A Dance With Dragons, by George RR Martin

 

A Dance With Dragons is the fifth volume in the ongoing epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. And because it’s volume five, I’m somewhat limited in what I can say that’s not a spoiler. But in any case, I recently read and reviewed the first volume, A Game of Thrones, and was rather unimpressed – but between the promising elements of that novel, my memory of enjoying volumes two and three, and my re-awakened desire to find out what happens next after many years away from the series, I decided to buy the latest book and give it a go.

My first impression: it’s a lot, lot better.

The general portrait of the strengths and weakness of the author that I gleaned from the first novel remains true. Martin is an author who is best at the big scale, best at telling an engaging story, best when he has a lot of words to work with, building things (characters, plots, themes, foreshadowing) up with layer after layer of words. He is rather less good at the details – the prose, the incidents, the incisive, delicate sketchwork. That remains true – but the weak points have been considerably strengthened. ADWD feels like a novel written by a man entirely at home in what he’s doing, where AGOT often felt nervous, unsure, as though the author weren’t quite sure what he was doing.

The difference is obvious within a few chapters: the opening chapters of ADWD are far more polished, far more compelling, far more satisfying by themselves, frankly far better written in every way. Within pages I knew that I would never – as I did with AGOT – ask myself whether I could be bothered finishing this novel.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems. Although Martin’s narrative voice, an attempt to merge the fauxdieval intonations of epic fantasy with a more modern, more realistic way of speaking, feels a lot more coherent and settled than it did in the first volume, he’s still not quite in control of it. This leads, for instance, to the repeated use of crutchwords that he seems to have recently discovered and is determined to impress us with – thankfully, the endless “nuncles” that appeared in the fourth volume (Martin evidently learned between books three and four that ‘nuncle’ is an older form of ‘uncle’, though since none of the rest of the book is written in Middle English I don’t see why this matters) have largely, though not wholly, been eradicated, but in their place is an inundation of “neeps” and things that are “leal” and/or “niello”. Thank you George, it’s nice to know you own a dictionary – but a pity that you don’t also own a thesaurus. It’s an even bigger problem on the level of phrases, where Martin’s inability to think of alternative ways of saying things leads to repetitive and boring prose – even if we only talk about the really distinctive, memorable phrases, there are a distracting number of things that are “as useless as nipples on a breastplate” (lampshaded when one character actually finds a breastplate with nipples on – it remains to be seen whether these nipples will prove useful in any way), and there are half a dozen instances where substances (not all the same substance!) “trickle down her thigh”. [Incidentally, many people may find the gratuitous sex and violence an issue – personally, I thought it was most handled fairly well, though it got a bit silly now and then – the implied bestiality, for instance, reads like a very lazy way of making a point]. Sometimes Martin seems to confuse “pervading themes” with “words that are repeated again and again by many different characters” – most notably, rather than (or, charitably, in addition to) demonstrating in many circumstances how stated intentions can be misleading or in vain, he just forces us to listen to a score of characters repeating every few pages that “words are wind”. Likewise, I think it’s been well-enough established that we are dealing with political intrigue without repeatedly being told of a “game of thrones” underway. All these phrases, when occurring in dialogue, would be a lot more convincing as ‘things people in this world say’ if people had been saying them before. If “words are wind” is such a ubiquitous proverb in several different societies on this planet, why weren’t we hearing it in previous novels?

But, despite these problems, the writing here is a lot better than in the first volume, and generally is quite good. There are other things worth praising too. First off has to be the astounding, awe-inspiring scale and ambition of this story. A Dance With Dragons covers events on two different continents (in half a dozen locations), through the eyes of nearly twenty point-of-view characters and a supporting cast of hundreds if not thousands, over a time period of… I’m not sure exactly, but I think many months, if not years. The links between events are tangential or even by now non-existent, as though there are many unrelated stories being told at once (it would be fascinating to diagram the different story threads and how they interacted). This is the biggest and broadest that novels can get. The impression is a sort of controlled confusion, much like listening to a complex fugue – we follow one strand and then another and if we try to grasp to many strands at once we’re overwhelmed by the scale of it. This effect is amplified by the unstable timeline – some threads have so little connexion to anything else that they may be occurring before or after any of the others, and when we can compare timelines directly it seems that later chapters may occur before, or at least begin before, earlier ones.

Then again, the scale of this book makes the whole notion of timeline, of simultaneity, highly questionable – one of the triumphs of the series is that it deals honestly with the relativity of pre-modern society. The length of time it takes news to travel from one place to another is so long, and so unpredictable, and so dependent on routes of travel and on relative location and on the type of information being relayed, that it is impossible for any character, or for the reader, to have an unambiguous timeline of which events happen before other events. In this case, this effect is made even more prominent by the fact that the first half of the novel (roughly speaking) occurs ‘simultaneously’ with some events in the fourth volume (and some of the fourth volume is ‘simultaneous’ with some of the third volume). This means we have been told about some things, from the perspective of characters appearing in the fourth book, ‘before’ they have ‘actually happened’ from the perspective of the characters who witness them firsthand; while other events from the fourth book have clearly ‘happened’ by the end of the fifth book, even though most characters in the book don’t know that they’ve happened (and likewise, some chapters in the fourth book depict events, first-hand, that we’ve already heard about second-hand in the third volume…). Some might call of this messing about with the timeline ‘lazy’ or ‘confusing’, but I think it’s a brilliant idea – it reflects the actual state of affairs in this sort of society, and is a rich source of dramatic tension and tragic misunderstanding.

Also demanding respect is the greater imagination of this volume. Both in its alien-society-full-of-wonders sections on the continent of Essos and in its dark – sometimes horrifically dark –, fairy-tale-imagery sections in the North, ADWD manages to hit a more fantastic, out-of-this-world note, while still managing to make it seem a natural evolution of what has gone before. Several of the Northern chapters in particular were thrillingly evocative of the long history of dark-forest-in-winter nightmares of European storytelling. And I do mean dark. This novel gets stunningly, overwhelmingly, how-will-they-ever-be-allowed-to-film-this dark – and although it feels a bit artificial in its darkness now and then, a bit sensationalist, that’s actually a fairly rare problem, and most of the time it manages to make journeys through the pits of hell more or less realistic and believable. Remarkably, despite the length and breadth of the narrative threads, many of these chapters felt satisfying and complete in and of themselves, to a degree I don’t recall having encountered in previous Martin novels. Again, though I was dispirited after reading the fourth volume, the long wait for the fifth seems to have sharpened the author’s skills rather than rusting them.

On which note, one last note of acclaim: as always, Martin’s writing here is very cinematic, and the imagery of some chapters is breath-taking – I would say that I couldn’t wait for HBO to get to these chapters just to see what they look like on screen, but unfortunately I know they won’t have the budget to do them justice.

Praise duly given, however, I must return to criticism. I’ll set aside the complaints I’ve already made about Martin’s writing in general and just talk about this book. In this book, the biggest problem is that it’s all pointless. Most of the book – particularly the sections set in the East – feels like filler, and I really don’t understand why either A Feast For Crows or A Dance With Dragons was necessary. It could all have been dealt with via a five-year gap. Even if he didn’t want to give us so many flashbacks, it certainly didn’t need two massive doorstop tomes. The process seem to be that to fill in a section of events he creates characters, and those characters need stories and things to do, and then those ‘things to do’ have causes and consequences, and then those causes and consequences require more characters to be involved and more things to happen and… . Although by the end of the book, Things have started to Happen, most of those Things are really just resolutions for plot threads only introduced in this novel! Very little progress is made on the overarching plot. In fact, much of it feels like a step back, with characters returned to old positions and plot lines reset – near the end one character even muses explicitly that ‘to go forward you must go back’, and this feels like quite a narrative cop-out. I’m left with the inescapable fear that if Martin wants to actually get on with the story he will have to write-off most of what happens in ADWD as ‘learning experiences’ for some of the characters and then ignore the fact that any of it happened. Meanwhile, the fact that it HAS happened will have consequences – so much time has been spent on resolving the relatively minor fallout from the third novel that not having such resolution of the main plot climax of the series will feel unbalanced and deceitful (assuming that the main plot doesn’t end with ‘everybody dies’, which seems to be the only case when Martin will allow ‘and that’s the end of the story’ to be true – everything in his books has consequences, which is an admirable level of realism but will surely make it hard to wrap it all up convincingly). More immediately, while some characters have reverted, others have managed to entangle themselves in very complicated situations, which will surely take a huge number of pages to unravel.

In short, this novel not only doesn’t get us much closer to the end of the series, it actually makes the end look further away. Given the length-to-content ratio of this book, it’s hard to imagine Martin finishing in only two more volumes. In some ways, the constantly-increasing attention to detail is a good thing – it’s a big part of why this is a more satisfying book than AGOT – but the combination of obsessive detail with vainglorious breadth means that this could take half a century to complete.

Myself, particularly for Dany’s storyline, I think a cold opening going straight from the end of A Storm of Swords to the end of A Dance With Dragons, missing out everything that happened in-between, would have been the greatest opening to a fantasy novel ever… but I realise that that’s probably a minority taste!

So, it’s a fun read but doesn’t get us very far. But some of it isn’t even all that fun. Personally, I didn’t find any of it intolerable, but it does go on for a very long time, and many chapters are devoted to world-building with little or no action in them. I can’t fathom why Martin thought certain characters needed so many chapters of exposition – of the three main POVs in this book, only one didn’t feel as though it was killing time, and not much even happened in that one! The vast bulk of the book was made up of these three characters not doing very much, and I was desperate to have some more from the ‘minor’ characters, whose chapters were actually both exciting and plot-advancing! Page allocations seem to have been done more on the basis of which characters are the designated stars and less on the basis of who has most to say and do. Meanwhile, other characters just pop in once or twice for little “I’m still alive! Don’t forget that I exist! I’ll probably be important in the future! Maybe!” cameos. Nor does the weird ‘book four characters merge in halfway through except for the one that’s there all along due to the timeline being strange’ structure work all that well. These characters got only one or two chapters each, wrapping up the cliffhangers set up at the end of the last book, and reminding us how pointless the last book was. The main effect of these was a slap in the face, returning us to a world that felt very different – and more boring – than the two worlds explored in the rest of the novel.

The length and dullness of some parts of the book was ameliorated for me by the exciting plot twists. Or, I should say, by the expectation of exciting plot twists, since Martin’s style is as much about building tension as it is about shocks. So actually, although there were slow patches, there were enough thrilling sections to make it, on balance, pretty exciting. Unfortunately, there are very, very few actual shocks in this book, and although I really enjoyed reading it this time, I fear that on a re-read, now that I know what does and doesn’t happen, I would probably find much of it quite boring and hard to chisel through.

On the subject of shocks: Martin came to fame as a ‘brutal’ author, somebody who could kill off anybody, no matter how important they were, no matter how loved they were. Where did that Martin go? I understand that it’s harder to kill characters now, because now that we’re closer to the end of the story, the surviving characters are more likely to actually be important, rather than being decoys. And yet Martin retains his obsessive need for cliffhangers and life-in-the-balance thrills – which works a lot less well once you realise that everyone’s safe. I lost track of how many dead, believed-dead, probably dead or almost dead characters turned out to be alive in this book. It’s ridiculous. This meant that when, toward the end of the novel, there were what looked to be a major plot twist, I didn’t really care, because I knew that it wouldn’t really matter. Everyone affected will turn out to be never-dead, not-quite-dead or dead-but-not-dead in some way or other. So what’s the point?

Lastly: the problem I identified in AGOT regarding background characters is still there. Martin’s background characters seem to fall into two categories: Boba Fetts, who, it is suggested, are Deep and Complicated and Mysterious and Cool and Dangerous even if it’s not always clear how exactly, and Other People, who are mostly cartoons. Both tendencies become annoying over time.

By now, the criticisms have probably lead you to think that this isn’t a book worth reading. I don’t know whether that’s what you should think or not. By itself, it stood alone as an enjoyable reading experience, but of course it cannot actually stand alone, inasmuch as there are four books before it and at least two more to come. As I say, I enjoyed reading this: but given its length, it was also a major investment. Does that investment pay off? I think we have to wait and see. If Martin manages to pull off the end of this cycle well, this novel will stand proudly as a strong, enjoyable, well-written part of the whole – not perhaps the most plot-advancing part, but an interesting and engaging slower middle movement. If, on the other hand, the end of the series doesn’t succeed, this novel will stand sadly as an overlong, over-ambitious symptom of a promising writer losing their way. If the series fails as a whole, there’s not enough in this volume to be worth wading your way through it all; if it succeeds, there’s enough in it to be a valuable part of the whole that will really add to the experience of it all. I really don’t know which way it will turn out. I think primarily this novel has heightened the ambition – I’m now less confident that it will end well, but if it does end well, it’ll be even better than I thought it would be.

Finally, of course the higher quality of this novel relative to the first in the cycle should stand as a proxy for the quality of the intervening novels, which I have not yet re-read (and won’t for a while – too many pages read for now).

Adrenaline: 4/5. I may be being charitable, because there were long, boring bits. On the other hand, there were a lot of non-boring bits as well. Some bits were genuinely heart-pounding.

Emotion: 2/5. I did connect with some of the characters, but few of them had really emotional stories in this instalment – I guess it’s a slow period of set-up and construction, rather than the part of the story that tugs at the heart-strings. There’s certainly emotional potential here…

Thought: 3/5. It’s a vast and complicated plot, which kept my mind very active. On the other hand, no great mysteries really grabbed me, and for the most part I was willing to sit back and watch things unfold.

Beauty: 4/5. The prose is adequate, though there are nice bits here and there. The strong point in this respect is the scenery, which is strikingly filmic at many points.

Craft: 4/5. Assuming that the entire novel doesn’t turn out to be a mistake – which will depend on what happens next – there are no massive blunders here. There are certain repetitions in the prose, and certain plot twists feel too sudden and unjustified (in one case it seems as though the author expects readers to have been reviewing internet speculation for the last five years, since one familiar-to-scholars-of-the-novels development (no, not THAT one!) is treated as though fairly obvious and uninteresting, but to virgins in the series it’ll be baffling, shocking and entirely unforeshadowed). There are slow periods, and page-time is misallocated. But nothing really hurts too much. On the other hand, some scenarios are built up very well, there is an astonishing control over a staggeringly huge cast (you could spend hours reminding yourself where various minor characters have been glimpsed before, or who they’re related to and why that matters), and some chapters could stand well as polished short stories in their own right.

Endearingness: 3/5. Some POVs I really enjoyed; others I survived. I could see myself selectively reading the good ones again, but the bad ones I don’t like the thought of having to re-read. So it balances out, I think.

Originality: 3/5. Bound by the limitations of its setting and structure; nonetheless, its sprawling plot and travelogue elements do make it a bit more exotic, and unusual, than earlier books in the series.

Overall: 5/7. Good. It’s definitely a step up from the first book, and as far as I remember it’s at least equal to, and possibly superior to, the second and third volumes in terms of writing quality – although it can’t match the third volume for thrills, as rather less happens here. As I say above, the ultimate verdict will have to wait until the series is completed, but this book was certainly good enough to make me want to read The Winds of Winter when (if!) it comes out, and it gives me confidence that the second and third volumes may actually be as good as I remember them being (which is very good indeed).

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A Game of Thrones, by George RR Martin

 

I first read A Game of Thrones in 2003. I didn’t like it much at first, but by the end I was gripped, and I raced through the next two books. I read them again in 2006, when I also read the fourth. Since then, I haven’t touched them. But now I’ve watched the TV series, and the fifth book has just come out, so reading them again seemed appropriate. Perhaps that wasn’t the best idea. In any case, having once liked them, I now approached them with a sense of trepidation.

And… not, it seems, without cause. There are good things and bad things about A Game of Thrones. I’m going to start off with the bad things, because frankly they’re what I discovered first. So I’m going to have to be critical – but do bear in mind that later on, I’ve got some nicer things to say as well.

So. Problems. Problem one: the writing. In particular the dialogue. Much of it is very ripe indeed – ripe enough that in 2003 I, as a fantasy fan who had read a thousand TSR novels, found the high ground to disdain it. The quality is variable, and certainly not all of it is bad – but much of it is cheesy, clichéd, and lacks character, by which I mean that most of the dialogue sounds fairly robotic and identical, displaying little of the nature of the people uttering it. What’s more, Martin’s fabled more-contemporary dialogue feel is applied unevenly – the most ridiculous renn-faire fauxdieval juts up against the most jarring anachronisms of speech, and the mangled juxtaposition makes both styles seem even more conspicuous and objectionable. Ugly writing is not a massive problem by itself, but it’s a problem that the reader is confronted with again, and again, and again.

What’s more, the robotic dialogue is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of characterisation flaws. The plain fact is, Martin seemingly has no talent at all at showing us character – not only the inner nature of his characters, which might be hidden strategically, but even their superficial feel. Even reading it with the voices and appearance of the HBO actors in mind, it felt like painting-over a black-and-white photograph. When I saw the series I was struck by how greatly some characters differed from how I had imagined them, and reading the book I now see why that is: there is so little indication of character on the page that a wide range of interpretations are possible. Even Tyrion, perhaps the most distinct of the inhabitants of the novel, is played wholly differently from how I had imagined – but the book allows this, as it doesn’t come down off the fence. It leaves us to join the dots for ourselves. Worse, characters often do not feel wholly consistent (Tyrion particularly springs to mind), and many lack clear character progressions. I’m disappointed to discover, for instance, that the clear progression I remembered Danaerys having in this book simply isn’t there – it ought to be there because that’s what the plot demands, and HBO thoughtfully inserted it, but it isn’t. Until very near the end, she vacillates between imperious self-control and naive submission and self-doubt without any apparent rhythm or rationale.

Even more disappointingly, the potentially interesting multiple-POV system is criminally wasted throughout the book. Rather than distinct, identifiable streams of thought, we just get the same narrator telling us about what different characters can see – for some events, I can’t even remember which character was the POV, because it just doesn’t matter that much. In a single-POV novel, this lack of intimate, personal timbre in the narrative would be a minor objection, but in a book that explicitly, ambitiously flaunts its multiple-POV structure, it becomes painfully obvious that the author lacks the talent, or the knowledge, or the feel for his characters, that would enable him to carry out his plans as they deserve.

(It should be mentioned here that a partial exception to this problem is the POV of Sansa, more overtly different mentally from the other characters and therefore easier to portray distinctively. Unfortunately, she’s distinctively annoying, which rather detracts from the accomplishment here).

Some writers can sketch out a believable, sympathetic and unique human being in a few paragraphs of observation. Martin gives us 800 pages of dense point-of-view exposition, and by the end, I still have less feel for his characters than I get from some short stories. As for the background characters, he doesn’t even try to do them justice, and all we get are a procession of stock clichés enlivened by occasional ludicrous grotesques, who feel as though they belong in a children’s book and not in the dark, adult, gritty fantasy that this purports to be. (I also felt distinctly uneasy when this was applied to entire groups and races: the sub-Klingon Dothraki most obviously, but even more extremely to the hill tribes, who came across the way Africans were sometimes written by Victorian writers).

While I’m talking about problems: criticisms must also be made of the worldbuilding and of the plot. The former is all but entirely unremarkable and uninteresting, almost lazy in its easy adoption of familiar tropes of the genre. Most parts of the world being a close analogue of our own medieval era, they have neither the verisimilitude of real-world painstaking research, as one might want from a historical novel, nor the vivid imagination, the defiance of the pedestrian, that we might hope for from fantasy – and what fantasy elements there are are largely derivative and familiar. The plot, meanwhile, particularly early on, feels continually rushed and gratuitous – by which I mean that the author seems to have decided that a number of things have to happen and has tried to get them all out of the way as soon as possible, and the result is less a rollercoaster than an uncomfortable ride over a series of small potholes – brief moments of manufactured, melodramatic tension interrupting periods of otherwise tedious meandering.

Oh, and it’s also continually irritating how Martin chooses to begin almost every chapter in media res, or more accurately in media nihil, and then not even flashing back bodily but simply narrating in the pluperfect. We get a paragraph or two of nothing happening, and then we’re told what has recently happened. It’s a fair enough technique for variation, but its constant repetition means that we’re rarely shown anything, we’re just constantly told about things.

So: you might well assume that my reaction to A Game of Thrones was negative. Well, it was – until I got halfway through, when a number of interesting things happen. Above all, the turning point of the novel is the Tower of Joy scene that begins Chapter 40 – insignificant in itself, but the point from which everything changes.

Why was the second half more impressive? Well, some elements improve over time – the prose becomes more confident, and the pacing and the plot settle down and start to pull together. In part, I put this down to a writer working in an unfamiliar genre – at first he seems to be trying too hard to write as he imagines epic fantasy writers must write, and it takes him a while to find his voice. In part also, his original intention for a trilogy was extended into a planned sextet – and there is an unpleasant tension between these two conceptions. The trilogy idea forces an unwarranted speed, while the sextet idea slows everything down. Later in the novel, when it seems the author has definitively realised that this cannot all be dealt with in three books, the narrative seems to become more assured, deeper, more nuanced.

The big change, however, is not that the problems go away but that the virtues become more obvious, and the reader finally gets a sense of why he is reading the book, why he is bothering to give Martin the benefit of the doubt. And the answer is: Martin isn’t here for his prose. He’s here to be (in Lev Grossman’s description) a “crafter of narrative”. That’s the phrase that makes sense of this novel. It’s not the form, it’s the content. And what’s more, it’s not the small scale, the little incidents – it’s the big things.

Think of this novel as an immense oil painting with broad brush strokes, or a little pointilist impression. If you look at it closely it doesn’t look like anything much – it looks like a bad painting. It’s only when you stand back and look at it as a whole that its virtues become apparent. It’s as though Martin is taken the stuff of the genre and forming it with his hands into a giant sculpture. If you look at it with a microscope, you see how coarse and rough the fabric is, but you have to stand back to see what shape it’s been given.

In this case, the chief virtue is the plot, which stands out from that of lesser imitators through its utter ruthlessness, its refusal to stay within the bounds of traditional expectations, and its sheer audacious expanse. Of course, the criticisms I gave above about the plot still apply – it still feels rushed, and the particular incidents still feel manufactured and unnatural – but as we pan out and see the broader scope of the greater narrative arc, those moment-by-moment objections become less important.

Perhaps even more stunning is how this broader perspective changes the characterisation. I stand by what I wrote above: Martin just doesn’t have the skill (or perhaps the desire, to be charitable) to make living characters with simple strokes of the pen. So instead, he constructs them impressionistically, over great expanses of time. We compile our concepts of the characters not through searing insights into their souls, but through the aggregation of action after action, response after response. And yes, the result is still something a little left-to-the-imagination, a little fill-in-the-gaps: but that is not necessarily a defect. Once enough colour has been added, the lingering element of ambiguity, of mystery, only makes the characters more compelling. Most striking in this respect is the central character of Ned himself – at first he seems bland, uninteresting, barely alive, and to be honest, if we look only at his words and his thoughts this remains true all through the novel. But against that wooden backdrop we have the bright colours added through his sometimes perplexing and contradictory actions, through the reports we gain from others, through his own enigmatic memories. By the end, we’re left convinced that all the pieces fit together somehow, but not quite able to complete the puzzle – a sure recipe for addiction. We are left with the impression of three-dimensional complexity, even though none of that is there in the individual brushstrokes. The same, I suppose, is true of the narrative – by the end of the first novel, there is surprisingly little in place of a conventional epic plotline, but the ingredients are all there, and we can almost see what the recipe is for… almost

In a way, A Game of Thrones is not epic fantasy at all: it has the soul of a mystery novel. Who are the mysterious and dangerous Others in the icy North – what do they want, and how can they be stopped? How did Jon Arryn die – and why? Why are the exiled Targaryens being supported by the wealthy Illyrio? But above all there are the mysteries of the past. Who is Jon Snow’s mother? Who was Rhaegar Targaryen, really? What happened to Lyanna, and what was Ned’s last promise to her? The present tells us about the past – and we have to know about the past, because with such ambiguous characterisation, the past seems like our key to open the present. We hope that if we learn, for instance, whether Rhaegar was a good man or a villain we will learn something about Viserys and Danaerys, about Robert and Ned. We will perhaps know who these people are. But to know about the past, we can only learn about the present. What may have started as a flaw – Martin’s bland characterisation – becomes central to the whole project of the series. It becomes ideological: we cannot know who anybody really is, because the facts alone are meaningless and contradictory. Ned Stark, for instance, is a man of unquestionable loyalty who, it seems, will never disobey his duty or the law – but he is also the man who rebelled against his lawful king. He is the man who is kind and gentle, but also the man who remembers the bodies of dead children murdered by his allies. He is the man who is devoted to his wife and his children and rigid in his opposition to all vice – but he is also the man who fathered a bastard, demanded that he be raised in the house of his wife, and who refuses to tell either his wife or his bastard child the name of the child’s mother – a name that he readily and casually reveals to his friend. Who is this man? We see what another character thinks of him:

How dare you play the noble lord with me? What do you take me for? You’ve a bastard of your own, I’ve seen him. Who was the mother I wonder? Some Dornish peasant you raped while her holdfast burned? A whore? Or was it the grieving sister, the Lady Ashara? She threw herself into the sea, I’m tod. Why was that? For the brother you slew, or the child you stole? Tell me, my honorable Lord Eddard, how are you any different from [me]?

We want to believe that Ned is different. Ned is ours, Ned is the hero. But as we become confronted with the past, we cannot be certain any more. Ned will not tell us what really happened in the past, or why – and we cannot be certain that he really is as pure as he appears. He wants to be, that is clear – but is that enough?

Beside this slow-gestating monster of a narrative, and the great oil-portraiture of the characters, and the honest intellectual ambition of the cycle, its commitment to subvert and examine the assumptions we have about fantasy, and more importantly about stories in general, and most importantly about how we apply our fantasies, our stories, in interpreting events in our own world, the final ingredient is a thoroughgoing cleverness and mastery of events, exhibited through his control of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is common in fantasy, but here it is not relegated to prophecies – indeed, the prophecies are often false – but is woven into the fabric of the novel. Reading the novel again I am astounded by how much Martin has planned out in advance, by how clear he makes some things so that they become obvious in hindsight. He seems to almost be mocking the reader – on several occasions, one character will be tormentedly mulling over a difficult question, while a seemingly unimportant conversation in the background, or a minor detail overlooked, reveals the answer… but only to those who know where to look. The technique isn’t flawless – sometimes it feels a little precious, or a little overdone – but it’s impressively ambitious, and commendably organised, compared to the apparent make-it-up-as-you-go approach of some fantasy novelists.

[Again, however, the original trilogy idea bites the author in an uncomfortable place. Several strands are laid down in A Game of Thrones that I now know to be picked up in the fifth installment, or that I believe will be picked up in the sixth – but by now such a long time has passed and so many other things have happened, that I had forgotten all about them. Reading the first book again, it feels as though several narrative arcs that originally were to take place quite quickly have now been surreptitiously been placed on hold for several thousand pages]

That’s probably enough talk for now. How have I scored it?

Adrenaline: 3/5. Charitable. It was really a 2, but I’m marking it up because I suspect that having read it twice before and literally only just having watched the adaptation has dulled the tension and excitement somewhat.

Emotion: 2/5. Never really connected with any of the characters, and nothing particularly interesting happens to them (with one exception) anyway. Only in the last quarter of the book or so did I start to care.

Thought: 3/5. Again, being charitable on account of reading it at the wrong time. If the plot isn’t fresh in your memory, this would probably keep you guessing a fair bit, although the first half or two thirds is a bit familiar.

Beauty: 2/5. Only thing worth mentioning here is the ungainly prose. Some nice images, I suppose.

Craft: 3/5. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, because offsetting the nervousness he seems to have about tone and voice he has clearly put a lot of care and attention into it, and as we get to the end of the book its larger-scale craftsmanship comes to the fore.

Endearingness: 2/5. Surprising myself a bit here, but I just didn’t find much reason to love it. The first time I read it, I didn’t like it much, but the latter sections hooked me with anticipation for the next instalments; this time, I already know what happens next. Relying so much on plot twists does impact the re-readability, I’m afraid.

Originality: 2/5. It’s plain, straightforward, nearly-by-the-book epic fantasy. There are deviations from the normal tropes – one big deviation in particular – and hints that later novels will be more original, but if we’re honest this is innovative only by the standards of a genre long since grown sadly stale, not from a broader perspective.

Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. I’m genuinely surprised by how little I liked it, and it only scrapes into ‘not bad’ by virtue of that surprise, and the feeling that I should have found some reason to rate it higher. On the other hand, the end of the book does have promise, and I remember the second and third volumes being rather better –in fact, I remember them being very good indeed. I was going to go on and read them at once, but this book took so long to read and was so wearisome that I decided not to – and then I heard good things about the fifth book, and remembered how much I wanted to know what happened next, so I’ve decided to skip straight through to reading A Dance With Dragons. I may come back to the other three volumes later…

An Alternative History of Europe, II

Rise of the House of Hunyadi

France-England was a nation of immense power and wealth. Yet in the late 15th century, the name universally associated with power and glory was not King Henri II, but Matthias Hunyadi, known as Corvinus, the King of Hungary. Corvinus was elected as a puppet ruler by his nobles, who thought the naive boy-scholar would be easy to manipulate; he was anything but. Assembling an army of mercenaries, with a Hussite core, that would become feared under the name of “the Black Army”, he secured his own power over the aristocrats, and then moved abroad for further prey. In an unrivalled military career, Corvinus wrested Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia from the Jagiellons and their allies, tore Austria and Carinthia, Styria and Carniola from the Hapsburgs, sending the Emperor scurrying from conquered Vienna, and then turned south to repel, and then to hammer back, the incursions of the Turks, liberating Bosnia and Moldavia. Nor was he only a horseback prince; a scholar to the end, he assembled the first and largest secular library of the renaissance, second only to the Vatican (which it surpassed in secular and vernacular tomes), and sought to make Hungary the capital of European culture, inspiring many imitators in the process – most notably Cosimo de Medici.

In 1476, Corvinus married the sister of René II of Aragon, Naples, Sicily, Lorraine, Bar, Anjou, Vaudémont and Provence. It was an obvious match: René was in his own right one of the most powerful men in Europe, and a key ally of the King in Paris; he also provided a firm ally at Corvinus’ back. By her, he had both a son and a daughter; when he died in 1490, his son, John Hunyadi, assumed the throne of Hungary, although a minor, and with the help of his bastard brother (also John), his mother and her allies across the sea, and his father’s loyalists in the Black Army, he suppressed insurrectionary efforts on the part of his nobles.

The Hapsburgs, meanwhile, largely dwindled away. Although Emperor Frederick  was able to secure papal election for his son, Maximilian, it was the last flourish of a bright but brief dynastic power: after the fall of Vienna, they were left with nothing but the Tyrol and some holdings in Breisgau and Sundgau, and some claims over parts of the Swiss territory.

[ FFAOT: the first paragraph is true. Corvinus, however, married the daughter of our King of Naples (a worse match than in this timeline!), and had no children by her. He declared his young, bastard son to be his heir, but his nobles refused to accept an ill-born king, and overthrew him with the aid of the Hapsburgs. The Black Army then revolted (partly to support Corvinus’ heir, and partly because the nobles insisted on slashing its pay and downsizing it), but without effective leadership or any real hope of political success, it became a marauding force of unprecedented scale. Between corrupt and useless barons and a countryside in chaos, Hungary collapsed from Great Power to nothingness, ending up shared between the Hapsburgs and the Turks.

Its far from certain that a legitimate male heir could have changed this; but I think it is certainly possible that a legitimate heir, combined with powerful overseas allies, could have held the boyars in check long enough for the dynasty to become established.

The Hapsburgs, meanwhile, rose dramatically to power, but we often overlook how improbable that rise really was. Only the collapse of Hungary (allowing them to retake Austria) and the marriage of Mary of Burgundy to Maximillian, allowed them to survive their first few generations as a mighty house.]