It sold almost a third of a million copies (including audio and digital) on its first day, currently tops USA Today’s bestseller list and its publisher, Random House, is calling the rush for copies “astonishing”. We may have seen the end of the Harry Potter franchise, but George RR Martin, the author of A Dance with Dragons and four other books in the phenomenally successful A Song of Ice and Fire series, is just hitting his stride as fantasy fiction’s new kingpin.
“I *LOVED* the book, am in the middle of my second reread,” one Dance with Dragons fan with the alias Chataya di Niello gushed on the fan site Westeros, just a few days after the 1,022-page book’s publication on July 12. Others agreed: “I couldn’t put the book down, and I can’t stop thinking about it now,” one commenter posted. “Devoured the book in two days and loved it,” said another.
The book’s critical reception has also been rapturous. A review in The New York Times said it was closer to the work of Balzac or Dickens than Tolkien, and that it “meets the high standards set by its four siblings”. Time magazine’s Lev Grossman wrote that Martin’s “skill as a crafter of narrative exceeds that of almost any literary novelist writing today” and calls A Song of Ice and Fire “the great fantasy epic of our era”.
Expectations were high. It has been almost six years since the release of the previous book in the series, A Feast for Crows, and Martin’s fans are as numerous (15 million books sold before the release of A Dance with Dragons) as they are dedicated. The fact that the writer Neil Gaiman wrote a blog post a couple of years ago telling Martin’s fans to calm down and stop clamouring for the release of book five gives an idea of their emotional investment.
The other reason for all the pre-release hype is television. HBO’s spectacular adaptation of the first Ice and Fire book, A Game of Thrones, won Martin new legions of fans when it premiered in April on HBO in the US (where viewer numbers reached three million per episode) and OSN over here. Starring Sean Bean and with an estimated budget of US$50 million (Dh183.6m), it turned a cult favourite into a mainstream hit.
One measure of its popularity: when cast members of the Game of Thrones television series appeared at the Comic-Con International convention in San Diego last weekend, they were met with packed-out crowds and roars of approval.
When the series ended on one of Martin’s signature cliffhangers, many of the millions of viewers impatient for the next chapter eagerly snapped up the books to see what happened next. On Amazon.com’s bestseller list, a four-book Game of Thrones box set (after the TV series, the book franchise is often referred to by the name of its first book) currently sits at second place.
The bad news for fans of the TV series, however, comes from the executive producer David Benihoff, who at Comic-Con said that adapting a third season (the second series is now in production), in keeping with the timing of “one season per book”, could prove tricky.
“Storm of Swords is just too big,” he admitted.
All this explains why Martin’s fifth book in the series, A Dance with Dragons, has become the fastest-selling book in fantasy history. Adam Whitehead – who runs the fantasy blog The Wertzone, runs an exhaustive Game of Thrones wiki, and was thanked as a super-fan in A Dance with Dragons’ dedication page – bought the book the second it came out and has already devoured it.
It was back in 1999 that he started reading the Song of Ice and Fire series, and he was instantly hooked. Already a fantasy fan, he liked the way that in Martin’s books “the plot and events were driven by the decisions of the characters, rather than the characters being just pushed around by the plot”. He also appreciated the character depth: “They’re conflicted individuals, with even otherwise laudable people making bad mistakes and outright villains showing flashes of humour or mercy.”
While fantasy fiction can often be about overblown struggles between pure good and pure evil, A Game of Thrones, Whitehead said, is “a story about people and power, with a strong undercurrent of tragedy and a willingness to kill off major characters in a way that propelled events forward”.
Another long-time fan, Lindsay Duff, was one of those who pre-ordered the book the moment a release date was announced. He said that the first time he picked up A Game of Thrones was “a revelation – here was a fantasy series with a consistent internal logic, with a vaguely realistic political set-up that eschewed any sort of insultingly simplistic ‘the good guys triumph because of their virtue’ narrative.”
One of the crowd-pleasing aspects of the newest book is that it reintroduces popular characters that were missing in the last instalment, A Feast for Crows. Originally one enormous book, Martin split the material into two when the size got unmanageable (they’re both already hard to lift with one hand as it is) – and instead of doing so chronologically, he split it by character and location.
While both books begin with the struggle for the throne wrapping up, A Feast for Crows focuses on Cersei Lannister and Arya Stark, while A Dance with Dragons reintroduces reader favourites Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister. As Duff said: “These characters have been with the reader since the first book, so their reduction to being mostly ‘off-stage’ in A Feast for Crows was frustrating, especially as George RR Martin does love to leave his characters in cliffhanger situations.”
This constant series of cliffhangers can be an annoyance to fans desperate for some sort of resolution. Whitehead described the new book as having “some great character moments, some impressively foreshadowed plot twists and an increasingly dark and foreboding atmosphere” but added that there were “a tad too many cliffhangers and major, eagerly awaited plot culminations pushed to the sixth volume. That’s disappointed a lot of fans”.
Whitehead said this lack of payoff would be bearable if the next book, The Winds of Winter, was around the corner, but it’s expected to be another long wait. “Dragons leaves a lot of situations in utter chaos,” he said, “a lot of characters in dangerous predicaments and their fates hanging on a thread, and huge battles about to be joined. The next book, if Martin delivers on the promises he makes in this one, should be apocalyptic. Let’s just hope he doesn’t make us wait another six years for it.”