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

REVIEW SUMMARY: An extremely well-written, well-paced book, with excellent characterizations where, like many “bridge books”, not much forward movement on the plot is achieved…well-worth the the read.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The fifth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series parallels the previous novel, following characters Tyrion Lannister (running into hiding after killing his father), Jon Snow (after the fight with the wildlings, determining how to stop the undead “Others”), Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark and others as they deal with dragons, the Others, multiple kings, politics and the lead up to the final show down between Ice and Fire (hopefully not too many thousand pages away).

PROS: Continued awesomeness in the characterizations; the blending of the magical/fantasy aspects has them not overpowering the characters or the story; dragons and Daenerys; a few surprises (though, five books in, I almost put this aspect in the CONS list).
CONS: Unlike the first three books in the series but like many “bridge” books in the middle of a series, not a lot of forward plot movement; no summary at the beginning, and I’d rather rely on an author’s summary than random Wiki entries to refresh my old memory; one or two characters who seemed superfluous (Quentyn Martell???).
BOTTOM LINE: Though I kept wondering when a momentous event such as those that were in every chapter in the first three novels, I was a hundred pages on, and enjoying the prose. It’s GRRM, just read it!

George R.R. Martin’s fifth doorstop in the Song of Ice and Fire series, is, like its predecessors, extremely well-written and full of fantastic and memorable characterizations. The fourth book, A Feast of Crows, runs in parallel for about the first 600 pages of A Dance With Dragons; but this new novel returns many of our favorite characters: Jon Snow, now Lord Commander of the Wall; Daenerys Targaryen, Queen of Meereen, freer of the slaves and stuck with her dragons, trying to determine how best to return to Westeros to vie for the Iron Throne; Arya Stark (though too briefly mentioned, IMHO), learning to be an assassin; Theon and Asha Greyjoy, sea warriors stuck on land, Theon tortured to become Reek, Asha trying to hold on to the castle at Deepwood Motte; and everyone’s favorite dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, running after killing his father and being smuggled out of town.

But this is the fifth book in what is rumored to be a seven book series. It is a bridge book; the characters grow, some change. But, unlike the first three books, where the plot pace was quick, wars were fought, main characters were killed off at a splendid pace…this novel explores the characters. Not much happens, except for one surprise I would not presume to reveal (small hint: it did lead me to a solid theory on who Jon Snow’s mother is).

My concern before investing my precious time in this 959 page hardback — I made the mistake of buying the hundred pound hardback to add to the similar first four novels causing a slight hernia carrying it on planes…should have bought the eBook — was that it would follow the path of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time Series, which I stopped reading around the sixth or seventh book; those characters were slow to change and uninteresting, and new characters that were introduced five books in did not grab my attention. As Neil Gaiman so eloquently put it, GRRM is not my bitch…but I’m not his either. Reading a novel this large and a series that may go on another 2-3,000 pages is a large investment of time by a reader to an author.

GRRM’s series is different than The Wheel of Time, though. Even when the plot is not moved along (and there are a ton a plot points to be cleared up if there are truly only two books left to go in the series), the characters are evolving. This alone makes this novel well worth reading; how Martin can go between writing as these different personalities is why he proudly wears the title “great writer”: Jon Snow, a boy turned Lord Commander, always doubting and denying the skinchanger within him, to Daenerys, a girl turned Queen, trying to do “good” and worried about being “evil” like her ancestors…to Reek/Theon, tortured so as to be barely recognizable as a human being, and not truly wanting to go back to the “Theon Turncloak” that he was, content to be Roose Bolton’s slave “Reek”.

Daenerys is the best case in point. She started the first novel as a child wed to a fierce warrior; now she is truly a queen, and is suffering through the learning curve of politic and peace, while not only trying to determine how to follow her destiny as the rightful ruler of Westeros, but also growing as a woman (Daario, anyone?). What I would really like to see is for her to hop on a dragon and use the three of them to kick some series (and serious) tail…but GRRM knows that she has to evolve into that character (or whatever character he has in store for us).

This novel centers on Jon Snow (13 chapters, and, yes, I was anal enough to count), Daenerys Targaryen (10 direct, 4 thought Barristan), Tyrion Lannister (12) and Theon Greyjoy/Reek (7). All other characters get four chapters or less, though some do intertwine. Jaime Lannister gets but a single chap (but it is a nice lead in to the next book). I’ve included the chapter count at the end of this note as well as a brief plot summary. This should give those who have not yet read the book plenty of time to “look away” and avoid spoilage.

As with all large series, I could have done without some of the minor character; Prince Quentyn Martell of Dorne (though it seems Dorne will play some part in the larger ending) for example. And, though I like the charactor of Davos, the Onion Knight, his appearance is brief. More of Bran (only three chapters) and Arya Stark (who shows up on page 593 out of 959 for two chapters) would be enjoyable as well.

And, back to that “investment of time” thing…please, authors of long series…add a summary at the beginning, or even online somewhere. Readers (most) do not want to have to (a) reread the previous books or (b) check Wikipedia for a summary written by somebody else. I realize the books are already thick, but take a clue from authors of other large decks like Tad Williams: please include a summary.

The series is called A Song of Ice and Fire. Though I am eager for presumed final battle between Ice (representing the Starks/Jon Snow vs. the Others) and Fire (Daenerys, the Targaryens, the dragons, and maybe the Red God K’Hllor’s minions), my desire as a reader is that the action picks up to the level of the first three novels while keeping the fine characterizations and prose of them all. Take all the time you need, Mr. Martin!

Plot summary (minus the surprises):

  • Jon lets the wildlings past the wall, for fear the they will die and turn into Others and fight against men, and not with them;
  • Daenerys is besieged in Meereen by those who want her to resume the slave trade. She keeps her dragons locked up for fear of what they can do, and seeks peace instead of moving on Westeros. Unknown to her, Westeros is heading her way as Quentyn Martell, Victarion, Tyrion and others head for the rumors of a queen and her dragons;
  • Tyrion escapes from King’s Landing, question his killings (“Where do whores go?”), and ends up near Daenerys, trying to use her to move against Cersei;
  • Roose Bolton tortures Theon Greyjoy, mentally turning him into the character Reek, and uses him to take Moat Caitlin and “apparently” marry Arya Stark, naming himself Lord of Wintherfell;
  • Stanis Baratheon plays at King, leaves the wall (along with his Red Priestess and his Queen), takes Deepwood Motte, moves on Roose Bolton at Winterfell;

Chapter count (for those twisted by numbers like myself):

– Jon Snow and the Wall: 14 (13 Jon and 1 Melisandre);

– Daenerys: 14 (10 Daenerys, 4 Barristan the Bold, gotta love that name);

– Tyrion: 12;

– Theon/Reek: 7;

– Martells: 5;

– Davos: 4;

– Bran: 3;

– Asha: 3;

– The Lost Lord: 2;

– Victarion: 2;

– Arya: 2;

– Cersei: 2;

– Jaime: 1;

About Larry Ketchersid (55 Articles)
Author of two novels (Dusk Before the Dawn, Software by the Kilo) and one volume of non-fiction stories. CEO of a security software and services company; co-owner of JoSara MeDia, publisher of iPad apps, print and eBooks. Runner, traveler, Sharks fan, Rockets fan, Packers shareholder.

2 Comments on REVIEW: A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin

  1. You are so kind.  This book was a bust. 1000 pages of NOTHING HAPPENING, after a SIX YEAR wait! Unacceptable in my book. Ultimately I blame his editor — FEAST and DANCE could have been cut down into one book easily.

  2. Hi Kirsten. I agree not much plot forward movement. But I do like the characters, especially Dany and Jon. They do seem to be growing through the stories, though the major battles (one for the Iron Throne and one between the Others and Dragons, I assume) are slow to build.

    Reminds me of parts of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. I remember thinking “how many times must I read about Kvothe getting his darn tuition?”. But the prose was well written, made the lack of forward movement enjoyable.

    Thanks for the comment. Noone has called me kind since……


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