Expect to see many readers at the beach this summer carting around a 1,000-page novel with a dragon on the cover. After all, the millions of hyper-vigilant fans of George R.R. Martin’s imaginative multiple-volume novel series A Song of Ice and Fire have been waiting six years for his latest installment, A Dance With Dragons, which arrives in bookstores Tuesday. Martin, who writes at his own pace (and on an old un-networked DOS-based computer), has taken his time in revealing the latest twists and turns of his gripping and brutal fantasy franchise, the basis for HBO’s Game of Thrones.
That’s perhaps a good thing. Martin’s legion of fans has grown since the first novel in the series was published in 1996, and has certainly swelled since HBO’s Game of Thrones became one of the year’s most buzzed-about shows. Set primarily within the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, the novels depict a feudal society that’s inherently bleak and populated by plotters and usurpers. This is an ambitiously constructed fantasy world where magic has evaporated but where ancient evils stir once more, where the threat of endless winter looms large, and where political manipulation and machination—as high lords and ladies wage war for control of the Iron Throne—is a deadly serious game.
There’s a sense of zealous anticipation among the faithful to find out what happened to the characters who didn’t appear in the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, as devoted readers have been waiting 11 years to find out what happened to such favorites as Bran, Jon Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and others, last seen in 2000’s A Storm of Swords. A misguided notion of keeping the fourth book focused on characters in the South of Westeros and beyond the Narrow Sea meant that Martin’s attentions were concentrated on several new characters while many of the most compelling individuals within the sprawling cast of characters remained out of reach. (Even long-suffering Tantalus had it easier.)
Until now, that is. With the release of the darkly enthralling A Dance With Dragons, Martin returns those crucial chapter narrators to the mix while also keeping momentum going on more than a dozen other subplots. However, there’s a bit of narrative oddness here at first, as the early chapters of the novel occur concurrently with the last one. They’re intended to fold in upon each other, but there’s a sense of cognitive dissonance occurring in watching self-described coward Samwell Tarly depart for Oldtown from the perspective of Jon Snow, now the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, given that we already know how this fateful trip turns out, thanks to the fourth volume, which focused heavily on Sam’s voyage to the South. But this is one of only a few bumps, as the swift momentum of the book soon picks up and moves away from the events in A Feast for Crows, before dovetailing together when the two narratives meet up halfway through the book.
While Martin’s decision to split up the characters in such a fashion is still head-scratching, there’s a sense of balance and harmony here, as the action moves around the world at breakneck speed, lurching from the dragon queen Daenerys’ new position of power in Slaver’s Bay (though her early chapters appear to be treading a bit of water) to cunning dwarf Tyrion’s flight of freedom after murdering his merciless father, from crippled Bran’s quest to find the three-eyed crow north of The Wall and wolf girl Arya Stark’s training as a faceless assassin in Braavos to a motley crew of sellswords heading toward the aforementioned dragons, the first of their kind in more than 100 years. There’s a tremendous scale here, not just in terms of the immense array of narrators (including the intriguing Melisandre), but also in the changes in scenery—the dense heat of Slaver’s Bay with its pyramids and swaying grasses is starkly contrasted with the icy chill of the north, where the snow is unremitting as winter approaches—and the vastness of the story. With so many characters to follow, so many schemes and subplots in motion, it’s impossible to imagine how Martin keeps track of it all, yet there’s a simplicity and ease to the reading experience, buoyed by third-person omniscient narration, which only adds to the sense of tension and dread unfolding.
Additionally, there’s a real sense of coming full circle back to the first novel (A Game of Thrones), with many moments either paying off or paying homage to sequences within the earliest volume in the series, echoing a prophetic line that the prescient and mysterious Quaithe shares with Daenerys. (“To go forward you must go back.”) Whether this is intentional on the part of Martin or subconscious—given how fresh HBO’s Game of Thrones is in everyone’s mind, after all—remains to be seen, but it also underscores now impossible it has become to separate the television show’s actors from the characters they play, perhaps even within the mind of the author.
There are a few moments where the relative speed of the editing process is apparent here, as Martin finished the final draft only a few short weeks before the release date. Several specific descriptions—the way a hired swordsman lasciviously rubs the naked golden women on his daggers, how the frigidness of the air is compared to the breath of a fabled ice dragon, and others—repeat themselves throughout, as though the book’s editors were rushing to quickly copy-edit in order to meet their own deadline.
But these are minor quibbles for a work as unrelentingly ambitious and suspenseful as A Dance With Dragons. Within these pages, wars are being fought on numerous fronts: In the north, Jon Snow brokers a deal between the Night’s Watch and the so-called wildlings, hoping to save as many people from the evil of the Others, an ancient race that has awakened after millennia of slumber; Daenerys, having seized several cities and attempted to end the slave trade, is beset by numerous enemies; rebel king Stannis Baratheon, who sees himself as the only legitimate claimant to the Iron Throne, continues his campaign to usurp the crown from the child-king Tommen, the product of an incestuous relationship between golden-haired Cersei and her twin brother Jaime Lannister; and the battle for men’s souls, as well it seems.
Issues of religion (depicted here as the pantheon of unnamed “old gods” from beyond the Wall, the seven gods of the newer organized religion of the masses, a vengeful and hot-tempered red god, and a god of many faces) loom large as well, as well as questions of freedom, causality, and fate. This is, one could argue, a tale of hubris, heartbreak and horror, a world out of balance where death itself is not an ending, and which threatens to swallow up those more fixated on the game of thrones than the true battle for the survival of man. Instead, all eyes are on Daenerys and her three dragons, symbols of a fallen dynasty that may yet rise up to once more retake the continent of Westeros. But as Daenerys grapples with questions of marriage and morality, she too is caught up in events beyond her control, as numerous characters careen on a crash-course with their individual destinies.
Ruthless betrayals, shifting identities, and staggering reveals are part and parcel of Martin’s modus operandi once more, as he subtly chips away at several longstanding mysteries (among them the identity of Bran’s mysterious savior Coldhands and the true parentage of bastard-born Jon Snow, theories on which I’ll remain silent about for now) while keeping those revelations under wraps for another day. However, there are more than enough surprises here to keep even the most jaded of readers on their toes, and the sort of ribald pleasures, jaw-dropping cruelty, and shocking twists that devotees of Martin have come to expect from his work.
A Dance With Dragons, the longest of the installments of A Song of Ice and Fire to date, might also be Martin’s finest work yet, a taut and relentless masterpiece that reaffirms the reader’s obsession with the panoply of unforgettable characters that Martin has created, and the brutal, glittering, terrible world in which these novels are set. There are moments of profound loss and of heart-palpitating joy, as dragons dance and the game of thrones plays on, its players and pawns once more beset by woes from home and abroad. Just when it all seems to fall into place, there’s yet another glinting knife, another unexpected disloyalty. Machiavelli, you have met your match in Martin.