Yes, it's been a long wait. To tell the truth, it's been a very long wait. A wait that has spawned Grrrumblers and haters, a wait that saw a lot of mud thrown the author's way. A wait that has raised expectations to a level that is a little bit scary, if you ask me. A wait that's been made much more difficult given the fact that the latest volume, A Feast for Crows, wasn't received as well as its predecessors.
Hence, the questions on everyone's lips are: Will A Dance With Dragons be worth the wait, and can the book possibly live up to the lofty expectations this interminable wait generated. Well, it is with great pleasure that I answer yes on both counts! The fifth installment in the A Song of Ice and Fire sequence delivers on basically all fronts. It's everything fans wanted it to be and then some! A Dance With Dragons isn't perfect, mind you. But it should silence George R. R. Martin's harshest detractors and demonstrate once again that, when he is writing at the top of his game, very few SFF authors, past or present, can spin a yarn the way GRRM can!
Here's the blurb:
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.
The worldbuilding has always been one of my favorite aspects of this series. Granted, GRRM keeps his cards pretty close to his chest in that regard, and has been doing so since the very first volume. Hence, the tantalizing glimpses he offers us from time to time add new depth to an already convoluted overall story arc and multilayered plotlines that form the backdrop of the entire series. This time around, we finally learn more about the Doom of Valyria. More background information about the land beyond the Wall, the Free Cities, Slaver's Bay, and Westeros' past is unveiled in various POV sections of the book. I particularly enjoyed Sir Barristan Selmy's POV section. Having served a number of kings as a member of the Kingsguard, the knight offers an interesting perspective regarding the events which led to the current conflicts on both sides of the Narrow Sea.
Many feel that A Feast for Crows' biggest failing was the tight focus of the narrative on a limited number of story arcs. For better or worse, Martin and his editors elected to concentrate on the events occurring in and around King's Landing, the Iron Islands, as well as Dorne. Many felt that this tight focus prevented the novel from being as epic as its predecessors. Which, I would have to agree, is true. On the other hand, A Dance With Dragons is a sprawling monster of a book. The action takes place in a panoply of countries, regions, cities, and locales, each with their own flavor. As such, A Dance With Dragons is, in style and tone, more akin to the first three volumes than A Feast for Crows.
The characterization is head and shoulder above basically anything else on the market. At his best, Martin can do things with his characters that other authors can only dream of. And let me tell you that GRRM is in top form in this book! Understandably, the bulk of the novel is comprised of Jon, Tyrion, and Daenerys' POVs. This should please fans who have been clamoring for these characters for over a decade. And yet, the secondary POV sections, for me at least, are what gave the book most of its more memorable moments. Which is not to say that the "Big Three" did not deliver. But the supporting cast is responsible for quite a few surprises along the way.
To a certain degree, A Dance With Dragons is Jon's book. Becoming Lord Commander's of the Night's Watch has forced Ned Stark's bastard son to mature quite rapidly. Winter might be coming to Westeros, but on the Wall it's almost there. It is up to Jon to prepare the North for the coming of the Others, and some of his decisions will not sit well with the rest of the Watch and everyone else. Duty appears to be a main theme in both Jon and Daenerys' storyline, with both protagonists following different roads as they attempt to deal with the hand they were dealt. Jon, though he is forced to make choices that might cost him his position and more, accepts the responsibility which has been trust upon him and puts into motion various schemes that will help the North face the menace posed by the coming of a long winter. In this, he is definitely Ned Stark's son, putting honor and duty before his own desires. The character growth is evident, showcasing a young man duty-bound to protect those serving under him and the innocents he has vowed to protect. The Wall may be crumbling, the various forts unmanned, Stannis and his Queen major pains in his side, yet Jon strives to remain true to himself and his oath.
Daenerys, on the other hand, refuses to do what she must. She understands her duty, knows what needs to be done, but she is loath to give the order that will see blood spilled in the streets of Meereen. This came as a decidedly unpleasant surprise for me. Dany came a long way since we first saw her as a beautiful and innocent teenage girl in A Game of Thrones. I was expecting a woman grown in A Dance With Dragon, mother of dragons and rightful queen of Westeros, ready and willing to do what needed to be done so she could claim her birthright. Tempered by loss and war, I had expected Daenerys to have matured, to be a queen in deed as much as in name. Unfortunately, the ordeals have left her a frightened and ambivalent ruler, unwilling to pay the price to do what she has traveled across half the world to achieve. Beset by plotting and threats from every side, her narrative is filled with a girl dealing with moral dilemmas and refusing to act as a queen should. Disappointing, to say the least. Will she act before it's too late?
Tyrion's arc offers the highest number of surprises. Though our favorite dwarf will always be his witty self, everything Tyrion has gone through in the last few months has left him a bit more thoughtful and humane. Still, his narrative will get a fair share of laughs and chuckles out of you. With a price on his head, Tyrion must find a way to reach Daenerys anonymously, not an easy feat for the Imp. But soon, he becomes privy to a closely guarded secret that will shake the world. It came as a shock to me that such an important story arc could make its appearance so late in the game. I guess that GRRM has many more surprises up his sleeve.
As more than half of A Dance With Dragons runs in tandem with A Feast for Crows, the first 500 pages or so features a few Bran POV chapters. Nothing that offers any sort of resolution, of course, but his plotline moves forward, albeit not as much as most fans would like. There is a new POV character that plays an important role in this novel. However, since this is a spoiler-free review going up before the pub date, I will refrain from saying more. Suffice to say that this new POV offers new perspective on certain events, past and present, and is linked with a number of ongoing plotlines. Just when you believed that A Song of Ice and Fire couldn't get more convoluted, A Dance With Dragons raises the stakes even more. Secondary POVs include Davos and Reek, both of them meant to pave the way for what's taking place in the North. The same goes for Asha Greyjoy's POV.
As A Dance With Dragons moves beyond the fourth volume in the timeline, the narrative returns to the Dornish storyline, which gathers momentum and rises to a new level. As if there wasn't enough politicking thus far, we soon realize that Prince Doran is not the feeble ruler many believe him to be. Victarion Greyjoy, Jaime, Cersei, and Arya all have POV chapters in the second portion of the book, but these chapters more or less set the stage for what will happen in The Winds of Winter. As I mentioned, the most interesting POV character in the latter part of the book is Ser Barristan Selmy. In addition, the mysterious and shocking storyline tied to Tyrion early on get its own POV character just before the end of the book, indicating that nothing will be the same in Westeros from here on out.
For such a huge novel, the pace is seldom an issue. GRRM juggles quite a few balls simultaneously, tying up loose ends here and introducing unexpected plotlines there. So for the most part, the rhythm is fluid and the book is a page-turner. Only the Daenerys POV sections drag after a while, making me wonder why Martin bothered to write so many chapters devoted to her when sevral are just about her wondering what to do and refusing to do what she must. But other than that, this is a book that will keep you up past your bedtime for a few nights.
What many might find off-putting is the fact that basically all the principal story arcs end with cliffhangers. And I'm talking about major cliffhangers here, especially that which caps off Jon's plotline. In a series that's had its fair share of startling scenes and moments, A Dance With Dragons has one that's right up there with the Red Wedding! Still, the absence of any sense of resolution might annoy some readers, given the fact that we are all aware that volume 6 will not be published next year.
In the end, I feel that A Dance With Dragons is everything ASOIAF fans could have hoped for. It showcases a George R. R. Martin writing at the top of his game, moves the tale forward like no other installment to date. Those naysayers proclaiming that GRRM had lost his focus and the will to see this project through are proven wrong. Not only is this novel all that the others were, but GRRM raises the stakes to an even higher level then before. The lack of a true ending might irk some readers, sure, but A Dance With Dragons offers so much in terms of plot movement, revelations, and shocking moments that it doesn't truly matter a whole lot. And it sets the stage for an unbelievable The Winds of Winter.
True, George R. R. Martin may be a slow writer. He likes to go to conventions. He loves football. He likes to edit anthologies and work on the Wild Cards books. True, he's busy working in tandem with the HBO team on the TV series. True, he most probably can't devote as much time as he'd like to finishing A Song of Ice and Fire. But you know what? If I must wait a few years to get a book of this quality, I say it's worth it. . .
As most of you know, I won a football bet with George a while back. I lost our first two bets, sure, but that's got nothing to do with it! :P Anyway, my winning meant that he would base a character on me and then butcher him in a violent and bloody fashion. That was my only demand. I wanted a memorable death. Enter Ser Patrek of King's Mountain (a Montréal reference, since we met at Worldcon in 2009). You may notice that the heraldry of Ser Patrek's House is pretty similar to the colors of the Dallas Cowboys. That's no coincidence. I was expecting George to create a very minor character based on me and then kill him off on the following page. But it was very nice of him to make me a knight of Queen Selyse's entourage, to make me appear in a few chapters so I could make an ass of myself, and to kill me (yes, quite violently!) in what is probably the most spoiler-filled chapter of the novel! It's the ultimate fanboy moment, to be immortalized in such a way. You'll see. It's a good death!