So much better than fantasy

A Dance With Dragons by George R R Martin (Harper Voyager)

It has been six years since the publication of A Feast for Crows, the fourth volume in George RR Martin’s fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. In the interim a hugely successful HBO dramatisation of the series has begun airing—and Martin has received death threats and worse from readers ­frustrated by plot lines left dangling in midair.

A Dance with Dragons is the urgently awaited fifth volume, although some plot lines still dangle because the time frames of the two books—originally conceived as one—run parallel. But the volume break makes sense, and not merely for reasons of length.
A Feast for Crows dealt mainly with the aftermath of one outbreak of hot war; A Dance with Dragons examines the realignments that prepare for the next.

To recap for those who have not yet caught the Ice and Fire bug, the series is loosely based on the Wars of the Roses: a dynastic struggle for the throne across lands that stretch from frozen ice to lush, palm-fringed river delta. The contending coalitions of families were led respectively by the Starks and the Lannisters, but a few books ago most of the Starks were massacred at a wedding, at which point alliances and rivalries got a lot more complicated.

Martin’s is a feudal world in which magic is normal: in the North, frozen zombies mass at the Wall; in the South, dragons are being raised to throw their weight into the fray. There are shape-changers even in the best families, and priests and court magi scry ambiguous images of the future.

So many of these plot devices sound like standard by-the-numbers fantasy that those who have not yet read any of the books might wonder what all the fuss is about. The answer is simple: addictively good storytelling.

We may read other fantasy writers for metaphors that speak to the soul of our contemporary reality, or for audacious postmodern genre juggling. We read Martin for the simple, vastly underrated, almost old-fashioned joy of a gripping tale told in words that leap off the page to snatch us into their world.

The scale of the story is huge, yet Martin makes certain that even the walk-ons—buck-toothed pageboys, smelly corsairs and sour nuns—are memorable. His descriptions of place attack all your senses; his action scenes kick butt and course with adrenalin, blood, semen and shit. Although Martin’s writing has been likened to Tolkien’s, it is Dickens that this vast, vivid, visceral panorama most strongly recalls.

In the first volume, A Game of Thrones, it was the Stark family we came to know best. Now the focus has switched to others, most notably Tyrion Lannister, youngest son of the house. Tyrion was despised and mocked during childhood for his dwarfism and he has grown up ruthless, cynical and brilliant. Many of the best lines in all five books so far have come from his mouth. But A Dance with Dragons also follows Jon Snow, a Stark bastard who is now Commander of the Wall, and Daenerys Targaryen, queen-guardian of the dragons.

Both are learning to command and negotiate the awkward grey space between ideals and realpolitik. A bunch of hopeful suitors pursue Daenerys, mostly the scions of houses who need her dragons to tip the balance of the war.

Tyrion, meanwhile, is in flight, having murdered his royal father (with a crossbow bolt while the evil old man sat on his privy). Down rivers and across seas, in litter, trunk, silks and slave fetters, Tyrion’s journeys are also psychological: removed from the hothouse atmosphere of court he begins to see those around him as human. It does not make him a better person, but it does extend his intelligence in new ways. Tyrion’s journeys, particularly his time on an enchanted river swathed in mist, form some of the most evocative passages of the book.

The remaining Stark children are scattered: crippled Bran (a Lannister threw him off a tower early on) serves something between apprenticeship and jail time with a seer in an underground cave; gawky Arya does somewhat the same with an order of ­assassins. And there are one or two surprises about who else survived the slayings in books three and four.

At a weighty 1 000 pages (three are maps; 50 are family trees), A Dance with Dragons is not an easy book to handle. But it is a lot easier to read than it is to stop. For once, a cover shout about staying up till dawn to finish it does not feel like a lie.

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