A Song of Ice and Fire

Much and More: A Spoiler Review of George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons

A Dance With Dragons has been out for ages now, more than a month, and I’ve read it twice and I’m hoping everyone else has had the chance to read it too. The fact that it’s number one on bestseller lists implies that people have, but the fact that it’s still number one suggests that some people may not have had time to read it yet. (What have they been doing since July 12th?) My non-spoiler review is here, but below the cut are spoilers for all five books of A Song of Ice and Fire.

So how does what we’ve learned now change what we knew before?

Plots and pieces

Most importantly, we now know what Varys and Magister Illyrio were up to all this time. Aegon came as a complete surprise to me, but it makes perfect sense. They’ve been raising him to be a perfect prince, and they gave Daenerys the dragon eggs. They have been consistent in their aims since Arya overheard their plotting in A Game of Thrones, but with the kind of mixed success you have in fiendishly complicated plots when people are in the equation.

I liked Griff as a point of view, and I’m interested in seeing where all of that is going. (Nowhere fast? Those grey fingers—but that just makes it cooler. He has nothing to lose, and he has put his whole life into Aegon.) I like the way there are patterns and repetitions here with attacking Storms End that go right back to the beginning.

Then there’s Bran finding the Children of the Forest and learning to be a greenseer. This is pretty much precisely what I expected, though the weirwood roots are extra cool.

I was thrilled by Winter arriving, the white raven right at the end—I was so excited when I saw that I could barely keep it to myself. This was the one thing I most wanted to put in the original review.

The Cersei bit was really just a conclusion to all of the Cersei stuff in FfC, and it would have been better there. On my re-read I found myself wanting to do the thing Martin said we could do and carefully detatch all the chapters and resew them to make one book. However, the actual Cersei chapters here are great. And there’s also a lot of this that is looking forward to the next volume—”Robert Strong”, and she has done her walk but not had her trial.

And Wyman Manderley, hero! Who would have guessed! Good old Davos, and finally a bit of payback for the Red Wedding.

Where do whores go?

Tyrion’s thread surprised me, because I was expecting plotting in the Free Cities, not a chase to Meereen and back. I was astonished when Penny showed up again, but I thought all of that worked really well. It’s notable how often Tyrion is imprisoned and escapes throughout the series—from the sky cells to King’s Landing and now Volantis and Meereen. It’s becoming a habit. Tyrion remains haunted by the murder of his father and the memory of Tysha. But I like how he came out so well, talking his way out of trouble from one end of the world to the other, with the occasional instance where it really doesn’t work. I found the Tyrion thread delightful and entirely satisfying. I’m pretty much going to like any book that has Tyrion in.

If I look back, I am lost

The whole Meereen thing was the thread I cared about least, though I thought it was much better done here than in A Storm of Swords. I also liked having Barristan Selmy’s point of view. And I did like the end, Dany flying and finding some Dothraki. But can we get to Westeros soon? Still, with everyone else heading off towards her and seeing the disruption of world trade around the world it felt better integrated. Nice to finally have useful maps too. I enjoyed this more on my second read when I knew where it was going. I think it has quite a satisfying shape. But I want her to come back to Westeros and use the dragons against the Others.

And I loved having Barristan Selmy’s point of view, and him trying to be Hand, in the same way we’ve seen people in every book struggling to be Hands.

The Dornish connection

Only by making a strong effort can I bring myself to care about Dorne in the slightest. All the Dornish stuff bored me in A Feast for Crows, and I’d rather be without it here too. However, Quentyn going off to woo Daenerys is better, and especially when it doesn’t work. I suspect that if the Dornish stuff in FfC had been spread out more with what’s here it would all have worked better for me—this is the main issue with the pacing resulting from splitting the two books.

So, Quentyn, Meereen, dragons—pretty good. The whole rest of Dorne as it connects on to FfC, still blah.

You know nothing, Jon Snow

I loved the Jon thread right up to the end where I felt I’d been handed a big dose of artificial tension. I really liked the way he was getting everyone on the right side of the Wall so they wouldn’t have to fight them as undead, and I loved the clever thing with the Iron Bank, and Stannis, and Melisandre and everything. I thought this was all absolutely terrific right up to the end, where he is stabbed and—dead or alive. Wait for the next volume to find out! It felt like cheating. Do I believe Jon is absolutely and utterly dead? Not for a picosecond. It’s possible he’s dead and alive in a second life in Ghost—what was the prologue for if not that? It’s possible that WunWun is there just to rescue him and he’s alive and wounded, maybe even alive and seriously mashed up like Bran. After all that setup with his Targaryen birth and everything, he can’t die off the page. But the worst thing is that I don’t have any doubt that he’s alive—and this is bad. One of the good things about this series is Martin not being afraid to kill off characters, from Lady onwards. 

However, Melisandre is there now to be a point of view on the Wall if he is actually dead. (Nah.) And it fits thematically with the epilogue and Kevan Lannister’s death. I very much liked her vision of not-Arya and what came of that, both at Winterfell and on the Wall.

You have to remember your name.

After A Clash of Kings, I was all ready to have Theon point of view chapters which consisted of nothing but “Ow” for pages on end. I was therefore delighted to see him so broken and miserable and flayed here—which isn’t a very nice thing about me, but Theon really deserved it. However, Martin is as always a genius at getting me to sympathise with someone once he puts me in their head, and even though I don’t hate Theon any less, he’s really not as bad as the Bastard of Bolton and so I’m glad he remembered his name by the end of the book. And I’m very glad he rescued poor silly Jeyne Poole.

Valar Morghulis

Arya is only blind to learn more, as I knew for the last five years—more with the artificial tension, there’s enough real tension without that. I like the few chapters she gets here of more ninja assassin training. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them and I wonder where her character arc is going. It’s a terrific description of the way she’s losing her self-identification. She remains one of my favourite characters as she has been ever since “stick them with the pointy end”.

And in conclusion

My first read of the book happened very rapidly, because I had to review it and I had a very small time window, so I was gulping it at top speed. My second reading was much more leisurely—it happened on the train home from Reno. I kept looking up at scenery, and also falling asleep and waking up and reading more and falling asleep again. (I also wrote this post several times in my sleep. If I’ve left things out, that is why.)  So I read it quite slowly and thought about it a lot. On reflection… yes, I still love it.

But I think there’s a way in which a series is a different entity from a novel, as a novel is from a short story. The first three volumes of this series work as novels, FfC and DwD don’t really do that, or rather they do when considered together—there are a lot of parallels you can’t see without both books. Dany and Cersei and Jon and Doran Martell are all trying different ways of preserving their lands, and they are much more interesting contrasts when you look at them together. But the pacing is screwed up across the two volumes. Dany has an arc here, Tyrion does, but Cersei and Arya just have continuation, and the one Jaime chapter just makes you wonder what it’s doing there. The same goes for Asha and Victarion.

There’s a way in which this huge object isn’t really a novel, it’s a… a chunk. As a chunk, it’s satisfying. It reaches back to what has come before, and it reaches forward to what isn’t there yet and shows some satisfying signs of coming towards a conclusion. Winter is coming, and so is the endgame. It’s not really a novel though—I’ve had to resort to talking about it in its threads. I think this series is best considered as a series, as one whole gigantic behemoth.

More soon, maybe?

My husband believes that now Martin has got unstuck he will stay unstuck and produce the rest fairly rapidly. I asked George about this theory at Worldcon, and he expressed a hope that it was correct, a hope that I’m sure we can all fervently share.

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.


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