In 2005 I wrote a review of George R. R. Martin's novel, A Feast for Crows, in which I called him "the American Tolkien." That phrase has stuck to him, which is what I meant it to do. I think Martin's fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire is the great epic of our era. It's an epic for a more profane, more sardonic, more ambivalent age than the one Tolkien lived in. Tolkien was a veteran of the Somme, and wrote during Word War II, when it really seemed like the fate of civilization was hanging in the balance. Now we can't even agree on what civilization is.
A Song of Ice and Fire is expected to run to seven volumes, and Martin's new novel, A Dance with Dragons, is the fifth. The books are set on the fictional continent of Westeros, a scrambled political chessboard with at least seven different sides to it. Martin spent the last book pushing his pawns, but now his attention is back on the major characters: Jon Snow, the young, relatable bastard son of the late lord of the north; Daenerys Targaryen, an exiled princess of Westeros; and Tyrion, the brilliant, black-humored dwarf scion of the Lannister family, which was last seen precariously clinging to power.
At the start of the book Tyrion is in disgrace and on the run with a price on his head. He is a good example of what separates Tolkien and Martin: He is a dwarf, but he's not the gruff, hearty, axe-wielding hero of a noble dwarven race. He's not Gimli from The Lord of the Rings. Tyrion is an actual dwarf, a joke to passersby and an embarrassment to his family (they're stunted too, but on the inside).
Tyrion is headed toward Daenerys, which is big news, because she's been isolated from the rest of the players in the series until now. Daenerys has one of the better claims to the throne of Westeros, but she's been running wild in the barbarian lands to the East in the company of three increasingly feral dragons. Thus two of the great narrative arcs of the series are bending toward each other, and when they touch, expect sparks to fly.
But this being Martin, there are a lot more than two arcs in play. The soil of Westeros is rich in story the way some countries are rich in uranium. The stilted Stannis Baratheon — the Al Gore of Westeros — is stubbornly pursuing his claim to the throne; Jon Snow's half sister Arya Stark is training as an assassin and plotting revenge for her family's downfall. Jon himself is sitting uneasily astride the great Wall in the north, trying to fend off ghostly invaders and keep out of the power struggles everyone else is caught up in.
A Dance with Dragons is not a book for Westeros newbies. If you haven't started from the beginning you'll miss out on the richness of Martin's grand design. Each story has its own rhythm, and is written in its own voice, and plays subtly off each of the others. Martin will never win a Pulitzer or a National Book Award, but his skill as an orchestrator of narrative exceeds that of almost any literary novelist writing today. Reading it, I was reminded of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time.
It's as if Martin is making sure we experience the struggle for the fate of Westeros from all sides at once, to show us that every fight is both a triumph and a tragedy at the same time. In Tolkien, good and evil were absolutes, but in A Dance with Dragons it's just a matter of where you're watching from. All the pieces on the chessboard are gray, and the only way to tell the heroes from the villains is that the hero is the guy with the knife in his back.