There seems to be a tradition in fantasy fiction, one that’s been developing since the rise of fat fantasy novels in the 90’s: the endless series. Some authors are afraid to give up the ghost, having become too attached to their characters and worlds. Others simply get stuck, unable to work out how to move the story forward. In either instance, there tends to be a sink into excess weight, and a sense of slowness to the proceedings, as though weighed down by too many excess narrative strands. And it leads me to simply wish that all those characters that were not present in the first book or two would die in some sudden and unexpected way. Just to move things along.
On the other hand, I am very well aware that writing is not easy. It is in fact an abysmally lonesome activity, and one that can be really taxing. And terrifying. And if my life were in more order, I might have the courage to sit and write, rather than actually enjoy having a wonderfully developed and active social life. But the stories in my head can wait. Others however, cannot. Mr. Martin’s latest outing? I’ve been waiting since my second year of university, as that was when his last book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series – A Feast for Crows- was published. That was nearly 7 years ago. Since then I’ve waited, and waited, and then waited some more. And followed the news updates, and understood that he’d hit a roadblock. And I’ve seen that before. Robert Jordan had the same problem with A Wheel of Time, and Matt Stover with his Caine books. There’s a narrative thread that’s just not making sense, and you don’t know where it’s going to go, nor what it’s doing, but it’s throwing everything out of whack.
All of this makes it really hard to feel disappointed by his latest word, A Dance With Dragons. And yet.
And yet, it’s a necessary book, as it’s basically the second half of A Feast for Crows. Which means it’s the book that’s all about positioning his characters, setting everything up for the oncoming storm. Except: don’t you hate it when that’s what you’re forced to do? It’s like adding an extra movie between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, where we get to find out how and why Londo joined Jabba’s group of criminals, where Luke went after everyone split up at the end of Empire, and so on. It’s not that it wouldn’t be interesting, it’s just that maybe it’s not all that pertinent. And there are a great many chapters in AFFC and ADWD that I, as an editor, would have said “chuck out the window”, as part of a greater effort to streamline the novel. I understand why all the major plot points needed to happen in the novel (there are roughly four Big Plot Points), and I understand that by spreading them out it allows Martin time to do a bit more world-building, and to move characters towards a point where the narrative threads could begin converging. But it could have been done with a smaller page-count. Not so that the book could be smaller, but so that the narrative as a whole could resonate a certain level of intensity that was very much lacking in this novel.
Which is why I now sit here, and contemplate what I, as a professional editor, would have done, had I chance to sit down with Mr. Martin not 6 years ago, but just after the third book, A Storm of Swords, was published, so that I might work out what his narrative game-plan was, and provide suggestions as to how to get the series underway following the monstrously intense blood-storm that was A Storm of Swords.
Instead, I shall have to suffice with this: a book that was at least filled with a bit more incident than A Feast for Crows, but lacking in the kind of climactic intensity that was such a splendid hallmark of the first three novels in the series. But I understand how it came to this. Thus I hope the next outing, The Winds of Winter, will bring us back to the intensity that made A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords such incredible page-turners.