Since the publication of “A Dance with Dragons” in 2011 there has been a major discussion going on in the fandom about whether or not the book and its immediate predecessor, “A Feast for Crows” (2005) can live up to the undeniably high standard that the first three books “A Game of Thrones” (1996), “A Clash of Kings” (1998) and “A Storm of Swords” (2000) set. Talking about this today are Stefan Sasse (The Nerdstream Era) and Remy Verhoeve (Stormsongs).
Stefan Sasse: A Dance with Dragons is out for a while now. While many people were disappointed initially at the lack of dragons dancing, the reactions differed more later. Many came around and found reasons to like the book (and, in extension, “A Feast for Crows” as well), while others turned their disappointment into resentment. Do you have a theory why “A Dance with Dragons” divided the community in a way that “A Feast for Crows”, which shows similar structure, didn’t?
Remy Verhoeve: That’s a good question and I am not sure I agree with your preposition that “A Feast for Crows” did not in fact divide Martin’s readers. I don’t know anyone who wasn’t dissapointed with “Feast”, for different reasons, and I know a lot of people who read these books (many of them on my recommendation, and I always have to apologize once they hit book four). I may be wrong, though, so for the sake of the question, let’s see why “A Dance with Dragons” is more polarizing than “A Feast for Crows”. It could have something to do with expectations. People had been waiting for twelve years (give or take) to see what happened to Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, and Daenerys Targaryen, so there was some pressure on these three story arcs to deliver. And for many people, this didn’t happen. There is little to no movement in Daenerys’ chapters; Jon’s chapters can be considered slow with little seemingly happening up until the very end, and Tyrion’s character is radically changed - which is logical after what he went through in “A Storm of Swords” - to the point that people don’t enjoy him as much as they did before.
I also believe that many fans considered “Feast” a rough patch and were confident that the next book would make up for it, and when it didn’t (in their opinion), they may have become even more critical of the fifth book. Personally I find the writing in “Dance” to be far below the quality level of the first three books, but it’s also less than “Feast”. Where the first books feel so vital and pulsing, “Dance” reads like a chore, as if the writer’s enthusiasm for the story has melted away. I was reading a Reek chapter the other day and it hit me just how long-winded and full of exposition much of the dialogue has become, where the early books gave us short, snappy dialogue that felt real. When Roose Bolton explains to Reek, at length, the family backstory, it reads more like a lesson than something the Roose of “A Storm of Swords” would actually say; both characterization and good dialogue are gone from this particular example.
In conclusion, my theory (if you can call it that) is that there are several factors: the built-up expectations leading to a letdown, the quality of the writing dipping, and the three main story arcs not delivering. The plot itself is fine in my opinion, if drawn-out and ponderous and sprawling, it’s the presentation that is lacking. Another example; in “Dance”, there is a Tyrion chapter where he spends his time aboard a cog being bored. In “A Game of Thrones”, Catelyn Stark travelled across southern Westeros between chapters - we understood that she spent time travelling, but we didn’t need to read about the boredom seizing her as she slowly but surely moved toward Storm’s End. The pacing is off, where the earlier books were so intricately woven, “Dance” loses all momentum and kills the story almost dead.
Stefan Sasse: While it is true that the narrative pace slows down in Feastdance (see here why we call it Feastdance), I think this is a much more deliberate decision than you acknowledge. The story becomes much more complex in these two books, and Martin lays a lot of groundwork, the payoff of which we haven’t seen yet. Many and more of the information that we get in the admittedly exposition heavy dialogue in the book fills in gaps that allow us to explore and connect the dots from stuff that was introduced back in “A Game of Thrones”. Plus, the big plot developments have more or less played out by now. Westeros is exhausted by war, and the dust settles. The pace naturally needs to slow down. If Martin had kept it up, he would have needed to basically ignore the premises on which the world was built - especially the realism. You can’t continually struggle with the highest stakes. It becomes silly very soon, which numerous stories making this exact mistake prove. So I guess the pacing at least shouldn’t be as much a concern as soon as “The Winds of Winter” have come out. Do you think it’s possible that you will look more kindly upon Feastdance once we have the complete oevre and aren’t depending on developing unrealistic expectations about a book that keeps getting postponed?
Remy Verhoeve: The decision may be deliberate, but I am not sure it works. I want to make clear that when we are talking about narrative pace that I am not hungering for action, or incredibly epic showdowns, or high stakes all the way. In fact, many of my favorite moments in the first three books aren’t necessarily about high stakes (though almost every scene echoes the greater struggles, mostly because the characters involved are part of the greater struggle). I mean, a beautifully written scene such as Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon down in the Winterfell crypts, or Sansa building a castle in the snow, or Catelyn telling Ned the news of Jon Arryn’s death, they are all “calm” scenes, yet they are well written and do not linger too long. They are atmospheric, and have a plot function.
As for complexity, the story was always complex, and one of the things that made the three first books so excellent was how Martin, although it was a complex tale, managed to keep it all tied neatly together. Story threads built upon each other, the logistics of war were realistically dealt with, there were consequences for characters and events that seem to flow naturally into one natural (long) tale of feud and strife. I don’t feel the books have become more complex after A Storm of Swords, rather than more bloated. Adding a character like, say, Quentyn Martell, doesn’t make the story more complex, it is just another story on top of the others with little connection to the other stories being told (aside from the link to Doran Martell’s plotting). The same goes for Young Griff and Griff; they feel tacked on, not a natural part of the flow (with characters like Jaime, Brienne, and Theon, it doesn’t feel this way because the characters are more naturally linked to the plot). Maybe it’s hard for me to accept entirely new characters so far into the story, but whenever I think this, I also think about how little character the new ones have compared to the old ones. So instead of getting a more complex tale, where new additions either enlighten the reader or help move the plot along, we just get more characters thrown at us when there clearly are more than enough already, and they take a lot of pages to fulfill their purpose. And that’s not narrative pace, but padding. “Life aboard the Seaesori Qhoran was nothing if not tedious, Tyrion had found.” If it’s tedious, I’d argue an author should skip over it quickly. Instead, he decides to explain just how tedious the journey is for Tyrion.
Maybe Martin is laying a lot of groundwork. He has to, of course. Yet, he did the same in A Game of Thrones and that didn’t stop it from being a great read. The exposition was sparser, and tedious moments were few. Maybe we’ll get some fantastic resolutions to some of the seeds Martin is planting in “Dance” - but these resolutions will be in future novels, and therefore “Dance” will remain flawed. It won’t become a better read because of something going on later in the story. It has to stand on its own as well as be part of a series.
This is why I don’t think I’ll look more kindly upon Feastdance at a later point. No matter what coolness Tyrion may experience (and us through his mismatched eyes), it remains a drag to read of his journey across the seas toward Meereen. In this case I guess I’d probably skip “Dance” instead of re-reading it.
I’m not sure I agree with the unrealistic expectations. Well, I can see why you suggest I might have expected too much because I had to wait so long for the next book, but really, “Dance” is just not that good. Feast was way better in most regards and it didn’t even feature the Main Three. There are so many things about “Dance” that makes it less interesting than the previous books. You admit that the dialogue is more exposition-heavy, so there’s one we can agree on. There is also the disturbing trend of increased perversity, the heavy focus on Essos which is not what the first threethousand pages of the book promise (it was always about Westeros, even Dany’s chapters), characters changing personalities, the overly long inventory lists, unclear writing, the unusually many editing mistakes, the uneven ending etc etc. Still, I won’t mind if you can convince me that “Dance” is a good book, because I’d like it to be good. In conclusion, I don’t mind the pace as much as that the slower pace isn’t interesting; also, it wasn’t a very wise choice to cut the book where they did. Okay, I’ll shut up now.
Stefan Sasse: I have several points to make about this. I want to tackle them one by one to keep the conversation focused, so keep the criticism in mind. I indeed hope to convince you that Feastdance is better than you think.
So, the first issue I want to adress is the exposition. While I certainly agree with you that the dialogue delivers way more exposition than was previously the case, I want to emphasize that the story always was rich on exposition. Only, we reread the first books way more often than the latter ones, which tends to murk things a bit. Take “A Game of Thrones”. Illyrio Mopatis and Jorah Mormont are essentially exposition on two legs on the Essosi and Dothraki culture, respectively. We get a real large infodump in Danaerys’ storyline, especially in the first half of her chapters, a fact that you also noticed on your tenth reread, if I’m not mistaken.
Or take the Tourney of the Hand. There’s so much exposition going on, with a really tedious list of names and names and names. Only with the knowledge of later novel becomes this exposition something else, and we can smile and groan and quake in fear and excitement as we came to know these characters, and now we know of their fate. Unfortunately, we don’t know the fate of many of the characters from Feastdance yet. Until know, the exposition is only that, exposition. But I think it’s highly likely that in some later book, the payoff will be as big as when we first got the mention of Anguy winning the Archer’s Contest.
One prime example of this is all the background we get on Volantis and the cities of the Rhoyne in Tyrion’s chapters. The Law of Chekov’s Gun states that you don’t introduce a city where 4/5th of the population are slaves and have a main character with a reputation of freeing slaves without that city’s slaves being freed. But if we didn’t get the information, the event (which I expect for “The Winds of Winter”) will fall flat, because we have no knowledge of the place. By now, we know a big deal (more about any other Free City except Braavos, by the way). That can’t be happenstance.
Or take the dialogue with Roose Bolton. A commenter on The Nerdstream Era in our “Supreme Court of Westeros” series had the brillant notion that Roose Bolton essentially uses Theon as a pawn in his powerplay with Ramsay. It may very well be that it is Roose’s intention to dump Ramsay in favor of “Pink Walder”, his own legitimate son with Walda Frey, but of course he can’t let Ramsay know that. Telling all the family history to Theon and repeatedly stressing that he has no intention in harming Ramsay’s prospects whatsoever would be a clever move: the history ensures that Theon understood everything and falls for the whole “Roose trusts me with this information and is honest” ruse.
To make a long story short: on the exposition side, I’m certain that after reading “The Winds of Winter” and “A Dream of Spring” and then rereading Feastdance we will surely have the same knowingly smile on our lips that we now have on the exposition in the first three novels.
Remy Verhoeve: That is an interesting way of looking at it, and I can understand the agreement to a degree. There is one glaring difference though, and that is simply that there is way more - too much, even - exposition in Feastdance compared to the early books. Your example of Anguy the Archer is a good showcase for this. We hear about Anguy winning the archery competition, and that’s it. No long reams of exposition telling us who this guy is, where he came from, and so on. Then, when he pops up later, 75% of the readers won’t remember him but the remaining 25% can enjoy the character popping up again. In contrast, the exposition on Volantis is heavy-handed and massive. Not only through Tyrion’s eyes, but Quentyn’s as well. There’s a Quentyn chapter which is almost nothing but exposition. It’s more a travelogue than a story, with Quentyn looking his eyes out on all the strange things passing by on the streets (forgive me if this was not Volantis but another city - but the point remains the same). The most obvious example of overdone exposition must be the Jon Snow chapter where we get the longest laundry list ever of stuff the Night’s Watch keep in the cellars. The balance is off; too much exposition (also called “world-building” by many) kills the story (for me, anyway).
Now, the tricky thing is that I’ve always loved Martin’s world building and there was a time when I could not get enough of it, but a sideproblem of the whole thing, primarily in “Dance”, is that Martin focuses almost all his energy on giving us exposition on Essos, which for me and many other readers feels wrong because the story was set in, and was about, Westeros. We are so far into the story that it almost feels as if beginning anew again in a far less interesting continent. This also ties in to the long wait for Daenerys to get herself to Westeros, obviously. This may also be why I feel Feast is more interesting than Dance - in Feast, at least, we’re in Westeros, the place that has always mattered, the place that so many have died for. I doubt Martin can make us care as much about Essos, but of course I can’t know until the story is complete how important Essos turns out to be.
As for Roose’s dialogue with Theon/Reek, I don’t doubt that it’s there for a purpose, but it is still dealt with in a heavy-handed manner, and doesn’t feel like the cold, calculating, quiet Roose we met before, a man whose actions spoke louder than words. It feels as if he’s out-of-character in this particular sequence, but as you said, maybe he’s playing a game and I just didn’t catch on to it.
You could cut a great deal from Feastdance to have a brisker narrative, without losing much. There’s a limit to how much we need to know about the setting when reading the novel. Such things are better left for companion books and similar things. If Tolkien had stopped for every ruin the Fellowship encountered to explain just what this ruin once had been… The early Ice and Fire books didn’t take so long to get to the important plot points. Martin seemingly wanted a certain structure in Feastdance and this meant padding out chapters to spread those points out. A good example of this is Jaime’s single “Dance” chapter, where the one important event is given to us in the last couple of sentences, the rest of the chapter filled to the rim with exposition on a couple of minor noble houses in the riverlands or thereabouts. Again, the exposition is likely there for future plot developments, but the text as it is doesn’t engage me as a reader the way the story used to do.
Stefan Sasse: Don’t try to convince me of the literary quality of anything by comparing it with the Lord of the Rings - I find the books a boring tedium. They are, for me, the prime example of useless information and stupid sideplots killing the real stuff. But I digress.
I don’t really care about Essos, neither - the importance for the place lies in that we should have heard about that stuff before it becomes relevant. It’s important for Dany’s quest, I’d wager, and for the overarching Varys-Illyrio-conspiracy, I’d wager.
But I guess this comes down to a matter of taste. You are definitely right in that you could cut portions out of Feastdance and still have the same plot, although I want to stress that I like them and would mind to see them gone. For me, though, they are important in building the world. Taste, I guess.
But let’s advance to the next point I’d like to make about the book(s). I argued right from the start that it is important to view them as one singular volume instead of two seperate ones, which is why I only call them Feastdance if I don’t want to refer specifically to one. Both stories are interwoven very deeply, and only when read together - e.g. with Sean T. Collin’s reading order - will you be able to unlock their true potential, which lies especially in the themes of ruling, war and peace. I called the multitude of interwoven plotlines “The War in the North”, “The Peace in the North”, “The War in the East” and “The Peace in the East”, because Jon and Dany both try to rule under very difficult and diverse circumstances and both fail. To a degree, this development is even mirrored by Cercei’s attempts at ruling in King’s Landing, which intersects this topic.
Only when watched together like this, Feastdance becomes a really good book (compared to the rather mediocre experience you and many others complain about). I was disappointed myself in the beginning. This is why I definitely agree with your previous assesment that George’s decision to split the book the way he did was definitely the wrong one.
Remy Verhoeve: I suppose using The Lord of the Rings was a bad move, anyway. Nothing like twohundred pages of exposition on the hobbits before the story gets going (still, once it gets rolling...no, it was a bad example). I suppose there’s an importance to Essos since Martin spends so much time building it up for us, but when it doesn’t grab the reader (and here we seem to agree that Essos isn’t very interesting), why should I care later in the story what happens or doesn’t happen in Essos?
I haven’t read the books in the order suggested, but I wouldn’t mind giving it a try - only I dread, and I’m serious, I dread to re-read those awful Tyion and Daenerys chapters (Jon’s chapters are slightly more interesting overall). Whereas I can re-read any chapter from the first three books with glee, I can’t bear to read about Daenerys sitting there talking to all these characters I can’t keep apart. The books have become more repetitive too, and I’m nearly clawing my eyes out whenever I read another “Wherever whores go”. You are right that the story probably needed to go down in intensity to rebuild momentum, I agree on that, but even in the quieter chapters and moments in the first three books, Martin keeps the reader engaged and interested. Something has changed - drastically between books three and four, and when you look at the reviews of these books (ruling out all the fake reviews) I can’t help but think that so many readers can’t be wrong about the dip in quality.
Yes, there are overarching themes and the similarities between Jon and Dany’s storylines is nice and ties them to the “ice” and “fire” ends of the scale, but there is so much fluff. Too much fluff, even for an enthusiast like myself. Look at Bran’s chapters in “Dance”. They move along briskly, and within three chapters Bran’s arc for the book is done and it feels satisfying. It feels like a natural continuation of his story from the three first books. Then look at Tyrion’s story arc. All he does is travel and pick up exposition.
Stefan Sasse: I wouldn’t be so quick to tie that to quality, per se. It’s different, allright - I won’t be denying that. No use, anyway, since it’s obvious. It’s a bit like complaining that the fourth act in the classical drama doesn’t offer as much as the third. The story needs to boil down on order to be able to gather pace again in act five. In the case of “A Song of Ice and Fire”, we’re talking about a three-act-structure of course, but that doesn’t change the point.
I’d argue that Feastdance allows us to delve into issues that the first three books have only touched upon since we were too tied up in the perspectives of the major players. The conflict was intense and comparably short, and it needed to be told from different perspectives. But Feastdance allows us to delve into other issues. One of the most important ones is actually Brienne’s storyline, which is (apart from Arya’s more adventure-oriented chapters) the first real glance in the world of Team Smallfolk. It’s impossible to imagine Septon Meribald’s monologue about the Broken Men (which is also exposition, mind you) in the more tightly paced first three novels. But it is paramount in understanding what these books really are about.
And the peace process that makes up so much of the politics of Feastdance (except, notably, Stannis’ war campaign in the North) is a slog, yes. And, I guess, it is intentionally so. Adam Feldman from the Meereenese Blot has convincingly argued that Martin is giving is a highly complex, tedious and opaque peace process precisely because keeping peace is complex, tedious and opaque. There are so many layers in the whole story and the whole tediousness, layers that ask to be analyzed and pulled back. Feldman, for example, argued for Daario Nahaaris and Hizdahr zo Loraq personifying Dany’s options of peace and war. Once kisses are hot and exiting, the other ones are tepid. But, as the Green Grace insists, peace is a pearl beyond price.
Unfortunately, you can’t make these points without a literal blow over the head unless you mirror this in the narrative, which is what Martin does. He obviously risked the ire of the fandom over this move, especially since it took his devoted fanbase over two years to get to the heart of the matter, but here his detachment from the fanbase comes in handy. He doesn’t need to balk before the fans, because he doesn’t seem to care, and he can basically write the story in his own time to the best result he thinks he can achieve. Most of the time, this has paid off (though, as noted, the split doesn’t seem a wise decision in retrospective). I expect you to hotly disagree about Martin’s treatment of his base, of course, but please also take into advice what I said about the narrative.
Remy Verhoeve: It is different, and I would argue that one factor is that it is indeed not as good quality-wise as it used to be. I’m not saying less quality is the only reason “Dance” didn’t become a favorite. If you look at, say, “A Clash of Kings” and “A Dance with Dragons” side by side, there are several elements that make the former good and the latter less good. On the technical side, I’d argue there are far more typos and other editorial mistakes in “Dance”. The book feels like a rush-compilation at times, which I am sure it was. The larger canvas also reduces quality - where the first three books feel generally tight, with Feastdance bloat creeps in as the number of POV chapters are increased to the point that we have so many new characters that Martin begins struggling to make them unique. Take early characters like Sansa, Arya or Tyrion for example. You can quite quickly define these personas by a number of distinct traits. They are well and thoroughly characterized. Within their first chapters you can begin to form an image of these people in your mind. With many of the new POVs, they begin to blend into each other, they are no longer as distinctly unique and for me, at least, they become less interesting because they are kind of “just there”. Some of these new POVs I’ll grant have some redeeming qualities either because they are in an interesting story or they are better drawn (Asha Greyjoy comes to mind), but others are very bland compared to the ‘original’ POVs. Even Melisandre, who has remained one of the big and interesting mysteries of the series, is reduced to a not-very-interesting POV (huge mistake to give her - and Ser Barristan - POVs, I’m thinking - these are larger-than-life characters that we should only see from the outside; another flaw in my opinion). I would also argue that it is bad storytelling to suddenly throw Young Griff into the tale at such a late point, though I am aware that he could be a red herring. However, before this ‘twist’, important events in the narrative have been expertly foreshadowed, but in this case Young Griff seems to pop out of nowhere, which made for a jarring experience, really. Barristan’s POV too is very bland. Martin needs to balance all the background knowledge a character like Selmy has with not revealing too much, and the result is, well, not very special.
I am not complaining about anything being different, that is you putting words in my mouth; I am arguing that the quality of the writing is lowered. I don’t mind ‘different’ because if everything’s the same it isn’t very interesting either. The story provides vastly different characters, plotlines and locales, and I am generally interested in most of it, whether a chapter is ‘quiet’ or full of action and adventure.
The writing is so different that I, and others, have in fact wondered whether parts have been ghost-written. When it doesn’t even feel like ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ anymore, one can wonder if it’s because it’s different or whether it’s just not as good as it used to be - technically. In fact, I don’t mind the actual stories presented in Feastdance. I enjoy the concepts presented, including Brienne’s travels, Dany’s political troubles, Jaime’s detour to Riverrun etc. (the only storyline where I feel Martin went terribly off course was Tyrion’s), it is a matter of how these stories are executed that leaves something to be desired. Characters seem to have lost their traits. Dialogue has lost its crispness. So many scenes seemed written to shock instead of further the story. So many grammatical errors that slipped through the editing process. The sudden naming of pov-chapters instead of keeping the structure in place so that the series can feel more like one whole.
As for seeing the world of Team Smallfolk, sure, by all means, but did we really need an entire story arc for it? Personally I felt that Team Smallfolk was well represented already through Arya’s chapters - through her journeys we really see how the war has taken its toll on the populace. I’d rather say that Brienne’s chapters allowed Martin to put in an element he had not really given the spotlight before - the religious side. Suddenly, with “Feast”, priests and monks and faiths are thrown into the mix in a somewhat abrupt way. It exemplifies how Martin at a later stage decided he hadn’t spent enough time on religion because religion was so important in medieval times and he wanted to have it too, and we are left with a sudden increase in exposition on religion in Westeros. One could argue this is another point against the later books - it feels as if Martin wants to cover all bases. Instead he could have kept the focus narrower, nobody said he had to include everything that has to do with medieval history. I get the same feeling in “Dance” when, all of a sudden, the rite of prima noctis is mentioned for the first time in 3000+ pages, as if Martin watched Braveheart and realized he just had to add this curious (and perhaps not even true) ritual to his own work. When a work has established so much over the first three books, it feels ‘tacked on’ and doesn’t ring true when new things pop up in books four and five - especially when these new things feel like they should have been introduced earlier if they are important enough.
Anyway, you can argue that Brienne’s story is a way for us to see the smallfolk struggle with the aftermath of the War of Five Kings, and I can argue that the storyline is used more to present and integrate religious factions into the story, and maybe we’re both right or both wrong (or one of us right…), it still boils down to the technical presentation. Is it interesting to read about Brienne traveling the riverlands searching for Sansa, when we know where Sansa is (and she’s definitely not nearby)? Now, that’s not high quality storytelling, I’d argue. If there were some hope that Brienne could find Sansa, well maybe that would heighten the interest in the story; or if Brienne had someone on her heels that represented a real danger, we might worry for her and thus be more engaged with the story. Pages of monologue that feels as if it has been copy/pasted straight from some medieval source (there’s at least a few lines in there that are literally taken from somewhere, I remember reacting to it when reading it) doesn’t engage on the same level, I suggest. There’s no tension, it’s all “let’s see the countryside”. Much of the information gleaned from Brienne’s chapters feel more like they belong in “The World of Ice and Fire”. Again, I enjoy Brienne’s journey but as a narrative it works against itself; only a die-hard Westeros fanatic would argue that this is good story-telling. Because you’re so invested in the setting that any depiction of it becomes interesting. Man, I’m rambling.
In the end, Brienne’s storyline could have been condensed into a few chapters less, or the enormous amounts of exposition should have been worked into the narrative in a more subtle manner, for in the end the only point of her story (exposition aside) is that she faces a certain woman toward the end, which leads to that hopefully interesting three-way confrontation with Ser Jaime and Lady Stoneheart.
As for peace, or peace processes, I can only say this; peace is the absence of conflict, and conflict is what drives a narrative. Whether the ‘slog’ as you say is intentional or not, doesn’t matter. If you do admit that it’s a slog to read, you are, in my opinion anyway, admitting that Feastdance or parts of it at least, just aren’t that good. Now, I admit that to some readers, there might be ‘sloggy’ parts in the first three books as well - I know there are readers who find Bran’s chapters less interesting, for example - but these chapters do move the story forward, which I am not sure all chapters in Feastdance actually do. I wouldn’t mind if Quentyn Martell was banished from “Dance” until the moment he shows up in Daenerys’ court. What would we have missed? The miniature elephants in Volantis? Did we really need so many chapters of Tyrion on the river, Tyrion on the sea? Could the story work without Penny?
Of course, lest you take me too literally, there is conflict in Feastdance, on the personal level. There’s a conflict within Daenerys Targaryen (several, actually); there’s a conflict within Jon Snow (perhaps the most obvious one - his story has always been about loyalty, allegiance, honor, duty); exterior action has diminished, that is true; almost nothing of consequence happens until the book is over. Different, yes. But better? The old books mixed interior and exterior action with great success. Why the sudden navelgazing - at such length?
I think it’s kind of the easy way out to argue that Martin is intently making his story less interesting. That’s a cop-out. Martin knows how to write killer scenes be they slow or not. Either you are giving him too much credit (or I am giving him too little). All right, suppose Martin did want to show us that peace is boring. Then he’d have to use other tricks to keep us invested in the story. He’d give us secondary characters that were easy to distinguish. Instead we have a host of characters with similar sounding names. He’d work out character development so that we might follow an interesting trajectory. Instead Daenerys is the same from her first chapter to the second to last; and she is definitely not the character we left in “A Storm of Swords.”
I think we’ll leave Martin’s interaction with his readers for another day because just thinking of it makes steam come out of my ears :-P I hope I made my points clear, and if something is unclear, tell me, and we can look further into this part of the debate.
Stefan Sasse: I still think that much of the critcism you put into the book(s) comes from a different outlook on what is to come. Yes, me (and many others) intentionally see this is part of the whole, which allows to not be bored by such storylines as Brienne’s where nothing of consequence happens (except for the very characters involved, of course). But as you say yourself, for many people, it was (and is) the same with the old books.
I find it hard most of the time to remember my first impressions on the book, because they have been mudded unrecognizable by my later understanding and the knowledge stamming from rereads. But I know two things for sure: I was bored to hell by Brienne’s chapters the first and second time I read “A Feast for Crows” back in 2005 and 2006, and I also strongly disliked Bran’s chapters in the first three books, precicely for the fact that nothing much seemed to be going on. I mean, seriously, you have to be an exceptionally perceptive reader to enjoy the story of the Knight of the Laughing Tree on your first read. If you don’t get what it is really about, you simply find the mentioning of a sprawling cast of long-dead characters exclusively referred to by their arms as a dull read indeed.
The same is true for Brienne’s trials. We know that she won’t find Sansa (except for the one moment when she considers going to the Vale), but that’s out of the way quick. Instead, we get involved in a variety of subplots and the resolution of subplots (the fate of Podrick Payne, Shadrich and his guys, Gendry and the Brotherhood and Lady Stoneheart) and get a really compelling sub-narrative as well (especially in the Maidenpool-section). But it took me a while to warm up for it.
Similarily, when first reading “A Dance with Dragons”, I sincerely wished for the Tyrion chapters to get on faster. I couldn’t remember even one of the damn ruin towns they pass on the Rhoyne, and I wasn’t particularily intrigued by Aegon, neither, if only because I never liked the conspiracy theory that Varys spirited away the boy (which was out there for a long time, as well as Tyrion being a Targaryen bastard). But on later rereads, when you already know what will happen (like with Brienne not finding Sansa), you can engage in the stuff that is actually there.
That’s what I mean with the expectation problem, by the way. We expected several things to happen in Feastdance, and much of it didn’t happen (no Others at the Wall, no meeting between Tyrion and Dany, and so forth). But while Martin certainly could have cut much of what is there and “got to the point” quicker, I’d argue that it would make for a less compelling read (even he took your approach and kept the storylines intact, only cutting the meat (or fat, depending on your POV) out).
Similarily, we simply don’t know yet what the business with the changed chapter names is. Martin repeatedly stressed that there’s a system behind it that we can’t comprehend on the basis of the two books yet, but will understand in the end, so I’m reserving final judgement on this for later, when the final books have come out.
By the way, I was disappointed by the Ius Primae Noctis making its appearance, because it’s only a medieval myth made undying by “Braveheart”, but I found it logical to appear only now. Of course the Boltons (who we only see now closer up) would still do this, and of course wouldn’t they tell the Starks (who have been our only window in the North until now). Actually, I found this one of the most engaging and interesting things about the northern storyline in “A Dance with Dragons”: the “dark” North. Bran learning that the Starks used to sacrifice people below the Hearttrees, the hanging of entrails in the trees, the Boltons and their cruel practices, the mountain clans or Karstarks and their dispelling of the old and sick in the winter to preserve the food for the healthy, and so on - what we saw until now was the nice North, through the pink lens of the benign Stark overlords. Below, there’s a much darker North, one that has been awakened by the Bolton-Stannis-struggle. And that makes for damn good stuff to read.
Also one could easily argue that the eastern cultures in the first three books were pretty much cardboard (evil slavers with ridiculous hairstyles) and only got more fleshed out in Feastdance. Of course you can say that you simply don’t care for them, since the story is supposed to be in Westeros, but I like the touch of realism and believability this brings to the story. It makes it more of a real place than one of a plot point that needs to be checked on the agenda.
This brings me to my last issue with your arguments: the question of struggle. Yes, peace by definition is the absence of war, but it has been the sickness of fantasy for way too long that it relied on armed conflict in order to tell engaging stories. The experiment that Martin provides with Feastdance is one of real daring: he uses two really voluminous books to actually shows us what comes after. Martin once made a remark (I’m paraphrasing) that in “The Lord of the Rings”, we never learn how Aragorn would rule, and what, for example, his position on Three-Field-Crop-Rotation or taxation would be. That’s because traditional fantasy keeps to conveniently cut away from the messy stuff.
But he doesn’t. When Dany anounced at the end of “A Storm of Swords” that she was going to stay and rule, I think nobody took her really at her word. Until now, her journey had been one of continued success, growth and progress (yes, even and especially with Drogo dying). But in “A Dance with Dragons”, we witnessed closely just how difficult winning is. This development was mirrored in Jon’s storyline at the Wall, where he had to cope with the wildlings, which proved to be the easy part, and his own men, which he continually messed up. And in King’s Landing, Cersei manages to throw away the successes the Lannisters won in a really bloody war within weeks.
Winning the peace is the most difficult object of all, it’s hard, difficult and messy. Fighting a war, on the other hand, is the easy part. It’s like the Dark Side in Star Wars, easy to succumb to, since it’s so straightforward and exciting (if you’re not a member of Team Smallfolk, that is). But it is the Dark Side. The peace is much more difficult, the path is not layed out for you, and you have to face your inner demons in a much more pronounced way since you can’t just channel them on the enemy at hand. Jaime Lannister learns this, too - when he can’t hit someone with a sword, he’s really at a loss.
And look how lost they all are, and how they would like to revert to war: Cersei continually does everything to create a clear front in King’s Landing: you’re either with her, or with the Tyrells. There’s no compromise, nothing in between. That’s the attitude of war, not of peace, and conflict is what she gets. Or Dany: she has to continually choose between the easy way, provided by the Shavepate and Daario, and by the complicated, unsatisfying peace, provided by the Seneschall, the Green Grace and Hizdahr. And Jon takes every opportunity to leave Castle Black and to lead rangings, finally plunging his support unnecessarily behind Stannis’ bid for the Iron Throne and provoking war with the Dreadfort (and his betrayal).
All of this is such a strong narrative, even stronger than in the first three books, where elements of it were already apparant. Robb Stark easily managed to defeat every opponent in battle, but he was totally unable to win the peace, or any peace for that matter. That’s the Dark Side. The whole underlying current of the series is already set up here, and Feastdance capitalizes on this - but only if you are willing to read what is there and not the Dark Side fantasy you were hoping for. It’s not George Lucas, who let Luke have it both ways, attacking Darth Vader and still coming off clean because his father had a change of heart. That doesn’t happen here.
And I guess the groundwork from Feastdance will become really important in the following books, when Jon, Dany and Cersei, all having learned the wrong lessons from the failure to sustain peace, will make some really bad decisions and spurn along the carnage in the onslaught of the Others. And I’m fairly convinced that many will look more kindly on Feastdance by then.
Remy Verhoeve: You make some convincing arguments re: peace and that is probably a better way to look at it if you want to keep the faith that there’s nothing wrong with “Dance”. I enjoyed seeing the ‘dark North’ mostly, though it also gives Martin a chance to get even deeper into depravity, which I am not sure the series need more of. Now, I still maintain that most of the stuff that makes “Dance” less good has to do with technicalities as mentioned, and that the plot itself isn’t bad; yes, you have some interesting observations and I particularly like how everyone thinks that the easy way would have been war, but when I’m reading either one of the two novels, I’m not vowed. I didn’t need anyone to tell me just what to look for or feel when reading “A Game of Thrones”. It just kicked me in the face and said “Pay attention”. With “Dance”, people are forced onto the Internet to find in-depth explanations as to why Martin maybe chose to write this or that so or so, yet until we get “The Winds of Winter” we cannot know just what is groundwork and what is sloppy writing. If he’s going to resolve everything he presents, we are looking at another ten books. Which again means that you have to judge “Feast” and “Dance” on their own merits, and they are found wanting - by many. I would like to note that I enjoy these books more than most fantasy novels, they are just not as amazing as the original three books.
There are some personal objections to the novels, too, of course, which you can’t do anything with. I don’t find Cersei’s story convincing, with the ‘Maggy the Frog’ prophecy a particularly poor plot device. This wasn’t the Cersei I thought I knew from the three first books, and I am not able to readjust my perception of the character. That’s my fault, of course. But this serves as another example of poor writing. Not only because it seems so forced coming in the fourth book (although I understand you can defend it technically because we haven’t had Cersei’s POV before), but also because Martin, with Feastdance begins making all these connections between characters to the point where it becomes a bit silly - especially compared to the three first books where it was practically the complete opposite. Now you have characters meeting each other regularly (preferably at that same inn at the crossroads), character names linked in a variety of ways etc. Yes, he needs to start picking up threads but this is a poor way of doing it, in my opinion. The world of Westeros, which was vast, becomes smaller for each chapter. Anyway, now I have gone off on a tangent again.
All this being said, I am all for your angle - the difficulty of winning the peace is definitely an important and major theme. It does not, however, make reading about Tyrion feeling sorry for himself aboard some waterborne vessel for ten chapters in a row more exciting. It doesn’t fill me with awe to read page up and down about Daenerys’ thoughts about Daario. And Jon Snow’s sullen POV doesn’t get more exciting with nothing happening, either.
Stefan Sasse: I fear this leaves us at an impasse, where it comes down to a matter of taste. At least I think we can be confident that you will give “The Winds of Winter” a chance at bringing you back into the fold.
Remy Verhoeve: I suppose we cannot reconcile our opinions, but it is nice to discuss this with you in a civil manner, and agree to disagree. I am ready and willing to accept “The Winds of Winter”. I have also decided to try and tackle the two books using the re-ordering of chapters that you suggested. I agree that taste is the essential dividing factor here, yet you seem to agree with me that, for example, Tyrion Lannister’s “Dance” chapters aren’t that good. This makes me wonder why you are defending the development of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ if you also see certain flaws. Anyway, thanks for the conversation :)
Stefan Sasse: A pleasure. And to use the privilege of the last word, I think Tyrion’s chapters needed longer to warm up to. I like the development, and I’m eager to see more. Just took me a bit to see the light. ;)