Easy as it is for fans to resent the six years it took George R.R. Martin to produce A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in his bestselling Song Of Ice And Fire epic-fantasy series, now that the book has arrived, it’s easy to see where those years went. The thousand-page novel is staggeringly dense with interlaced characters, whose complicated interactions stretch back through hundreds of years of lineage, and it stretches to encompass Martin’s entire world, taking in POV characters from the entire series in order to cover events in a dozen locales. New fans only familiar with Martin from the recent HBO series A Game Of Thrones, which adapted the first Song Of Ice And Fire book, are likely to get a surprise when they see how much deeper Martin’s world goes—Dragons is the thickest of the novels to date, in terms of cast, background, and detail as well as pages. In retrospect, it’s surprising it only took him six years to write it.
It isn’t precisely that the book has been worth the wait; some storylines continue from the fourth book, 2005’s A Feast For Crows, but many more stretch back to cliffhangers from 2000’s A Storm Of Swords, and series fans who haven’t revisited these books recently may get lost amid the welter of decade-old plotlines and endless personal agendas. Regardless, it’s an immense pleasure to finally slip back into Martin’s thoroughly immersive world. It’s always been a joy to get lost in the flow of his words, even when it’s unclear where they’re leading. And Dragons shows him continuing to develop as a writer: It can be difficult, but it’s richly rewarding. Martin remains boundlessly creative, sketching out intricately realized new civilizations, societies, religions, and factions on one continent while continuing to complicate the established political agendas on another. No part of his world ever feels like an afterthought or an easy fantasy cliché.
There are plenty of quibbles to be made with A Dance With Dragons. Martin returns too often to a handful of distractingly idiosyncratic pet words—“leal” for “loyal,” “dinted” for “dented”—and to a handful of phrases and fixed ideas that his cast obsesses over like mantras, which leads to maddening repetition. His devotion to detail can be a distraction, as when he takes time to enumerate the physical attributes of seven unnamed slaves immediately before killing them all off in a couple of sentences, or lays out the personality traits of a handful of offscreen hostage-children who won’t be seen again for the rest of the book. In both cases, his reasons for individualizing them all are clear—he wants to give weight to the slaves’ deaths in the first case, and to the decisions made on the children’s behalf in the second. But in a book where seemingly every paragraph is packed with names, bloodlines, heraldry, and history, the microscopic focus adds to the impression of wading through name soup.
More significantly, nothing much happens in Dragons’ first half. Tyrion Lannister travels and broods over his father’s last words. Daenarys Targaryen decides not to travel, and broods over the cruelty of the city she’s conquered. Jon Snow weighs his options on the Wall, and broods over his loyalties and decisions. Brandon Stark travels, with little time to brood because of the difficulty of survival. Various other characters travel in order to offer alliances, or hunker down to plan or survive, while operating with limited information. Apart from a few small forts changing hands, few actual moves are made in the game of thrones; it sometimes feels like Martin is spinning his wheels, waiting for the half of his cast not featured in Feast For Crows to catch up to that book’s events. Once they do, though, and the timelines merge, the book picks up sharply and becomes a breathless charge toward another series of cliffhangers that may not be resolved for years.
From a sheer plot-movement perspective, Dragons can be unsatisfying—Martin knows his audience, and can be brutal about teasing them with small tastes of the information they most want. But given that it’s a middle book in a long series where the endgame is still far from sight, that was inevitable. It’s more a book to be savored for its flavor, for Martin’s considerable talent at world-building, characterization, and interaction, for his characters’ humor, bravery, skullduggery, determination, and pathos. He gives the impression that he knows the life story of every last person in his vast world, and is perfectly willing to explicate them at length. Even if it takes a couple more decades to get it all down on paper.