A Dance with Dragons and Brief Thoughts on Identity

A Dance With Dragons cover
“A Dance With Dragons US” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:A_Dance_With_Dragons_US.jpg#/media/File:A_Dance_With_Dragons_US.jpg

I made the mistake of finishing A Dance with Dragons this morning before church. The way George R. R. Martin ended this book left me in mild shock, which wasn’t helpful when interacting with people. I’m starting to wonder if support groups need to exist for people who finish Martin’s novels.

With the completion of this book, I am now caught up. With previous books, I was comforted by knowing I could pick up the next one at any time. Not so with book five of this series. Like everyone else who has been reading these novels, I must wait. I finally understand the anxiety of fans who fear Martin may die before he finishes the series. These books are brilliant, and I question if anyone can effectively weave the layers of plot, scandal, and characters the way Martin does. He is a master craftsman. I don’t begrudge him the time it takes to write these books. If the amount of time between books is what it takes to produce works of this quality, then I want him to have the time he needs. I just want the patron gods of literature to keep him alive and in good health long enough for him to finish.

One dynamic that impressed me in A Dance with Dragons was the concept of shifting identity. This concept was in A Feast for Crows to some extent, but I noticed it more fully in ADwD because of how many people had identity crises, experimentation: Reek, Arya, and Ser Barristan. Each of these characters had point-of-view chapters, as is the format of the series, but each of their POV chapters had a different name. Arya’s chapters were “The Blind Girl” and “The Ugly Little Girl,” Barristan’s chapters were “The Discarded Knight,” “The Kingbreaker,” and “The Queen’s Hand.” And I’ll avoid Reek’s chapters since I have at least one friend who hasn’t read this book and who may read this post. Suffice it to say, he also has multiple POV chapters with different names.

These three characters struggle with identity. They try to figure out who they are and what they are supposed to be, whether a knight who is trying to make the right decisions in uncertain circumstances, a young girl wanting revenge but who needs to abandon her identity so she can learn the skills necessary to enable that revenge (and letting go of the person who wanted revenge), and a man tortured and told to be someone he isn’t, but struggling to please his master while playing a role to enable his master to gain power. Martin signals with these three characters that identity is uncertain, but that it can be a cloak (or a skin-mask) that can be put on and taken off. In fact, rejection of a previous identity may be useful for progressing in a more positive, effective way.

In some ways, the Song of Ice and Fire series is an exploration of how children live in and shape the world their fathers created. The parents are systematically dying, leaving their children to determine who they are in this world. Should they embrace their family heritage and live up to what their fathers expected of them? Do they reject that heritage, becoming something else not connected to the heritage? Or do they take the positive parts of that heritage and emphasize those things, shaping a new legacy from the broken, old one. Much of the time, these characters are only responsible for the choices they make in the moment, whether they play the game of thrones or not. This isn’t a world that rewards compassion, honor, or duty, but neither does it reward deception, selfishness, and manipulation. All men (and women) die. What do those who are left behind choose to do?

I have no idea how Martin will end this series. I’m not sure what the endgame is. I have many theories, but they have never felt as uncertain as they do right now. Martin has proven that even if he overturns all my ideas, his ideas will fit with what he has created, and they will fit with everything he has written up to this point. I admire this author and I eagerly await The Winds of Winter.

A Game of Thrones – A Novel by George R. R. Martin

It seems almost foolish for me to add my voice of praise to all those who have written before me.  Yet there are so few books that capture my attention as this one did.  Often, I am constantly aware of time as I read.  Of late it seems the thought of reading more than one chapter at a time is excessive.  But as I approached the end of A Game of Thrones, I spent the last two days reading the final two hundred pages in a mad rush to find out just how George R. R. Martin was going to arrive at some sort of conclusion.  No, I didn’t expect the end of the story.  That won’t come until book seven and it hasn’t been written yet.  But I hoped to find how Martin would choose to end this novel.  Why did he pick the ending he did?  And this book truly did feel like the first act in what will be a seven act story.  The initial conflicts have been set up, the story is moving into a second part that will have roots in the first, but be significantly different.

Still . . . looks cool, don't it?

My first encounter with A Game of Thrones was the HBO adaptation.  I watched five episodes before abandoning the series because I couldn’t justify watching pornography with fantasy trappings.  It’s a shame, really, because HBO put quite a bit of money into the series.  The cast is excellent and the show looks good.  And while the adaptation is largely faithful, most scenes of exposition seem to occur during throws of passion or lurid displays.  It seems as if the writers and directors feel that the audience may not have the patience for the exposition, so they threw in some breasts and moans to hold the attention.  This seems like poor storytelling to me.  Especially since many of these scenes were added.  The exposition was done in narration in the book, so I acknowledge the need for finding more compelling and practical ways to do this, but to add a sex scene to almost every line of exposition seems lazy.  In addition, the two sex scenes that could have “reasonably” been included both involved Daenerys and Drogo, and even these scene were cast as rape rather than consentual.  In the book, Daenerys, despite being afraid of her arranged husband, did try to learn and be a good wife.  Their wedding night showed a gentle and understanding Drogo, whereas the HBO version showed a cruel, uncaring Drogo who only wanted to sate his pleasure.  To show Daenerys’ movement toward a strong and admired wife, HBO created a character arc where she learned to use her sexuality to win and control him.  While sexuality was a strong part of their relationship in the book, it was always portrayed as her attempt to be a good and strong wife to him, not to control or dominate him.  I think there was an extremely subtle distinction between the two versions of this story.

So, abandoning the HBO version, I sought out the novel in the hopes it would be less pornographic.  Martin doesn’t shy away from human sexuality, but he treats it less luridly in the book.  And while I enjoyed many other aspects of the HBO version, reading the novel has helped me to gain an appreciation for Martin’s ability to tell extremely complex stories and hold to an astounding attention to details.  The sheer number of characters and plot lines is staggering.  Martin is a master world-builder and he seems to have a firm grasp of fairytale and mythic storytelling.  Often, if you are familiar with these genres, you can see the foreshadowing, but you still don’t know how events will play out.  In the opening chapters, when The Starks come upon a direwolf killed by a stag, you know that this foreshadows a major Stark death (The Stark sigil being the direwolf) at the hands of the Baratheons (their sigil being the crowned stag).  What you don’t know is who (although you have a strong guess) and whether it is a literal or symbolic death.  Likewise, you don’t know how the death will occur.  Martin handles the foreshadowing expertly.

The characters are compelling and fully human.  This isn’t a story full of noble heroes and dire villains (although some of the villains are thoroughly villainous).  But every character is flawed, even if that flaw is their own good intentions.  There were a couple of scenes where I actually felt tears, and I have very rarely cried over a book (Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book being the only example I can think of).  I truly felt invested in the characters, and that is something that occasionally suffers in fantasy, which is often more concerned with world-building or high adventure.  Martin has a firm grasp over every aspect of his craft, and I truly admire him for it.  I eagerly await a chance to read book two.

Content Warning: There is some strong language in this book.  There are also sex scenes, and while they are descriptive, they are not overly so.  Nor do they depict the entire act.  I’ve seen more graphic, but I’ve also seen less.

Even though I think the HBO series is more pornographic than anything else, the series still looks good.  Here is the opening title sequence, which is just breathtaking visually and musically inspiring!