This Tuesday, the years of anticipation will be over, and the fifth book in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series will finally be here. So does A Dance with Dragons live up to the near-insurmountable hype?
Yes. For the most part. It's a brilliant, horrifying, depressing book that takes the characters Martin made you fall in love with, and plunges them just a little bit deeper into hell. It feels very much like a companion to A Feast for Crows, the previous book, in both bad ways and good ways. But most of all, it recharges your confidence that Martin is moving towards a conclusion to the lengthy saga.
First, a word about spoilers.
For the purposes of this book review, I'm going to assume you've read the first four books. Thus, any references to events in A Feast for Crows or the earlier volumes will be fair game. However, I'm going to avoid any major spoilers for the new book. There will be vague generalizations, and a few references to things that you could have probably guessed at, based on books one through four. But no huge revelations. Okay? Great.
The clamor for George R.R. Martin to finish his next book probably wouldn't have been quite so frenzied if it hadn't been for the nature of his previous book. 2005's A Feast for Crows was gloomy, unconsoling... and incomplete.
As all fans will already know, Martin originally planned A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, as a single volume, but broke them in half when the material was growing too long to fit within one set of covers. Rather than break them up chronologically, he broke the volumes by geography and characters. Crows focused on characters like Arya Stark, Samwell Tarly, Sansa Stark, Cersei Lannister, Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth. To find out what happened to fan favorite characters like Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, you'd have to wait for A Dance with Dragons. In the afterword to Crows, Martin promised that Dragons would probably be finished within a year... a slight miscalculation that he probably regrets making public, at this point.
So here it is, nearly six years later, and fans have been waiting since 2000 to find out what happened to Tyrion and Daenerys. Not only that, but Feast for Crows was miserable, even by Martin's standards — low on heroics, high on suffering. So the good news is that not only is Dance a good book in its own right — but the dance might make you appreciate the feast a little bit more.
I probably had the ideal situation for reading A Dance with Dragons. I had read the first three books in the saga a while back, but then I hadn't gotten around to reading A Feast for Crows, which I'd heard was tougher going than the first trilogy. So I wound up reading Feast and Dance back to back, in the course of a couple weeks. And the two books, which were originally planned as one, do fit together pretty neatly, without much of a bump.
That said, A Dance with Dragons has a bit of an odd structure — it follows the same chronology as A Feast for Crows, at first. You find out what was happening to Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys and a few other characters during Feast... and then about two thirds of the way through, the story catches up to the end of Feast. And suddenly, you're following characters like Jaime and Cersei Lannister, and discovering what befell them after the end of Feast. And the ending to Dance with Dragons — without giving anything away — feels like a fitting conclusion to Feast for Crows as well. You get the sense of a chapter closing, that you might not have quite gotten with Feast on its own.
Both Feast and Dance are about severely damaged people, who have been left insanely dysfunctional as a result of the horrors they suffered in the first three books. Some of these disfigurements are literal — like Jaime Lannister's hand and Tyrion Lannister's nose — and some of them are only figurative. One of the themes that emerges when you read both books back to back is that victory leaves you just as wounded as defeat, and the victors in a war are often punished worse than the vanquished. And both Jon Snow, as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, and Daenerys, as Queen of Meereen, face the challenge of wielding authority without becoming tyrants.
If you thought A Feast For Crows was brutal and bleak, then you'll probably have a hard time with Dance With Dragons, which is pretty horrific stuff. Don't believe me? Just read this excerpt, which gives away a fairly major spoiler. (But please don't read that excerpt on a full stomach!) This is quite possibly the most brutal and squicky of Martin's novels — and yes, I realize that's saying something.
The very nature of Westeros' protracted change of seasons means that things are bound to get more depressing and horrible with each succeeding book in Martin's series. As winter grows closer and fiercer, traveling even short distances gets harder and harder, and starvation claims more lives than swordplay. There's less room for heroics, and more focus on survival.
Indeed, the gathering winter is one of the main characters in this book, and Martin puts a lot of his energy into describing its ravages. Here are a few choice passages where Martin manages to make discussing the weather feel absolutely gripping:
It was warmer in the godswood, strange to say. Beyond its confines, a hard white frost gripped Winterfell. The paths were treacherous with black ice, and hoarfrost sparkled in the moonlight on the broken panes of the Glass Gardens. Drifts of dirty snow had piled up against the walls, filling every nook and corner. Some were so high they hid the doors behind them... Icicles as long as lances hung from the battlements and fringed the towers like an old man's stiff white whiskers.
The mists were so thick that only the nearest trees were visible; beyond them stood tall shadows and faint lights. Candles flickered beside the wandering path and back amongst the trees, pale fireflies floating in a warm grey soup. It felt like some strange underworld, some timeless place between the worlds, where the damned wandered mournfully for a time before finding a way down to whatever hell their sins had earned them.
It had been a dark, cold, hungry day, like the day before and the day before that. They had spent most of it out on the ice, shivering beside a pair of holes they'd cut in the smaller of the frozen lakes, with fishing lines clutched in mitten-clumsy hands. Not long ago, they could count on hooking one or two fish apiece.
I really love the phrase "mitten-clumsy hands." It has an e.e. cummings vibe to it, but also the way that you stumble over saying it, which conveys the image all over again.
But the horrors of winter aren't the only reason why this is an especially bleak book.
In previous volumes, Martin spent a lot of time exploring the ways in which war ruins the lives of ordinary people — the speech the barefoot Septon Meribald gives in Crows is especially moving — but in Dance with Dragons, his focus shifts a bit, towards the depths of human degradation. And slavery. Lots and lots of slavery. Back in Storm of Swords, Daenerys freed the slaves in a few city-states in Slaver's Bay, but she quickly discovered that freeing people from slavery isn't enough in itself. Once freed, slaves need food and shelter and a chance to earn a livelihood. With a small army of freedmen and women at her heels, Dance with Dragons finds Daenerys confronting the ways in which the institution of slavery is both indelible and intertwined with the world's economy.
Towards the end of Dance with Dragons, a character muses that nobody ever became a slave without choosing slavery — even if the other choice might have been death. If more people were willing to die rather than becoming a slave, then the institution would fail. But another character, half a world away, quotes the wisdom of Balon Greyjoy: It's always better to kneel and live, so you can rise up and fight again later. (As Greyjoy did, after his first rebellion failed.) The only trouble with Balon Greyjoy's maxim is that sometimes kneeling leaves you so broken, you'll never rise up again.
All of these factors — the change of season, the harsh aftermath of war, the systems of slavery — present Martin's characters with a set of no-win situations. And as you'd expect from Martin, he shows us some of his most sympathetic characters making some utterly terrible decisions. It's worse this time around, though, because the mistakes are totally well-intentioned, based on trying to navigate an utterly dire situation.
More than any previous volumes, Martin shows how difficult it is to govern well. Ned Stark and Tyrion Lannister both tried to govern justly, when they were Hand of the King, but they both lacked the power to make a real difference. In Dance with Dragons, Martin shows us people who do have the power — and still struggle to make people's lives better.
If A Feast for Crows was full of object lessons in the terrible things that happen when the people in power don't care about the fates of ordinary, innocent people, A Dance with Dragons offers the opposite lesson: When the people in power worry too much about the fates of the little people, the innocent victims, bad things happen.
All in all, A Dance with Dragons is moving, thrilling, horrifying and thought-provoking — and a propulsive continuation to a series that might have seemed like it was losing forward momentum. By the time you put this book down, you're left with no doubt that this story is racing towards a definitive ending, with only two books (or a mere 2,000 pages!) left to go. Some things happen in this latest book that you've probably been waiting for since Book One, and some huge mysteries are resolved.
That's not to say it's not a bit frustrating, here and there — Martin obviously faced some major problems, in terms of plot mechanics, in this installment, and you can see a few places where he's solved them by introducing a slightly improbable plot twist here and there. Previous volumes had introduced a number of characters from Westeros who were seeking out Daenerys and her dragons, and Martin struggles to incorporate all of them, with mixed results. Meanwhile, there are several major new characters introduced, some of whom may leave you feeling like one subplot too many. (That's all I can say, without verging into spoiler territory.)
But all of that is mostly empty quibbling — the overall impression, after reading A Dance with Dragons, is that Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series is one of the great sweeping political sagas of our time, which raises questions about statecraft, war and the nature of society that have no easy answers. And it definitely raises our hopes that the saga, once complete, will stand as a masterpiece.