Friday, July 22, 2011

A Dance with Dragons

It’s real, I’ve read it, I’ve had a bit time to think about it and now I’m going to try and review it.

‘It’ is of course the long awaited 5th novel in George R.R Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series; A Dance with Dragons.

I know that a lot of people haven’t yet had the chance to read this book or are still reading, so I’ll try and be as spoiler free as possible, but you have been warned, you’re entering into spoiler territory beyond this point.

A Dance with Dragons is, for the first half, running concurrently with the timeline established in A Feast for Crows. The 3 most keenly missed PoV characters absent from A Feast for Crows; Jon, Dany and Tyrion get the lion’s share of the chapters in A Dance with Dragons, and that’s even after it catches up to A Feast for Crows. The 3 characters have many fans, so that should please the majority of the readership.

The central hub of most of this is the Essos city of Meereen. The bulk of the book is taken up with getting a handful of characters to the city and there’s not a lot of action until the book’s second half. There’s been a lot of criticism about this, but I personally didn’t mind it. All action, all the time doesn’t necessarily equal a great book. The other thing to remember is, that this is a middle book and they often make the situation as bad as it can get, and set the scene for the conclusion.

Tyrion serves a slightly different purpose in this book, and he’s not quite the Tyrion we knew from the first three books. His wisecracks are still there here and now, his mouth still gets him into and out of a lot of trouble, he’s still consistently jumping from one dangerous situation into an even worse one, but his experiences and his reduced station in life have changed him. He’s no longer Tyrion ‘The Imp’ Lannister, backed by the gold of Casterly Rock and Tywin Lannister. He’s a hunted fugitive, wanted for killing his odious nephew King Joffrey and his father Tywin Lannister (curiously he freely admits to being responsible for both deaths, but readers know he only committed one of them). There’s been complaints about this as well, although again you have to remember that although it’s been 11 years since some readers saw The Imp, only a handful of days have passed for the character, and what he’s been through changes a person. To a certain extent Tyrion is the Brienne of this book. It is through his eyes that readers see Essos, he wanders around a lot and even picks up another stray (ala Brienne and Pod). However, where I found Brienne’s travelogue in Feast largely unnecessary, I was entranced by Tyrion’s. Readers haven’t seen a lot of Essos and it is fascinating. It appears as if George spent a lot of the time between books creating an entirely new world in Essos, it has it’s detractors, but I’m glad he did it. I loved it. I like world building and character development more than I do plot. I know he’s going to get there, but he won’t do it in a middle book.

I found Dany’s story to be the most tedious. I’ve never been a big Dany fan as such. I find the characters and situations around her to be of more interest than she herself is. She spends most of Dance being a 16 year old, albeit with a lot of power, and a 16 year old girl trying to run a kingdom by herself is always going to have it’s problems. Add to that her propensity for not listening to her wisest advisor in Barristan Selmy (seriously, I wanted him to spank her on more than one occasion) and her infatuation with the extremely untrustworthy mercenary (the name was invented for him) Daario Nahaaris and you’ve got a frustrating storyline. It is worth it though for something that happens late in the book.

The Essos part of the book also contained one of George Martin’s more pointless character arcs. It may become important in a later book, but I just couldn’t see the character’s function in Dance.

The rest of the action takes place in Westeros, mostly in the north. Bran finally reaches what seems to have been his ultimate destination when he set out on his endless trek with the Reeds and Hodor. Bran only gets 3 chapters, but they are all delight, with the 2nd of them being one of the book’s highlights.

Jon is trying to adapt to his role as the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Like Dany, Jon is a teenager whom fate has thrust into a position of leadership for which he is ill prepared. Unlike Dany, Jon is willing to take advice from others and will bend his views to suit the situation. Early on in his story Jon makes the decision to ‘kill’ the boy within himself and be the man. He also comes to realise that there are times when the needs of the many outweigh those of the few and acts accordingly. This is a lesson that Dany has yet to learn. Jon has never been a character I’ve warmed to, but I found myself firmly on his side this time and really riding the bumps along with him.

In another part of the north readers discover that Theon Greyjoy, the young man raised by the Starks, who later turned on them has survived the sack of Winterfell and is very much a changed man. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Theon and his chapters are in many parts truly stomach churning (George R.R Martin excels at this sort of thing), they will also send Ramsay Bolton rocketing up the ‘most hated’ character lists of fans.

Readers discover the true fate of Davos Seaworth and the answer to the question posed in A Feast for Crows of what did happen to the man who would be king; Stannis Baratheon’s most trusted and loyal friend, his Onion Knight.

There are other PoV’s that take readers beyond the scope of AFfC, mostly one offs, the most interesting of these are Jaime, Cersei and Arya (Arya is now the only PoV to appear in all 5 books), because they answer some of the cliffhangers in A Feast for Crows.

On more than one occasion, whilst reading this book I found myself wishing that I could just follow one character from start to finish. If a writer attempted to tell the story of one of A Song of Ice and Fire’s principals and did that successfully, then they would have created an excellent book, maybe even a series. George R.R Martin is trying to do this for in excess of 10 characters all at once. It’s a huge ambition and one that should be encouraged and admired, if he can pull this off successfully then he truly deserves the ‘American Tolkien’ tag Time’s Lev Grossman awarded him some years ago. I could read entire books about the likes of Jon Connington and Barristan Selmy.

While questions are answered and there is some resolution, many more cliffs are hung (damn you George Martin for writing such compelling books, and then taking years to write the next volume!) and questions posed. There was a lot of talk about the so called Meereenese Knot and whether or not it could be undone in this book. Personally I don’t think it was, although the lightest touch in The Winds of Winter will do so.

If I had to rank this book in the 5 published, I’d put it 3rd, behind A Storm of Swords and A Game of Thrones, but ahead of A Clash of Kings and A Feast for Crows. At times it’s hard going, but there’s pay off in the latter 3rd of it, and plenty of jaw dropping OMG moments along the way. It was well worth the price, not so sure about the near 6 year wait and the angst during it, but that’s a whole other story, it sets up what promises to be one of the best conclusions to a series that many of us are likely to see.


  1. Nice review Elfy, and you're spot on about the contrast between Tyrion's wanderings and Brienne's. I loved everything we got to see through Tyrion's eyes quite frankly. But I also loved every bit of Dany. As I mentioned in my own review that you read yesterday, the perceived weaknesses of her story I count as strengths.

    For my money, I rank this book 2nd in the series, after Storm (which is entirely beyond criticism), followed by Game and Clash (tied), and then Feast.

  2. Loren, thank you so much for reading and commenting on my review. It seems that we're in the minority as fans of the Dance, but I felt it was what I expected and thoroughly enjoyed the read. I also loved your very tongue in cheek review of The Winds of Winter, one can only hope that at least some of what you spoke about does come to pass.

  3. Well I still haven't read it yet - saving it for my holidays. The consensus seems to be that this is a very slow paced book - painful, even - so I'm somewhat heartened to see that you think GRRM has set things up for a great conclusion.

  4. Thanks for the comment, jjh. As long as you approach it with an open mind and remember that this is 5 of 7, you should enjoy it. He's still George, they're still great characters and he's moving all the blocks in place. I don't pretend to know what the man is thinking, but I can see a real slam bang conclusion coming our way in a few years.