A Dance with Dragons, by George R R Martin

Title: A Dance with DragonsDance With Dragons
Author: George R R Martin
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 959 pages
Genre: fantasy
New or Re-Read?: New after a six-goddamn-year-wait
Rating: 3.5 stars
Spoiler Warning: Enormously. I will have one general reaction paragraph that is non-spoilery, and then everything else will be stuffed to the gills with spoilers.

I don’t know how to feel about this book. I don’t know that I like it any better or any worse than A Feast for Crows, which was my least-favourite book of the series thus far. And I was, if not expecting, at least hoping to like this one a lot better, because I so many more of my favourite characters were in this one. And there were certainly parts I enjoyed a lot. But there were a lot of parts that frustrated me, a lot of parts that bored me, and a lot of parts that felt completely extraneous. It’s definitely in need of judicious editing. I sort of get the feeling that his editors, so happy to have him finally declare it finished, didn’t actually spend much time editing before sending it to print. Apart from a lot of unnecessary repetition and a lot of extraneous material, I also found five typos.

Spoilers Begin Here

My biggest disappointment in this book was Dany’s plotline. She spent 95% of the book pissing me off. I’ve been saying for years that if Dany didn’t wake up and get out of Meereen in this book, I was going to throw an epic hissy fit, and, well, I did. Because she spent almost this entire book not only staying in Meereen to try and rule, but making horrifically stupid decisions while doing so. And she totally lost sight of herself. She forgot her goals, she forgot her history, she forgot who she actually owes loyalty to, she forgot what she’s trying to do. She let other characters manipulate her into poor decisions. It sort of felt like she just gave up on being herself.

At least, at the end, there’s a sense that she’s realised this — that she feels ashamed for having tried to be something she’s not, that she recognises she’s going to have to start over with a different approach — but that doesn’t make this book any less of a waste of time as far as her plot was concerned. She’s going to start The Winds of Winter in more or less the same place as she started A Clash of Kings, only with larger, uncontrollable dragons and more people trying to kill her. It’s pretty obvious that Dany’s is the story that most would have benefited from GRRM’s original plan of jumping five years of story-time between books. Having decided not to have that time lapse, he had to fill the space with something… and that something really isn’t very good. The only moment of her story that I really enjoyed in this book was when she subdues and then flies Drogon. That felt good. That felt like my Dany. Nothing else in the book did. And it so pains me to say that, because I’ve defended her against the Mary-Sue accusations, she’s my pick to win the whole series, and I so badly want to stand by her… but it was difficult to like her in this book. Not only that, her chapters started to bore me in this book. I could not care less who ends up in control of Slaver’s Bay. They can slaughter each other till the cows come home, as far as I’m concerned. My emotional investment is in Westeros. I don’t want to have to care about an entire other continent’s worth of politics — particularly not when this story is already over-large and in desperate need of trimming and tightening.

On the bright side, more characters are starting to find Dany, which means that her part of the story is getting more POVs… Except those also weren’t very well-used. Quentyn Martell, who I had high hopes for, turns out to be completely and utterly pointless. His entire story could’ve been cut from this book with no detrimental effect whatsoever. And it pains me to say that, because I really wanted him to turn out to be a cool character, possibly a dragonrider, possibly one of Dany’s husbands. Instead, he’s inoffensive but ultimately pretty uninteresting — cute and sweet, but more pitiable than enjoyable. He’s hard to root for — and he doesn’t get enough chapters to allow the reader to make a real connection with him. His boldest action is also his stupidest action, and the one that leads to his premature death. We also get some POV chapters from Barristan Selmy, and here, I think the main flaw is how underused he was. Even though he’s with Dany the whole time, his chapters don’t start coming in until about halfway through the book, and I think it could’ve been beneficial to have his voice throughout — especially to give opinions on Dany making highly questionable decisions.

Tyrion’s story briefly crosses Dany’s, but not for very long. Fleeing after having murdered his father, Tyrion first meets up with Illyrio Mopatis, erstwhile keeper of fugitive Targaryens, and then crosses the continent, aiming for Dany. Unfortunately, along the way he almost dies a couple of times and then gets sold into slavery. His chapters were the other ones that irritated me almost past my ability to endure them, as Tyrion spends at least 75% of this book mentally whinging about his daddy issues and his not-really-a-whore first wife. The refrain — where whores go — is repetitive in the extreme. I know he’s had some trauma, but so has everyone else in the damn series, and I feel like Tyrion should be tougher than that. He’s also putting far too much stock in his father’s last words — he won’t ever be free of Tywin if he keeps letting Daddy control him from beyond the grave.

Tyrion’s story also intersects that of one of our new POVs — Jon Connington, aka Griff, one of Rhaegar Targaryen’s best friends, who happens to be the guardian of someone who, we are at least led to believe, is Aegon Targaryen, Rhaegar’s son, who is generally believed to have had his head smashed in as an infant by Gregor Clegane. I say “led to believe” because a lot of fandom has already decided he’s a pretender, the “mummer’s dragon” of Dany’s House of the Undying vision. I don’t know how I feel about it one way or the other, although the pretender angle makes sense (particularly considering GRRM’s English Wars of the Roses inspiration). Mostly I’m going to be annoyed if this kid who gets introduced halfway through the series ends up winning, just because we haven’t had as much investment in him. So far he’s making a good go of it, though — he and Griff hired the Golden Company of sellswords and have already made landfall in Westeros, retaking Connington’s ancestral home.

Meanwhile, up in the North — Jon showed wins the Westeros Most Improved Award. Until his last two pages, when he makes a monumentally stupid decision, which apparently gets him killed (though I feel relatively certain Mel’s going to show up just in the nick and bring him back from the dead — thus indebting him to her). Up until then, though, he was kicking ass and taking names — and heads. Seriously, Janos Slynt sasses him one too many times, and for his outright insubordination, Jon does what someone should’ve done a long time ago and takes the jerk’s head clean off. Jon spends most of the book leading at the Wall — making really tough (and, in many cases, unpopular) decisions, sticking to his metaphorical guns, and all towards what seems like it’ll be the greater good. And then he gets word that Ramsay Bolton (see below) has claimed to have killed Stannis and intends to come after wh0-he-thinks-is-Arya and then after the Night’s Watch — and instead of framing this was “the Watch has been threatened; we need to deal with this,” Jon decides to make it about him and his family and declares he’s taking off to protect his baby sister (who he doesn’t know his a fake), which makes the Lord Commander of the Watch involved with politics in violation of his vows, which gets him stabbed.

Melisandre’s much-anticipated POV wasn’t nearly as mind-blowing as I’d hoped — and she only got one chapter. Bran also didn’t get nearly enough time, although he makes it to the three-eyed crow (who turns out to be long-ago Targaryen Bloodraven, who has more or less turned into a weirwood tree) and starts learning how to greensee. This provides a few exciting flashbacks, but ultimately, I was just left wanting more. I’m also excited about Davos, who does not die (as posited in A Feast for Crows), but who Lord Wymen Manderly (a previously barely-there background character who controls the biggest harbour in the North) sends off to Skagos to search for Rickon Stark. Manderly’s story is actually the bigger draw in those chapters, for me — he’s sort of turning into the Doran Martell of the North, plotting in the background and executing subterfuge while keeping himself outside of the realm of suspicion. It’s also strongly hinted that he serves several of the Freys to their kinfolk, baked into pies, which I highly approve of both for the bloody vengeance and for the classical/Shakespearean reference.

The other exciting story up North is that of Theon. I still don’t like him, but I’ve started to pity him (rather like how I feel about Sansa, really). Ramsay Bolton — currently vying with Walder Frey for the Most Destestable Character award — first turns Theon into Reek, a whinging, cringing, mangled shadow of a man. During the course of the book, though, Theon starts putting the pieces of himself back together. This ultimately leads to him rescuing Jeyne Poole (disguised as Arya Stark and forcibly married to vicious, abusive Ramsay to cement his claim on Winterfell) and his sister Asha (taken captive by Stannis Baratheon). These chapters are probably the best written in the book — even if you don’t like Theon, as I don’t, his story is pretty compelling.

Then, entirely separate from all those stories, we have a smattering of chapters from folk we saw in A Feast for Crows – Jaime, Cersei, Arya, Asha, Areo Hotah, Victarion. I know this is probably going to be a minority opinion, but I really wish none of those chapters had been included at all. For one thing, it makes the timeline even harder to get straight, because it puts the narratives even more out-of-joint than they already were. For another thing, with the possible exception of Arya’s, they don’t feel as thematically linked together as many of the other stories in A Dance with Dragons, which have fairly strong connections of disease and decay (both literal and figurative, both of physical and mental health), as well as of quests-for-identity. (A Feast for Crows, by contrast, was much more about the mechanics of politics: maneuvering for control, filling in power vacuums, and setting up the pieces for the next play). And for a third, I think it was just more mean than anything. Nothing from AFFC gets resolved — you just end up with more dangling ends. It’s kind of a dickish tease.

The best of that set is definitely Areo’s chapter, which shows us what the Dornish are up to — lots of plotting that could turn out for good entertainment in the future (assuming, of course, that these plans don’t fizzle out as anticlimactically as Quentyn’s story did). I also enjoyed Jaime’s chapter, partially because he’s become (against all odds) one of my favourite characters — but it really didn’t satisfy, since it was, again, only one chapter. I’m also going to be severely irritated if Brienne really has sold him out to save her own skin, because I don’t care for her at all, and Jaime deserves a better ending than that. We need him to strangle Cersei before he goes. Speaking of whom — Cersei’s chapters were pretty painful. That bitch deserves all kinds of pain and suffering, in my opinion, but the glorious celebration of misogynistic abuse that the Faith heaps on her is just awful. She confesses to fornication (though not to incest or treason), and the Faith forces her to take a walk of penance through King’s Landing — naked, shaved bald, and barefoot. Public humiliation is what religion turns to when it’s gone sour and rotten, and it makes me distinctly uncomfortable. I now want to hold off her inevitable death long enough for her to exact retribution on those pious jackasses. Arya’s chapters were just kind of nothing — only a couple of them, and they didn’t so much feel like they had an arc of their own in this book so much as they got left off from her arc in the last book, and GRRM only got around to finishing them now. As for Asha and Victarion, theirs are the chapters that upset the timeline the most, I think, because it sort of implies that everything from the Greyjoys in A Feast for Crows happened really quickly, in a much shorter span of time than everything else in that book. Asha has been forcibly wed to some Ironborn lord who I probably should remember from AFFC, but totally don’t, and has run off to hold Deepwood Motte on her own — except then she gets besieged, loses, and gets taken captive by Stannis. Victarion does nothing in this book except sail towards Dany and prove what a disturbing creeper he is. If that horn of his really can control dragons, I’m going to be so irritated, because of all the characters who don’t deserve one, he’s damn well near the top of the list.

In the epilogue, we see Varys taking rather more direct and definitive action than we’ve witnessed before, outright murdering Grand Maester Pycelle and Kevan Lannister, who had been serving as Regent with Cersei imprisoned. He flat-out says that he couldn’t have Kevan restoring peace between the Lannisters and the Tyrells, because he needs everything still broken and chaotic for a Targaryen reconquest. Specifically, for Aegon. Interesting, considering we’d more or less assumed he was clearing the way for Dany. I don’t know if I think he’s intended for Aegon all along, or if he’s just not putting all his dragon eggs in one basket, as it were. The other interesting thing about the epilogue is the revelation that the maesters of the Citadel have officially declared it winter. Someday, I’d like to find out how they know/determine the change of seasons.

So, overall — I’m giving this 3.5 because I just sort of don’t know what to do with it. There were quite a few moments that genuinely excited me. But there were a lot of things that frustrated me, that needed editing, or that should’ve been held off till the next book. And there are some things still left unanswered — What has been going on with Rickon and Osha? And what about Maege Mormont and the others that Robb, back in A Storm of Swords, sent off to find Howland Reed? Between those questions and the many, many arcs that began in this book or in Feast that have yet to see any kind of fulfillment whatsoever… Well, I guess we’re in for another five or six frustrating years until The Winds of Winter comes out.

If anyone’s interested, I kept record of my play-by-play reactions to the book while I was reading over on my personal journal — the entry is unlocked and available for public view (or at least will be for a few weeks).

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1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

One response to “A Dance with Dragons, by George R R Martin

  1. musictheorysean

    Well said. Your criticisms and praise are spot-on. I did really enjoy the Arya chapters, but they definitely belong in Feast (or Winds), not in Dance.

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