Series: A Song of Ice and Fire #5
Published by Bantam on 12th July 2011
Genres: Adult, High Fantasy
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In the aftermath of a colossal battle, the future of the Seven Kingdoms hangs in the balance — beset by newly emerging threats from every direction. In the east, Daenerys Targaryen, the last scion of House Targaryen, rules with her three dragons as queen of a city built on dust and death. But Daenerys has thousands of enemies, and many have set out to find her. As they gather, one young man embarks upon his own quest for the queen, with an entirely different goal in mind.
Fleeing from Westeros with a price on his head, Tyrion Lannister, too, is making his way to Daenerys. But his newest allies in this quest are not the rag-tag band they seem, and at their heart lies one who could undo Daenerys’s claim to Westeros forever.
Meanwhile, to the north lies the mammoth Wall of ice and stone — a structure only as strong as those guarding it. There, Jon Snow, 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, will face his greatest challenge. For he has powerful foes not only within the Watch but also beyond, in the land of the creatures of ice.
From all corners, bitter conflicts reignite, intimate betrayals are perpetrated, and a grand cast of outlaws and priests, soldiers and skinchangers, nobles and slaves, will face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Some will fail, others will grow in the strength of darkness. But in a time of rising restlessness, the tides of destiny and politics will lead inevitably to the greatest dance of all.
Once again: Do not read the above summary unless you have either read up to this point, or you do not care about learning of certain (important) developments in advance. This review, however, does not contain any spoilers.
I will be honest. At this point in the series, I am far too deep into things to review these books with any degree of objectivity. If you’ve made it this far, you’re in it for the long run. If you haven’t, well, you’re like as not never going to be.
That being said, let’s take a look at Martin’s latest monster.
A Dance with Dragons is an interesting installment, as it acts both as a compliment and a sequel to A Feast for Crows. The first half or so takes place concurrently with the events of the previous book, providing the viewpoints of those characters who were then absent (to the general rage of the fanbase). The second half, subsequently, moves past those joined events and brings the two groups of characters together, reintroducing a handful of the last novel’s POVs and taking the collective narrative further.
The approach works well, as it gives you a bit of everything in one go. While some (Sansa and Brienne being for me the most notably absent) are, alas, all but ignored until future publications, Martin is sure to give readers updates on the more popular characters and their storylines. The initial focus on those who were missed last time (Tyrion, Daenerys, Jon and Bran being at the forefront) is a welcome approach after the previously glaring absence of such beloved leads, while the latter return to more recent stories (Cersei’s and Arya’s being chief among them) is an appreciable continuation of plotlines that were left tantalizingly (and infuriatingly) unresolved at the end of A Feast for Crows.
If anything, my one complaint here is that there is a notable imbalance between the choice of perspectives. While some (such as Daenerys’ and Jon’s) are given a great deal of focus, others (such as Bran’s and Cersei’s) have only a few chapters to make due with before being promptly dropped, leaving their adventures in the dark for the time being.
And while the bulk of these beloved characters face new and interesting dilemmas this time around, and are left in some intriguing positions by its conclusion, these newest narratives show perhaps most obviously for the series thus far these books’ biggest flaw: exorbitance.
Now, Martin has always had a penchant for excess, as anyone who has read any of his work will know. He loves to shower us with lavish descriptions of food and clothing. He routinely uses the same phrases and imagery when providing dialogue or detail. He devotes pages to history and backstory that not only has no real impact upon the current situation, but also doesn’t prove all that interesting. While the depth and extent of his worldbuilding is an undeniably impressive thing (how the man manages to keep track of it all is a mystery to me), his intricacies do have a tendency to get in the way. Much of this book, though most of the time gripping, is ultimately rather pointless. Despite the many plot developments that occur throughout A Dance with Dragons and the many, many pages that are devoted to them, nothing in the long run really happens.
For a 1,000+ page story, this seems near impossible, but Martin manages to pull such a feat off with gusto. Yes, the characters move around. Yes, they encounter new threats and new obstacles to overcome. Yes, their situations have changed considerably by the novel’s end from the way things were left last time. Yet in the grand scheme of this series, it all adds up to very little. Few if any of the story’s biggest mysteries are resolved, and are instead buried under a whole host of new cliffhangers large and small (though, thankfully, only a few are weighty enough to really leave one desperate for resolution – I’m looking at you, Snow). Protagonists achieve goals and face dangers, but none of these developments change their overall situation in the larger world. Daenerys, after five lengthy novels, is still no closer to Westeros than she was in A Storm of Swords. Jon is once more dealing with matters on the Wall. Tyrion continues to extract himself from one problematic association only to be forced into another. There’s plenty here to enjoy and mull over, but much of it is seems to be more elaborately wrought filler than true narrative development.
This drudgery can be seen in Martin’s writing as well, which is bursting with so many needlessly repetitive phrases that it’s like to drive one mad. Every chapter or two is sure to include one of the following recurrences:
1. A character stating/thinking that “words are wind.”
2. A character stating/thinking that something is “about as useful as nipples on a breastplate.”
3. Daenerys proclaiming that she “is but a young girl who knows little in the ways of war/politics, but…”
4. Tyrion mulling over his father’s inquiry in regards to “where whores go.”
Oh, there are more. Many more. But the above are those that stick out the most, and they grow wearisome very quickly. As in A Feast for Crows, every character has at this point taken up some sort of incessant mantra that they tend to repeat to either themselves or others time and time again. It’s an understandable bit of characterization, as every individual has his or her own habits, but being subjected to them so frequently isn’t pleasant.
And, yet, despite my complaints, I cannot help but give this book full marks, because, darn it, these books are still fantastic. Martin’s writing, though flawed, is beautiful more often than not, and does a wonderful job in painting scenes. Every character is interesting for one reason or another, and their stories are intriguing despite how seemingly aimless they may be. Much of A Dance with Dragons may be filler, but it’s well-done and exciting filler, and so I see no reason to complain so long as Martin gets his act together in the final two installments of the series.
As I said, any impartiality on my part has been lost. I apologize, folks. I will be desperately praying for Martin to get back to work on The Winds of Winter if you need me.
A Dance with Dragons is not perfect, but it is an excellent sequel nonetheless. It may be overlong. It may be overwritten. I simply cannot bring myself to care.
As we near the end of our dear Westerosi saga, it is clear that Martin will need to pick things up if this series is to conclude on a note satisfying enough for those who have stuck with it for so long. In the meantime, however, Book Five is excitement enough to keep this reader happy.