A Dance with Dragons – A Review

I just finished aDwD 30 minutes ago.  I likely do not have enough distance yet to write a proper review, but what the hey!

The review will contain minor spoilers for aDwD.  It will likely contain large spoilers for other books in George RR Martin’s series.

A Dance with Dragons is novel number 5 is the series A Song of Ice and Fire.  The series is projected to be 7 books long and has been running since 1996.  In 2011 HBO adapted the first volume, A Game of Thrones, to a television miniseries with plans to continue to adapt the books.  Book four, A Feast of Crows, came out in 2005, but only followed the storylines of half the major characters.  A Storm of Swords was released in 2000 and was the last time that we saw Jon, Bran, Tyrion and Daenerys.  Original fans have either given up on the series, are mildly interested or are awaiting this latest book with mouths slavering.  I fall pretty close to the last camp.  That gives the book a vast amount of anticipation to live up to.

The first three books tell the story of The War of the 5 Kings.  While that is occurring additional threats to Westeros are brewing in the far East and North.  By the end of book three, four of the five kings have died and the last has turned from actively trying to conquer to facing the threat in the North.  The Baratheon/Lannister heir in King’s Landing is the only king left alive to really claim Westeros.  Book four suffered from that setup as its intrigues were focused on the activities in King’s Landing – it felt partly like a novel length denouement that introduced unneeded complications to pad out its length.  That being said, I was still quite happy with it.

Book five turns almost exclusively to the North and the East.  It has three flaws:

  1. It relies on cliffhangers too often in the early chapters.  Characters seemingly die at the end of chapters too often when you know they will be back later in the book.  Part of the appeal of the series is that there was always a sense of peril facing even the main protagonists, but playing the fake death card to often turns more to the realm of comic books and away from a palpable threat.
  2. The big, bad is the threat in the North.  The evil wights and Others were introduced in the prologue of Book 1, but are only ever faced in skirmishes.  While they are a looming force, they are absent from most of the book although much of it (a 3rd or more) is spent in the North.  Like in  Feast of Crows, the threat there is often the characters turning on themselves.  I am at the point where I’d like to see someone face an Other.
  3. There are still POVs missing in this book.  Unlike Feast, aDwD contains almost all the characters.  The first half of the book catches up the timeline to the end of Feast of Crows.  After that book events in King’s Landing and Dorne and the Riverlands and Bravos are touched on again.  So I was a little disappointed that neither Sansa nor Brienne nor Sam were in the book.  These seem to be minor plot lines at the current time so it is not a big lack.
  4. The book is dark.  Dark.  Dark.  Dark.  I am saying this about a series where the two most obvious heroic characters are killed in the first book and much of the POV is focused on seriously flawed (some cracked and broken) people.  For people who had trouble in earlier books, this one may be too much.

Now, the last point is also the books greatest strength.  George RR Martin writes some exciting and suspenseful plots, but his greatest strength is his characters and he is most proficient at showing characters suffering and plagued by doubt.  In many ways aDwD show off Martin at his best.  Tyrion starts the novel on the run after having killed his father and his lover.  He is not in a good place.  Daenerys is ruling over a city of former slavers who want nothing more than to return to their deplorable ways.  Readers might expect Bran to finally encounter magic and wonder beyond the wall.  He does, but even that is in some ways twisted and ill-seeming.  There is the return of Theon and his suffering is painful to read.  A tale of madness and woe and despair.  And Jon, who was raised up at the end of book three, well his story isn’t as dark.  But as the complications of ruling the wall pile on, even that plot becomes complex.

Complexity is another part of the book.  In addition to the Wall, the book focuses on other happenings in the North – the end of the invasion by the Ironborn and the start of the Roose’s reign as Warden.  The book also spends more time on Mellisandre and the faith of R’Hillor.  Where before it was just the Watch, the Wildlings and the Others, the North now has politics that are just as complex and intriguing as the ones in King’s Landing.

It continues in the East where an entire new cast of characters is developed in the court of Queen Daenerys.  She forms her own small council as well as a host of forced arrayed against her.

The most shocking and interesting new complexities are the addition of two major new POV characters.  Layers of motivation from previous books are now revealed and the arc of the series is considerably altered.  Tyrion’s revelation on board the pole-boat is the highlight of the novel for me.   More than anything else I am eager to see where these new threads go.

But is the novel suspenseful, interesting and exciting?  Is it worth reading?  More than anything else the novel is a coming together.  Characters were spread to the four winds and now, slowly, they begin to seek each other out and interact.  Only some of those juxtapositions actually conclude in the book, but the greatest suspense is waiting for them to happen.  So yes, there is suspense in the book.  Lots of it.  The travails of the characters, the new complexities – these make the book interesting.  And while I am a little disappointed in the lack of a major offensive of the others in the North, the decisions made by Jon are always interesting.  The book lives or dies by what happens in Meereen (and on the way to Meereen) though.  I would have been happiest to see that plot resolved earlier on the novel and Daenerys moving on to new challenges.  But that isn’t what I received.  What I got was different and interesting in its own right though.  I can’t really explain way without giant huge spoilers, but I think I am happier to get something different than something predictable.

Is it exciting?  There are knives in the dark, sieges, betrayals (and counter betrayals), and gladiatorial combat.  There are duels.  There are storms.  And there are dragons breathing fire on their prey.  Yes.  Yes, I’d say the book is exciting.

A Dance with Dragons is still a middle book in the series.  It has a greater focus and more satisfying events than A Feast for Crows, but it is still mostly a book of comings and goings rather than resolutions.  Fans of the series will find what they love.  Critics of the series will find more of what they don’t.

The book did what was advertised.  I read it during every spare moment I had until I was finished.  I was happy and sad and awed and revolted.  I am eagerly awaiting the next installment (for however many years it takes).  A Game of Thrones remains one of my favorite fantasy books and the series one of my favorite series.  I heartily recommend the book

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4 thoughts on “A Dance with Dragons – A Review

  1. Craig says:

    I like this series a lot ( I haven’t read a ADWD yet) but I’ve never really believed Martin when he threatens his characters with death. Yes 2 of the main characters are killed but everyone is always in peril so it loses its edge. Abercrombie and Baker are much more cruel to their characters. Sure at the end of Baker novel you feel the nihilism is too optimistic but he is willing to carry through.
    Still I’ll be reading this as soon as my tests are done.

    • Tests?

      Oddly, the press GRRM has done for the book all mention that he applies the act structure from TV. Ending each chapter with a cliffhanger is more than just style it is a deliberate choice. But when you have more than 50 odd chapters in a book (it is a beast) and it seems like more than half end with a person in mortal distress there is certainly diminishing returns.

      But – in GRRM’s favour, you get the feeling that he cares more for his characters than a Baker or an Abercrombie. Both of those writers cultivate a bit of an ironic detachment from their characters and as I reader I’m not as invested in them. To that end, I’ll still always appreciate the GRRM book more I think… at least so far.

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