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July 12, 2011

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Out Today: A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin

Posted by on Jul 12, 2011

Here at last, a day I feared might never come. The long awaited fifth volume of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire finally hits the shelves today. ‘Finally’ is a good word too – by my count it has been over 2072 days since A Feast For Crows (vol. 4) was released, over five and a half years of waiting and wondering. Head on over to your local bookstore (because you should support local bookstores) and grab a copy of A Dance With Dragons. If you’re lazy, I’m sure Amazon’s got it.

A Dance With Dragons drops at an interesting time and poses some interesting questions. It clearly took a while to write and in the mean time, the excellent HBO series has stirred up massive interest in the books and story. George R. R. Martin is apparently planning to write seven books, but given how long it has taken for just this one, you would be forgiven for wondering if that will come to pass. I have some thoughts on that subject, and ideas on how A Dance With Dragons could give us some clues.

Before I start, let me give credit where it’s due. Fantasy epics such as A Song of Ice and Fire are incredible tomes, running thousands of pages. They don’t exactly just pop out of thin air.

You try writing something that long, then complain to me...

Anyone who’s outraged at how long the fifth book has taken should take a step back and realize just how impressive the accomplishment has been to date. If the series never manages to wrap up it’s valid to be disappointed, but not to be upset.

That being said, what if Martin doesn’t manage to finish? Will the story simply remain hanging there? That very nearly happened with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series – he actually passed away before he could finish. There’s a happy ending in that case – Brandon Sanderson has picked up the torch and continued on with the series, in many cases with more verve and vivacity than Jordan himself could muster for the last few books. Nonetheless, it’s a legitimate concern: those who are up-to-date on the series may be disappointed, but more importantly, people who would otherwise pick up the books might be put off by the potential that the story won’t ever be finished (our own Tom is in that camp). That would be a shame, since A Song of Ice and Fire is truly excellent.

I also think it’s a very real possibility that unless some variables change, time will just catch up to the series. Robert Jordan never took more than two years between books; A Dance With Dragons has taken Martin nearly six years. HBO’s Game of Thrones show only adds to the pressure. Assuming it keeps up the pace (and the quality) the show will catch up to the end of the books in five years. Maybe even less than five years, because I’m not sure you could make a TV season out of A Feast For Crows. More on that later.

Beyond the question of whether or not there’s even enough time to finish the series at the current pace, there is a greater question. Has Martin hit the “Lost Wall”? I speak of course of the proverbial “I don’t know what I’m writing about, so I’ll just make it up” situation. This is a very real possibility, especially in the minds of people who have read the fourth book, A Feast For Crows. I won’t give away any part of the plot, but if you’re an insane purist you might want to skip the next paragraph.

Book four is an interesting entry in an epic series. In the Afterword, George R. R. Martin tells us when he was writing book 4, it became so long and complex that he decided to split it in two. However, contrary to the standard method, he split it by characters, not chronology. It tells the full story of half of the characters. A Dance With Dragons will apparently tell the story of the other characters over the same time horizon. Now, in my opinion, A Feast for Crows is just as good as the other books and a thoroughly engrossing read, but one can’t help but notice that the half of the characters selected for it aren’t the main characters. There’s no Wall, nothing in the South, only hints and whispers of Dragons. The ‘main’ storyline doesn’t really move at all.

At first glance, this is not a problem. Who cares that it doesn’t advance – book 5 will take care of that. It’s only when you consider that book five took 5 years that the idea that Martin has hit the “Lost Wall” begins to get some credence. Maybe it took so long because this is the book that needs to advance the story and he has no idea what to do. It’s not hard to see this argument, and I don’t think I can refute it, so all I can do is hope he’s figured it out. The fact that it has taken so much time is perhaps the silver lining; rather than plowing straight on blindly (like Lost), he stopped to figure out where he was going. Call it the “Battlestar Galactica Season 4 Wall”.

Now, given all that, I think there are a couple of things we can look for in A Dance With Dragons to inform us whether or not it will all work out.

She's just as good in the books as she is in the TV show.

  1. Do the Daenerys and Jon Snow/The Wall plot lines begin to converge? Given the name “A Song of Ice and Fire”, one would hope they get a little closer.
  2. Do we learn how the Lord of Light meshes with those two other forces (or why it’s a plot point at all)?
  3. Even though Arya is in book four, do we get more of her in book five? I ask this not because it has anything to do with whether or not the series will finish, but because she’s an awesome character.

Fingers crossed, it’s time to start reading.