This review contains potential spoilers for all previous volumes in A Song of Ice and Fire.
Has there ever been a more anticipated fantasy release than A Dance with Dragons, the fifth instalment of A Song of Ice and Fire? Fans of Jordan, Erikson and others may argue, but it’s hard to ignore the sheer number of books that George R. R. Martin has sold, recently spurred on by HBO’s Game of Thrones. Fifteen years since its original release, A Game of Thrones (the first book of Martin’s series) is on the New York Times Bestseller list, and it’s hard to imagine that A Dance with Dragons won’t enjoy that level of success. In fact, many reviewers have described the book as ‘review-proof.’
Six years is a long time to wait…
Everything that is written in this review has to be read in the context of the six year wait for the book. I began reading A Song of Ice and Fire in 2001. I waited four years for A Feast for Crows. I waited six for A Dance with Dragons. I have followed Martin’s blog, met him at a convention and more recently tremendously enjoyed the television adaptation of his work. My expectations for this book were immense. There are characters I have waited for a decade to read about. Did A Dance with Dragons ever stand a chance of meeting these expectations?
Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, has been gathering her strength in the east with little contact from the Seven Kingdoms. However, key players are now converging upon her tenuous seat of power at Meereen. Tyrion Lannister is fleeing from Queen Cersei’s wrath after murdering their father, heading east regardless of his wishes. The Martells of Dorne, loyal to the Targaryens, are sending their own envoy to win Daeny’s favour while a new player emerges, whose claim to the throne changes the game as we know it. Yet Daeny’s attention is fixed on freeing the slaves of the (poorly named) Free Cities and making sure they remain free, and alive, while her growing dragons are becoming restless.
King Stannis Baratheon has delivered the Seven Kingdoms from a wildling horde and now prepares to consolidate his power in the north, while Jon Snow, Commander of the Night’s Watch, tries to bring the broken wildings behind the Wall and recruit them to the defence against the Others. Jon must find a way to balance his oaths of service and neutrality with Stannis’s demands, and calm the outraged veterans of the Watch.
“This one is for my fans”
Thus begins Martin’s dedication for A Dance with Dragons, and it is appropriate as the focus returns to some of A Song of Ice and Fire’s more beloved characters. Significant time is spent with Jon, Daenerys and Tyrion (perhaps Martin’s finest individual creation), though given the book’s sprawling nature there are very few plotlines that don’t receive some advancement. Viewpoint characters come and go as they are needed, including some additions which become necessary as the geography becomes increasingly complicated. Martin has taken the time to ensure that his sprawl never becomes a confused mess, and by the end of the book each of his plots are essentially matched in time.
Throughout the book Martin gives his fans what they long for, namely the unadulterated realism that makes his fantasy so accessible. Even with dragons, magic and the intervention of gods, characters are faced with the very real problems of disease and starvation. They have to cope with infected wounds and frostbitten limbs. Winter has come, and most lords of the Seven Kingdoms were too busy fighting to look to their harvests. Those in power are forced to tread incredibly lightly in their decision making, lest they pay a blood price for their mistakes. And of course, nobody is safe from the often unforgivable (even if understandable) actions of their fickle, human cohorts. Nobody.
One of the greatest challenges for epic fantasy writers will always be the middle volumes of the saga. It is readily apparent how difficult it is to provide satisfying plot and character developments without complete resolutions. After A Storm of Swords (and to a lesser extent A Feast for Crows) blew the story wide open, it felt like A Dance with Dragons needed to start pulling the threads together. In order to help do so, Martin seems to have created an entirely new plotline which, while consistent with the story, feels plucked from nowhere. It is difficult to accept yet another contender for the Iron Throne when there are so many existing threads still dangling.
Martin’s series has always been dark, but the theme that seems to pervade A Dance with Dragons is failure. At the risk of minor spoilers, it is disappointing to see so many events ebb and flow around Daeny while she remains surprisingly indecisive. It almost feels that this is not the same Daenerys Stormborn, Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons. In general the plot chugs along, but some of the arcs are not especially fulfilling and Martin gives the reader some serious, serious cliffhangers. You certainly expect such hooks in the middle of a big series. Normally they are forgivable if not genuinely exciting. Unfortunately, the wait many readers have endured will make these cliffhangers hard to accept for some, and particularly in Martin’s case it is difficult for a reviewer (and fan) to separate this issue from discussion of the book’s quality.
On a related note, it is known that A Dance with Dragons was unavoidably rushed through the editing process. It was probably very late in the piece that the editors had a full manuscript to work with. Martin has been criticized in the past for repetition of certain phrases, and this issue was apparent during my read, particularly as I read the book in two mammoth sittings. The idea that “words are wind” was obviously one of the themes of A Dance with Dragons, and it was certainly rammed home. I also found myself saying “Enough with dudes taking a piss” out loud at one point, fortunately while reading at home.
There are so many sections that display the tremendous writing Martin is capable of, I can’t help but feel that more time taken for editing would have overcome this gripe (but more time may have resulted in Martin being lynched – a classic lose-lose scenario).
Still the modern master
The disappointment reflected in this review is simply because you expect the absolute best from the best. A Song of Ice and Fire continues to be one of the most exciting and challenging reads fantasy has to offer. Martin’s grasp of complex characters, his detailed and (generally) efficient world building and scenes of beautiful prose are all on display in A Dance with Dragons. The prologue is a particularly poetic delight in which Martin clearly revelled. While Daeny struggles with stagnation that frustrates the reader, it is believable for a leader clearly caught between a rock and hard place. Martin’s full prowess is also on display in Jon’s immensely satisfying storyline. He has grown into leadership, able to face tremendous challenges but experiencing both success and failure. Like a young man he is bold, but often struggles to read people. His arc is near perfection.
Why should you read this book?
Let’s face it, you won’t be reading A Dance with Dragons to check out this George Martin guy you’ve been hearing so much about. By this stage you’re hooked, and you’ll read A Dance with Dragons because you must know what happens next.