It’s autumn in Westeros, blizzards are already blasting the Seven Kingdoms with brutal force, and “winter is coming.” Jon Snow is treading a dangerously fine line between keeping the vows of the Brothers of the Night’s Watch and involvement with King Stannis’ revolt. Tyrion is on the run for his life and hopes to find an ally with Queen Daenerys, but as is always the case with the Imp, he just manages to trade one peril for greater ones. It is Daenerys’ destiny to reclaim the Iron Throne for the Targaryens, but doing so now means leaving her conquered city to her enemies and the slaves she has freed to their former masters. Meanwhile, her dragons are growing bigger and more unmanageable. As all the great houses make their bid for who will rule the Seven Kingdoms, north of the Wall the restless dead are gathering en masse to invade with the winter storms, adding slain victims to their ranks.
Just as all the previous books in A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE have been, A Dance with Dragons is a tombstone-sized doorstopper of a book. (I purchased the Amazon Kindle version, and I swear my Kindle was heavier after I uploaded it.) An age has passed since A Game of Thrones kicked off what just might become the most influential series in fantasy since LORD OF THE RINGS. I’ve been anticipating A Dance with Dragons ever since I read the last sentence of the last book, A Feast for Crows, almost six years ago.
A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE is a colossal-sized epic. There is no getting around the fact that this series is really one long book. I think Martin’s idea of a conclusion for each book has been to build up to the most shockingly climactic outcome imaginable and then leave the readers in a nearly painful lurch of a cliffhanger. (Fair warning: the ending of A Dance with Dragons is no exception.) This is made almost intolerable by the fact that fans will be lucky to get more than one installment per decade.
George R.R. Martin is one of those authors who could write the Yellow Pages and make it exciting. As complex and as large-as-life as this story is, and even considering how long it’s been since I last visited his world, I had no problem keeping up with A Dance with Dragons.
Martin has created some of the most interesting characters ever, and there are so many of them. It’s amazing how he can tell a story from so many unique perspectives. I’m not sure I even know as many people living in the real world as there are living and dying within these books.
He draws the plot out like a sharp blade from a scabbard — one that will easily cut the careless. His underlying theme that every hero is the other side’s villain is profound and believable. All the players in this deadly game of thrones have a strategy that seems like a guaranteed victory. But since Martin solidly established early on, that no one — I repeat, no one — is safe, it’s anyone’s guess who will hold the Iron Throne when this is done. Providing there will even be a throne to win. That will depend on the Crows holding the Wall against the wights and other monsters that have yet to strike in full force.
It almost seems impossible that Martin will actually be able to wrap this thing up with a worthy conclusion, and do it in both his and his readership’s lifetime. Call me crazy, but I think he can. Afterwards, blurbs on fantasy book-covers will claim comparisons to George R.R. Martin and A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, like they do now for J.R.R. Tolkien and LORD OF THE RINGS.
We’ve come a long way since Ned Stark left Winterfell. A Song of Ice and Fire, which once was dominated by a “clash of kings,” is now being torn apart by two queens. Their conflict is so intense that Martin gave the previous book, A Feast for Crows, to Cersei Lannister. A Dance With Dragons belongs to Daenerys Targaryen, who is younger, more beautiful, and much more sympathetic.
In the distant eastern city of Meereen, Daenerys holds court before her supplicants. Though she has freed the slaves of Meereen, Daenerys is not hailed as a hero. Instead, she faces daily demands asking her to restore the fighting pits so that slaves can earn glory killing each other once again. Lords that made their wealth on the back of slave labor now plot Daenerys’ downfall. In A Storm of Swords, Daenerys conquered cities by knowing which tool to use for which job. Now, she looks to her Unsullied, her mercenaries, and her Kingsguard for answers. And she finds that she has no tool to use in order to respond to political dissent.
However, although Daenerys’ star seems to be waning in Meereen, word of her exploits has certainly reached a number of lords in Westeros. And all of them are on a pilgrimage to serve her.
One of them is Tyrion Lannister, who may provide just the counsel that Daenerys needs. Martin wastes little time sending Tyrion east. Though Tyrion has always been a fascinating character, his sins have begun to catch up with him — to the point that it’s actually quite difficult to sympathize with him anymore. Still, Tyrion is forced to outwit knights, slavers, and mercenaries, and it’s always a joy to watch his mind at work.
We are also invited to journey to Daenerys with Victarion Greyjoy and Quentyn Martell. At some point, the characters that Martin introduces in this series became less interesting. For example, Victarion’s chapters always involve a significant amount of dramatic irony, which at times makes for slow reading in comparison with clever Tyrion’s ability to stay a step ahead not only of his captors but also his readers. Quentyn’s even worse, good for little more than fanning the flames.
Still, there are a few strong moments. Though Theon’s story is a little darker than a fantasy reader might prefer, it is from his perspective that we watch the Boltons attempt to rule the North from Winterfell. Their leadership at first seems as powerful as one of Roose Bolton’s whispered commands, but it doesn’t take long before a blizzard, a band of musicians, and a series of mysterious murders begin to unravel their rule.
Bran and Arya both make brief appearances. Though they’re on opposite sides of the ocean, it’s interesting to note how similar their arcs have become. Bran is training to become a seer while Arya is training as an Acolyte in the House of Black and White. Their stories serve as a reminder of how dazzling Martin’s fantasy can be when he takes the time to step back from political intrigue.
It’s just a disappointment that he wasn’t able to show off his fantasy skills more often in A Dance With Dragons. Although it is the longest entry in A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that the intrigues have become so complex that they require hundreds of pages just to be introduced. Aside from a startling ending, it makes for a strangely calm “dance of dragons.”
Men are men and women women, no matter which side of the Wall we were born on. Good men and bad, heroes and villains, men of honor, liars, cravens, brutes… we have plenty, as do you.
The scope of Martin’s world increases. The breadth of his characters grows by magnitudes. And the epic expands ever outwards.
This book concludes little and alludes to a lot. It’s not as fulfilling in and of itself, but A Dance with Dragons propels Martin’s worlds forward in large leaps.
Tyrion is back, and he was sorely missed in A Feast for Crows. Jon Snow’s character evolves to put on a display of strength touched on in previous books but solidified in this tome. Like his previous novels, each chapter comes from the perspective of a different character. While some we know, Martin has the audacity to introduce even more characters to his historic rainbow of interconnected plots.
A Dance with Dragons is as big and bold as the preceding novels. It’s dark, heavy, and written with a lusciously lavish hand — like its four predecessors.