Dec 5 2011 12:15pm

A Look Back at A Dance With Dragons

By now, most fans of George R.R. Martin’s sprawling A Song of Ice and Fire have read and reread A Dance with Dragons. To say that this was the most anticipated book of 2011 would be disingenuous. More than just a new release, Martin’s novel was an event. Hardcore fans went to midnight release parties, took days off from work. The slower readers among us — myself included — avoided the internet as much as humanly possible and began every watercooler conversation with “I’m on page so-and-so. No spoilers.” (Still didn’t keep a co-worker from accidentally spoiling the last chapter of the book for me. Oh well.)

But the initial feeding frenzy is over. There’s some distance between the swirl of emotions that come with reading the first Martin novel since 2005. We’ve not heard from Jon Snow, Danerys Targeryon, Bran Stark, or Tyrion Lannister in eleven years and meeting them again, right where we left them at the end of A Storm of Swords is both comforting and disorientating. It’s seems almost unfair to judge A Dance with Dragons on first impression because so much of the talk preceding its publication was as much about fan expectations as it was about the book itself.

So how does one feel about A Dance with Dragons on the second go-round?

Some questions are answered, some are not. Some answers satisfy, others do not. And, really, there’s still only one question nagging at the back of one’s mind: will Martin be able to pull off the ending to this series? Five books into a planned series of seven and we still don’t feel quite as close to the end as one might expect. Some mild panic may set in.

Martin may confound, frustrate, and infuriate, but he does not disappoint.

While I genuinely liked the new characters in A Feast for Crows, there was no replacing Tyrion’s inimitable witticisms nor Dany’s dragons. Most of the characters, after all of these years away, still sound like themselves. Martin (and his assistants) are to be commended for the detail and continuity that keeps the large cast in check. Individual chapters are well-done and I especially love the leitmotifs that occur, appropriately enough, throughout the Song of Ice and Fire. If I look back, I am lost. You know nothing, Jon Snow. My name is Reek, it rhymes with weak. All are used to strong effect.

While I enjoyed A Dance with Dragons more than A Feast for Crows, I would never go so far as to say it’s the strongest book in the series. Perhaps Martin believes the prophecies he wrote and to move the saga forward, he felt the need to go back and fill in the missing chunks of A Feast for Crows. But, on a second read-through, one wonders why this had to be. Sure, a book loaded with flashbacks wouldn’t be fun to read, but neither is five hundred pages of people traveling to Meereen to meet Dany. Tyrion’s chapters were, to my shock, my least favorite because of this. He met some interesting people along the way — like Penny, a far less privileged dwarf — but his story largely involved being on the road or at sea, usually as someone’s captive. He never met Dany. Traveling with Tyrion for a bit is a heretofore secret Targeyron heir that we are told to care about all of a sudden. He never met Dany. What, you thought Jon Snow was the only secret Targ? Anyone can be a secret Targ and ride a dragon one day! Except for Quentyn Martell. A largely unpleasant character (who did meet Dany,) I personally couldn’t wait for Quentyn to do something really stupid and die a horrific death.

As I said, Martin doesn’t disappoint.

Martin, nefarious as he is, can also make a reader’s sympathies change on a dime. Nowhere is this talent more on display than in Theon Greyjoy’s chapters. Theon’s chapters were simultaneously the best and worse parts of the book. Anyone familiar with the former ward of Ned Stark would love to see him tortured by the Boltons. But then the torture continues. And continues. If the Freys are looked on with loathing by fans of the series, the Boltons are downright disgusting. By the latter half of the book I was rooting for Theon! Evil, George. Kudos.

Meanwhile, Daenerys and Jon Snow both find themselves struggling under new leadership positions. Dany, as one is continually reminded as she moons over a blue-bearded mercenary named Daario, is still an inexperienced teenager in way over her head. Jon Snow makes hard choices as he tries to convince the men of the Night’s Watch and King Stannis that peace with the Wildlings must come if Westeros is to stand a chance of surviving what lies beyond the Wall.

Their struggles are perhaps the most human of the book. We’ve seen how corrupt and misguided leaders rule in Westeros, but it’s even more interesting to see characters readers have come to love flounder and miscalculate from their positions of power. Again and again, we are told that the game of thrones is the hardest game in town, with the least desirable prize. Winning is empty. Dying is easy. Especially when, like Jon Snow, you send all of your closest allies away from the Wall and have the unenviable task of ending generations of hate. Not that having a close friend at your side does much kindness towards said friend, as we see from the touching chapters concerning Ser Barristan Selmy, Dany’s Hand in Meereen.

By the end of A Dance with Dragons, Martin’s epic saga picks up steam and one can only hope that this momentum will continue into the next book. While I’m still having much trouble seeing how and if all of these characters will actually cross paths one day — and the latecomers to the game like Aegon Targaryen don’t help! — we’re getting closer to some very huge events. And hopefully, with this difficult beast of a novel behind him, George R. R. Martin’s next novel will be as much of an Event and for the best of reasons.

Theresa DeLucci likes, in order: A Storm of Swords, A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Dance with Dragons, A Feast for Crows. She is a frequent contributor to (and recapper of HBO’s A Game of Thrones series) and a 2008 Clarion West Writers’ Workshop alum. Follw her on Twitter @tdelucci

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Colleen Palmer
1. arianrose
I found most of the plots revolving around Dany to be, well, boring - which is not what I expected. Quentyn could have exited sooner, and the whole thing with Aegon. That just floored me. Because, honestly, I could not care less who this kid is. On the other hand, I seem to remember something history-ish about a Charles and William the Conqueror. So maybe it's historically derivative, I don't know.

I was less disturbed by this book than the others (maybe I'm just adapting to the bleak?) and more entertained, but I agree that some of the plot lines were oddly disjointed and some stretched.

(And now I sound like those criticising WoT, and I want to repeat that *I enjoyed the book*.)
Kristoff Bergenholm
2. Magentawolf
A Dance With Dragons is currently sitting on the bottom of my 62-book 'To Be Read' pile. The drawn out wait between volumes simply killed my desire to read it... I figure I'll get around to it by the time the next one is published.

Chris Long
3. radynski
Thank you!

I was supremely disappointed with Dance of Dragons, and I find it completely unfathomable how some can say that it's his best book of the series.

I have been hanging around a number of fan sites and I read review after gushing review about how great the book is and I just don't get it. It sounds to me like a bunch of people trying to convince themselves that their wait over the last 6 years was worth it.

And in my opinion, it definitely was not. Every chapter that had to do with Dany or people heading toward Dany was boring, and went almost nowhere. The simple fact that almost no one actually interacted with her should be proof enough that our time was wasted.

I predict we'll look back at this book and view it as the weakest of the series, much like Crossroads from WOT. A book that you just have to trudge through to get back to the good stuff, in an otherwise fine series.
4. curiositykt
I'm still not done. I'm 85% done and desperately waiting for it to pick up a little. I've been plodding along forever and ever and they just keep winding their way to see Dany who's not even there anymore. It really feels like thousands of pages of set up. I hope the end is worth the wait.
jon meltzer
5. jmeltzer
Aegon had better be a Perkin Warbeck, because if he's real then Martin has lost me. I don't believe the character and I think this plot twist is at amateur writing level.
6. patti134
@ 3. radynski: Thank you! Yes. This. Exactly.
7. JoeNotCharles
It certainly wasn't the weakest of the series. Feast For Crows was the weakest of the series. Dance With Dragons was the second weakest.

Which is pretty great, because they're both really good books! Just with some flaws that keep them below the levels of the eariler ones.

And since the flaws in both stem from the same pacing problems, which it seems like Martin has now moved past, I have high hopes that the next few books will approach the heights of the first three again.
8. I can't think of an alias
I have to agree with all of the analogies made to WOT. Both suffer from plot lines that have grown out of control.

Unfortunately, I see another similarity. Jordan thought that he could end the series with one book, but Sanderson has had to write three to come to a conclusion. Martin has planned two additional books, but there is no way this gets closed out in less than five. Given Martin's pace of writing (which will not get any faster as he gets older), the last book won't come out until after 2030.

It also doesn't bode well that the consensus is the last two books are the worst of the series (which I agree with) or that he is expanding the cast of charactor and plotlines rather than resolving them.

That being said, even mediorce Martin is better than 90% of the SFF out there.
Theresa DeLucci
9. theresa_delucci
@8 I'd be more generous and say it's probably better than 75% of SFF now. It's harder to find the less published but excellent writers out there. Especially the new ones.

I also fear there's NO way we've only got two books left in ASoIaF. There's just too much going on. 2030? Please don't say that!

@7 I actually enjoyed AFFC when I was reading it. Sure, I was disappointed by no Dany/Jon/Tyrion - but I didn't start the series until last year, so my wait between books 4 and 5 was much shorter. I actually love the Greyjoys. I think they're such an interesting family of badass people. With a badass Lovecraftian god and sigil. (I loved Victarion's latter chapters in ADWD, when he was making offerings to the Drowned God and R'hllor. I'm intrigued to see where his story goes next.)

I'm really hopeful that the next book will be more exciting. I enjoyed chunks of this book, but again, overall, a very frustrating read.
10. peachy
I'm pretty much on board with the consensus here - it was better overall than AFFC, but not up to the first three, and I'm seriously doubting now that everything can be satisfactorily resolved in two more books.

Particular niggling things, in no particular order :
- Jaime's redemption was done beautifully - a model of how to take a deservedly despised character and gradually make them genuinely sympathetic. But I hated the Theon arc... crossed the line from bleak to nasty.
- Aegon came out of left field a bit, though I'm willing to roll with it for the sake of the awesomeness of the Golden Company.
- The Dany stuff seemed to be going in circles, but perhaps that was just necessary maneuvring to get to the good stuff. And ADWD did underline just how useful Tyrion would be for her - the contrast betwee their chapters is pretty stark.
- I'm a sucker for 'on the road' arcs, so I liked Tyrion's journey even if it hasn't had much payoff so far. It's just about the only arc that's likely to have much re-read value for me, though it doesn't compare to 'Tyrion in King's Landing' or 'Jaime in the Riverlands' in that respect.
- Martin has an excessive fondness for cliff-hangers, I think, but he took it way too far this time.
Rob Munnelly
11. RobMRobM
Boy, pretty harsh crowd. I liked ADWD a lot - strong characterizations, strong world building, nice plot advancement. I rate it as my third favorite behind ASOS and AGOT and, consistent what what a Dance of Dragons is as described in AGOT (a complicated musical number with multiple interlocking pieces - but not consistent with the historical fight between sibling Targaryans also referred to by that name).

The principal problem is the lack of wrap up of key Mereen-based storylines, notably the approach of Tyrion and the Greyjoys to Dany. If the book ended with Tyrion breaking bread with Dany or Greyjoy blowing the horn and grabbing a dragon and/or Dany, I would have been fully satisfied. That would have given us the full bang-bang wrap up we were expecting (Jon stabbed, Keven assassinated by Varys, Theon found, Quentyn toast, Aegon (real or pretend? I vote "mummer's dragon") in Westeros, Jaime hornswoggled by Brienne (query how that will work out), Bran preparing to activate his superpowers up north, Arya developing her superpowers out East AND things poised for action in Mereen). However, the idea that Dany is going to charge through Mereen with a horde of Dothraki has its own appeal.

I do agree that I can't see how this gets done in two books. Three FTW!

David Thomson
12. ZetaStriker
I look at this book as the hump Martin had to get past in order to give us a good book again. Feast for Crows was disappointing, but this was far worse in my mind, and I hope that once he gets back to the plot he was initially wanted to write his novels will improve substantially. For the longest time in interviews he's sounded like he's been chained to an oxcart, pulling it through the mud, and I can only hope that for him it's all downhill from here.
s lussenburg
13. Grubnessul
The book is excellently written, every chapter is polished to the max and the individual plotlines were nice. But in the end, nothing really happened.

I really liked Quentyn and hoped to see him for a bit longer.

Jon's death was good. In ASoIF, people who do good die. Period. He was getting far to much a standard fantasy hero. The bad thing, however, is that we are now at the 999th commander at the wall, which is far too much prophetic as a number. I would have preferred seeing Jon be just a random numbered commander. Numbers 999 and 1000 just smell too much of the normal REDEEMER-hero from more generic series.
14. dav
I thought this was the third best out of the five, so right in the middle of the pack, but definitely head and shoulders above most of the sci-fi/fantasy out there right now. No one else is working on this scope. Even with big ideas, no one else has this type of varied cast. What I've always loved about Martin is when he shifts the focus to a character we knew, but didn't really "know" yet and he did it here with the Greyjoys mainly.

I found myself feeling much the same as the writer about Theon/Reek. The more I read the more I found myself looking forward to those chapters. In any other series by any other writer this would be unheard of, but he consistently changes our expectations.

Look, I recognize Martin's prose for what it is, but no one plots better than him. I do feel like we're closer to the end than the beginning after this book and think it can easily be wrapped up in another 2200 pages (it'll be tough, but I'm not writing it). Biggest concerns are that he dies before he finishes or that the HBO show catches up to him too quickly and they have to cancel it just because there's no new material. I'm not concerned with the direction of the stories and look forward to how they come together. On the other hand, maybe they never will. I think we're all expecting Jon Snow and Dany to meet up and ride roughshod all over Westeros slaying the Others, but that seems like traditional fantasy to me and Martin has gone to great lengths to tear down those conventions so far. These characters could never meet, but all play their part in the resolution of the "big picture" story and then go on their merry way never knowing how much of an impact they really had... except for Varys, he'd know.
15. tigeraid
Agree with you completel Rob, on two counts--strong characterizations, strong world building. Plot development? Sweet holy hell no. NOTHING happened in 3/4 of this book. The only thing that vaguely moved the story along was Jon Snow's chapters.

The rest was a boring, plodding boring plod. I agree with the article in that I was actually thumbing quickly through Tyrion's stuff, which I've NEVER done, and anything involving Dany at this point feels like I'm reading some sort of historical romance.

The only saving graces were the POVs of Jon Snow and Theon, both of which had some real story and interesting things happening. They're what kept me from dropping the book...

And despite all the complaining I just did, the cliffhangers for Varys/Kevan, Aegon and Jon Snow, and maybe Dany's impending invasion... DREW ME RIGHT BACK IN. DAMN YOU MARTIN!

It's just a shame it took him about 1000 pages to GET to that highly exciting point.
Adam Whitehead
16. Werthead
It's interesting that Aegon showing up has been described as 'out of the blue' or 'left-field' by some readers. Some forums have been anticipating this plot development since the end of 1998, based on Daenerys's prophetic visions in the House of the Undying in the second novel. In that sequence it is very clearly stated that a 'cloth dragon' (fake dragon?) or a 'mummer's dragon' (Varys's dragon, more overtly) will play a role in her future. Repeated (possibly a bit too much) statements throughout the third and fourth books that Baby Aegon's corpse was unrecognisable when it was laid before Robert seemed to back up this thesis.

I'm not sure which outcome I'd prefer: Aegon is for real, complicates (or even negates) Dany's claim and ends up on the throne; he is for real but dies before the end of the series; or he's a fake set up by Varys, possibly a descendant of one of the Targaryen or Blackfyre bastard lines that have survived in the Free Cities (and it's pointedly mentioned that Aerion Targaryen fought in mercenary companies in the Free Cities and that the 'male' line of the Blackfyres is extinct but nothing is said about the female). I'm not sure which outcome would be more plausible and interesting at this time.

How do people feel about the revelation that the three-eyed crow, a major recurring motif since the first novel, is actually a somewhat minor character from the prequel novellas that probably 95% of ASoIaF readers have never heard of or read? I thought it was cool, but then I've read all three prequel stories. I wonder how those unfamiliar with them felt about the revelation.
17. Lsana
I think Martin may have lost me with this book. The issues I had with it:

1. To much travelling. I fell in love with this series when Maritn moved Catelyn from Witerfell to King's Landing without needing to show us every step of her journey on the way. I fell out of love reading about Victarion's voayge to Mereen, Asha being dragged across the North, Quentyn's travel issues, Tyrion on those @#$@!! boats, etc...

2. To many PoVs. There were 16 PoV characters in this book, at least 14 of which survived. Add in the characters from AFFC who didn't have a PoV in this book, and we're looking at a bare minimum of 19 PoV characters 20 if Jon survived and remains a PoV. I don't see any way to write a book involving 20 mostly separated people that doesn't just involve a chapter or two to check in on each.

3. Too many unpleasant PoV characters that I feel I need a shower after having been in their heads (of course, Quentyn was one of the only characters who didn't make me feel this way). Primarily here I'm thinking of Vicatrion and Tyrion, but many of the others, even Jon, Dany, and Arya, had too many moments where I had to question, why am I rooting for these people again? I'm falling to Darkness-Induced Apathy here and am not sure I care who wins the iron throne or whether or not this miserable world can be saved.

The first of those issues will (hopefully) go away in WoW, but the other two seem like they're insolvable Ultimately, my review is this: after SoS, I couldn't wait for FfC. After FfC, I couldn't wait for DwD. After DwD, I can wait as long as it takes for Martin to write WoW, for the reviews to come out, and for the book to make it to me on the library's waitlist. If I were to die tomorrow, failure to see the end of this series would no longer be one of my regrets.
18. Lsana

I think the comment is less that Aegon's arrival wasn't foreshadowed than just he came too late for us to care about him.

And about the three-eyed crow, I suspect that people who haven't read the prequels don't even realize that there was a revelation there that they didn't get.
Theresa DeLucci
19. theresa_delucci

Yeah, I have yet to read the prequel stories. I have them on my shelf but I'm taking a little break from Westeros. I know the memories Maester Aemon shared with Sam in AFFC would have been better appreciated by someone who had read the Dunk and Egg stories. I guess it's the same with Bran and the Three-Eyed Crow.

The only traveling scene I really enjoyed was Tyrion riding with Illyrio. Two interesting characters talking intrigues over vividly described food.

One of the things I noticed about ADWD, but left out of my review, were the many instances of potential Dischisms. Apparently, when Thomas Disch used to write, he would chain-smoke and drink, so all of his characters would always be smoking or drinking, too. I love food pron normally, but there were so many meals described in ADWD, I wondered Martin was eating as he typed...
20. Raskolnikov
Martin may confound, frustrate, and infuriate, but he does not disappoint.

That does not capture my reaction to this book. On the positive side, it does free up my time significantly, as I plan to not read anything else Martin writes. People have spoken already about the plot contortions and incredibly slow pace, and sacrifice of real drama for arcane connections. I'd also like to come out against the value of the series universe as a whole--particularly the notion that things are morally ambiguous. It's not. Some of the protagonists are brutal and flawed, but the villains are made so over the top, mustache-twirling evil that it comes across as simplistic as Tolkien at his worst. Bolton, the Free City oligarchs and the Greyjoy clan have no function except to be puppy-kitten evil, and the increased prominence of them in the narrative shows the whole universe to be increasingly strained. As is Martin's writing. It's not enough to show a brutal dynastic power struggle, we need to have the would-be usurper of the North engage in fetistic serial-killing antics. It's not enough to show slavery as brutal and hard to overturn system, instead we have wanton atrocities commmitted by slavers every thirty pages of that narrative. "Flawed" is a massive understatement.
21. Christiana Ellis
I enjoyed the book thoroughly, though I did feel like big chunks of it were "Okay, I need to have these people run in place for a little while so they seem busy while I get these other guys into position."

Martin, better than any other writer I can think of, is excellent at taking characters that we loathe at first, and then making them fascinating and even sympathetic. Jaime is a great example, of course, and the Hound, and then he does it again here with Theon. Who's next for redemption? Cersei? Jorah? Littlefinger?

As for Aegon, I didn't especially care about him as a character, only about his potential implications, which will be far-reaching, no doubt. Also, it means we now have a better idea what Varys has been up to all this time, which is bloody marvelous!
22. AlBrown
I just don't understand why he felt the need to break apart Feast for Crows and this book, and present them in an order other than chronological. For the life of me, I don't see how that really improved things. The pieces and parts are good, but the order is disconcerting. And I hate the cliffhanger after cliffhanger approach. And then, big moments get glossed over. Like Jamie and Brienne meeting again. "Oh, it's you." "Yep." "Let's head out somewhere." "OK."
23. Novashannon
I enjoyed the book. I actually like character development, and George loaded them up! The value of the PoV approach is that sometimes we see that what appears one way is often something else. That is GRRM's genius. I agree that the Daenerys and Tyrion chapters often moved slowly, but they laid background. I do wish that Mr. Martin would forget doing other books till he gets this one out of they way. I began reading the books as they came out. so it has been many years for me!!
24. The SmilingKnight
A small review-appreciation i wrote on another forum.

Parental advisory language in spades.
25. Mochan
People are giving Martin way too much leeway here.

The Pacing is the biggest problem. Everything that happened in this book could have been done around 300 pages if Martin were a better writer or had a better editor. His problem is that he takes way too much time describing menial things. At this point in the story things should be hurrying at a great pace, instead we got too much junk at a pace even slower than the first book, which is pretty sad.

People are praising character development, but there's a fine line between too little and too much, but never mind the lone Martin went several continents into the "too much category." Character development is actually the biggest problem with this book (and AFFCs actually, but way worse here). Because Martin took so much time "characterizing" people the pacing slowed to a snail's pace. I don't need to hear "you know nothing Jon Sow" 100 times in Jon's piddly 4 or so measly chapters in this 1000+ page book. There's too much repetition and its no longer used to good effect, it's just dragging.

Dany felt like some tweety bopper Twilight lovestruck bumpkin and it was painful going through some of her chapters. Tyrionl normally my favorite, bored me to death and I did not need to see all that build up with Penny, unless she is so important like Tyrion ends up marrying her and she kills Cersei or something.

This book was an absolute disaster and people need to recognize it as such. You can hate on all the "generic fantasy novel fare" all you want but this book was almost unreadable that it took me a couple of years to finish it. A lot of "generic fantasy" helped me keep my sanity while I forced myself through this mess. At lesast it only took me a week to read AFFC. ADWD is by far the weakest book in the series and I can't wait to see how the TV series "fixes" it so I can actually enjoy this series again.

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