Much has been made about the nearly six-year void since George R.R. Martin dropped A FEAST FOR CROWS into our laps. Impatient readers were up in arms as other books hit the shelves with Martin's name splashed across the cover, and yet the eagerly awaited fifth installment of the immensely intriguing A Song of Ice and Fire seemed no closer to completion. At one point, Martin refused to discuss the book anymore, and more recently, fellow authors Neil Gaiman and John Scalzi jumped to defend Martin against the ire of fans --- the former bluntly intimating that Martin doesn't owe anyone anything, and the latter logically laying out the facts that, given the size of the book, it was just necessarily going to take as long as it did. Weighing in at 1,016 pages, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS seriously could not have been written any faster. Now that the results of all those long agonizing years of waiting are finally revealed, it goes without saying that cover to cover, page for page, it was absolutely worth it.
"A DANCE WITH DRAGONS is wholly remarkable writing from a wholly genius storyteller. If you have not yet become ensnared...now would be the perfect time to begin your adventure."
A DANCE WITH DRAGONS is not a direct sequel to A FEAST FOR CROWS. Originally the two books were one, but it was decided that the most logical way to split the book would be along character lines. Instead of telling half the story for all the characters, the full story was told for half the characters in each book. Approximately 2/3 of the way through DANCE, however, the storylines converge once more and the combined storyline resumes.
Martin spins his story like a spider spins a web. Each chapter is from one character's point of view, comprising the rings of the web. But moments exist when a strand, a main arc, runs across all the rings, connecting the storylines to the larger core plot. So as one reads, they will essentially be jumping from ring to ring, back and forth, experiencing an advance in the smaller personal stories until they collide into the story proper. It works brilliantly, but it does require a reader to pay attention. This is not a book one can skim through. This should come as no surprise in a book where there are 18 viewpoint characters. It covers activity in three major areas of interest: the lands beyond the Narrow Sea, the Wall and the world north of the Wall, and a few specific locations in Westeros, such as King's Landing and Winterfell.
Across the sea, Daenerys Stormborn, the Mother of Dragons, is trying to hold together her rule in Meereen, seemingly reluctant to continue on to reclaim her throne in Westeros. She is burned by betrayals of the past but also seeks a marriage that will bring peace in the city. Two of her three dragons have been confined to a hold, while the third, Drogon, roams free and is reported to have been killing children as well as livestock. In her company is Ser Barristan Selmy, the former commander of the Kingsguard of King's Landing until newly-crowned Joffrey had dismissed him. Tyrion Lannister, the Imp, continues his flight from Westeros after poisoning his nephew, King Joffrey, and murdering his own father, Lord Tywin. Tyrion's goal is to find Daenerys and offer his services to her, but through a series of misfortunes, he finds himself enslaved just shy of the gates of Meereen. Along the way he has also encountered Aegon Targaryen, son of Prince Rhaegar, long thought to have been killed when Robert Baratheon captured the Iron Throne. Aegon has set his sights on the Iron Throne for himself once he learned that his Aunt Daenerys seems content to stay in Meereen.
In the North, Ramsay Bolton is prepared to marry Arya Stark in the ruins of Winterfell, which had previously been sacked by Theon Greyjoy. Bolton and his disgusting slave/servant, Reek, lead a full contingent of men to Winterfell for the wedding and also to rightfully lay claim to the castle as a provocation against Stannis, the proclaimed King in the North. Stannis has been desperately seeking former Stark bannermen to join his forces and reclaim the Iron Throne since he is the only rightful heir to his late brother Robert's crown. Stannis has sought assistance at the Wall, though Jon Snow, the bastard son of the late Eddard Stark and the new Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, refuses to betray the vows of the order and take sides in the conflict. Stannis wants the castles and lands on the Wall, but Jon refuses to yield them. At the same time, the Others are massing on the opposite side of the Wall. Jon has stirred the frustration of the King and the dislike of his wife, not to mention his own brothers on the Wall, by reaching out his hand in an effort to unite with the Wildlings, the age-old enemies of the men of Westeros. And as winter begins to unleash its fury, King Stannis and his men march on Winterfell in an effort to rescue Arya Stark and bring Ramsay Bolton to his knees.
And that gives you the bare bones of about half of it. You can see why this is not a quick, breezy read.
While the novel is engrossing and encourages late nights and much page turning in earnest, the moments spent with Jon Snow on the Wall are the most intriguing and intense. Seeing him surrounded on all sides, struggling to do his duty to the realm and finding that his former enemies seem to be his only friends, is nerve-wracking. His story seems all the more intense because, as the noose tightens on all sides, he is, as an ever-loyal member of the Night's Watch, confined to the Wall. This inability to leave his surroundings serves to heighten all of the tensions.
Of course, across the Narrow Sea, talk of Jon and the mysteries of his parentage are again brought up, and readers are left with another possibility of just who Jon is born of. The other characters and their tales are freer, more liberated. It does not make their stories any less interesting, mind you, for there are intrigues upon intrigues and conniving machinations aplenty. It is also interesting to see the ruin previously known as Theon Greyjoy. The Turncloak, who betrayed the Starks and brought down Winterfell, Theon has been tortured mentally and physically by Ramsay Bolton and, quite literally, is missing a few firing connections in his synapses. That he can cause a reader to feel sorrow for him and his present station in light of the anger he also invokes, given his past treachery, is a wonderful example of Martin's mastery.
Martin is an amazing storyteller. Although he writes in the epic fantasy world, it is obvious when you start reading that he just simply does not write the way others do. His work is steeped more in history than fantasy, but it does nothing to remove the majesty and magic from his work. Readers of fantasy live in a gifted time, as there are many tremendous authors working in the genre. Along with Martin, they serve to elevate the world of fantasy beyond the sneered-upon marginal work into true literary marvels that deserve the attention they are getting.
A DANCE WITH DRAGONS is wholly remarkable writing from a wholly genius storyteller. If you have not yet become ensnared by the web that is the game of thrones, now would be the perfect time to begin your adventure. If you've come this far, this new installment will serve to whet your appetite until THE WINDS OF WINTER lands on shelves. However many years that may take, do not grow angry or frustrated, or complain too loudly about the time that elapses. Martin will take every minute he needs and pay back your patience with gold.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on August 1, 2011