Review: ‘A Dance With Dragons’

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A Dance With Dragons
By George R.R. Martin

  • Date Finished: Dec. 22, 2014
  • Genre: Fiction, Fantasy
  • Year: 2011
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Winter 2014-15, NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction Novels
  • Grade: B
  • Thoughts upon reading:

So far, I have given every Game of Thrones book I’ve read an A or A+. I’ve made it clear that I really, really like this series: I think GoT is highly readable, engaging, addicting, fun, and high-quality fantasy, and I even asked for all five books for Christmas so I can re-read them at my leisure. You would think that when I finally made it to the last book (that’s been written so far), I would be just as on-board with things.

But I had to give A Dance With Dragons (ADWD) a ‘B’ because I honestly believe it’s the weakest book that George R.R. Martin (GRRM) has yet written in this series. I’m sure the hordes will disagree with me, but there you have it. I’m not saying it’s BAD (It’s not! A ‘B’ is not bad! I still love the series!), but I do believe it is the weakest book.

Actually, I’m not sure what the hordes will think because I’m not yet “with it” with the true GoT fans (books, not TV series). I know a friend said a few months ago that A Feast for Crows (AFFC) was her least favorite book, and even though I agree with many of her reasons, I can’t help but think the fourth book was actually a little stronger than ADWD.

But first, where to start, where to start…

General thoughts

Well, first, I guess I’d have to say that ADWD brings to the forefront a lot of my recurring issues with the Song of Ice and Fire series. This book reminds us how, even though we’re thousands and thousands of pages into this story, we don’t really have a hero yet. There are no “good” or “bad” guys, it seems, everyone is at war with each other, and even if our tenuous “good guys” ever did win the day, I’m not sure it would be the best outcome. At this point, I’m not sure what I want to happen – the only thing I really want is a few select individuals NOT to die. That lack of emotional connection to the overarching story is a weakness I identified from the very beginning, and if GRRM doesn’t watch out, it’s going to be the downfall of the series.

Along those lines, it was while finishing ADWD last night that I realized: I’m not completely sure that GRRM has any clue where this story is going. Maybe he has a few general ideas – I know that’s how authors work – but I feel like GRRM does a lot of treading water in ADWD. There was a lot of hurry up and waiting going on. Instead of contributing to the larger story, I feel like those 959 pages are filled with a lot of plot where GRRM is trying to figure out what he wants his characters to do. And I’m sorry – 959 pages is a lot of time to be like, “Yeah, I don’t know. I’m just writing just to write now. I don’t know where I’m going with this. We’ll see if I can come up with something good at the end.” Uh, that’s called needing an editor.

But you never know, maybe what I see as excessive plot really WILL mean something when GRRM finally ties everything together in the final two books. Maybe we were shown all this STUFF for a reason.  But there was SO MUCH STUFF happening, and SO MANY more people coming in and out of the story – I’m beginning to suspect that a lot of this plot will actually end up being useless. It’s happened before.

Now, to address a few of my specific complaints.  But first, do know that I still loved the book, just as I love the series. Yes, it has its flaws, but it is still a great read and OF COURSE I’m in this for the long haul. But given GRRM’s current writing pace, it could be another 10 years before this series wraps up. They’re not talking about the sixth book until 2016-17…sigh. I won’t be able to discuss GoT for a very long time, so I might as well make it worth it.

WARNING: While I tried to refrain from big spoilers in my past reviews, I figure now that I’ve finished reading all the books yet published, I don’t really care. If you only watch the TV show, you might want to stop reading now. But ADWD has been out for at least three years now – please, if you’re a fan of the show, just read the books.

Cersei

I thought that Cersei’s story in AFFC was very strong – I loved all the political maneuvering and plotting as Cersei finally ascends the Iron Throne (in a way). Like I said in my review of that book, it was great to see Cersei finally coming into her own and being able to do what she wants, openly, all the while watching it all fall apart because – really – Cersei is a paranoid sociopath. I love how she was finally called out on all her bullshit at the end and taken prisoner – it was a great, great cliffhanger, and I felt it had the potential to throw Kings Landing into upheaval and leave it vulnerable to those plotting against it.

Now, ADWD follows the same time period as AFFC – just different characters. But then, about three-quarters of the way through, it picks up with all the characters at the same point. That was kind of cool, and I liked revisiting Cersei. But WTF – she says she’s sorry and is allowed to walk out of prison? Yeah, she has to do the walk of shame (and it’s pretty terrible), but she survives, and now she’s back at the Red Keep, safe and sound? And OF COURSE she’s going to do a “trial by battle” instead of being tried by the Faith, because that’s how all the characters get away with stuff in this series. La-me. I say: keep her locked up, make her sweat some more, and let Kings Landings REALLY fall apart. Let’s really mess with the Lannister monopoly.

Daenerys

Oh geez, is this supposed to be one of our heroes? This is supposed to be Westeros’ “savior”? Then, what the hell is she doing in ADWD? Seriously, all she does is waste time in Meereen. And for what? What is this episode supposed to show us? That Daenerys is a compassionate ruler, but yet still an immature girl? OK, you did that, but in the end, I had to ask myself: does she even WANT to go back to Westeros? And, is it going to take her 10 more years to get there, because frankly, it’s looking that way.

And yes yes, the politics of Meereen and the slave cities is interesting, but is this really where our story is supposed to happen? Are we really supposed to care about this place? If not, why are we wasting our time?

Going back to the lack of heroes, I feel that this series also suffers from a lot of overreaching. Readers need a focus, a central geography, places and people that are familiar and with well-established backgrounds. We already have that with Westeros. Spending so much time in Meereen, I feel, was a mistake, and it served as a distraction to the reader. Hell, most of the characters also agree that Daenerys spends too much time in Meereen. But the fact of the matter is, GRRM also spends a lot of time showing us Meereen, and so I’m left to wonder: “How will this place, and what happened here, matter in the end?”

Jon

Oh, poor Jon Snow. Jon is one of the few, truly good, heroes for this series, and luckily, I wasn’t disappointed with his story in ADWD. I’m impressed with his leadership on the Wall, how he treats with the wildlings, and how he handles Stannis and all the in-fighting within his own ranks. And GRRM ends Jon’s storyline with one of his famous “Is he dead!?!” cliffhangers, which is exciting, though I much prefer the ending of A Storm of Swords, when Jon is elected Lord Commander, because frankly, I much prefer Jon Snow alive.

That being said, even though it sucks to think poor Jon may be dead, I really don’t think he is. If he does die from this latest attack, it would be really, really disappointing. First of all, the entire storyline up at the Wall would be kaput and meaningless. If Jon’s dead, then there would be no one to reliably pick up where he left off. Plus, Jon was, like, the only one who had his shit together up there, and was actually doing something to protect the realm, and so without him, I feel like (again) a  lot of the plot would have been for naught.  Also, Westeros would be screwed.

The thing is, I really didn’t get mad after the Red Wedding basically killed the whole Northern rebellion (not to mention poor Robb Stark and his direwolf) – I felt like that plot development was a long time coming, and so I didn’t feel like all that “Young Wolf” stuff was wasted paper. But seriously, if GRRM kills Jon, then everyone is going to be left wondering, “Well, WTF was all that about?” Plus, I read that GRRM “made a promise” that Jon would learn who his mother was during the series; that may or may not be true, but it still seems like Jon Snow has a lot left to do.

PLUS, like I said, Jon Snow is probably one of the only true heroes in this story. If he dies, GRRM is going to piss off, like, everyone. I don’t put it past GRRM to do that, but it would be very disappointing to the entire series to kill off one of the only good guys so early on. Even though I would still read the last two books to find out what happens, I know I would stop caring.

Arya and Bran

I love my girl Arya, I really do. But what’s her deal in this book? Is she just going to be some Tyroshi assassin now? Does she even want to return to Westeros? I’m dying to know what GRRM has in store for her later on, but again, I feel like this was a storyline where he did a lot of stalling and provided no real answers.

Also, where is he going with Bran? Is Bran – now a greenseer in training – just supposed to hang out in this cave with the last Children of the Forest and slowly become a tree, like his teacher? Poor Jojen and Meera are going to die, if that’s the case, not to mention poor Hodor. I wish GRRM had given us a little more explanation as to how Bran’s gift is useful and applicable in the greater scheme of things. And what about that dead guy who escorted them to the cave? I’m thinking that could be their long-lost ranger uncle, but I’m not sure.

Tyrion

Tyrion, I felt, was the saving grace of this book. But then, he’s always the best, right? Tyrion is one of the few major characters to have a storyline that actually goes someplace in ADWD – meaning, he starts in one place, has a lot of interesting and life-changing encounters, ends in a very different place, and with the potential to do more.

I’m thinking that one of the few reasons GRRM needed to really show the Meereen/Yunkai war was to give Tyrion’s journey some context, so there’s that. And I love how he’s teaming up with Ser Jorah, who’s like, BAM, back from the dead. I feel like there’s a lot of great things yet to come from Tyrion Lannister, and so at least I have that to look forward to. I have my own ideas on where Tyrion will end up, and how he could die, but I’m keeping those close to the vest for now. I wouldn’t be surprised if GRRM surprised me with this one – he always does.

Aegon & Griff/Jon Connington

OK, where did this kid come from? You’re going to tell me that NOW we’re expected to believe that another Targeyen has been alive this entire time, and oh yeah, he has a better claim to the Iron Throne than Daenerys? That’s a stretch, but I can go with it…for now.

Everyone else

Finally, I felt like there were a lot of storylines that weren’t necessarily left with cliffhangers, but left obnoxiously open-ended. At the very end, Ramsey Bolton writes a letter claiming Stannis is dead – but the last we see him, he’s alive, so is he really? Davos Seaworth was supposed to be dead, but oh yeah, he’s actually alive and now on some secret mission. And wasn’t Brienne of Tarth supposedly hung by zombie Catelyn Stark? Well, she’s back and hanging out with Jaime, so great.

And this goes into another complaint: there are now three kinds of “dead” in the GoT universe. There’s: everyone thinks you’re dead, but you’re actually not (Bran, Rickon, Davos Seaworth); actually dead-dead (Robb and Ned Stark); and dead but now a zombie (Catelyn Stark, maybe this Ser Robert Strong character). It’s hard keeping track of everyone’s current dead status.

My other ‘Game of Thrones’ reviews:

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