There are already ample reviews of George R R Martin’s latest plump volume. I was never going to get ahead of the curve on this one, and I have no intention of rushing the pleasure of reading such a sumptuously large volume to try and get a review out before the buzz has died. There’s no point, and I’ve waited too long for this to treat it so brusquely. Instead, I’ve decided to do something a bit different. Enter: Read Along With Rhube*.
What it is, is this: I’ll periodically update with my reflections as I go along. This may result in less of on overview, and I may sometimes jump to conclusions that later get overturned, but hopefully that will all be part of the fun. It’ll also mean that people who are still reading the book themselves can engage with a bit of critical reflection without being spoiled for later chapters. I’m madly curious about all the reviews I know have already gone up, but I’m not going to touch any of them with a barge pole until I’m done reading, and by then they may be buried under a host of new posts.
I had planned to do some sort of exciting YoutTube extravaganza. (Still excited by the laptop-cam.) However, having read the prologue and first chapter I realised I was gonna have to talk about some stuff I wasn’t comfortable with having plastered all over YouTube for people to find out of the context of this blog. So, I’m writing instead. Maybe for future sections I’ll do a video blog, but not so much, this time.
Anyway, I’m going to start with first impressions. In an age where people are using e-books more and more, the book as a physical object is coming more and more under scrunity, and I’ve heard a lot of noise about how heavy and awkward A Dance With Dragons is, so I thought I’d do some comparisons. First off: this is not the biggest book I own – not by a long shot. This fine book to the right is the biggest book I own: The Riverside Shakespeare (second edition). As you can see, The Riverside Shakespeare is both taller and wider than A Dance With Dragons, and believe me, it’s fatter and heavier, too.
But, you may be thinking, surely this is not a fair comparison. A Dance With Dragons is a single novel, not a compilation of the plays and poems of one of the most prolific writers ever known, interspersed with extensive criticism and glossy pictures. And that’s very true, but it misses the point. There’s no doubt that my Riverside Shakespeare is a very special and luxury item. It was a Christmas present from my mum, of the kind that you get as The Big Special Thing a parent might send you off to university with. It’s a very special item. But that doesn’t stop it from being a very useful and enjoyable thing to have and read. My Riverside Shakespeare didn’t sit on my shelves to be looked at and never touched. It was an invaluable academic resource, and now it’s an invaluable pleasure item. Sure, I could get any of Shakespeare’s plays off the web more quickly and easily, but when I want to dip into a Hamlet sililoquy or my favourite sonnets, nine times out of ten I still dip into the Riverside. I really do see the value of e-books for those with e-readers – I’m currntly thinking very carefully about buying one myself – but lightness and speed of access are not the be all and end all of the reading experience.
A Dance With Dragons is not quite the same style of book, but it is a pleasurable thing to have it in hardback, and I appreciate the style with which it has been presented. You can’t tell from the photo, but it’s a gorgeous matt effect that makes a nice contrast to most books you see these days. That’s a canny choice. I’ve got a copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell that a cat weed on and after a wipe-down with a bit of bleach it was perfectly OK. The same would not fly with my Dance With Dragons hardback. I find myself treating this book with an extra special reverence as a result. I don’t want to risk spilling tea or wine on it, and no way am I letting it within a mile of any cat with insufficient bladder control.
You might think that’s a negative, but I rather like it. No one ever bought a hardback first edition because they thought it would be the most ergonomic reading format. Yes, some people buy first editions because they just can’t wait (and that’s a serious consideration with a book that has mass-popularity amongst heavily socially networked groups, as this one does), but usually you buy a first edition because you want to treasure it. This book is practically shouting for careful treatment and love.
Still, it doesn’t have quite the same special relevance as a Riverside Shakespare, I must grant you that. Let’s do a more like-for-like comparison. Let’s take another first edition from a later volume of a well-known epic fantasy series. This (left) is my US first edition of Vol. 7 of The Dark Tower: The Dark Tower. It’s much the same size as A Dance With Dragons. Both are nearly 1,000 pages long (ADWD is 1,016 pages including apendices, but skirts just under for actual story) and slightly unweildy to cart around, but they come from a long line of very long fantasy books, and, honestly, if you get to book five of a George R R Martin series, or book seven of a Stephen King series, and you’re expecting a short read, you might want to examine your reading choices in general. I like really long books. If they’re really well written, why wouldn’t I want to prolong the pleasure of reading them?
Don’t get me wrong, a book can definitely be too long if it doesn’t succeed in carrying you for 1000+ pages. Sarum (right) is over 1,300 pages long in its paperback edition, and hoooo-boy! I was determined to finish that bugger, and it took me three months, but I did it. What it taught me is that you really don’t need to finish a book just because you started it. Especially if it’s really long. It doesn’t follow, though, that books like The Stand, The Lord of the Rings, The Dark Tower, or A Dance with Dragons should be missed out just because they’re long. I’d have missed out on most of my faourite books if I acted like that.
Now, that’s not an argument against the e-book alternative, and each reader has to take their call on that. There’s no doubt that I get more for my money from my Riverside Shakespeare or a first edition of a Dark Tower volume than I do out of A Dance With Dragons. My Dark Tower hardbacks are full of gorgeous glossy illustrations, and I don’t get anything like that from ADWD. But then, I don’t get anything like that from my Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, or Fool’s Fate, and I know I’m going to treasure those books for a long, long time, in a way that goes beyond the simple fact that I adore the stories contained within.
Long and short is: A Dance with Dragons makes for a very nice physical object. I think the cover illustration is simple, but gorgeous. I like the matt effect. I like even more the little note on the back that says it’s made of paper that comes from a sustainable resource. Yes, trees died for my pleasure, but they did so sustainably, and I think it was worth it.
On to the text itself! I’m really intrigued that the usual map of Westeros is omitted from the three maps at the start of this volume. I very much enjoyed a few minutes of looking over the new territories depicted. We’re going to find out more about the lands above The Wall, The Free Cities, and Valyria – sweet! When I went on to read the prologue I had a fair amount of fun flipping back and forth and going ‘Aha, that is Milkwater, and Thenn, and The Shivering Sea’. Overall, I really enjoyed the glimpse into life north of The Wall that this opening scene provided.
(At this point I’m going to say that I did have some comments about these chapters that were not 100% positive. But they concern a personal reaction to content I’m not not sure I really want to open debate on. Because I want the rest of this post to be open to discussion, I’ve put it in an aside below, for which I’ve disabled comments. I hope you’ll understand and respect this, and focus any comments you’d like to make on the content of this post only. I know this is a bit of an awkward way to do this, but it’s the best compromise I could make with myself.)
Enough of that: on to the prologue. In spite of myself, I did really enjoy the scenes with Varamyr alone in the deep, deep cold. Sometimes the land north of The Wall can be a bit too stark for my liking, but I was held interested. I really felt the desperation – the fear of the white walkers; the fear of the cold. There is a special quality to presenting a man like Varamyr, and then showing the sort of thing that he might fear. It was nicely built up to, so that even though on the first page I was thinking ‘Oh poo – not a character I already know’, I was gripped by the end.
I also really enjoyed my re-acquaintance with Tyrion – one of my favourite characters. It’s more of a struggle than I expected, trying to pick up the threads of what happened the last time we saw him. I remembered that Shae had betrayed him, but not how, or with whom. His emotions still bear a pathos, though, and I’m really interested to know what he’s going to do next, and where he will go. It’s also fascinating to see how differently information works in a world without the sort of connectedness we all take for granted. Tyrion is a well-connected, well-informed man, yet he has no idea about all the events that have been going on in other parts of his world that may still have an impact on his life.
I’m looking forward to finding out what will happen next.
*Yeah, yeah, it ought to be ‘Serenity Womble’, but ‘Read along with ‘Serenity Womble just didn’t sound as good.
[Index of future chapters and RAWR posts availabke here.]