Newcomers to G.R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series may not appreciate the significance of the release of A Dance with Dragons. Long-time fans have been waiting for the fifth book since the 2005 release of A Feast for Crows, and Dance has been in development even longer than that. Feast and Dance are technically two halves of the same story, which Martin was forced to split in half due to the manuscript’s staggering length. Rather than splitting the story chronologically however, Martin opted to divide the book by character, and the events of the two novels occur concurrently for the most part. Many of the readers’ cried foul when favorite characters, like Bran, Tyrion, and Daenerys, did not appear in Feast. These absences, paired with frequent delays in publication, ratcheted up readers’ expectations for Dance to towering levels. Consequently, it isn’t terribly surprising that the book is something of a disappointment.
The results of this experiment with separate but concurrent narratives are a pair of books that don’t feel nearly as tightly written or complete as the three that preceded them. In the first three novels, the plot plays out like a beautiful chess match, with each event logically leading to the next while meaningfully altering the state of the world for all the characters. But in Feast and in Dance the characters readers care most about are spread out and diluted with new, less important point of view characters.
Martin’s greatest strengths and gravest shortcomings as a storyteller both stem from his myriad of characters. He has been known to skillfully shift POV to redeem characters that initially seem monstrous, or lay the groundwork for meticulous Machiavellian conspiracies. But he also occasionally gets hung up on new characters who simply aren’t as interesting as the others.
A Dance with Dragons is chiefly a story about journeys and many of the chapters read like medieval travelogues. Bran’s chapters, which detail his journey north to learn the mystical abilities of the greenseer are excellent, but briefer and fewer than one might expect. The narrative exploring Jon Snow’s command of the Night’s Watch starts and ends strong, but the lengthy middle section mostly boils down to grudging negotiations and now-familiar conundrums of duty and honor. Daenerys chapters are perhaps the best-balanced in the book, blending genuine political intrigue, romance, and the bloody violence of dragons. The slowest chapters in the book are focused on a familiar character now known as Reek after being broken by torture. Many of his chapters are spent dwelling on the foolish mistake of his past and the appalling evil of his captors, illustrated through continued abuse.
Martin loves to do terrible things to his characters that irreparably alter them. Most often, this manifests as an abrupt and unexpected death, but he has also been known to cripple, maim and blind characters, especially if they are the heroic sort who would go through any other fantasy epic unharmed.
Normally, this is one of Martin’s admirable qualities as a fantasy author. But in Dance, he continues to do shocking and awful things to his characters, though their implications are generally shallow or titillating rather than moments of profound and violent characterization.
Like Feast, the pace picks up toward the end. This is especially true when the concurrent narrative ends, and we re-join those characters featured in Feast, but that takes a good six-hundred pages. There are a few thrilling pivotal moments and shocking twists, but one gets the sense that the grand plots and tremendous battles are being saved for the next two books.
Overall, the writing is solid throughout and one cannot help but be impressed by the breadth and depth of Martin’s world. But hopefully he will be able to trim the fat for the next novel.