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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Fans of the fantasy writer George R.R. Martin have been waiting for a long six years for his next book. Martin's previous novels have been best sellers. HBO got in on the action with its series "Game of Thrones." And now, the next novel is here.

Writer Lev Grossman has this review of "A Dance with Dragons."

Mr. LEV GROSSMAN (Writer): 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, one for a profane, sardonic, ambivalent age. 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. 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.

Tyrion is a good example of what separates Tolkien and Martin. He's a dwarf, but he's not the gruff, hearty, ax-wielding hero of a noble Dwarven race, like Gimli from "The Lord of the Rings." He's an actual dwarf, a joke to passers-by and an embarrassment to his family. They're stunted, too, but on the inside.

Tyrion is headed toward the Princess Daenerys, which is big news, because she's been isolated from the rest of the players in the series until now, 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. "A Dance with Dragons" is not a book for newcomers to the series. And 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 this book, 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's books, 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. The only way to tell the heroes from the villains is that the hero is the guy with the knife in his back.

SIEGEL: Lev Grossman was reviewing "A Dance with Dragons," by George R.R. Martin.

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