. He is brilliant but his books are such time investments, I could read some Greek Classics and perhaps feel a bit more fulfilled for the use of my time.

    To be continued... lol