Note: This article is 100% spoiler free.
I would never claim myself to be a published author; I’m not.
However, I have been reading books for roughly 30 years and I’ve developed certain sensibilities when it comes to storytelling. I would like to read a coherent, well-written story with relatable characters and an engaging plot. I would like a narrator who delivers the story in a clear, consistent tone, free of grammatical errors, unnecessary repetition and cliches.
The first four novels in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series exemplify great storytelling, despite Martin’s insistence on making his own life more difficult by switching points of view every chapter. Such an undertaking might sink a novel if the author is unable to tie multiple perspectives together and keep the plot moving. Considering Martin’s novels average 1,000 pages and dozens of individual character perspectives, the potential for disaster is especially great. However, Martin makes it work through the first four novels, and that’s why there’s a hit television series based on his work.
If you’re a fan of Martin, it’s very possible that you’ve spent the last six years waiting for George to take a break from blogging about the New York Jets and publish the fifth installment of Song of Ice and Fire. It’s also likely that you were thrilled to find out that A Dance with Dragons would indeed be published in July 2011. You’ve probably devoured the novel already, and if you haven’t it’s probably because you actually have a life that prevents you from devouring 1,000-page novels in fairly short order.
I tore through A Dance with Dragons in a matter of 10 days. Martin hasn’t lost his ability to weave an absorbing plot. Lots of interesting stuff happens. As always, deception is rampant, murder is prevalent, new plans for world domination are devised, love is ultimately fleeting, and the population of good-hearted people always seems to be shrinking.
However, it wasn’t the plot that stood out in my mind upon completing A Dance with Dragons: It was the very obvious and persistent lack of editing that permeated the novel’s pages like an olde-timey plague.
Here’s a fun example: “The moon was a crescent, thin and sharp as the blade of a knife.” One can forgive Martin for using imagery that’s been featured in the works of such great poets as Gloria Estefan and Bryan Adams. It’s the fact that this exact sentence appears no less than THREE TIMES within the span of a SINGLE CHAPTER. Clearly, Martin loved this sentence so much that he made sure he used it, but it’s apparent that he never decided exactly where to use it — instead, he simply used it everywhere.
Repetition proves to be Martin’s major weakness throughout A Dance with Dragons. In previous installments, we’re reminded a few times that Jon Snow has a limited worldview with Ygritte’s refrain, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” Martin uses this refrain every chance he gets in A Dance with Dragons, even at times when it doesn’t make any sense within the context of a specific passage. The result is that the phrase is stripped of its meaning; unfortunate, considering Ygritte’s words are among the most meaningful in the development of Jon’s character.
Martin also has an apparent fondness for using “mummer’s farce” to describe just about everything that happens in his universe. One could create a Song of Ice and Fire drinking game based on this phrase alone. In A Dance with Dragons, he provides some variety by replacing “farce” with words like show and fart. Perhaps fart is simply a misprint of farce, but either way it doesn’t quite make up for Martin’s lack of ability to create an array of metaphors.
While Martin is very consistent in his overuse of particular phrases, he is downright inconsistent in his narration. One could separate chapters into two categories: 1) chapters that were written five or six years ago before Martin lost his steam and 2) chapters that were written in order to complete the novel and expedite publication. Certain chapters are as poignant and well-written as the best moments in Game of Thrones, and others read like poor Game of Thrones fan fiction. Sometimes the novel oscillates between the two categories in several consecutive chapters, forcing one to wonder if the novel was written by two different authors.
It’s understandable that the publisher would want to release A Dance with Dragons with no further delay; the series has acquired countless new fans with the success of the Game of Thrones TV series while longtime fans had been waiting for the fifth book for six years. The paperback edition of Feast For Crows advertises 2007 as the release year for Dance with Dragons; clearly, this book has been a long time coming.
Which renders the inconsistency, repetition, and laziness even more inexcusable. It must be quite an undertaking for an editor to read through 1,000 pages of text, with dozens of primary characters whose stories are woven together in unexpected and unusual ways. Just editing for continuity alone would be an arduous process. It’s not that I blame Martin’s editor(s) for missing some details along the way, it’s more that I have to wonder if the publisher employed editors in the first place.
The great irony here is that I would still recommend the series to anyone who enjoys fantasy. Whole-heartedly, unapologetically, absolutely: I recommend this series to you, dear reader. By the time you reach A Dance with Dragons, you will thirst for information on certain characters, and you will be willing to follow them into the depths of a universe so dark that it routinely makes you sick to your stomach. If you’re lucky, the first four books are long enough to delay your purchase of A Dance with Dragons until the second edition is out; at which point, I hope, the book will have been scoured by capable editors and transformed into the fantastic novel it should be.
– Matt Maggiacomo