A Dance with Dragons, the fifth novel in George R. R. Martin's epic A Song of Ice and Fire series, was published in 2011, after a five-year gap between it and the previous entry, A Feast for Crows. The series started with A Game of Thrones in 1996. The series has had an interesting evolution. Originally intended to be a trilogy, Martin soon realized that his fictional world of Westeros and beyond was expanding and would require first, four, than six, now seven, and possibly even eight books to complete. As the time between the published novels stretches, his devoted readers fret that their author may never reach a conclusion. After completing A Dance with Dragons I can understand some of the reader-panic. In his latest entry the world and its characters have continued to expand. How can Martin possible polish off this series in just seven books?
|Dany (played by Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones) with her dragon, Drogon|
I discovered Martin and his world like many, after watching the first season of Game of Thrones on HBO. A huge Sean Bean fan, I was shocked when the axe fell and ended both his character Ned Stark, the presumed "hero" of the show, and any expectations I might have been harboring of where the narrative would take me next. As soon as the first season ended I dove into the books — A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, and straight through until A Feast for Crows. In the meantime, I had purchased A Dance with Dragons not long after it came out, and even read a few chapters before I set it aside. I wasn't ready to get to the end of whatever Martin had written so far.
When the second and third seasons of the television show aired, I was, I thought, prepared for what would be depicted onscreen. But show runners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have managed to add a few twists and turns of their own, especially in the recently ended fourth season, to keep both book readers and the "Unsullied" jumping. Once the fourth season recently ended it finally seemed like a good time to pick up the threads of the story and see where Tyrion and Arya and Daenerys and Jon Snow and all the others were headed next. I got those answers. Sorta.
If you browse Amazon or any other site that reviews A Dance with Dragons the number one complaint is that nothing happens, that Martin is treading water. At a glacial, even soap oper-like pace. There are a lot of pages devoted to ships traveling on the sea. Slowly. It's not an incorrect critique, if what one was hoping for was a lot of physical movement of the main characters, like pieces on a chessboard. Martin may be playing chess, or cyvasse, as Tyrion does, but with a different, longer game in mind. Which is why I think that to truly sum things up, he'll need three more books. Hopefully we can all get there.
Martin may spend what some consider an inordinate amount of time describing what his characters are eating and how they are dressing, but can anyone deny that they don't know the difference between conditions at The Wall versus Meereen or the Dothraki sea? He also manages to get in quite a bit of backstory, to expand on what happened before the first novel took place, the motivations of people that are casting long shadows on their younger generations. And the horrors of war, and difficulties of governing, which could easily be compared to some very contemporary problems and issues. I will admit that I didn't necessarily need to be reminded multiple times of Meereen's many-colored brick pyramid walls. But I think Martin may have acquired the same problem with his editors that plagued J.K. Rowling towards the end of her Harry Potter series. They don't cut a damn word.
|Reek (Alfie Allen) gives his master Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon) a close shave|
Some characters may seem to have evolved only slightly in A Dance with Dragons, but appearances may be deceiving. Let's examine.
Daenerys. The Queen of Meereen and all her other numerous titles, is still in the east, and seems no closer to getting to Westeros, which is very frustrating for readers. As she likes to say (a lot) she is just a young girl. This young girl does spend a lot of time mooning over a certain sell-sword named Daario, but when the goings get tough outside her adopted/conquered city (plague, famine, attack from many enemies), she doesn't take the easy way out as all her advisors want her to do, but stays put and tries to make a better life for her people. She even agrees to marry the noble Hizdahr, someone she neither trusts note ives, because she thinks it will bring peace. And towards the end of the book she finally gets to do what I had been waiting, hoping for for ages — she hops on her dragon Drogon's back and takes flight. Truly the Mother of Dragons, Daenerys may be temporarily a bit lost in the Dothraki Sea, but she will still be a force to be reckoned with.
Tyrion. His chapters may have been the most frustrating for readers (and Martin). A fan favorite, how are we supposed to feel about him, after he has killed his father and his lover and fled, presumably in search of "where whores go"? Martin's answer was to send him on a circuitous journey, teasing us with his reaching Daenerys to join her council. But he never really does. Instead he meets another Targaryen no one knew was still alive, also interested in taking the Iron Throne, gets captured by Jorah Mormont, then both are later sold into slavery where he meets a female (and fairly annoying) performing dwarf. As always Tyrion uses his considerable wits to get them out of that predicament, but what next? Another cliffhanger.
|"You know nothing, Jon Snow" (Kit Harington)|
Those are the three central characters of the narrative at the moment, but there was a lot more going on as well, with Arya, and Bran, and Asha Greyjoy, but most especially with Reek, now back to calling himself Theon. Theon has become a fascinating character, one which I never expected to sympathize with. When we first meet him in A Game of Thrones he was clearly a callow youth. Some might even have called him a jerk. It comes as no surprise (except to the Starks) that he became Theon Turncloak. But Martin threw Theon and his readers for a loop when he introduced an even more vile character in the form of Ramsay Snow, the Bastard of Bolton. Ramsay tortured, castrated, and mutilated Theon, turning him into the sniveling Reek. The unpleasant Reek gave us a view into Ramsay and his father Roose Bolton's doings (much like his sister Asha functions to show us what Stannis and his army are up to). But once Ramsay takes Winterfell in A Dance with Dragons, Reek slowly transforms back into Theon. His memories of his childhood there and his vists to the weirwood tree (and possible coaching from greenseer Bran) restore, at least mentally, his manhood. A character I used to loathe reading about, Theon has become one of the most interesting characters in the series.
A Dance with Dragons visits King's Landing for just a few chapters, which may have worked better in A Feast for Crows, but why quibble? Cersei is as awful (and fun to read about) as ever. Her uncle Kevan had a slam-bang chapter of his own, which featured another favorite face from the past, Varys. But these brief visits are just previews of the next book, The Winds of Winter. And there, lies the rub, of course. Martin has such a way of making us interested in his characters, that one can't help but be frustrated when one nears the end of the massive tome and realizes that just ten more pages aren't going to reveal what happens next to Tyrion, Daenerys, or in a way-too-short tantalizing peek, Jaime and Brienne (!) So here we sit, hoping for scraps and previews that Martin is posting on his blog. And maybe rewatching select episodes of Game of Thrones until The Winds of Winter comes out. This year? Next year?