With the arrival of “A Dance With Dragons,” Book 5 in George R. R. Martin’s rousing “Song of Ice and Fire” cycle, it’s high time we drove a stake through the heart of J. R. R. Tolkien and “The Lord of the Rings.” Like its predecessors “Dance” has its share of flagons ’n’ dragons, and swords ’n’ sorcerers, but that doesn’t make Mr. Martin the American Tolkien, as some would have it. He’s much better than that.
The series, which started with “A Game of Thrones” in 1996, is like a sprawling and panoramic 19th-century novel turned out in fantasy motley, more Balzac and Dickens than Tolkien. Mr. Martin writes fantasy for grown-ups, with a blunt and bawdy earthiness that befits the son of a Bayonne, N.J., longshoreman. His on-the-page persona is that of a pint-and-a-shot guy who just happens to know a hell of a lot about the care and feeding of dragons. Anyone who has followed his work on HBO, where the first season of “Game of Thrones” recently ended, knows that too.
The TV series, which has been renewed for a second season, swelled Mr. Martin’s audience far beyond fantasy fans and whetted a larger-than-usual appetite for the fifth book in the cycle. Some 650,000 copies have already been printed.
Winter is still coming in “A Dance With Dragons,” as promised in “Thrones,” and the fates of the mythical continent of Westeros and its Seven Kingdoms are still up for grabs, as are the lives of dozens and dozens of heroes and antiheroes (and those wavering in between, waiting to turn their cloaks whichever way the winds of victory may blow).
The elements of fantasy exist here but are deftly muted, as Mr. Martin defies genre conventions. He’s often more intrigued by the friction among conflicting religions, by the Kremlinology of Westeros, in the “plots, ploys, whispers, lies, secrets within secrets” that make of up “the game of thrones.” All the while his medieval realms ring with echoes of our own time, of our modern terrorscapes that rage with liars, spies and true believers.
Most important for fans, “A Dance With Dragons” catches up with some of Mr. Martin’s most popular characters, including Daenarys Targaryen, queen of the city of Meereen and “mother” of three dragons; Jon Snow, 998th lord commander of the Night’s Watch; Arya Stark, 11-year-old daughter of the late Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell; and the disgraced Queen Cersei of House Lannister.
Best of all, “Dragons” puts us back in the company of Tyrion Lannister, a bitter but brilliant dwarf whose humor, swagger and utter humanity make him the (often drunken) star of the series. When Tyrion is present, “Song of Ice and Fire” becomes “A Rogue’s Progress, or the Further Ribald Adventures of Tyrion Lannister.”
Mr. Martin is a literary dervish, enthralled by complicated characters and vivid language, and bursting with the wild vision of the very best tale tellers. And Tyrion is his grandest creation. A kin slayer and fugitive, Tyrion assumes manifold roles in “Dragons”: mummer, soldier, paymaster, slave, river rat and captive. He’s in on the cosmic joke of being a “high-born dwarf” and is quick to give practical Westeros wisdom: “Trust no one. And keep your dragon close.” He also notes that “a small man with a big shield will drive the archers mad.”
Such savvy observations keep Mr. Martin’s readers rapt and separate “A Song of Ice and Fire” from other genre novels. (By the way, did you know that no Ghiscari feast is complete without a course of dog?)
Readers frantic for Mr. Martin to tie up at least a few loose ends in his many-tentacled plot will be disappointed, though some characters’ destinies are clarified. Daenerys’s dragons are growing as is, ultimately, her bond with them. Cersei learns that true humility and contrition don’t come easy. And Tyrion forges on, an unlikely player in the future of Westeros. Even so, “A Dance With Dragons,” for its bounty of adventure, is more about Mr. Martin marshaling his forces in anticipation of the cycle’s final two books.
Still, there’s bliss to be found in the word-drunk naming of places — the Frostfangs, Sea Dragon Point, Rook’s Rest — and people: Homeless Harry Strickland and Bloodbeard, Cotter Pyke and Three-Finger Hobb, Wick Whittlestick and Pinchface Jon Myre. And his Bayonne-bred sense of humor also sets Mr. Martin apart. Even amid the blood, the guts and the mead, Tyrion notes that his preferred weapons include “an ax, a dagger, a choice remark.” Or as Asha Greyjoy, female captain of the ship Black Wind, observes: “Some men had faces that cried out for a beard. Ser Clayton’s face cried out for an axe between the eyes.”
The biggest headache with “A Dance With Dragons” is that it’s just a 1,016-page installment in a mammoth novel that so far totals 1,742,848 words. In a work this size it’s the reader who must embark on a harrowing quest, and a summary up front would be useful.
Even for those who have read the entire cycle and watched the HBO series, too much has gone before, over too many years, to keep it all straight. Six years separate the publication of “Dragons” and Book 4, “A Feast for Crows”; “Thrones” came out when Derek Jeter was a Yankee rookie.
For all that, “A Dance With Dragons” meets the high standards set by its four siblings. And like all proper serials it gives the reader no emotional respite, ending with several razor-sharp question marks as the heavy wheels of fate groan into motion, and the murders and assassinations mount.
As “Dragons” cascades toward its finish, the reader is whipsawed by cliffhanger after cliffhanger, while being all too aware that Mr. Martin’s next installment won’t be coming out next week, or even next year for that matter. But as I write, I know that I’ll be happy to cling to the hard and scaly back of this particular dancing dragon as I wait for Book 6, “The Winds of Winter.”
So, yes, winter is still coming. Tolkien is dead. And long live George Martin.