Let’s start at the beginning. I’ll try to keep this review spoiler-free and tomorrow perhaps I’ll dig into some of the surprises that pleased me and into the majority that did not. First the good stuff.
George R. R. Martin excels at making you care about these characters. All of people, major and minor, have the ring of truth about them. They feel real, you care about them or hate them but you understand them. I don’t think anyone does this better than GRRM. The dragons are growing up and when they appear on the page, they are vivid, fascinating monsters a world away from the empathetic beasts of McCaffrey or Novik. GRRM also delights in playing with reader expectations. No one is safe, in this, A Song of Ice and Fire feels more like a horror story than traditional fantasy. Finally, the world is gritty and real in a way fantasy simply wasn’t before, outside of a few Sword and Sorcery tales from Leiber or Howard. Martin is telling a huge tale and I can’t think of anyone else telling a story this big, this successfully. That said, Martin’s reach exceeds his grasp, or so it seems at this point.
The book follows three main plot threads with a spattering of scenes that advance the story a tick from A Feast for Crows. The first is Tyrion’s trajectory from Westeros to Daenerys. The second is Jon Snow’s struggles leading the Night’s Watch and preparing for the coming of Winter and the White Walkers. The third is Daenerys’ attempts to rule Meereen. An honorable mention should be made for Quentyn Martell’s attempt to reach and woo Daenerys but this plot line is buried in the latter half of the book. Additionally we have: Stannis Baratheon’s struggle in the North, the fate of the Iron Born in the north, the ascendancy of House Ramsay and Frey, the fallout from Queen Cerci’s stupidity, Davos Seaworth’s attempt to woo House Manderley, the fate of Bran and Rickon Stark, and last but not least, a new appearance of a Targaryen quite literally out of nowhere. This doesn’t include additional plot threads that also poke their heads up from A Feast for Crows. As you can see, there’s a lot going on here.
One of the things that makes this book so frustrating is how few plots are resolved or even moved along significantly. A Dance with Dragons feels like half a book, despite its heroic size. There is so much going on that there simply isn’t enough progress accomplished. I have to question some of the plot lines Martin chose to write. Sorry but there it is. Readers hoping that there would be a resolution of the legendary “Meereenese knot” that tied GRRM up and stranded Daenerys a world away from the main action in Westeros will be disappointed. Not only by the fact the Daenerys show no sign of going to Westeros but by the fact she’s not even in the third act of the book. Battles between the Boltons and Stannis are literally bogged down and left unresolved on the page, making a mysterious note from Ramsay Bolton (nee Snow) at the end of Jon’s chapter ambiguous to say the least. Tyrion never even meets Daenerys, let alone advises her. The Martel plot is so futile and unreceived that I wonder why Martin bothered to write it. Almost NOTHING is settled in this book. We are given cliffhangers and ‘downer endings’ but few resolutions. We aren’t even moving towards resolution and with only two books left (supposedly) that is worrying. Two plot threads appear to be resolved in the most final way possible, which leads me to my second problem with the book.
There has been a recurring theme that those who try to do good, who try to act honorably will be killed, mutilated and disgraced. Time and again, characters you know and love and sympathize with are cut down, corrupted, maimed and murdered. A Dance with Dragons continues this fine tradition. Martin is nothing if not consistent. Again and again in this series, characters are warned but ignore these warnings, to their doom. In a way, this is a classical tragedy where a character’s flaw or virtues even, bring about their destruction. Or virtues…that’s not the way it’s supposed to work. Flaw, yes. In classical tragedy, a character is supposed to fail due to their tragic flaw. In Martin’s world, there are tragic virtues. Like Honor. Honesty. Compassion. Decency. Humanity. Loyalty. Any of these qualities will get you killed in these books. The characters that thrive are the most devious, the most ruthless, the liars, the torturers and the corrupt. I am weary from watching good men die and watching good women suffer. At this point, I’m not sure who I should be rooting for or if I should even keep reading.
I will, of course. Martin is writing the epic fantasy of the past fifty years. Even if it fails, it will be an epic failure and be worth watching in the same way that watching Rome burn must have been worth seeing.
In addition to the betrayal, murder and torture, there’s the sex. Now, I’m no prude, I write about sex and violence in no small amount myself. However, this book is particularly drenched in sex and for gratuitous reasons, it seems. There are long, loving descriptions of random naked women we never see again. Rape and near rape, both on the page and ‘off stage’. Sodomy is mentioned frequently among Eastern kingdoms and sell sword companies. There’s always been a lot of sex and deviant sex at that in this series. So I’m sure most readers won’t be put off at this point, but brace yourself. There’s a lot of sex in this book.
Do I recommend the book? It hardly matters. Readers have been waiting 6-8 years for this book, depending on how you look at it. It is essential and that makes it a crying shame. It is well-written, though not quite to the levels in the first three books. I worry that the seven books we’ve been promised will sprawl further, as the later Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series did. This is epic fantasy and epic tragedy.
Tomorrow, I’ll dig into specific nits and let my shock and horror flow with full spoilers. Assuming my job and my soul will let me.