A fan’s notes on A Dance With Dragons

All summer long I have been watching the works of George RR Martin take up residence on the bestseller lists with the same satisfaction I felt last fall when the SF Giants were winning games. It’s a curious thing about being a fan: that transference that happens when your team is winning and by extension you are a winner too. Stieg Larsson, whose party I was late to, never made me feel like things were going my way when his Millennium Trilogy had taken up its misanthropic squat atop the list. But seeing evidence of the success of A Song of Ice and Fire makes me happy in a purely tribal way.

I think the sports metaphors are justified here, not only because I’ve read through some pretty long posts about football on GRRM’s blog, but also because fandom itself is pretty much a pleasure-pain loop of triumph and disappointment. Same thing whether you’re watching sports or reading a great series.

Reading A Dance with Dragons it was hard not to feel that I was witnessing a book collapse under its own weight. With a Feast for Crows, I remember feeling nervous as the dark energy of expansion started to override the tight, nasty gravity that kept the previous three books as big as they could be without breaking apart. But this one feels like entropy, baby.

The problem may be mine. I am simply not that interested in anything that happens in Braavos, Pentos, the grass sea of the Dothraki, Astapor, Yunkai, or – sadly – Meereen. I do not work to keep the names straight, still less their geography. It’s the north, with its towering Wall and gloomy Winterfell that is the singular achievement of the saga. (It is an unhappy and rather belated realization that the name of the series is, after all, A Song of Ice and Fire – and having had our Ice, we’ve now got to pay with Fire.)

Meereen is a slog. Tyrion is on a camping trip that makes Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows seem like a jaunt to the corner store. Daenerys – always in danger of being too good – is stuck as a Ruler Who Struggles to Do the Right Thing. Beset by dangers on all sides, she’s become even more of a bore. And yes, of course Jon Snow is having to do the same thing at the Wall – I’ve just always thought he was a more fully realized character than she – despite her misfortunes and her dragons. (I’m not quite certain why, but I think it has to do with the exoticism of her setting, which has always felt a little invented, and the way she is regarded by everyone as a figurehead. In this book, she has a baker’s dozen of suitors trying to win her hand purely because of what she symbolizes. It’s hard to come into sharp relief when everyone abstracts you, including your writer.)

It is almost always easier to say something negative than positive. In this case, though, it comes from love. I don’t really mind that this book disappointed. It doesn’t matter that this book is not as “good” as the the first three – which seem matchless now in hindsight. The series has been awe-inspiring on the level of plotting, character, imagination, the vigor with which the author’s seized a whole genre and made it seem like I’d never read it before. There are still great moments here – the Others erupting from underneath the snow, the greenseer, the Stone Men. And there are the surprises – there’s the whopper at the end, but on a lesser scale, who knew that Reek would turn out to be the most interesting character of the book?

Still a fan.