Hot fantasy: 'A Dance With Dragons'

A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, by George R.R. Martin. Bantam, 1,016 pp., $35.

The world of George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" is wonderfully huge. It has its own illnesses, religions and politics; its own disturbing and believable brand of magic; and, above all, its beautifully wrought characters -- even more of them in the fifth and latest book, "A Dance With Dragons." At more than 4,000 pages to date (and a projected seven volumes total), the fantasy series is on its way to being one of the longest ever written.

Readers have complained. Specifically, they have complained that the fourth book did not have enough characters in it, and that Martin is taking too long to write the damn things.

So read "Ice and Fire," but beware: If you finish the last one before Martin finishes writing the next, you will suffer. The books are told from the perspectives of a rotating cast, and it's a terrible thing when you haven't heard from your favorite character in a while. Here's the last we heard of my favorite, the female would-be knight Brienne, last seen searching the fictional kingdom of Westeros for her matron's daughter in Book Four: " sucked the air in desperately, even as the rope was strangling her. Nothing had ever hurt so much. She screamed a word." That was six years ago.

The recent HBO adaptation of the series, "Game of Thrones," was fun to watch, but it was missing the internal life of the characters -- something that springs off the page when you're reading. "The world was simpler when I had a lord commander to decide such matters," an elderly soldier thinks as he tries to navigate the world of spies and assassins. "Now I am the lord commander, and it is hard to know which path is right." "A Dance With Dragons" is also one of the few fantasy books in recent memory (and Martin wrote most of the others) that can boast a straightforward and attractive prose style. The vocabulary is blessedly unpretentious, and look at the cadence: "A child emerged from a pool of darkness, a pale boy in a ragged robe, no more than nine or ten. Another rose up behind chair. The girl who had opened the door for him was there as well. They were all around him, half a dozen of them, white-faced children with dark eyes, boys and girls together. And in their hands, the daggers."

"A Dance With Dragons" follows the surviving members of the noble, ascetic Stark family, notably Jon Snow, illegitimate son of the late Stark patriarch. Jon leads what amounts to the kingdom's border patrol, an ill-supplied crew of ex-cons and exiles called the Watch, who guard the realm against monsters that live north of its great wall of ice.

"Dance" also tracks the progress of the Lannisters, another highborn family more or less at war with the Starks. The scabrous dwarf Tyrion Lannister, played to great acclaim by Peter Dinklage in the HBO series, was absent from the last book, having murdered his father and fled Westeros. We get a lot more of him in "Dance," and it's like seeing an old friend. He has become the books' moral core as well as their witty comic relief.

We also get more of Daenerys Targaryen -- "Dany" -- the rightful queen of Westeros, exiled and ruling the distant city of Meereen. By standing up to the tyrannical class of elite slave merchants that runs Meereen, she is slowly destroying the city against her will; arcane forces of good and evil are less at issue here than everyday problems of right and wrong.

Frequently, characters desperate to kill one another are equally likable; a climactic murder in "Dance" is all the more tragic for the fact that the murderers are convinced they're doing the right thing. (They're not.)

The fourth main character, Theon Greyjoy, has so far been one of the series' most unsympathetic. Arrogant and hot-tempered, Theon has been rotting in prison since Book Two. Now, Martin forces our perception of an old antagonist to change -- a task that clearly delights him. Every chapter starts with the focal character's name ("Tyrion," "Jon," "Daenerys"), but Theon has been tortured so badly that he can't remember who he is -- his chapters are titled "Reek" and then "Turncloak" (cruel nicknames) and later "A Ghost in Winterfell." When he finally decides between bravely risking further torture on the one hand and continuing to live like one of his jailer's dogs on the other, it's difficult not to choke back tears.

Half the fun of "A Song of Ice and Fire" comes from the shocking deaths, impossible resurrections and discarded disguises -- many of which aren't obvious on your first trip through the book. Martin has constructed the story on two levels -- one for the reader powering through to the tragic, deliberately Shakespearean finale, another for that same reader going back to find what he missed.

While you're waiting for the next volume, reread.

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