Fans have been waiting years for A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in George R.R. Martin's Song Of Ice and Fire series. A vocal minority have gotten snarky about it. But really, they misunderstand the reasons for the delay.
I've been reading the Song Of Ice and Fire books for the past few weeks, and I've gotten up to midway through A Storm Of Swords. They're pretty amazing, in the way that a lot of Charles Dickens is amazing — there are a ton of characters, almost all of whom are memorable, managing to live in on your mind long after you put the books down.
And it seems like the series is, to some extent, about modernity — the characters are at the end of a period of stability, in which ordinary people felt secure and the law seemed to protect everyone. And as the world slides into chaos during the books' central power struggle, there's a lot of debate over what, if anything, the people in power owe to everybody else. Is a knight just a guy with a sword and a horse, or is he someone who protects the helpless? As social institutions are torn down in the endless fighting, their nature and value is debated over and over. The very slowness of the social disintegration in Martin's world provides fodder for discussing the nature of society, and you wonder if this society will ever have its Magna Carta.
But the series is also intensely chaotic, and one of Martin's main defenders/explainers, Shawn Speakman, says that's why Martin has run into trouble with finishing the next book. Over at Random House's Suvudu blog, Speakman wrote recently:
I believe the lateness of A Dance With Dragons has very little to do with George's time away from the keyboard and his extra-curricular activities-time he was taking before Feast when the books were coming out more timely-and more to do with writing himself into a possible corner. For years George has wrestled with the Knot and it has defeated him at almost every turn. In short, if he hasn't found a solution to the Knot by now, he may never...
We know Dance has been difficult to complete because it is the middle part of the series where characters and events have to be lined up just right for the march toward the eventual climax of the series. ... What's changed for George since 2000 is the complexity of the series and entering the all-too-important middle part of the story where delicate care must be given. That's why, in my opinion, these last two books have been difficult to write. When freewriters enter those parts of their stories, it causes chaos because they have given no forethought to what comes next.
I'm not sure what Speakman means by the Knot, but the references to Martin "writing himself into a possible corner" are a little alarming — at the same time, though, Speakman also says Martin's "finishing some of the final POV chapters in the book," although a number of them remain to be finished.
By coincidence, book reviewer extraordinaire Matt Hilliard posted a long review of the first four ASOIAF books at his blog Yet There Are Statues, and he delves into the reasons why Martin may have gotten himself stuck. Hilliard claims this series was originally planned as a trilogy (a claim Wikipedia supports) and says that the novel defies plot as we traditionally understand it. The main plotlines, including the story of the ancient evil beyond the Wall, the sorceress Melisandre and the progress of Daenerys, barely advance, and only account for about 15 percent of the first four books. So what accounts for the bulk of the books' storyline? Let Hilliard explain:
[M]ost of the series has been devoted to the titular game of thrones, as countless nobles struggle for power in Westeros. Unlike the plotlines I just described, this main thread does not follow normal conventions. It is almost completely without structure. Events happen one after another without any kind of cohesion. It's not that they don't make sense… everything seems fairly logical and Martin proves to be a very inventive spinner of intrigue and conspiracy. Yet this all proceeds outside of the narrative structure that has characterized western literature for centuries. There is no development, there is no sense of progression of any kind, there is no climax. It's the plot equivalent of someone banging an endless series of chords, each unrelated to the next, on a piano. Now I readily admit to being far more interested in the way stories are constructed than the average reader, but I think this has many important downsides even for those who aren't consciously aware of the dissonance.
What was immediately noticeable to readers of the first book in 1996 was the way they had no idea what was coming next. Why should they? Long experience has taught us how plots work in almost all fiction, but here was a book that was resolute in ignoring these conventions. To be sure, the immediate result is a fairly refreshing feeling of suspense. But these narrative conventions exist for a reason. Although A Feast for Crows has other shortcomings, I think one of the biggest reasons it wasn't as well received as the first three books was that without a sense of where the narrative is going, the reader doesn't feel any momentum. Since there's no plotline developing and advancing towards a climax, the reader realizes there's no reason why the intrigue surrounding the throne of Westeros can't go on indefinitely. And if the plot goes on indefinitely, then the individual events are completely deprived of meaning....
Martin surely was writing a conventional fantasy novel about an ancient evil and an exiled princess but somehow got distracted by what probably was summed up in some original one page outline in about one sentence ("Westeros monarchy weakened by infighting and succession problems"). Having fallen in love with what was supposed to be a bit of window dressing, he has continually expanded its role within the series even though it threatens to completely drown out what the series was supposed to be about in the first place. Is it any wonder that he has suffered from the contemporary genre's most famous case of writer's block?
Hilliard also contends that Martin doesn't actually deserve his reputation for killing off main characters — he just kills off characters who the reader has mistakenly decided were main characters. In any case, Hilliard's lukewarm review of Martin's series is worth reading in its entirety — I'm not sure whether I agree with it or not, but it's definitely thought-provoking. Put Speakman's and Hilliard's essays together, and you have one compelling explanation for why Martin may have run into trouble.