Tue
Jul 3 2012 3:00pm
Winter is Almost Upon Us: George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons

This week we’re looking at the novels nominated for this year’s upcoming Hugo Awards. Today we look at the wildly anticipated fifth volume in the Song of Ice and Fire series, George R. R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons

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 the Nebula winning and Hugo nominated Among Others. 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.

28 comments
Herb967
1. Herb967
A Dance with Dragons being nominated for a Hugo is a bit of a travesty, as the nomination of A Feast of Crows was. They're not bad books, but they're dramatically weaker than the first three in the series and far from belonging in a best book of the year list.
Herb967
2. Tehol Lives
I tried really hard to like this book, I really did. Unfortunately with the exception of Bran, it seemed that Martin tried his hardest to remove what was interesting about my favorite characters. I thought the pacing was glacial, new characters, plots and motivations came out of no where.

I will pick up the next book, in about 7-8 years if it ever makes it to publication, from the library when I don't have anything else to read. Which is a real shame because I really enjoyed the first three books.
Chris Long
3. radynski
The fact that there was no resolution to Mereen is the real crime of this book. I would have forgiven just about everything else if only we had had that.
Noneo Yourbusiness
4. Longtimefan
This was not a good book. Martin is a good writer but this book is poorly paced and does not really stand well as a singular volume. Mostly because it isn't. It is the overwrought second half of one book.

Does it have some interesting scenes? yes. some. probably 20 percent of the book.

I have been waiting for this book like many other people and I was very excited to purchase it when it finally came out. After reading the first 5 chapters I went on vacation for a week and left it at home because it was not interesting enough to take with me.

I spent a week not reading a book I had waited seven years to read.

That does not speak well for the story. Some people might try to refocus the blame back onto the reader but to that I would say stop, think about it. With that much anticipation and such a rich story to enjoy from previous works in the same series is it really the reader or is it the book.

Here is a hint. It is the book.

I was so disintrested in reading it a second time I gave it to a friend who had just started the series. He had just finished A Feast for Crows and had not had to wait for seven years. Just three days.

He liked it a bit more than I did but his over all impression was that it did kinda drag.

I will agree with radynski@3 that no resolution to the issues in Mereen was irritating. Then again, in this series it seems that Martin is determined to leave everything at loose ends and messy because that is how "life" really falls out.

In the end Daenerys is the Mother of Dragons and not really the leader of a slave uprising or the rebuilder of cities. Those are just things that happened along the way.

Her role is to unleash dragons upon the world. She has done that. Everything else is just floatsam in the wake.
Sky Thibedeau
5. SkylarkThibedeau
Was there such a dearth of quality scifi and fantasy literature in 2011-2012 that this boring and pretentious novel is nominated for a Hugo? Is this the academy's reward to George for waiting til Harry Potter finally died before getting it published.

We're basking in the light of the glory that was the first three books in the series. The last two have not kept up to the standards. I mean the most interesting person in the series Tyrion Lannister suddenly begins to channel Anthony Bourdain and we get a travelogue and Westeros Food guide. Not to mention the endless potty breaks.

The only reeming quality is that the evolution of Theon Greyjoy continues. And the ending.......I can see why the author goes by G.R.R. grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!!!!
Herb967
6. joelfinkle
In my mind, the real problems stem from the scope of characters.
I want a whole book with Arya. I want a setup with Jaime walking off stage left to be followed by him at least getting into more trouble, if not getting out of it. The previous book ended with Sam likely in a lot of trouble, yet not one word from that.

What we have is sort of an Encyclopedia Westeros Factbook for the year, and not a coherent narrative.

Is it getting my Hugo #1 vote? No. (Haven't decided yet, because I've got 1.6 yet to read, but it's already probably at the bottom for me). Is it bad? No, it's probably only the fifth to tenth best book I've read this year.
Scott Silver
7. hihosilver28
@1-5
Seriously. In a year when we had The Wise Man's Fear and to a lesser extent, Ready Player One and The Alloy of Law, why does A Dance With Dragons get a nomination? I enjoyed the book, but I think it is the weakest of the five. I even thought A Feast for Crows had less pacing issues. Don't even get me started on Meereen and the "cliffhangers" at the end.
Kat Blom
8. pro_star
Did we ever get a spoilerific review? I'm trying to remember now....

I'll agree with the masses that this book fell short. GRRM pulled old tricks out of his hat that he's used many times before, taking the shock and awe out of them. Just my $0.02 in a "non spoilery" bit.
Herb967
9. VoxOrange
I can honestly say read it once.

Then qualify that statement with the preceding volumes got multiple reads. Would I pick it up again? Maybe in the month preceding the release of the next in series. (which I admit now, I will purchase).

But this novel for the Hugo? It can only win out of pity.
Sanctume Spiritstone
10. Sanctume
Wait, isn't AFFC+ADWD = 1 book? Maybe worth half-a-Hugo?
Herb967
11. Jaquandor
I started out liking this book a lot more than the preceding volume (which I pretty much hated), but GRRM completely lost me by halfway through, and I just ended up grinding it out because...well...inertia, or something. Tyrion even seemed like an idiot (did he really think that Tywin was being literal when he said that Tysha went 'wherever whores go'?). I'll read whatever remaining volumes come out (if and when) via the library. This series is a colossal disappointment.
jon meltzer
12. jmeltzer
There's little more I can add to what everyone else has said, other than a couple of nits: the entire Quentyn subplot should have been omitted as meaningless, and if "Young Griff" is real I'm giving my copies of all five books to the library book sale.

It will, of course, win the Hugo.
Herb967
13. Bill1
Ive always thought of GRRM as Robert Jordan with a potty mouth. At least Jordan had about 6 good books before he got lost. I don't think Sanderson can save this series too. My question is why, when this site does a feminist breakdown of every subject that has popped up, has there been no critical review of how Martin treated the women in this book? In particular the Danearys character who is supposed to be a leader but just seems pathetic.
Jacqueline Carleton
14. DorneSand
part of the trick is to come in with as low as possible expectations, personally i think the book is great just for the Frey Pies alone... but i only waited 6 months for it

i think a big portion of the problems with the book should be shouldered by GRRM's editors

we ended up with one half of the story with way too much drunk, paranoid cersei - chapter after chapter of not much happening interspersed with too much bleak brienne travelogue to nowhere

then the next half of the story ends with nothing but cliffhangers and questions - jaime, battle of meereen, jon, battle of winterfell and young griff - the pointless Quentyn and now 20 POV characters

it is no surprise then that people are saying it was not worth the 5 and 11 year wait for the characters

i reckon that most people who didn't particularly enjoy it on first read will end up liking it more when the series is finished, though of course not as much as ASOS
Herb967
15. JoeNotCharles
I can't really separate Feast For Crows from Dance With Dragons anymore, because both of them had huge pacing issues that were tied up with each other. A Storm of Swords had cool things on the horizon for lots of characters, and we didn't hear at all from some of them in Feast For Crows - which was ok, because I could keep saying, "Dragons is coming, Dragons is coming." But then the end of Feast For Crows had more revelations and setup for new cool things - which of course there wasn't a word of in Dragons. (Which is to be expected, intellectually, but I just can't wrap my head around it emotionally.) I ended up far more disappointed with Dragons than I was with Crows, I guess because my disappointment with the pacing of both of them is pushed onto the one I read more recently. When I read Crows I thought the pacing might be saved by Dragons, but it really wasn't.

(Also, I found the kenning in this one got easily repetitive enough to be irritating. Feast and Dragons both could have been edited down quite a bit.)

But my problems are pretty much all in the pacing. I'm still looking forward to the next one, because as it's back to Martin's traditional writing style I expect the pacing issues to be fixed and the story to be back on track. And now that I've read it once, when I re-read it I'll know what I can skim to make my own abridged version.

Although, when I re-read it, I'm going to try to put Crows and Dragons together as one book by interleaving the chapters chronologically, and see if I like the pacing better that way. In fact, I have extensive notes on how to do that. I haven't actually sat down to read it like this, just skimmed to get a feel for if it would work or not, and I think it will work nicely. I'd love to get some feedback on this ordering from other people.
Rob Munnelly
17. RobMRobM
Boy, lots of negativity here. This is my third favorite book in ASOIF (ahead of COK and FFC). It is not my Hugo favorite but it has well earned a nomination.

The writing is strong across the board and truly excellent in all the plot lines in Stark land and above the Wall - Jon and Theon in particular are subtle and brilliant. I do agree that Mereen and environs is the weakest part but mainly because we did not get the closure that we've been anticipating since late ASOS - that was where pacing turned out to be a problem. A bigger finish for Mereen and I'd expect more would give the book it's fair due.

For those who are complaining that Young Griff came out of left field, I have two answers: (1) wait to see how it turns out, and (2) it is plainly envisioned in Dany's House of the Undying Visions and, thus, has been part of GRRM's plan since at least book 2, and more likely from the outset. I'm seriously impressed with the Griff set up and progress in ADWD, and looking forward to next steps. And, yes, the Quentyn plot line will play a big role in how this moves forward in the next two books. Dorne seems to want to play a big role in bringing the Targs back but now two options have ignominiously fallen short - what is the next move? And Varys - I actually believe I'm beginning to figure out his longterm plan....

Rob
Gerd K
18. Kah-thurak
@Jo Walton
I dont know why you had to close your review by implicitly stating, that whoever does not like this novel, does not like epic fantasy. There are a lot of people who dont like this book but love epic fantasy.

My impression from reading ADWD is that the story has fizzled out. It just became so convoluted and overburdened with irrelevant side shows, that Martin has lost control of it.

As to the "subtlety" and "brilliance" of the Theon Greyjoy story arc... I just found it gross. Obviously Martin had fun beeing disgusting here and some people do like torture porn (otherwise movies like Saw could not be successful) but I personally just dont need to know that Greyjoy had to lick Jeyne Poles pussy so Reek can rape her more comfortably. And on top of all that: Was any of this really relevant to the plot?
john mullen
19. johntheirishmongol
I have to agee with the majority here that it really isn't worthy of a nomination. It is slow and doesn't really move the plot, and GRRM spends too much time on the scenery
jon meltzer
20. jmeltzer
Oh, yes. The Theon plot.

We're getting perilously close to later "Wild Cards" territory here - sexual disgust and torture for its own sake.

No more of this, please.
Jennifer McBride
21. vegetathalas
@13 If you want a feminist review of GRRM's series, google Sady Doyle. I think she's pretty much covered everything that needs to said. I suspect the epic amounts of hatemail, rape threats, death threats, etc. she got deters Tor from doing the same. Nobody sends rape threats to you if you complain about Barbie dolls.

I was one of the people who nominated this for a Hugo because even not-so-great George R.R. Martin is better than 90% of other books released this year. I thought Ready Player One was cute and played big to nostalgia, but not of lasting cultural value, Wise Man's Fear was the same old tropes done very well, and Alloy of Law was obviously a throwaway novel without much complexity. Cool combat scenes, but an easily guessable twist. GRRM continues to push the boundaries of epic fantasy. None of my other nominations made it (like Sloanckowski's work and Osama) and I was sad about that.

This book is third for me. I liked it far better than Leviathan Wakes. I really don't get what people saw in that book. It turned female characters into useless sex toys and pedastalled them, had a ridiculous bad guy with a joke of a motive and *******BIG SPOILERS************* the ending relied on nobody wondering whether something that moved was alive. Seriously, does space have no doctors? No fans of Star Trek?

I never read the rest of the Newsflash triology because Seanan McGuire got so many basic facts about journalism and politics wrong in #1. I'll buy zombies, but I won't buy *****MILD SPOILERS***** a presidential candidate actually turning down anyone from the media going with them on campaign. Heck, if you have fifteen web views, a politician will practically tackle you and beg you to share their message with the world.

So yeah...not the best year for Hugo nominations in the novel catagory. I did like Jo Walton's book. I haven't read the Melville yet.
Herb967
22. Petar Belic
It's become increasingly apparent to me that Martin needs a good editor.

The show clearly illustrates this point. It ruthlessly pares away extraneous characters and plotlines - and has produced one of the most lauded series on television currently.

My wife - who is not a genre junkie and has not read a novel for years - really enjoyed it and asked me if she should read the novels. I disuaded her because her frustrations of the show are amplified in the novels. Her words: "There are too many characters and too many storylines." Personally I think it's a naive criticism, but you can't dismiss it, even so.

Instead of propelling the story forward, we are treated constantly to new characters and points of view. I can understand why this happens - as a writer - it's fun, and it invites innovation, and provides new ways to supply information about the world.

But I don't think it's that fun for the reader. It's not fun for me, at any rate.

If you want to see it done well, read Andre Brink's 'A Chain of Voices' which tells a long story from many different first person views in Africa (as I recall, it's been awhile since I read it). Each voice propells it's part of the the story along.

But because of Martin's broad canvas, sustaining interest in all these different plotlines, and characters, is difficult.

And what's especially frustrating for the reader, is that when they have a character they enjoy reading about, they are instead subject to the POV of characters like the Frog whose journey ultimately seems irrelevant and not contributing to the story much at all.

I will read the rest of the series, but Martin's quote on how it all ends - 'wind blowing over a field of graves' or somesuch, is not encouraging.
Claire de Trafford
23. ClairedeT
I recently re-read this in conjunction with Feast and found it a lot easier going. My overall feeling remained the same however: "and?".

What has Martin done to Dany? She is one of my favourite characters and had no real plot here or one that could have been severely truncated. And Cersei has just disintegrated from an understandably bitter and frustrated woman to stock madwoman. I'm not feeling too positive about GRRMs portrayal of women overall at all at the moment. And did anyone seriously believe that Jon is dead at the end? Ludicrous and pointless cliffhanger. Even one chapter where Dany lands in Westeros would have redeemed the whole thing and if she spends the whole of the next book back in Dothraki land I'm throwing all my copies out and that's it.
Michal Jakuszewski
24. Lfex
@22 "Wind blowing over a field of graves" was a joke told as an answer to a complain he kills to many characters. The canonical answer which GRRM repeated several times is "the ending will be bittersweet, like LoTR. He also added on one occasion that his favorite part of LoTR is Scouring of the Shire, to further elucidate the analogy.
Sky Thibedeau
25. SkylarkThibedeau
Please. The Theon and Jamie character arcs have them being changed for the better going from vile Villains to Hero. Same can be said of Catelyn who goes the other way from Hero to Villain.
Stefan Mitev
26. Bergmaniac
ADWD has its fair share of flaws, sure. But let's be honest, worse books gets nominated for the Hugo almost every year, and even win sometimes. So I don't get the indignation.
Herb967
27. Petar Belic
Well of course that's true Bergmaniac. Still, perhaps the good parts of ASoIaF make people all the more cranky about the bad parts! I just wish we had some better nominations to get excited about....
Herb967
28. Drake Frederick
This was outright boring. It was quite frankly a snooze. It just goes on and on.
Herb967
29. Thomas Lindgren
After a couple of hundred pages I started skimming and I didn't regret it -- I'd reiterate an old view that Martin should have someone else finish things up at a more lively pace, both in and out of the books.

The most disappointing part, in retrospect, was that while AFFC was mostly pointless and perversely boring about people we didn't really care about, ADWD was admittedly that, but managed to ruin the interesting characters too. And all this grandiose spin about the problems of putting the pieces right in some vast intricate chess game ... GTFOOHWTBS. I can't remember who said it, but the sound approach would have been to resolutely write "A FEW YEARS LATER" and take it from there.

(The best approach would probably have been to stay the course with the original trilogy scheme.)

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