Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Song of Inpatience and Frustration

During my senior year of high school, I found a book in my dad's car called A Game of Thrones. I was between books at the time, so I decided to give it a try despite the fact that I wasn't (and am still not) big on fantasy novels. What I found was about two or three days worth of some of the most extraordinary writing, plot and character development I had ever seen in popular literature.

Thrones was merely the first installment of A Song of Ice and Fire, an epic fantasy series written by George RR Martin. It was followed by A Clash of Kings, which was every bit as good as the first book, and A Storm of Swords, which managed to take the series to an even higher level. These weren't fantasy novels, these were works of art. These books established a rich fantasy world that was almost completely bereft of magic or the other tired conventions of the fantasy genre. They placed the focus on deep, believable characters who didn't fall into easy categories. Intricate plots unfolded slowly, teasingly, over hundreds of pages divided into point of view chapters which focused on one particular character.

Martin took The Wars of the Roses and translated them to his world of Westeros, a kind of fantasy avatar for England. Noble families like the Lannisters and the Starks battled for control of Westeros, as Martin slowly unfolded a rich, staggeringly deep backstory. The supernatural element was always there, from page one of Thrones, hanging over the events like a dark cloud. But it was the human element that dominated Martin's saga. No character was safe; Martin killed off a key POV character halfway through the first book. There was no telling if the character whose perspective you were seeing would still be alive when you turned the page. I was hooked.

That was then. This is now.

See, Thrones was published in 1996. Clash came out in 1998. Storm debuted in 2000. And then...nothing. Martin decided the fourth book, A Feast For Crows, would be set five years after the end of Storm. A cute idea, except he couldn't pull it off. So much of the book was taken up with flashbacks that Martin decided he had to scrap everything he had written.

And then he couldn't stop writing. Feast became so long, so unwieldy, that the publisher couldn't publish everything Martin had written, let alone what he intended to write. So Martin and his editors devised a compromise: instead of finishing the book, cutting it in half and ending with a "To Be Continued" message, they would include the complete POVs of some characters while leaving others to be handled in an unplanned fifth book.

So A Feast For Crows was published in 2005, five years after Storm, and did not include some of the fans' favorite chapters. That was fine; the book as it stood remained excellent, if less action-packed than the previous three editions, and hey, we'd get that fifth book (A Dance With Dragons) soon enough. After all, Martin had already finished many of the chapters that would make up Dance, so how long could it take?

Three years later, we're still asking that question.

And the clock keeps ticking. Martin had hoped to finish Dance a few weeks ago before he went on a long-planned working vacation to Portugal and Spain, where he'd visit a gaggle of comic conventions and book stores. That would result in publication in September or October of this year.

No such luck. Martin crossed the pond without finishing Dance, and has reportedly told Portuguese audiences that his new goal is to finish by the end of the year, with a publication date of "some time in 2009."

Some of the delays were beyond Martin's control. After Feast came out, his publishers asked him to go on a four-month book tour in the US and Canada. Since Martin either cannot or will not write away from home, that pushed Dance back. So did a serious illness he suffered. And his fans like to constantly pester him about the publication date. I can only imagine how annoying that must be.

But Martin has developed an infuriating habit of posting a deadline on his site, going dark (and understandably so) until a few weeks before the deadline comes up and then writing a new entry that roughly says, "Sorry, not going to happen. But I hope to have it done by x."

You ever take one of those epic-length classes in college that met once a week for about three hours at a time? If you were lucky, you had a professor who'd get you out after about two and a half hours, maybe even less. However, you'd occasionally have to stay the full three hours. That would be more frustrating when the professor didn't warn you about the change; having your expectations disappointed is never fun.

I used to go around to various internet forums whole-heartedly recommending Martin's saga. I can't do that any more. The problem isn't so much A Dance With Dragons; we'll get that book in the (relatively) near future, and it'll be excellent. The question is whether a reader can have confidence that, once Dance is finished, Martin can finish the last two books he has planned with any kind of celerity.

That's a poor bet. And it's asking a lot to exhort someone to invest in this series when there's no guarantee of satisfaction.


Matthew Trumbull said...

So sad. So true. I thought "Feast" was, well, forgivable, given the haphazard manner by which it was even published. Like you said, many of my favorite characters were not in Feast, which I finished last summer. "Dance" would set all arights when it came out in...late fall 2007--no, early Spring 2008--no, early Fall 2008 and so on and so on. It is impossible not to wonder a.) Is Martin just good and truly lost. So many characters. So many backstories. So many sigils. b.) Does he just hate the damn thing. Has it become a major drag to write. If so, how he must hate each new deadline, and want do anything but write about anything having to do with Westeros or the Free Cities or anybody in them. c.) Does Martin have to much on his plate. All his blog seems to be about is this series of comics, or that screenplay, and then, finally, oh yeah, that massive epic I should finish before I'm dead. d.) What if, just what if, "Dance" sucks. Another "Feast", and the series is dead. Who is going to wait around another 5 years for a third subpar installment in a row. I can only hope I will remember what the hell is going on with these characters when "Dances" comes out, and it will have been only 2 years (at best) since I finished "Feast".

Andrew said...

And here's the thing: let's say we get don't get Dance until June, 2009. That seems a reasonable bet if you consider the Martin Deadline Creep Factor.

A Storm of Swords was published in October 2000. If Dance comes out in June, 2009, that means we won't have read a single Jon, Dany, Tyrion or Davos chapter for eight and a half years. That's a hell of a long time. A perfectly intelligent, reasonable individual with a good memory can easily forget what Davos is up to if he hasn't read about the guy in eight and a half years.

Basically, before you read Dance, you'll have to read the 800 pages of A Storm of Swords to catch up on these characters. That's a hell of a lot to ask.

Paul D said...

Not much to add - nice post.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I've met the man in person, and while I found him to be a really fascinating person, it also gave me greater concern about whether or not he will end this series. He's not in the best of shape nor is he young. He loves to ramble on about irrelevant things such as the NFL, politics, comics, pizza, etc. We all love these things as well, but we still go do our jobs.