A DANCE WITH DRAGONS
BOOK FIVE OF A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE
GEORGE R.R. MARTIN
Pages: 1117 (+appendix)
Publisher: Harper Voyager (UK)
First published: 12 July 2011
This edition published: 15 March 2012
On the cover:
(From the publisher's website.)
WARNING: THIS COVER COPY CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM PREVIOUS BOOKS.
The review is however spoiler-free. (Apart from naming characters who have survived.)
The future of the Seven Kingdoms hangs in the balance.
In the east, Daenerys, last scion of House Targaryen, her dragons grown to terrifying maturity, rules as queen of a city built on dust and death, beset by enemies.
Now that her whereabouts are known many are seeking Daenerys and her dragons. Among them the dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, who has escaped King’s Landing with a price on his head, wrongfully condemned to death for the murder of his nephew, King Joffrey. But not before killing his hated father, Lord Tywin.
To the north lies the great Wall of ice and stone – a structure only as strong as those guarding it. Eddard Stark’s bastard son Jon Snow has been elected the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, but he has enemies both in the Watch and beyond the Wall, where the wildling armies are massing for an assault.
On all sides bitter conflicts are reigniting, played out by a grand cast of outlaws and priests, soldiers and skinchangers, nobles and slaves. The tides of destiny will inevitably lead to the greatest dance of all…
It is becoming more and more clear with each of these books that the point of view (PoV) characters have little or no agency of their own. They are not the ones instigating what is happening, they just react to events set in motion by others. Or to put it bluntly, there is no real protagonists here, only antagonists who we do not get to see the motives of.
This makes for rather dull reading, passive characters aren't really much fun to follow. It also makes for some really lazy plotting. By depriving us of PoVs from people who have plans, and are getting things to happen, Martin can pull revelations out of the blue whenever he feels like it. This comes off as desperate rather than clever to me. They crop up whenever the story has gotten stuck in a rut, and seem to take the place of planning ahead of time where the story is going. Additionally, they reveal how much of a mess the story has become at this stage.
There are some really good chapters in this novel. Mostly they are lead-up chapters, and foreshadow coming events, but there is a lack of follow up to them. Instead of refreshing a stale narrative, they quickly stall and their storyline gets stuck in the same rut as the other threads of the tale.
It really is starting to get disheartening. Every time a new PoV is introduced it feels fresh, and it gives the impression that it will help the story move forward. But after a few initial chapters, where we usually gets a new perspective and even some movement in the story, things stop moving. We get page after page after page, etc, of intrigue. In itself there is absolutely nothing wrong with intrigue, it gets us closer to the characters and adds depth to a story. However, when it gets to be like it is here, where the intrigue seems to be the story, it makes for a story that is just running on empty.
Not only that, but here there is an abundance of settings that should, and sometimes do, bring variation to the narrative. Instead we get the same type of intrigue in a different location. What should be diverse storylines giving us a different flavour of this world becomes a parade of slight variations on the same theme. Court intrigue is pretty much the same wherever it happens. The end result of this is that the different storylines becomes so similar that they melt together in the readers mind.
I mentioned new PoV characters, and there are some in here. They are however not as important as characters that are introduced in the story but don't have a PoV. Revealing who the newcomers are would be rather massive spoilers, so I will constrain myself to saying that it makes it feel a bit like we are following the wrong characters at times. Almost everyone we follows react, instead of act.
For the most part though there is nothing wrong with the characters in themselves. They are interesting people, but they can be very annoying. This has mostly to do with their lack of agency, it gets frustrating reading about someone who does little or nothing without being forced to do so by events set in motion by someone else.
There are one, or possibly three, characters that stand out from this though. Arya has a journey all of her own, one that hardly seems connected to the rest of the story. It is always refreshing when one of her chapters come up. The lack of connection to other events makes it feel out of place, although I'm sure she'll get drawn back in the main story at some later point.
Daenerys's storyline has been bogged down for a while, but events here suggests that may be changing. I really liked the direction her journey seemingly is taking her at the end of this novel, and I hope she'll continue on that path.
The last story thread that takes off in a new direction is one that is introduced here. I don't want to ruin it for anyone, but I will say that although it felt a bit like cheating to introduce it at this late point it still gives some hope that this long slog will come to an end that will at least make it feel worth it.
I feel that this review is a bit unfocused. Unfortunately that is unavoidable when the novel it is reviewing mostly seems to lack any focus at all. There are too many storylines, and they are too similar. Added to that there is the sense that we still haven't gotten any idea of where this is heading. Yes, the ultimate prize is the throne of Westeros, but there is so much else going on that it doesn't seem to matter much.
Way too many pages are devoted to chapters that don't move the storyline forward. I can still see a good story inside this, but it is a series that is becoming so bloated that it gets harder and harder to see. I am invested by now, so I will follow this to the end. But with each volume Martin makes it harder for me to believe that end will be a good one.