Jul 7 2011 1:01am

Winter is Almost Upon Us: George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons (Spoiler-Free)

Spoiler-free review of A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. MartinThere’s a way in which reading a book you’ve been anticipating for a long long time is very strange. At first I couldn’t relax and read A Dance With Dragons because it was new news from Westeros — I was so excited about reading Tyrion’s point of view and Bran’s point of view that I couldn’t settle down and concentrate on what was happening to them. That didn’t last long. Before long I was so completely wrapped up in what was happening to everyone that I was only looking up to grunt.

I’ve been reading Martin since reading his short story “Sandkings” in a year’s best collection in 1980. I’ve read everything of his since, pretty much as soon as it came out. I have therefore been waiting for this book longer than you have — but we’ve all been waiting for it impatiently for six years. Even those of you who only started reading the series because of HBO will have been racing through the books and be waiting now with everyone else. And the question you all want answered right now, when I’ve been lucky enough to get my copy two weeks ahead of you, is “Was it worth the wait?”

To that I can only say: You’re going to love it.

This is going to be my review without any spoilers. I’ll be posting a spoiler review when the book is actually out and other people have had a chance to read it. [Edit: In the meantime, we’ve opened a spoiler thread for those who have read it.] I’m longing to say — well, I’m longing to say all sorts of things and tell you who all the POVs are for a start. But I really don’t want to spoil your experience of turning the pages and finding out for yourselves. If you care enough to be spoiled, then I don’t want to spoil it. I want to talk with you about it, not tell you about it. This is a book that unfolds, let it unfold.

This is a terrific book. A Feast for Crows (post) has some problems with pacing and focus. It felt smaller scale and fuzzier than the earlier books. A Dance With Dragons is back to the kind of scale and control was saw in A Storm of Swords (post). But what we have here is half a book that is the chapters about the characters who were left out of A Feast for Crows, followed by another half a book where the whole thing comes together. A Feast for Crows becomes in retrospect half of the set up, with the climaxes deferred until now. I think this has caused a pacing problem for the series that isn’t fixable, but also isn’t going to be a problem once we have all the books in our hands.

There’s ice here. Fire, too. There’s lots of really cool stuff. And there’s evidence that the series is heading towards some kind of actual closure — I was worried that things were opening out and out and nothing was coming back together, but I can see hints of the shape of how it will be coming together. Martin’s been calling this book “Kong” and talking about it as a monkey, but I was afraid it was more of an octopus squirming out of his control — but I see signs of tentacles being nailed firmly down.

One of Martin’s real strengths, right back to the beginning of his career is getting inside the heads of characters and making them seem real. It’s not so hard to do this with a sympathetic character, it’s very impressive when he does it with an unsympathetic character, when he takes somebody you’ve been hating from outside and makes you sympathise with them from inside. This is one of the real glories of this series, and this is something he’s doing better than ever here. There are nice people and awful people and mixed up people, people trying to do their best and people out for what they can get. There’s death and betrayal and dragons and duty and history and complications and pride. These are things nobody does as well as Martin — things I think of as Shakespearean. Council scenes that set up huge complicated betrayals and battles. Heroism and treachery. And you see so much of it from inside people’s heads that it all feels absolutely real and grounded, even the most melodramatic moments. Speaking of which, you can be pretty sure when you see a fantasy cliche here that it’s going to be turned on its head and choked to death. (But winter is coming.)

Something else I noticed here is use of repetition almost as kennings — this is a trick Guy Gavriel Kay does, and I haven’t noticed Martin doing it as much before. He has been — think of “You know nothing, Jon Snow” and “Valar morghulis”, or Arya’s litany of people she wants to kill for that matter. But this is the first time I really became aware of that.

Bad things. Well.  I only just finished it; I may think of some when I have some more distance from it. There are some unnecessary cliffhangers, the same as there were in A Feast for Crows — if nobody is going to believe that somebody is really dead, it’s not a good way to leave them. Apart from that, well, the book weighs half a ton and my shoulder hurts from lifting it. And now that I’ve finished it I’ll have to wait another umpty-ump years for The Winds of Winter to find out what happens next — getting this one early has just made my next wait longer.

Some people are sure to hate it — epic fantasy with this kind of scope isn’t everybody’s thing. But if you’ve enjoyed the series so far and you’ve been waiting for this volume, then I feel confident in saying that you’re going to love it. Because I do.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. romsfuulynn
AGGGHHH. Ok, July 12 is coming sooner than winter.
2. Maik H
Many thanks for a review that tipped me over the edge of immediately grabbing the hardcover vs. waiting for the softcover.

Something else I noticed here is use of repetition almost as kennings —
this is a trick Guy Gavriel Kay does, and I haven’t noticed Martin
doing it as much before. He has been — think of “You know nothing, Jon Snow” and “Valar morghulis”, or Arya’s litany of people she wants to kill for that matter. But this is the first time I really became aware
of that.

This is a bit similar to something I'm noticing only now during my re-read of the whole thing: the proverbs in Westeros are really proverbs - they are used often, and they're not necessarily true. "Dark Wings, Dark Words" hits the mark very often, for example, but the crows also bring the occasional good tidings. A good indicator of how immersive Martin's writing can be is when you are thinking "Dark Wings, Dark Words" to yourself whenever one of the buggers comes flying.
Compare and contrast with the deplorably widespread use of proverbs in fantasy: a) you hear them exactly once, b) are introduced rather than said ("As the old saying goes ..."), and c) they are surefire prophecies of something that will happen either within the next five pages or at the big finale.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Maik H: My son read the books last year, and ever since he's been saying "Dark wings, dark words" absolutely every time he sees a crow, to the point where I've started doing it too! And in this volume mmmmpph mmmmph no spoilers in comments either.

But you're absolutely right, and that's one of the things that makes the world seem so real.
4. a.v willis
"Martin’s been calling this book “Kong” and talking about it as a monkey, but I was afraid it was more of an octopus squirming out of his control — but I see signs of tentacles being nailed firmly down."

So it would be more acurate to call it Ctullthu
5. Derynest
They've become my sayings and proverbs too -- now that my girlfriend has read the first book, I get the old "it is known" at least once a day. I foresee a lot of "you know nothing, Deryn" in my future...

I've noticed some people get annoyed with these things. I like 'em. They've helped make the world more real for me -- and the real world just a touch less so.
6. Peter S
I've actually said "gods be good" aloud - luckily, there was nobody around to hear me!

Also, Jo, I am green with envy of you right now!
7. a.v willis
"Martin’s been calling this book “Kong” and talking about it as a monkey, but I was afraid it was more of an octopus squirming out of his control — but I see signs of tentacles being nailed firmly down"

In other words he should be calling it ctullthu? eh whatever works
Claire de Trafford
8. Booksnhorses
Hi Jo. I won't be reading your spoiler post for quite a while as I've got to wait for post to Oz but I'm glad you loved it. I had already decided not to be influenced by people on this book, but I've always respected your opinion and tend to like the same things (although I read To Sail Beyond the Sunset at an impressionable age where I didn't notice the incest, skipped the later boring part, and still love the book!)

How long did Dance actually take you to read? Did you come up to eat? Did you eat reading? Did you dream about it? These are all factors to think about when I actually start my read - I might have to book myself into a motel away from family and just read read read it.

And I think you're right - an early read means a longer wait for the next one.
9. HF

I never felt that 'A Feast for Crows' was out of focus or badly paced. And until I read 'A Dance with Dragons' I also thought that it was Mr Martin's best feat in terms of style. His prose has constantly evolved with each of his 'Song of Ice and Fire' novels; it's very nice to see that the latest one confirms this trend yet again.

I find it a little bit strange that you would criticise the fourth book with regard to "pacing and focus" while lauding the fifth as much as you do, since the new - supposedly - sprawling plotlines (about the Ironborn and Dorne) of the former are all picked up in the latter - and moreover, an all new one (!) is added, too. Furthermore, some principal plotlines which have been wide apart from the series' start are still far from converging at the end of 'A Dance with Dragons'.

Nevertheless, I agree with your sentiment that Mr Martin's story as a whole seems to "come together" in the last third of the novel where the narrative is no longer chronologically congruent with 'A Feast for Crows' (and we get glimpses of characters and events in the south of Westeros).

The characters, too, are as compelling as ever - sometimes even more so, in my opinion. Mr Martin has not lost his grip on Tyrion, Daenerys, Jon or anyone else, instead it has gotten firmer. And even though there are those who despise every new and allegedly superfluous pov-character, I loved reading every one of them and understood how they were necessary for the narrative. They are believable, distinguished, compelling, and it - deceptively, no doubt - seems as if Mr Martin writes from their perspective with the same ease with which he wrote the pov-characters in 'A Game of Thrones'.

The cliffhangers at the end, tough, are brutal. And I mean BRUTAL. They are, as far as I remember, more brutal than those in the final chapters of the third or fourth novel. More frustrating even: One of the cliffhangers from 'A Feast for Crows' gets resolved only to be replaced by an even bigger cliffhanger... But while I am railing against Mr Martin's to be expected ruthlessness, I feel its great appeal, already looking forward to as well as speculating about 'The Winds of Winter' (which hopefully doesn't take six years to get published...).

A final point where I agree with you is the novel's scope. It is tremendous: The vistas are breathtaking and iconic, the contrasts between the North and Slaver's Bay at once stark and vivid.
But after finishing the book for the first time, I realised that it will be - almost - impossible to adapt both 'A Dance with Dragons' and 'A Feast for Crows' for television... ;)
Richard Boye
10. sarcastro

Wow, thanks! This totally made my day. I was optimistic but also experiencing a low-level current of dread that the story was careening out of control and not progressing towards some resolution.

July 17th can't come fast enough.
11. Johh W
Thanks for the review. As you mentioned I came to these books because of the HBO show. I cannot for the life of me imagine how people who have been reading these books from day one have managed to wait so long for each novel without going insane as the Mad King.
12. Courior
I'm only on the 4th book now(only started reading after seeing the show) and hopefully I'll be finished by the time it comes out in Ireland. I've been loving the books but my only gripe is the timeline. Does anybody else get confused as to when everthing in the books is happening. I know that in the 4th book all the Ironborne chapters are happenng concurrently with the events in the thrid. But are the Daenerys chapters in the third happening at the same time as the Fourth book or during the third book. It would be so usefull if each chapter was dated like in Neal Stephensons Baroque cycle(which had a similer layout and style)
13. Jack M
I'm avoiding the heavy lifting by getting Dance delivered to my Kindle, LOL!
14. lampwick
@1 says July 12, @10 says July 17, and I'd been thinking the release date was July 15 and planning my trip to the bookstore accordingly. Anyone know for sure?
15. cindyash
Courier, I had the same question re timeline. I knew from Dany's pregnancy that most of Game of Thrones happened within a year. After that it was anyone's guess. Through the first four books, I can't really tell how much the kids have aged, maybe a year? I have found some timelines that start from before Aegon's landing, but they all stop at the start of Game of Thrones. I'd love to see a decent timeline for the rest of the books. Anyone have any luck with this?
17. Pooja Iyer
Goddammit, how am I going to wait a few more days after a review like this?

July 12th can't come fast enough.
18. AgedOne
A well thought out review without giving away anything. I expect it to be GREAT as it took six years to write. It better be perfect in every respect as rushing to publish is no excuse here.

While being a new reader of the A Song of Ice and Fire, I found having to wait 11 months until the release of the next book in the series unbearable. Imagine my horror when I realized others have been waiting six years! "Gods be good!" I am over 60 and I would hate my dying thought to be that I hadn't finished one of the best epic fantasy series ever published. I have to take my hat off to Robert Jordan for leaving enough recordings and notes for his team to publish the final three books in his Wheel of Time. The problem is I don't have enough cognitive and siteful years left to make it 18 more for the final book in A Song of Ice and Fire.

Yes, this is selfish of me but I am not alone.
19. Morandir
@12 & @15: I don't know of a ironclad timeline for the stories. Someone may have taken a stab at it but if so I've not seen it.

Martin himself has stated for people that are trying to winkle out when events occur that even he has trouble keeping up with it, and he's more interested in the overall story than trying to fit everything into a neat little arc.

However, I'd say the first book covers at the very least a year (if Danerys' timeline is equivalent to Westeros' timeline). Book two is probably 2 - 3 months, same for A Storm of Swords and Feast for Crows.

So close to 2 years overall, at least that's how it *feels* to me - I don't know that it's ever spelled out.
Cresenne ja Terba
20. cresenne
There's a timeline for the individual chapters here on Westeros.

From the timeline, it looks like a year/book so far, but with lots of overlap between books (especially between ASOS and AFFC).
Jo Walton
21. bluejo
ClairedeT: I got it on Friday morning and I finished it on Monday afternoon, but I am in Wales and had to do things with family so I couldn't read it full time. I certainly did dream about it, and I'm still dreaming about it. I'd say it's about the same reading length as A Storm of Swords.
22. MasterAlThor
Hmmmm, I am now starting to feel the itch.

Rob Munnelly
24. RobMRobM
@16 and 23. Moreover, it's not like GRRM was sitting on his hands. He had a creative problem - he couldn't figure out plausibly how to get a whole bunch of characters to show up in a particular locale in the particular order needed for the story. He was stymied for years in solving the "Knot." Reading NotaBlog through the years makes clear he was working hard on it throughout, even with his participation in various side projects of the type that nearly all SFF writers use to keep fresh and keep their sanity.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden
25. tnh
RobM @24: True!

To the best of my knowledge, all epic fantasies take longer to write than expected, and they're all hard to tie off.

It would have been a shame to ruin such a great series with a weak ending. We don't want to end up like the fans of Star Wars or the Amber novels who have to pretend that their favorite series ends somewhere well short of its actual endpoint.
Sydo Zandstra
26. Fiddler

I think you robbed RobM of his context. ;-)

Having read both posts, good call though. This is not the place for debating GRRM's writing speed. :)

Counting down, with a long weekend coming up next week...
27. SLeet
@18: Agedone

LoL. Your post made me laugh out loud. I must admit that I have some of your same fears although a little younger at age 44. I have had the occasional thought that I might not live long enoug to see my favorite series come to a close. But I guess it is the chance that we all take when we pick up and start one of these epic fantasy series. I can't wait to pick this one up and pray that the next one comes quickly.
pat purdy
28. night owl
@18 Agedone
You echoed my thoughts exactly, I don't know where I got the idea that this was the final one! Egads! At 72, I have more fears than you-altho my mon is 100 and the rest of the crew lived to 80's & 90's. But will the eyes last??

Another series I have been waiting 5 yrs for is Elizabeth Haydon's " The Synphony of Ages", no. 6. It would seem she dropped off the map.
Shaka Jamal
29. FaceofYo!
Initally, I was super anxious for the release of ADWD, yet somehow the closer to July 12 I get, the more a sense I have of waiting for a copy from the library. I figure, I've waited this long, I can wait for the library. Although I'm still super anxious... I can't explain it...
Jo Walton
30. bluejo
I'd hate to die before finding out what happens in the end, but inevitably I'm going to die before finding out what happens in the end of something, because I'm unlikely to time dying precisely enough to be exactly at the end of a book.

It would be worse to live long enough that you'd finished everything in the world, wandering desolate around a deserted planet with nothing left to read.
31. devscribbler
Waiting, just waiting for the book to come to India. I would have loved some spoilers. Please put up a spoiler review soon!
32. readernreviewer
Having read ADWD, I found it rather hit and miss. Some plotline looked to building up, but ended rather strangely. Others ended abruptly. There are POVs that last only for a book - sort of like Brienne (that's not a spoiler, btw. I'm saying if she's alive /dead). We meet a new character and suddenly they're dead/their arc is resolved by the end of the book without really contributing enough to justify their inclusion, IMO.

I think it's a lot like Feast in that the good parts are GREAT but the bad parts stretch. No unreadable (this is GRRM we're talking of) but lack the bite of others. For example - I gobbled up Jaime's chapters in AFFC but could read Brienne's only once. Once I knew she would be hung (or not?) at the end of AFFC I couldn't muster the interest to read her pointless POVs again.

I'll add my prayers to all of yours' re: TWOW not taking 5-6 years. I'm not too optimistic though - GRRM's got a lot of projects going on.


There are spoiler reviews online. Email me if you want a full commentary on the book. The tower of the hand also has a chapter by chapter breakdown by stefan sasse.
Rob Munnelly
33. RobMRobM
Jo - sounds like a Twilight Zone episode ...or your next book. (If you decide to write it, please remember me fondly in the ackowledgements.)
35. jaime2251
can someone tell me when will ADWD release in india
36. JRTomlin
You're wrong about one thing. NOT everyone who loved the past ones loved this one. I am so damn disappointed in Martin I could just spit.

I think this one just killed my interest and I have been a HUGE fan for more than a decade.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
37. tnh
Oh, well. You'll just have to read something else.
Kristoff Bergenholm
38. Magentawolf
Either Amazon lost records of my order, or I've somehow forgotten to pre-order ADWD; this is a disturbing quandry that I need to rectify this weekend.
Russell Robinson Jr
39. Avante
@28, I'm pretty sure The Assassin King (released in 2005) was book number six in the Symphony of Ages series...
40. winterking
You aren't the only one who didn't love it. It certainly hasn't killed my interest in the series, but when I finished, I just felt disappointed. I had hoped for more after that six year wait.
41. Astraea
@9: If the HBO series makes it that far, I think they'll have to do some major restructuring to intersperse the events of AFFC and ADWD, making events run chronologically instead of by character, as it wouldn't be good for half the cast to disappear for an entire season. (Plus, they might run into some problems with the child actors' aging in particular.) While keeping this spoiler-free, I really do hope the HBO series makes it as far as these books, since there are a couple scenes I'd love to see brought to life on camera, while there are also a couple issues where I'm curious as to how they'd handle filming.

@32, re: "Once I knew she would be hung (or not)..."

I read this and a quote from AFFC immediately sprung to mind. To loosely paraphrase, it should be "hanged," since Brienne is not a tapestry.

Finally, does anyone know when the spoiler-filled review will be posted? ADWD's been out now for over a month...

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