Score: 3 stars (out of 5)
Following along with George R.R. Martin’s magnum opus A Song of Ice and Fire has not been easy. The first three books came at a reasonable pace, each roughly two years apart. A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series, was a spectacular feat of modern fantasy writing that elevated Martin beyond the realm of a standard fantasy writer. But then came the Long Wait – it’s taken Martin 11 years to crank out the last two books in the series. In that time, A Game of Thrones has been transformed into an excellent HBO series, and it’s safe to say that Martin has fully crossed over into the American cultural mainstream.
All that raises the stakes for this ongoing saga. Part of what made A Storm of Swords so good were the masterful twists – the Red Wedding and what happened with the Lannisters – not to mention that incredible action up at the Wall. That’s going to make for some excellent TV. And part of what has plagued A Song of Ice and Fire since Swords is the meandering direction Martin took with book four, A Feast For Crows, and his latest, A Dance With Dragons.
My biggest complaint with A Dance With Dragons is that it takes almost 700 pages for anything of real impact to actually happen. Too many of the plot threads devolve into boring travelogues. Tyrion, in particular, spends the book wandering about without much rhyme or reason. Daenerys spends most of the book engaged in petty palace intrigues in Mereen that really aren’t that intriguing. The sudden shift from this rampaging bringer of freedom in the East to this insecure little girl waiting for her Prince to arrive is very jarring. And the Jon Snow chapters never really go anywhere – we see him playing second fiddle to Stannis’ bizarre war plans.
Jamie’s single chapter in the book, which only exists to create another twist with Brienne and the Hound, should have been left out and included as a main thread in the next book. Its inclusion here made it a cheap “gotcha” chapter that added nothing to the story.
Other main characters are drifting about with ever-decreasing intensity. Cersei makes an appearance that is somewhat predictable; Arya continues to run around with the mysterious Faceless Men in a manner so ponderous that I found myself wishing that Martin would either kill her off or find a proper way to return her to the larger narrative.
Easily the most annoying aspect of this book is that Martin has done a 180 away from killing his characters off. Now we have people coming back from the dead, or switcharoos where people we thought were killed right in front of us were actually someone else. And most of the Starks are skinwalkers, something explained in the prologue that completely drains the Jon Snow “cliffhanger” ending of any real impact.
The main point of A Dance With Dragons seems to be Martin’s way of moving all the pieces in place for some kind of massive…something. The problem is, for the past 2,000 or so pages, there’s been too much set-up and not enough action. The bloat of additional POV characters and the expansion of the series’ geographic scope has created too many dangling subplots – half of them uninteresting now – and not enough of a sense of cohesion. At the end of A Dance With Dragons we’ve got two dragons flying around on the loose, Dany covered in shit in a field somewhere, and half the characters sailing to her or trying to find her as part of some plot to claim the Iron Throne. This could easily not end very well.
There were some redeeming qualities of the book. I really enjoyed Theon’s chapters, and the strange developments with Bran are very interesting. The thread with Stannis vs. the Boltons is interesting, albeit totally confusing. And the emerging sense of Varys’ scheming is impressive.
But really, we waited so many years for this? A Dance With Dragons needs better editing, and I’m hoping against hope that we don’t have to wait six years for a 1,300 page tome stuffed with so much filler.