Last week I finished reading the latest book in George R.R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance With Dragons. Long time fans (and even short time fans, like myself) know it took a long time for Martin to release the fifth book is his planned seven book series so there was great anticipation for it. I personally stayed away from forums and online reviews until I read it myself not wanting to have anything spoiled for me (and for those wondering, there are now spoilers in this review*) so that I could experience everything myself. It seems to me the general reaction has been underwhelming. The book, being a companion piece to the previous A Feast For Crows, was set up for such emotions as the majority of the book occurs at the same time so those cliff-hangers from that book are largely left still dangling.
*I have a pet peeve when it comes to reviews that contain the words “Spoilers Ahead.” What is the point in reading a review that ruins the experience of reading/watching the piece it’s reviewing? IGN.com is notorious for this with their Game of Thrones television reviews. The way they’re set up it’s as if they want you to watch the program, then read their review to find out if you liked it or not.
The previous book covered what went on in and around King’s Landing and Dorne. This latest book focuses on The Wall and the East where Daenerys sits as a queen without a king in Mereen, Tyrion is fleeing Westeros with the aid of the great orchestrator of schemes Illyrio, and Davos sets off a an envoy for his king, Stannis. Those are they key players, though Davos ends up taking up a very, very, small piece of the book, but several others are also featured as point of view characters, and some for the first time.
I found a lot of the goings on with Daenerys quite a bit slow. Her conflict is trying to bring peace to the city she has chosen to reign over for an unspecified time before eventually making for Westeros and the Iron Throne. Her city is plagued constantly by crime from a group called the Sons of the Harpy, who are angered that she took rule over their city and abolished slavery. She has to deal with the political maneuvers needed to quiet the fear in the streets and find a king her city will embrace, even if she won’t. While I found the politics in King’s Landing entertaining these ones are drab. The problems faced by Daenerys are not all that complicated and she mostly faces problems that try her honor. In that, she is meant to serve as a foil to queen Cersei.
Tyrion, my favorite character in the series and favorite of many others, also doesn’t live up to the billing. As a man on the run, he’s forced from positions of powers for most of the book where his cleverness is always fun to watch. His story doesn’t really go anywhere though and his chapters are no longer the best in the book.
Jon Snow’s were probably the most interesting as he deals with the weight of being Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. On The Wall, he has to suffer the presence of King Stannis and his queen while managing the conflict within his own ranks between the Brothers of the Night’s Watch and the Free Folk. It’s a constant juggle for Lord Snow as he tries to sell his methods to his men. He has some moments of triumph, and some of failure, as he tries to establish himself as a worthy Lord Commander. Making things more complicated, he has to constantly endure the priestess Melisandre and her prophecies, not really knowing what to make of them.
Some characters return from A Feast For Crows, notably Jamie, Cersei, and Arya. Their appearances are brief and relegated to just a chapter or two for each. We learn nothing of Sam or Sansa though we do get to find out just what happened to Theon Greyjoy after the ransacking of Winterfell.
Martin throughout this series has developed a penchant for killing off main characters. It seems to me the books average about one major death a piece, and in this A Dance With Dragons is no exception. One character whom I’d consider a fan favorite does indeed bite the dust during the course of the book but Martin makes it exceedingly obvious that it’s going to happen, if the reader is willing to believe that Martin would actually go through with it. Putting emotions aside, I found the death unsatisfying as I’m not sure what the logic was for the characters involved. I can’t go into any further detail without spoiling it but Martin will have to do some work within the pages of the narrative to convince me why this move made sense. I should add, the death occurs at the close of a chapter and there’s still some ambiguity. Even though Martin has become famous for killing off characters, he’s also begun to develop a trend of bringing them back from the dead (literally in the case of Catelyn Stark), so feel free to take this “death” with a grain of salt if it pleases you.
A Dance With Dragons is a decent read, it’s just a transition piece like the second and fourth books in the series. It lacks the big moments and twists that A Storm Of Swords possessed. At times, I did wonder why Martin was giving time to certain characters or felt he was taking up too many words writing about the mundane, but that’s something I’ve come to expect as well. His writing has become bloated and maybe an editor lacks the conviction to force him to trim some this stuff down. He spends far too much time reminding us that Dany is a young girl, or that Tyrion misses Tysha, for example. This books lacks a giant cliffhanger like many of the others, and I wonder how Martin will consolidate the cast of the last two books into one sixth volume, but hopefully I don’t have to wait five years to find out.