Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Review: A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin

A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin
Published: Random House Publishing Group, 2011
Awards Nominated: Hugo and British Fantasy Society Awards
Awards Won: Locus Fantasy Award

If you haven’t read the first 4 books of the series, stop here because there will almost definitely be spoilers.  I will not give away plot points of A Dance With Dragons, but I am going to mention the viewpoint characters and make general comments about the content. 

The Book:

“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.”

I’ve been reading this series for roughly a decade, so I’d been looking forward to this next installment for many years.  I’ve read pretty much all of Martin’s published long fiction, so I would consider myself familiar with his style.  I enjoyed reading A Dance With Dragons, but I do think it left some things to be desired.

My Thoughts:

As all of you who have read the books know, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons were originally intended to be one book.   When it grew out of control, it was split into two parallel novels, each telling the whole story from half of the viewpoint characters.  While A Feast  for Crows mostly focused on southern Westeros, A Dance With Dragons focuses mostly on northern Westeros and the Free Cities (kind of an ironic name, since they contain the world’s major hub for the slave trade).  However, as Martin explains in a foreword, A Dance With Dragons, is not just a parallel novel.  About 2/3 of the way through, it actually catches up to the end of A Feast for Crows and rejoins some of that novels viewpoint characters. 

As a result, the number of viewpoint characters explodes in this book.  Including the one-off prologue and epilogue characters, there are 18 different viewpoints represented in A Dance With Dragons. While many of them were the characters I’ve known and followed for a decade, Martin also adds some new characters into the mix.  The novel runs the risk of feeling like Martin has let his story diverge too much, but I think that this is the widest point of the narrative.  I fully expect that viewpoint characters will start dropping like flies in The Winds of Winter, as the story begins to focus towards the final resolution.

The chapters are not evenly distributed among the 18 viewpoints, and I’ve separated them into main characters (>=10 chapters), secondary characters (4-7 chapters) and minor characters (<= 3 chapters) for ease of discussion. While some of the characters occasionally overlap in the narrative, each viewpoint character essentially has their own plot.  Since many of the things I want to address are specific to certain viewpoints, I’m breaking the book up into the different viewpoints before giving my overall impressions of the work.

The main characters, which make up the largest part of the story of A Dance With Dragons, are Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Jon Snow.  Each of them had something climactic happen at the end of A Storm of Swords, and we get to see them deal with the aftermath here.  Daenerys and Jon are faced with the difficulty of ruling the realms they’ve effectively conquered (Meereen and the Wall), and Tyrion finds that the world is even less kind to dwarves when they don’t have rich and powerful fathers.  These were actually three of the most interesting characters, in my opinion, so I really enjoyed the attention they receive in this novel.  

Of the secondary characters, I think my favorite was the addition of Ser Barristan Selmy, an elderly knight-in-exile. I enjoyed reading about his memories almost as much as I appreciated his quiet competence in the face of all the youthful mistakes that have been made throughout the series.  Davos Seaworth makes another appearance here, though I was never particularly interested in his story.  Another new character is a Dornish prince, whose story seemed a little unnecessary, though entertaining.  The last secondary character is known as “Reek” and I found his viewpoint particularly disturbing. Martin has always included a lot of sex and violence in his fantasy series, but the level of physical and sexual degradation and torture crossed the line for me here.  I would recommend not reading these chapters while eating.  The only thing that really made it bearable was the fact that he never describes the acts themselves, only refers to them before or after.  Honestly, if this had been a larger part of the story, or described in more detail, I would probably have stopped reading the book.

As for the minor characters, a few of them were viewpoints from A Feast for Crows,  which joined A Dance With Dragons in the last third of the novel.  Others are surprise chapters from the viewpoint of characters that had been in the background up until now.  There’s a handful of Greyjoys, which I was not too thrilled about.  I’ve never really enjoyed reading about the Greyjoy family.  They’re a little too arrogant, self-absorbed, and pointlessly macho for me.  Also of note are the brief appearances of the Lannister twins, and of the two Stark children, Bran and Arya.  I was never really into Bran’s story, but it takes an interesting direction here.  Arya, well, I love Arya, so I was excited to see her show up again, even if only briefly.

Overall, I was surprised how little presence the Stark family had in this novel.  Things have really changed since A Game of Thrones.  I was also surprised how many minor characters were included, which really slowed down the flow of the narrative.  The main focal points were around King Stannis, at the Wall, and Daenerys, the Dragon Queen.   While I do think the overarching plot moved forward, large segments of the novel were devoted to travelogue-like sequences or the everyday details leaders have to handle.  I think a lot of the travelogue-ing was useful, though, since Martin had not really fleshed out the geography, cultures and history of the Free Cities much before nowI also noticed how much more into the forefront the supernatural elements of the story are moving.  As winter approaches, it seems that many creatures that were legends in A Game of Thrones are starting to emerge and wreak havoc. 

My major criticism of A Dance With Dragons would be that, despite the fact that the plot does move forward, it still feels like something of a transition and setup book.  It doesn’t really have a particularly satisfying narrative arc in itself, and many of the viewpoint characters’ stories end on awful cliffhangers.  I realize that I am already deeply invested in the adventures of these characters, so this weakness may be more forgivable to me than it would be to others. However, I think that The Winds of Winter is set up to be a really dramatic book, in the vein of Storm of Swords, and I’m looking forward to reading it… in another 5 years or so, I guess!

My Rating: 4/5

A Dance With Dragons continues Martin’s impressive saga, focusing on the difficult paths of Jon Snow, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Daenerys Targaryen, Dragon Queen, and Tyrion Lannister, the grief-stricken fugitive.  In addition to these three viewpoints, it contains 15 more viewpoint characters, resulting in a somewhat slow and diverging story.  The main focus is on the north of Westoros and the Free Cities.  Martin picks up the task of describing the geography, cultures, and history of the Free Cities in a prodigious amount of travelogue-like sequences.  While A Dance With Dragons sometimes feels a little too sprawling, and a little too much like a transitional book, it still delivers many interesting characters and exciting stories.  Furthermore, the supernatural elements are beginning to come more into the forefront as the world creeps closer to the deadly winter.  I expect the story to narrow as main characters die in The Winds of Winter, when the great winter finally arrives.       


  1. I'm still playing catch up and have only read A Game of Thrones, with the rest on my reading list. Just don't know when :)

  2. Only several thousand more pages to go :)! There's probably no rush, given how long it takes for each novel to be written and published. I hope you enjoy them!

  3. The book was great and even though the end did not amaze me as much as A Feast For Crows my mind was still blown. The story lines progressed well and the character development was beautiful. However, I wish Martin would have included more Arya in this book because two chapters does not do her justice.
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    1. I'm really hoping we get more of a focus on Arya in the next book!