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 Tor.com (and recapper of HBO’s A Game of Thrones series) and a 2008 Clarion West Writers’ Workshop alum. Follw her on Twitter @tdelucci.