Title: A Dance With Dragons
Author: George R. R. Martin
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Length: 959 pages, circa 400,000 words
Read: July 12-23, 2011
Summary: Awesome, but not without issues.
My charge through book 5 of Martin’s epic fantasy series was a bit drawn out by my need to concentrate on the second draft of my new novel Untimed, but I finally finished. Before I launch in, it should be noted that this review is full of spoilers.
Dance is huge, weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages. This itself is actually a welcome and comforting fact because these books are something to savor. Overall, I would rate this volume as better than A Feast of Crows and slightly worse than the first three. Still, it’s a fantastic book. Prose-wise, Martin is still a master at both people, places, plotting and reversals. It’s just that this book suffers from a few pacing and structural issues.
Most of these stem from his controversial decision to pull out half the characters from the bloated manuscript of Feast and push them into Dance by themselves. So the first two thirds of the new book is everyone who didn’t get a turn in Feast. Now, for the most part, this saved the best for last. Dany, Jon, and Tyrion make up the bulk of the book, particularly this first two thirds, and they are some of my favorite characters. But overall this leaves both Feast and Dance feeling a little more threadbare than the first three books. Personally I think he would have been much better off winding out the story chronologically, trimming out some useless threads (Aeron Damphair, Victarion, and probably the Dornes), and rearranging the plot so as to have some kind of sub-climax at the end of each book.
As it is, Dance reads excellently for the first 2/3, feeling fairly focused on its three mains. But it’s weird to rewind in time and revisit certain happenings from Feast from the other side (for example Sam leaving the Wall). When we get to the cut off point, however, some of the characters from Feast start to weave back in. This mostly has the effect of slowing the narrative and making it more diffuse. At least until the set of cliffhangers and deaths that come in the final chapters.
I also think that Martin is letting his pacing slip a bit. It’s not that each chapter isn’t entertaining and well written — they are — but many threads there have multiple chapters where the happenings could’ve been collapsed without loss. If we hadn’t known a few of those details were there, we would never have missed them. Worse than the pacing issues, however, is a weirdly increasing fondness for skipping some of the big moments. Now Martin has always done that (the Red Wedding, the “death” of Bran & Rickon, etc) but it’s worse than ever. He has a real tendency to build slowly toward a big event, then skip the event itself, showing what happened to the characters obliquely through other eyes at a much later point.
I’m going to go through some of my opinions and analysis thread by thread.
I don’t really understand why fantasy authors are obsessed with these. It was kind of interesting, but didn’t advance anything.
His thread is fine (until the end), but it does feel a bit static. While he’s certainly grown into command, he mostly sits back at the wall and fields interference between factions (Stannis, his queen, the Red Priestess, the Wildlings) etc. Then at the end, he mysteriously decides to rush off to Winterfell. This is a move that makes no sense as he has refused to enter into family entanglements about six times before, and while he is goaded, there is really less at stake for him. Then out of nowhere comes a reaction to this decision that leaves us in a bad cliffhanger. Boo.
The Imp is funny as always and now I can hear Peter Dinklage cracking each and every droll line. Still his thread is also a little dragged out, although it does involve some great sightseeing and is certainly entertaining all along. In the first part of the book it feels like he (and everyone else) is heading toward Dany, but then he gets within inches and turns back. Using him to introduce us to Griff and “Young Griff” is however an excellent device and works much better than an extra POV would have. It is mostly through Tyrion and Dany that we get a sense of the complex and old slave societies of the mainland. Unlike Westeros which feels like late Medieval England, these realms feel more like the ancient east (perhaps an updated Babylon vibe).
Her chapters are mostly political. She does feel a bit passive. I don’t really understand why she doesn’t try to get a handle on her dragons earlier, this is obviously a key move which could trump all of her political problems. Instead she dicks around (literally and figuratively) with various factions. This is all fairly entertaining, but feels like treading water. Then “a big event occurs” (at least this one is on screen) and she rides off on Drogon. That’s all great, but her narrative disappears until the last chapter. When it returns nothing is resolved at all, but a new out of the blue cliffhanger is introduced. I do really like the world of Meereen and the slave cities, although it feels like we are lingering here a bit long.
The hero serves to replace Dany as the POV in Meereen. He’s actually a great POV character with all his lingering thoughts about events during and before Robert’s Rebellion. I really enjoyed his chapters. But they didn’t come to any resolution.
The hier to the seastone chair returns to us, a few bits worse for the wear. I hated Theon in books 2 & 3, but I enjoyed his chapters immensely here. His transformation into Reek and back again is very deftly handled, with a very proper (and sordid) period quality. It isn’t for no reason that Tarantino used the phrase “medieval on his ass” and that is exactly what the Bastard of Bolton has done to Theon. His pseudo redemption is good. Still, we have classic Martin avoidance of the action with the actual escape from Winterfell. In the cut between Theon jumping from the wall into the snows and his delivery to his sister is a big blank. Not that we needed the travel, but whatever battle happened at Winterfell needed some detailing.
I could have lived without her POV. It mostly serves to fill in some parts of Stannis’s story when he leaves the wall. The technique is sketchy and I ended up having no idea what really happened during his brutal snowy march and the seige of Winterfell. This I thought was the weakest part of the book structurally, as I’m basically confused.
Quentin and the Dornes
Cut! Dull for the most part, except for some info about the cultures they traveled through. I couldn’t have cared less for these characters. The attempt to steal a dragon was interesting, but was also vaguely described. I’m thinking that Martin, for all his brilliance as a character and world builder, isn’t actually the best at action scenes.
The Dorne chapter back in Dorne: It was okay, but we didn’t really need it.
This sucked. I like Jaime’s POVs, but this single chapter had a bunch of crap, followed by one of those annoying Martin reveals that just serve to highlight the gap in information. Brienne returns and they ride off. You don’t find out how she escaped her predicament, what she knows, anything. It just kinda sucked. The effect of her cliffhanger was entirely spoiled.
These were pretty good, and I enjoyed seeing her get hers. Martin certainly knows how to throw in the creepy little details so your mind fills in the rest.
Cut! I could have lived without these, and they basically just told you he was heading off to Dany with a horn and a Red Priest. Although he’s better than his brother — I’d take any chapter over Aeron Damphair.
These were great. I have no idea where they’re going, but that’s fine. Arya has always been one of my favorites. Give us more. To be honest it felt like these were the chapters that should have gone in Feast and this the conclusion that book should have had for Arya’s thread. Probably that was Martin’s original plan.
His chapters were good, but so little, and it all felt dropped as his last chapter is about midway in the book.
I’ve never been a fan. I think we could have just had these told by raven.
This was actually very good, really being a Kevan in King’s Landing chapter in disguise. I loved the return of Varys at the end — particularly his dialog.
Some observations: There is more magic of sorts in this volume. Martin has a real thing for nubile slave girls — but then again, what self respecting fantasist doesn’t? The scope of this book, with it’s gigantic foreign cities reminiscent of the ancient world is going to make for some hard adapting should the TV series get this far. As I noted in my series reviews the show already has problems with handling large scale people scenes. These slave cities and the like will make that even harder. Likewise with the slave sex and slave violence. I’m all over it (in fiction) but some of it will undoubtedly have to be cut/changed. Sigh. I like that Martin at least highlights some of the sad reality of actually being a nubile slave girl.
Overall, Martin’s books are among my all-time favorite novels. I enjoyed the book immensely, and eagerly await the the next volume (and I’m sure I’ll be waiting for a long time), but I can’t help but think it could have been SO much better if Martin had taken all the material in both Feast and Dragons and reedited them together into two chronological and slightly leaned down volumes.
Also check out my reviews of each episode of Season 1 of Game of Thrones (the HBO series):