A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin
First Published: 2011
Pages: 1117 excluding character lists (Paperbacks, book 1: 624, book 2: 493)
Series: A Song of Ice and Fire #5
Again, the blurbs for book 5 obviously contain spoilers for books 1-4 so everything is going below the cut.
In the aftermath of a colossal battle, new threats are emerging from every direction.
Tyrion Lannister, having killed his father and wrongfully accused of killing his nephew, King Joffrey, has escaped from Kings Landing with a price on his head.
To the north lies the great Wall of ice and stone – a structure only as strong as those guarding it. Eddard Stark’s bastard son Jon Snow has been elected 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. But Jon has enemies both inside and beyond the Wall. And in the east Daenerys Targaryen struggles to hold a city built on dreams and dust.
Running concurrently (for the first half at least) with events from A Feast For Crows, A Dance With Dragons follows the characters who didn’t appear there – mostly Tyrion, Jon and Daenerys. With the main cast scattered across the Narrow Sea up or North of the Wall it works better as a Song of Ice and Fire book than A Feast For Crows did. In the last book the plot felt very centred around Kings Landing with chapters set elsewhere feeling very much like interludes, A Dance With Dragons is a return to the feel of the first three books – geographically diverse and nominally ‘separate’ plotlines all interweaving to form a much larger story.
It also brings the return of some of my favourite (and least favourite) characters. Bran is back! I’m not sure there’s enough of him, to be honest, but he’s back and he’s north of the Wall. Also Davos. No matter what anyone else says I love Davos. Theon (who I hate) is back, and actually has an interesting role to play this time in an interesting plot line. And then there’s the ‘big three’ – Tyrion, Jon, and Daenerys – all of whom have big things going on for them in this book. Dany is trying (and failing) to rule the conquered city of Myreen (why do people want her as queen of Westeros again? She’s just as terrible as you would expect a power mad overly entitled 15 year old to be if you gave her a throne), Jon as the newly elected commander of the Nights Watch is giving the Wall a serious shaking up, and Tyrion is on the run after murdering the most powerful man in the kingdom.
So right from the offset there’s a wider variety of things going on than in the previous book – which also means that some of the story lines are probably more hit-or-miss too, depending on what your reader preferences are. Personally, I found the Dany chapters tedious and unpleasantly colonialist (nothing quite as bad as the third HBO season’s white saviour shot of her crowdsufing her rescued brown subjects but yeah… that imagery certainly came from somewhere). I also wasn’t keen, and never have been, on the way she, as a very young teenage girl, is presented as a male sexual fantasy. Compare the treatment of her character with that of Sansa, who is only a year or two younger, and I actually feel quite sick. And this book especially was big on the ‘sexy Dany’ as she considers both offers of political marriages and her own inexplicable attraction to a man who dies his beard blue. Yes, girls did get sexualised younger in earlier time periods that Martin uses as his inspiration, I have no real problem with the characters doing that but the way its presented (and has been from book one) by the author always makes me feel as a reader that I’m meant to enjoy and be complicit in the sexualisation and I’m really, really not. Possitives though – at least this time she’s and active agent in her sexuality and sex life, making her own choices rather than being sold into sexual slavery and raped. Aside from the skeevy pervy bits I also found her chapters pretty dull and I could see where most of it was going well before we got there.
I vastly preferred Jon Snow and Tyrion’s chapters though. Jon is really coming into his own, proving to his men that he isn’t just a kid but that he’s a Commander who will take control, shake things up, and try to reform the Night Watch to the power it once was. But, as with all reformers, not everyone will agree with him. I will be very very interested to see what happens on the Wall when book six eventually comes out. And Tyrion, as always, gets some of the best chapters by merit of the most interesting and varied supporting cast. But he still has the unfortunately repetitive habit of repetitively repeating the same things repeatedly. In previous books it’s been ‘I’m in love with a whore’ and ‘my sister tried to kill me’, this book it’s ‘I killed my father and King Joffrey’ (only one of which is true) and ‘Maybe I should ask her/him/them ‘where whores go”. Also there’s the fact that in the third book he murdered a woman for the crime of sleeping with someone who wasn’t him. There’s not really any coming back from that in my eyes, no matter how witty you are.
Which, funnily enough, is also the problem I have with relatively new viewpoint character Victarian. Introduced in A Feast for Crows, he returns in this book when the timelines merge once more. Brother of the new king of the Iron Islands, and experienced raider, Victorian bears a grudge against his brother for shagging his salt wife and ‘forcing’ Victarian to kill her. No sympathy. Really. None. Anyways, he’s been given the mission of bringing the Dragon Queen, Daenerys back as a wife for the new new king of the Iron Islands. So there’s a lot of him travelling on a boat, raping a ‘dark mute’ his brother gave him as a present, and plotting to marry Dany for himself. And he’s not the only one, Quentin Martell of Dorne is on his way to Myreen as well to court the new Queen and persuade her to return to Westeros and take an army of Dornishmen as a wedding gift.
So lots going on in this book. Some worked for me (mostly the bits in northern Westeros and north of the Wall), some didn’t. It felt more like a Song of Ice and Fire book than the previous volume did. But I found that this was the book where I found popular criticisms of Martins style the most valid – the sexualisation bothered me more than in previous books and seemed more out of place, I felt there was a lot more rape happening on page and that it was presented in more worrying ways than in earlier books (a prior relationship with a man – only revealed after the sex scene – does not give him the right to corner you outside your bedroom and fuck you until you cry after you say ‘no’.) and there was a heavy-handed and exoticism and otherising in the way non-westerosi characters were portrayed that made Dany’s conquest and rulership uncomfortable. Probably most annoying from a purely narrative perspective, though, was that Martin’s penchant for unexpected twists and ‘it can always get worse’ meant that at the end of the book I was left with a ‘well what was the point of all that then?’ feeling. The place that Martin chose to wrap up the book (apparently earlier than he had wanted, pushing some already written material back into the next book) meant that several of the plotlines, for me ended up feeling like a five-book-long shaggy dog story.
So yeah, I really enjoyed this book, it’s highly readable, and I really look forward to the sequel – especially for what’s happening in the north and at the Wall – but I did have some pretty big problems with it too and I don’t want to gloss over them.