Does anyone actually enjoy cliffhangers? (This is also a review of A Dance With Dragons)


Okay, so, first off–just as I predicted when I talked about how I was not that excited to read it-A Dance With Dragons is awesome. Like many people, I was a little disappointed by the slow pacing and minor-key of A Feast For The Crows. Well, aDwD is slow too, but not as slow! Some pretty cool stuff happens up on the Wall, and over with Daenerys, and even with Stannis and Bran (yes, Bran is not as abysmally boring as he was during the first three books). And, and, and also the best thing was that the latter half of the book starts wrapping up a few loose ends from the previous book (like what’s going on with Cersei and Jaime and Arya and Brienne). That seems like a really good decision. Considering the last book came out five years ago, it would have been annoying to wait ten years to find out whether or not Jaime was going to ride home and defend Cersei in a trial by combat.

It’s been a few years since I read A Dance With Dragons, and I was wondering whether my increasing sophistication as a reader would harm the series (with which I first fell in love ten years ago, as a sophomore in high school). And it has, to some extent. But it’s also allowed me to more keenly appreciate the pleasures that this book does offer.

For instance, the sense of place is always very striking. I hadn’t gotten more than halfway through the prologue (which takes place deep in the wilds of the north) before I thought “Oh, yeah, this is the thing that no other kind of book can give me.”

High fantasy worlds are particularly askew, in comparison to realistic or science-fictional worlds, in that they’re vast, traversable, and knowably complex. When someone is in the middle of the tundra in a high fantasy world, you gain a very real sense of the distance that separates them from civilization because (as opposed to the real world) that distance is knowable. It can be bridged in a page. Even the characters can often bridge it in a few months or years.

Because High Fantasy worlds are so complex, but don’t try to borrow the complexity of the real world, the way that a realistic novel does, or present the illusion of infinite complexity, like many SF novels do, they give the reader a pleasurable vertigo. For instance, you travel farther and faster in a plane than in a roller coaster, but the latter is more thrilling than the former, because you go through all kinds of whips and turns and because you can see where you’re going and where you’ve been.

Because the real world is so complex, realistic novels (which also, let us all remember, take place inside the made-up fantasy world of the novel) are often limited to one locale and setting. It is simply too much work for a reader, writer, or character, to go from, say, my quasi-hipsterish society in Oakland to the drug-dealing society of just a few street corners away from me. Or to go from the upper middle-class suburban of a doctor to the blue-collar middle class home of the plumber who lives down the block from him. Some novels do attempt to make one or two of these setting shifts, but very few attempt to make a large number of them, and almost none of them are to  convince the reader that the setting can shift at any time (and by setting, I clearly mean something that is not just physical, but also anthropological and social). Most science fiction novels, to the extent that they take place within a recognizable future and a recognizable humanity (i.e. I am not including Dune here), suffer from the same problem.

But High Fantasy novels dispense with that complexity (often pretending it doesn’t even exist), manage to upset readerly expectations that were built up by other novels, and deliver a very exciting and intense experience.

Well, they can do that if they’re good. And A Dance With Dragons is good. On setting, it’s better than many of the previous novels. For the first time, we get to see more of society beyond the Wall and over the Sea, and the things we see are interesting. They’re both commentaries, of a sort, on Westeros’ society. They’re both slightly askew compared to the medievalish society we’ve seen, but they’re clearly built of the same stuff (the same assumptions about human nature, the way organizations work, etc.)

Man, I meant the positive section of this review to be really short, but instead it was not short. However, let me get to the main thing I wanted to talk about, which was….does anyone like cliffhangers? I mean this as a real question. I really detest them.

But then, I am not a suspense-oriented reader. I will frequently flip to the last few pages of a book and read them first. When I am starting to follow a TV show, I will look at its Wikipedia page to see how everyone’s character arcs are going to pan out in the episodes I haven’t seen yet. I just really don’t care to be kept in suspense about what is going to happen next. To a large extent, I prefer novels that don’t even attempt to deliver that pleasure and just tell me straight up what is going to happen (like after you’ve read a few of Emile Zola’s novels, you know from page one that everyone is going to go insane and die in horrible poverty.)

But there are different readers. Still, I can’t even imagine that you suspense-oriented saps enjoy being toyed with. A cliffhanger is just some straight-up toying. It is such a blatantly artificial hook for your attention.

Now, there are some TV shows that end each episode in a cliffhanger (True Blood, and Heroes was like that too). I hated and still do hate that! But at least in those episodes, you know that the cliffhanger is going to be resolved in the next episode.

But in a novel where one character’s point of view chapters can be separated by more than a hundred pages, I think it is incredibly annoying to end chapters with cliffhangers. I mean…the point of a cliffhanger is to keep someone reading, right? It’s to get them all invested in the story, right? But why would an author want to get someone excited if the author knows they’re not going to satisfy the reader for another hundred pages? I did not find this pleasurable, and I doubt that very many people did.

But even worse is ending the whole book on a cliffhanger! Why? The first three books did not end on huge cliffhangers. They all came to some sort of satisfying resolution, and then paused for brief for a few dozen pages in which the next book was set up. The first book ended with Ned Stark’s death, the second ended with the Battle of the Blackwater, and the third ended with the Red Wedding.

But in this book, the endings are all like: “This person might be dead! (or maybe not!) or “this battle might break out!” The only person who had any sort of satisfying climax was Cersei.

I just don’t understand it. It feels like a textbook example of how not to end a book. I mean, it’s like if they had ended Empire Strikes Back with Darth Vader standing over Luke after having cut his hand off and then were all like, “You should wait five years to figure out how this pans out.” Because that’s how long it’s going to be. Five years until the next book. Sheesh.

Kind of not as excited about “A Dance With Dragons” as I used to be

So, the latest volume of George R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire just hit the shelves. For those not in the know, this is a huge epic fantasy series that is super popular and which recently spawned an HBO series that is incredibly good (and possible better than the books?).

I read the first three books when I was in high school and I really, really, really liked them. I reread them several times while I waited for the fourth book to come out. When it did, during my sophomore year in college, I purchased it in hardback and read it. I then read all four books several times while I waited for the fifth book to come out. Unfortunately, it took six years for the fifth book to come out, and I am somewhat over the whole thing.

Awhile back, George R. R. Martin complained about how his fans would flame him and berate him about how long it was taking him to write this book. He said that writers work at their own pace, and you can’t force it, and etcetera. I was less sympathetic. Not because I think that Martin somehow owes me this book, but because Martin basically makes a living by stoking the kind of rabid fandom that can cause a fan to get really crazy about an author taking six years to finish a book.

I mean, George R. R. Martin has an HBO TV show, card game, spin-off novellas, line of miniatures, reprints of long out of print novels, other random merch and a whole host of other side projects that basically came about as a result of the belief that people love A Song Of Ice And Fire so much that they’ll pay for anything even vaguely ASoIaF related. I mean, each of these books is more than a third of a million words long, and I read each of them an ungodly number of times.

I don’t really think you can get that kind of fandom without having at least a few people in it feel like they are owed something by you. I mean, I really like Ursula Le Guin, but I don’t even notice when she puts out a book. Her book Lavinia won the Nebula a few years back, and I never even read it. But I read two of Martin’s early novels (Fevre Dream and the Armageddon Rag) and I even bought his hugely expensive short story collection (Dreamsongs). All of them were amazing, of course, but I doubt I’d have bothered if I hadn’t felt like I was somehow invested in him and his series.

But that investment has dissipated. For a mere $15, I could be reading A Dance With Dragons on my kindle right now. It would be difficult to count the number of times over the last six years that I have fervently wished I could be reading that book right now. Well, right now is here and I am not reading it. I mean, I’m definitely going to read it eventually. It’s on my list of things to read, but, you know…there are a lot of other books on that list. And I’m definitely not doing that thing where I re-read every other book in the series so that I am totally current on every last little event and character (although at this point, I don’t think there’s any aSoIaF trivia that I don’t already have stored in my brain’s RAM).

Did anything in particular happen to cause this cooling down? Nope. Six years just went by, and gave me a little perspective.