A Dance with Dragons, hopefully the nadir

By Razib Khan | August 1, 2011 2:06 am

A few weeks ago I said that I would post an update on how A Dance with Dragons was doing on Amazon. Here it is:

A 5 star rating is good. The sample size is not too large in relation to previous books, but I think we can conclude that this is more in keeping with the perception of relative mediocrity of book 4, than the epic virtuosity of the first three in the series. I have also now read A Dance with Dragons, and here are my impressions (no specific spoilers, though I’m going to talk about the general tenor)….

I think the low score for A Dance with Dragons even compared to A Feast for Crows has less to do with the content and style of the book in relation to its predecessor than the reality that the readers of this series are even more hungry for some movement of the plot arcs. This makes sense. Many of the people who started with A Game of Thrones as virgins now have families! These are people with less time, and they want some bang for their buck. But that’s not what they’ve been getting, at least since A Storm of Swords was published in 2000.

Unfortunately for us this may all be part of the plan. A Dance with Dragons and  A Feast for Crows are really two halves of the same book, with the narrative interleaved across them in terms of chronology. If you follow George R. R. Martin’s explanations of how the series got out of hand in the early 2000s you know that this wasn’t in the cards at inception. Rather, these books were planned as a bridge between two very different periods of the overall narrative, which was originally going to be more distinct because of a chronological gap between the earlier books and the later ones (this would allow some of the younger characters to mature at least into adolescence). But what was once a trilogy is now projected to have seven books in all, and many are placing bets that it will go beyond that. To some extent the story has gotten away from the author and these two books are attempts to pause, take stock, and reload.

And because they are so instrumental in their role in the whole series they don’t live and breath as ends unto themselves. It’s clear when you’re reading the earlier books that they’re pieces of a broader puzzle, but even if you don’t finish the puzzle, the Byzantine machinations of A Game of Thrones and the pathos of A Storm of Swords leave you with something which stands apart from the overall series. There is nothing like the “Red Wedding” in A Dance with Dragons or A Feast for Crows. You plod through them because you hope you’re setting the foundations for the “good stuff.” But this act is expending the capital of goodwill built up from the previous books. They just don’t stand up on their own legs.

Don’t get me wrong. George R. R. Martin is not my bitch! This is fictional series. But it was a damn good one. In fact, I still think it’s a damn good one. But if the author continues to construct the launching pad in book 6 I suspect he’ll lose a lot of people. The proliferation of plot points and viewpoint characters boggles the mind, and in interviews Martin has indicated that sometimes he feels overwhelmed. With his zest for killing off characters he shouldn’t have a problem making this issue go away, and there is a high likelihood that the canvas across which he’s painting his plot will constrain the possibilities of his creativity soon enough. I’m hoping this is the calm before the storm (in a good way!).

Addendum: To my surprise Robert Jordan’s series didn’t really flatten in the distribution of ratings until book 8.

  • Connie

    I found myself skipping over vast sections of Dragons, all the while asking myself, Where is the satisfying turn of events? I think he’s stalling. To what end…it’s not difficult to imagine-and in fewer words!

  • http://www.jpgreene.net Jacob

    When I started reading the Wheel of Time, books 1-7 were already out. I had to wait a year or so before book 8.

    It was a disappointment. It was slow. People wandered around, talking about things that had happened in the past and considering how those events would change their future decisions.

    There was one chapter in particular that seemed almost insulting. “An Uneventful Ride.” Twenty to thirty pages of characters complaining to each other about how bored they were.

    Upon my first re-read of the series, before book 9 came out, I found book 8 to be just as bad. Book 9 was similar. Huge, world-shattering events occured at the end of book 9, but everything except the very end was more of the same.

    I didn’t read book 10 when it came out. About a year after book 11 was published, I re-read the series again. This time, knowing that I had two more books to read after books 8 and 9, neither of those were that boring. They weren’t action packed or anything like that, but they were filled with important information and characterization. I didn’t mind them anymore.

    When a single book has a hundred pages or so where nothing explosive happens, it’s not a big deal. Maybe that’s what Jordan and Martin are having to deal with (had to deal with, re: Jordan), with their thousands upon thousands of pages. Just a lull in the story where nothing that flashy was actually going on. And, like the Wheel of Time, perhaps when ASoIAF is complete, these books won’t even be seen as “the bad ones.”

    But yeah, it kinda sucks waiting for years and getting a thousand pages of foundation building.

  • Teapot

    Overall I preferred it to Crows, as there was nothing like the rather pointless Brienne plotline in the earlier book. I think the low ratings are simply because he spent 900 pages building up to two major events (at Meereen and Winterfell, and that’s not really a spoiler) and then didn’t show us the events.

    No matter how brilliantly these events are recounted in the next book it won’t have anything like the same impact as it would have done to have them now, as in 5 years time we will have forgotten half of it. The build up and the climax have to be in the same book.

    As an aside, I only read the first three (in about 2003) because I thought that it was a trilogy. Normally I only read a series once they are all out, and I recommend this to anyone who hasn’t started the series yet.

  • oldtaku

    This is why I stopped reading Wheel of Time as well. It got so bogged down in the ever expanding character webs that nothing of any consequence seemed to be happening. IIRC, the last book I read was 700 pages for less than 24 hours of world time (minus some bookends). I didn’t feel my money or time investment had been well spent so that was the end of it.

    Sad to see this is headed the same way.

  • Bob LaVesh

    I’ve not read Dragons yet, waiting for the paper back version to come out (which should correspond to a drop in the kindle-version price too, I hope. Granted, Feast of Crows was not the best book in the series- but it was still a good worthwhile read.

    I think one factor to consider is the HBO series.

    I don’t know how many TV watchers saw that and went out and grabbed the nearest GRRM book off the shelf- that would have been Feast Of Crows (and more recently Dance With Dragons). I’m sure there are more than a few disatisfied TV watchers who picked up in the middle of the series reading the books- or perhaps were disapointed that their brain had to read words instead of opening the book and hitting a play button.

    Overall though- I think it may come down to “plot fatigue” – all series of stories, in whatever media, eventually hit it. In Britain a lot of hit series are never published beyond a second season no matter how successfull because the makers don’t want to risk it setting in.

    Perhaps Martin has just hit the “plot fatigue” threshold and can no longer milk the Westeros world. After so many years on this story you’d think he could get some better ratings.

  • trajan23

    This is why I feel that a trilogy should be the outer perimeter for a series; if you can’t do it in three fat books, don’t do it at all.

  • john

    I just finished it. I agree with Razib mostly. I can understand why people gave it 5, and why people gave it 1 and I would give it 3. On itself it is relatively good. But not a lot happens and it’s mostly teasing for the next book.
    But when you know some people had to wait 6 or even 11 years for this book, and now we will have to wait at least 3 and probably more years for the next one – yes this is a letdown. I myself only started the series in 2009 so I am not angry. I even did not understand why people hated the 4th book so much because I did read all the books together. Now I do.

  • Douglas Knight

    Razib, and what did you think of this approach to evaluating a new book by reviews? If I recall correctly, your plan was to read it if it reviewed better on Amazon than Feast, but it failed that test in the end. Did you read it because the earlier reviews were more positive? or were you caught up in the excitement of the release and unable to keep to the plan? Was the book as you expected from the reviews? Was it a good plan?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #8, it’s gotten worse as the reviews have gone on. if i had waited i might not have read it. i was only mildly disappointed. i kind of had low expectations cuz i thought it was going to be a bridge. though like some people i’m kind of getting a little sick of martin’s negativity. he’s shifting from shades of gray to off black.

  • rashomon

    I enjoyed Dance, and would probably give it 3 stars: Good, not great. What concerns me is the ratio of read time to wait time, as I finished it in 5 days (international flights are great reading opportunities), and waited more than 5 years. I don’t think I’ll anticipate its sequel quite as much.

    Perhaps HBO will find some way of holding GRRM’s feet to the fire. Neal Gaiman to the contrary, GRRM became my bitch when he undertook this work as a promised series.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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