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Saturday, July 16, 2011

"A Dance with Dragons" by George RR Martin (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official GRRM Website
A Song of Ice and Fire at Wikipedia
Order A Dance with Dragons HERE

INTRODUCTION: As I mentioned in other posts, there are only two authors that I regard as iconic in fantasy and one of them is George Martin since before A Game of Thrones appeared - and especially before it started taking off in the late 90's, early 00's - I found very little genre fantasy to read. I am not a Tolkien, Feist, D&D, Jordan, Erikson, etc fan since I prefer my fantasy to be with little magic and closer to historical fiction - my main problem with magic is that it suffers from the "works at one clock, but not at two a clock" syndrome as well as the authors rarely exploring the implications on societal evolution of having unambiguous, "I can kick it" proof of mind's ability to influence matter directly, not through technology and science.

Before AGoT, I knew about Mr. Martin from his awesome Sandkings novella which was one of the defining texts of my childhood that made me a lifelong sf fan, so intrigued by the blurb I bought AGoT on release and never looked back, while thinking, that, "yes, this is the fantasy I want to read". On the other hand I do not tend to agonize over unfinished series and I read the books as they come, so after A Feast for Crows and the rereads of the earlier three books in 2005, I kind of forgot about ASoIaF until this year's superb TV series put me back in a Westeros mood and I've reread the four earlier books in two languages each for good measure since I happen to have a full Romanian language set too.

So very, very high expectations for A Dance with Dragons and after the first two reads, I have to say that the book while not perfect and quite transitional and expanding the story-lines rather than starting to pull them together as one would expect in a fifth out of seventh series novel, delivered more than enough to be my top fantasy of the year so far.

In the following I will try to avoid major spoilers for the novel itself, though there will be of course major ones for the series up to AFFC and as befitting a novel of such huge scope with action taking place in many locales, lots of characters, etc, the "review" will be more of a collection of impressions and highlights, as well as some of the stuff I thought worked less well. As usual, whatever counts as spoiler for a person may not count as such for me, so if you have not read A Dance with Dragons so far, read what follows at your peril!

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The first thing that surprised me when reading A Dance with Dragons is that the book does not have the "each word counts" finished feel I expected after the very public six year struggle of the author with it; for the first 600 pages I felt like almost nothing happens as the big picture goes, just going back and forth to mark the time until the timeline gets to the end of A Feast for Crows and things can start happening; when things start to happen, yes the action is mostly awesome, but there is some silliness too.

Now, "almost nothing happens" would be an indictment for many authors since it would mean bloated verbosity, but in GRRM's case, the world building, the character dialogue and the nuggets of action that we see are more than enough to make the pages turn by themselves and keep one absorbed.

Yes, not all story-lines are equally absorbing and for me the North alternates between very interesting when we see the actions of various Northern lords, most notably the Boltons and lord Manderly in the new circumstances, while Stannis prepares to assert his rule and confront his enemies and the more boring parts of Jon trying to be "humane" and integrate the starving, fleeing wildlings with their historical enemies, the Night Watch whose commander he happens to be. Never a big favorite of mine, I have to say that "Lord Snow"'s arc is one of the best realized in the book and it will be a highlight for many.

Or Tyrion's wanderings where maybe because of him being still in shock after the dramatic events of A Storm of Swords, he is far from the sharp operator we got to know and love and seems more like a comic relief persona thrown there to be blown away on the wind by whatever current is stronger at the moment. This was the part I was looking forward the most and maybe because of that, it was the most disappointing thread of the novel.

The other main story of the novel, Daenerys' rule of Meereen is quite interesting though, even if it is not what what is generally assumed that happens in fantasy - where the destined one comes, conquers, snaps his/her fingers and all live happily ever after. No, here we see "reality": conquering with a strong army and better weapons is easy, but holding on what you conquer is very hard and requires sacrifices; this point of "is it worth to conquer hoping to give people a better life, only to realize that most want the lives they led before and having peace may mean compromising all you hold dear?" that we see repeated throughout history up to the present, is one that GRRM keeps making and as mentioned above there is no "out of jail card". I found this thread excellent and very realistic though I am sure that people wanting traditional fantasy will hate it the most.

Daenerys' peregrination and decisions were simple so far - she acted true to her principles and despite hardships she has won - but now that she decided to actually rule, she faces two equally unheroic choices: bath Meereen in the blood of her enemies, including the hostages from her entourage that she came to like, or compromise with the slavers and their allies and allow a more relaxed form of what came before. And the way this dilemma plays through the book was to me one of the highlights of the novel; without easy choices, the author's handling of it was as good as possible within the constraints.

Interspersed with these three main stories, there are a lot of other characters stories and those mostly work well, but here and there I was wondering at the structure of the novel and how quite a few of those (Bran and Cersei's chapters for example and maybe even Arya's) could have easily been included in A Feast for Crows since they are tangential to this book, while leaving space for expanding the intrinsic stories of A Dance with Dragons and sparing us the "unfinished feel" we get in the end, feel which the author clearly indicated was due for lack of space.

A Dance with Dragons is not short on great lines and there are quite a few scenes that hold with the best to date in the series but I will leave that for everyone to discover them. For myself, besides the obvious ones, Cersei's arc was quite memorable for example especially still having clear in mind Lena Hadley's arrogant but great performance of the queen in the TV series...

As for characters, for me the best one - in the heroic fantasy mode - was Ser Barristan who has several POV chapters and he is given ample scope to show why he is so famous after all. The most disappointing one was Tyrion as mentioned above.

Now for the things that worked less well - I think that Mr. Martin's decision to split the story geographically rather than chronologically was misguided and A Dance with Dragons shows it since until the timeline catches with AFFC, nothing major we do not know about can happen and this - what I call the prequel's bane - makes those first 600 pages or so much slower than the rousing finale.

The wrap up to most stories is another issue - here the culprit is the page count which basically forced the author to postpone lots of events to the next book - so there is a feel of incompleteness and while it bothers me less than others, I think that will be easily seen as the major shortcoming of the novel. The good news is that once The Winds of Winter will be out, this aspect will be forgotten, the bad news is that we have no idea when that book will be out...

And here we come to the last thing of concern, namely that at the current pace, I have a hard time seeing it finished in two more volumes, even of 1000 pages like this one. Now that is not a bad thing since I am happy to read at length about the wonderful characters of GRRM and their world, but one thing I hope is that the author will not try again to be over ambitious and stick with a "I said seven, seven must be" plan and then realize he simply does not have the space to tell all the stories he wants, the way he wants. When in a fifth out presumably seventh book and in 1000 pages+, the story and characters expand, sometimes quite a lot, rather than starting to get together, this is something one has to mention.

Overall I think that if you are an obsessive fan who discusses the finest points of the series in great detail in various forums, the book will be acceptable but not totally awesome for the reasons mentioned above, but if you love a grand scale epic series where the author keeps his "action have consequences and there is no get out the jail card" stance that so shocked people including myself in the earlier volumes, A Dance with Dragons (A++) will be the one novel you want to read this year indeed!


Louis E Dockery III said...

I must say that I come to this site alot to help me with buying decisions. I am currently 25% thru this book and , while it is pretty much what I expected, after so long of a time lag between this book and the last book, I am not as involved as I was earlier in the series.

Bets Davies said...

I feel profane for saying it, but I am not much of a historical fantasy girl. If I wanted to read about history, I'd read history. I'm more of an urban or fusion (combines elements from just about everything) girl. However, I read your reviews because I feel you have an intelligent analysis.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words; as for preferences, I feel strongly that with so many books of all kinds out there, there is something for any book lover

sam said...

who is the othe author you consider iconic

Liviu said...

China Mieville.

Anonymous said...

A is a really good book to me. Practically perfect. And your enthusiasm seems moderate even where you are not critical. Yet you give an A double plus! It's a bit strange.

Liviu said...

For me A is a book I loved and was happy to read and sad to finish; I tried different rating systems but none worked since I would inevitably end up ranking simpler books like say Camera Obscura which is very well executed and fun btw, higher than complex books like this one that may have some issues but are so much more

ADWD is so far the one epic and the 2nd book overall of 2011 that I would choose on a deserted island, etc, etc

Anonymous said...

I just finished the book. Loved it and hated it. I hated the fact that I am going to have to wait years until the next edition. Pure torture.

Liviu said...

Yes, I guess that is one of the main reasons lots of people are vocal about ADWD; let's hope that now the Meerenese Knot has been sorted out - imho satisfactory given the constraints, though again maybe not the way many expected - the next novel will go faster and will be out in 2-3 years.

Cryston said...

I have to say that i had some of the same feelings towards the beginning of the book as well. But how much of that is the book it self and how much is our anticipation from where we left off last time. I think the eagerness that i had to get back into the swing of things made me particularly impatient, especially during the prolog.

Michael said...

Awesome by far superior to a feast for crows this is much more like the first three books. Crows was needed it gave a bridge for dance with dragons.

Can he finish it in seven I think so this is all set up to hit us with a huge effort at the wall then the final clean up to form one ruling house.

My only concerns is GRRM is not a young man anymore and although incredibly gifted he is also a very slow precise author. I started reading a song of ice and fire when I was 16 and I am 31 now!

Mystic said...

Love this series. One thing that bothers me is he has killed off ALL my fav charactors apart from Daenerys so far bit gutted bout that. Am keenly awaiting the next installment and hope that he expands on the 7 instead of trying to fit everything in condensed. I love series and one of my faves is the Terry Goodkind one about Richard and Kahlan. The ASOIAF series is as easy to read as that but just a bit more realistic. There are consequenses for actions!!

Jim King said...

Based on your dislike of magic I'm surprised you'd like this series either as there is definitely a lot of magic in it. Not obviously, but it's there. They talk about spells at the Wall, spells that were used to control dragons in the past, etc. It's there. In LOTR there was at least some explanation. Tolkien was a hardcore Catholic, and magic in LOTR is the same kind you find in the Bible - just the will of powerful beings is enough. Not an explanation that really satisfies the modern mind, but that was his thinking.

As for A Dance with Dragons, I can't see myself continuing with this series. I loved the first three books but it seems to me that its popularity is going to be its downfall. Had it been less popular he would have had to finish sooner, and it would have been tighter. You said there isn't the feeling that every word counts and you're right.

Not only does virtually nothing happen, he ends the whole thing with more cheeseball cliffhangers. I just don't care enough about what happens after this.

Jim King said...

One thing that bothers me is he has killed off ALL my fav charactors apart from Daenerys so far bit gutted bout that.

This is one of the biggest problems of the book. Earlier on, it was refreshing to have an author who wasn't afraid of killing off important characters. Now it's got to the point where you can pretty much write everyone off. That makes it as predictable as the other way around.

Liviu said...

Great comments all; I agree completely with the main reason books are late is that the serie sis popular, so GRRM can write to his heart content rather than have to meet deadlines, meet page counts, etc, but that's the curse of any super-popular series and hopefully now the HBO show will keep pressing the author for faster delivery.

Wilks said...

I enjoyed A Dance with Dragons, but I must say that I felt like nothing happened. I enjoyed the story. I love GRRM's style of writing, and I was definitely sad to finish the final pages, but a the same time, I'm sitting here thinking that the only character who's story has really developed beyond where they were at the end of Storm of Swords/Feast for Crows is Tyrion.....Danaerys, Jon, Cersei, Arya, Davos, Bran, and other's stories advanced so little during the course of an 1100 page book, that I was some what disappointed with what seemed like a huge lull in the plot advancement. I really like the way GRRM writes, so I liked the book, but I am wondering if, after all these years, he is not exactly sure where to take some characters, and needed to get the book out, so he wrote a long book where, arguably, nothing really happens.

Anonymous said...

The long awaited "A Dance with Dragons" by George RR Martin was a huge dissapointment. The words sat on the page, and sat, and sat. I would continue reading in hopes that an exciting storytelling would
begin to emerge, but it never did.
How sad!
Cheryl Parkinson

Anonymous said...

I just finished ADWD and I truly enjoyed it. Worth the wait? Not one that long lol. But I noticed alot of people complaining that nothing happened. I agree and disagree. No their was not alot of action and the story expanded when it should start compounding but we get to know these caricatures more deeply and see them evolve and become who they are destined to be. Dead or alive. I enjoy watching them grow and I try to get a sense of what choices they may be forced to make when the time comes to face the real danger the Others. I have alot of time invested in these novels and I am happy to see Mr. Martin taking great care to make these players in the game of thrones seem more than just a card board cut out formula.

Liviu said...

More great comments!

Now that a little more time passed and more and more people finished the book, I think that the essence of how the book is perceived started to crystallize: this with AFFC are the usual "middle trilogy" books since here the first volume morphed into the three books till ADWD so to speak, hence the feeling of positioning rather than full throttle advance from the those books, but the characters, writing and world building more than make for that for most readers

Anonymous said...

I hadn't intended to read your review until I had read the book. And I wasn't expecting to read the book until it came out in paperback. Thanks to a gift, I've now done both.
And I must say your review is astute. My one disagreement is regarding Jon Snow and Daenerys.
Jon's story at the Wall followed from the character and his choices. Daenerys in Meereen, seemed like filler to me. Well written, but irritating filler nonetheless. And the reason is whispered to her on the wind in the Sea of Grass at the end: "You should be making haste to Westeros." Her dalliance with ruling Meereen felt like a plot contrivance.
That said, I must add that Martin could take any minor person in any of his books, and with his skill write a story of any length that would be better than 90% of Fantasy out there on the market.
I eagerly await his next ASoIaF book.

carbon said...

I remember reading Sandkings in Omni magazine, and loved it. AGoT grabbed me as well, although I admit the long delay had my interest drop off. Thanks for the review, I may jump back in and continue with the series... said...

What a great blog! You can find this book, along with a host of other recent best sellers, at!

Anonymous said...

The book was a dissapointment to me. I didn't hate it but have to agree with some disallusioned readers. Some of the writing in the book is crisp and some of it is just downright sloppy and juvenile. Too much is happening, too many characters and too much world building. FOC and ADWD could have been condensed into one book with a smart editor at the helm. A glimmer of hope comes in the last hundred pages or so when the story starts to pick up again.

dash bannon said...

I've just started the third book and keep peaking ahead at what's next.

Reading the comments and reviews, I suspect GRRM doesn't really have an ending in mind as of yet.

He's a tv series writer and knows how to keep drama going on indefintely. I suspect he'll start to focus on things that point to a possible ending in the sixth book, and then disappoint everyone in the seventh.

I think I'll start the fourth book once the sixth book gets published. Hopefully GRRM can finish the series in his lifetime.

sian bowden said...

writing brilliant. But then, so disappointing. I read all five books between Sep and Dec. terribly disappointed at the end. Wolves, Dragons, nothing happened they ended as appendages.Where did Willow go? What happened to Neimeira? That scene where Robb was killed pwpph! -just like that -awful. Story lines that make one eager and come to nothing. What was going on in his head? Terrible. Shall not bother further. Sian Bowden.

Espana said...

Just finished this book and I am glad that it is over. Once more, I was expecting something to be resolved in this "game of thrones". But there is no resolution, there is not even very many dragon-related chapters. Characters that were in the last books are missing, with little or no explanation. New characters are introduced with no real clear purpose.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the honesty of this review. Although it was positive on the book, it wasn't gleaming like the reviews of all the major publications (NY Times, Time, LA Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, etc). Personally i thought the book was incredibly boring and finished wishing i had never read it. You could skip the first 600 (!!!) pages of this book and still be up to speed on the story line. Between this book and Feast, I'm completely removed from the story line and don't care to read the next installment. Granted I just started reading the series a few months ago so the 'long wait' wasn't a factor that seems to have blinded most of the other reviewers to the true essence of this book. I will never give praise to an author who writes purely for the money as GRRM seemed to do in this book. This 'episode' in his series is becoming a trend for authors and it makes me sad that true quality storytelling will soon be a lost art. Its one thing to say a new author surpassed another who is long dead but GRRM is definitely NOT superior to Tolkien, not even close. He had the potential with the first 3 books but lost his focus and is ruining his own masterpiece.

DMc said...

I liked it. Have read all five these past two months and now happy to wait a year or five for the next one! Clearly the reason that things aren't coming together as timely as they should is that Mr Martin cannot but help introduce new characters and storylines, ultimately at the expense of moving forward with existing storylines. Was it really necessary to have the Prince of Dorne enter the scene, futilely chase Daenarys and predictably get cindered? While a moderately interesting thread, those 100 pages or so could of been put to better use...a number of the subplots could have been sheared off for expediency I feel. Oh well, as long as Martin doesn't cark it before the series is written, I can wait.

Wild and whirling words said...

My review of the first five novels - do take a look!


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