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The Problems of Power: George R.R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons

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Note: George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series on which HBO’s Game of Thrones is based, is out in stores today. I received a review copy several weeks ago. TIME’s book critic Lev Grossman has already reviewed it. But since I’ve been covering the HBO series, and writing about GRRM’s work even before the show’s debut, I thought I’d share some thoughts here, both about the book as a novel and about its potential adaptation to TV. 

It goes without saying, but I will say it. This is the review of the fifth book of a series. It therefore has spoilers regarding the preceding four books. If you’ve only watched the series and don’t want to know which characters are alive—don’t read this! If you haven’t read all the previous books—don’t read this! And as in any review, while I take care not to give away essential plot points, I have to discuss some plot and setting. If you’re very sensitive about that—don’t read this!

I may return to the book later in the summer for some discussion posts here, once more of you have had a chance to read. In the meantime…

At more than one one point in A Dance With Dragons, characters talk about the nature of power. One of them makes a point that the series has returned to again and again: a good man can be a bad king, and a bad man can be a good king. Another talks about the difference between seeing kingship as a right to be demanded (by birthright or title) and seeing it as a duty to be earned (through work and suffering).

If there is one theme to this thousand-page novel, hopscotching continents, climates and characters, it is that it finds its characters—children and old men, nobles and bastards, men and women—grappling with their power, with what it means to earn it and with how best to use it.

ADWD is in a way half a novel; as GRRM struggled with the multiplying threads of his fourth novel, he decided to cleave it in two, not by chronology but by character: he followed some of the point-of-view characters through whom he writes his chapters and left others for later. The resulting fourth book, A Feast for Crows (AFFC), took ASOIAF to strange and dark places, but it suffered for the division. It occupied us with characters we hadn’t gotten close to—we got really, really familiar with Dorne and on the Iron Islands—while some favorite characters were MIA for eleven long years.

ADWD brings them back—bastard warrior Jon Snow, exiled dragon queen Danaerys Targaryen, fugitive dwarf Tyrion Lannister and crippled, mystical Bran Stark, among others—and almost from the get-go that gives it a narrative edge over its companion book. Each, in his or her own way, is dealing with a question of power.

Jon Snow, now Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch at the Wall, is struggling to lead an undermanned force through an immigration crisis—a stream of wildling refugees fleeing the Others in the North. His already thankless job is made more complicated by serving under the eye of King Stannis, claimant to the Iron Throne, who is encamped with his army and his priestess/sorceress/Svengali, Melisandre.

Dany, having decided that she must bring peace to the conquered city of Meereen before claiming her throne in Westeros, finds it difficult to manage an elite caste that resents her having abolished slavery (along with the neighboring, belligerent city-states)—not to mention the upkeep of three hungry dragons. Tyrion, having fled east after killing his father Tywin, finds himself having to thrive on his wits, cut off from the support of his wealthy family. Bran, meanwhile, resumes his journey North (unbeknownst to his half-brother Jon on the Wall), traveling with the mysterious, elk-riding Coldhands in search of the “three-eyed crow” who has haunted his dreams since the fall that paralyzed him. Bran is arguably the least physically powerful of the series’ characters, and yet his coming to terms with his inner power—the ability to enter other bodies by “skinchanging,” and perhaps more—may prove very important in the series’ long game.

Of course, this is GRRM, so there are further complications and yet more players added along the way, one of which seriously upends the cyvasse board of the struggle for the Iron Throne. (The chess-like game of cyvasse, by the way, becomes a recurring motif of ADWD.) We re-encounter Theon Greyjoy, now the broken prisoner of Ramsay Bolton, maybe the greatest sadist Martin has invented, which is saying something. A good portion of ADWD focuses on Dany and the various parties converging on Merreen in hopes of wooing her and/or her dragons—Tyrion, Victarion Greyjoy and a hapless Dornish prince, among others—and the novel fleshes out the exotic worlds of Essos, the Free Cities and Slaver’s Bay much more than any book in the series. ASOIAF’s world is growing ever more baroque, exotic and (literally) magic.

GRRM has said that part of what delayed the book so long was untangling “the Meerreenese knot”—that is, if I understand him correctly, making the chronology and characters mesh up as various threads converged on Dany. And if there’s a weakness to the early Meereen sections, they seem to be marking time (and making Dany uncharacteristically indecisive) to allow time for all the pieces to fall into place. If that’s the case, I’d have much rather accepted an “A wizard did it” explanation for any chronology gaps or continuity issues and had the book two years ago—but in any case, the story becomes exhilarating as Dany’s crisis of leadership forces her to confront her true nature.

GRRM readers have become accustomed to knowing that no character is safe: not unlike The Sopranos, there’s a “Who got whacked?” buzz around the release of any new book. But Martin’s commitment to the stakes of his story is not just about killing characters off—some of them die, of course, though I won’t say who—but committing them to substantive changes and sacrifices. There is a particular non-death scene in ADWD that is in a way a sacrifice both more terrible and more transcendant, and it is possibly the most affecting moment in any ASIOAF novel yet (including those murders you’re thinking about).

I suggested that AFFC and ADWD are two “halves” of one long novel; that’s not exactly the case. They’re more like one-and-a-third very long novels, or so. ADWD eventually catches up with the end of AFFC, at which point several of its point-of-view characters return, including Arya Stark, apprenticing with the Faceless Men in Braavos; the aforementioned Victarion; and imprisoned Queen Cersei Lannister back in King’s Landing. (Remember King’s Landing?)

All this suggests a big adaptation challenge, assuming that the HBO series survives to make it to this point in the novels. It would be ludicrous to adapt nearly 2,000 pages of two books as one season, and yet there isn’t a natural chronological dividing line in the middle of the narrative for each character’s arc. (That is, I can think of several potentially dramatic final scenes and stopping points, but other storylines would just stop, midway.) It will take some creativity on the part of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to slice this leviathan in half. (I briefly wondered whether it would work to split it into an Essos season and a Westeros season, but I assume fans, HBO executives and casting agents alike would rebel.)

But in all that verbiage, there’s a lot of delicious detail in ADWD. More than any book in the series, for instance, it gets deeply into the varying religions of Westeros and Essos, and their temporal power for good and evil. Each of the religions reflects its culture’s temperament. No religion seems to be the true faith—there are eerie displays of power on many sides—nor do they have a monopoly on virtue. In Westeros, for instance, you may have cheered to see the zealous High Septon throw Cersei in the clink at the end of AFFC, but in ADWD we see the pettiness and misogyny that inform his judgment of her (“All women are wantons”), whatever actual crimes she is guilty of.

All this makes for a thousand-page book that feels half as long, that moves dextrously, answers key questions and gobsmacks you with convincing feints and change-ups. As in AFFC, there are sections that feel like they could have used an editor. In some chapters you suddenly find yourself in a strange land with a character you have little attachment to, wondering where this thread is going, as if you had stayed too long at a party after the friends you came with have left.

But even in his digressions Martin shows off his ability to find humanity and tragedy in his most peripheral-seeming characters. Just as no one is safe in ASOIAF, there is no telling who may prove to be important. They say, we are told in ADWD, that dragons never stop growing, and the same is true of Martin’s world; even at a thousand pages, ADWD is fleet, nimble and deadly, and it was not so long that I did not end it wishing for just a hundred pages more.