Book #15 for 2011: A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
In a recent interview that I either read or saw with George R.R. Martin, he said that he likes to add new viewpoint characters in each book of the Song of Ice and Fire series, allowing the story to spread out further and further into the world of his alternative middle ages, bringing new kingdoms, countries and continents into the world-encompassing war that began near the end of A Game of Thrones.
Great idea, George. Pity it doesn’t work.
If anything has weakened the last couple of books in the series, it’s that none of the new characters, the ones introduced since the first book, has been as interesting as the members of the Stark, Lannister and Targaryen families, and it’s still the initial set of eight viewpoint characters (at least those among them who have survived) and their immediate relatives that the reader cares most about. The increasing bloat of secondary characters nearly swamped the fourth book of the series, A Feast for Crows, and if the series recovers its footing in the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, it’s because Martin wisely concentrates the narrative on the three strongest viewpoint characters remaining from that initial eight: Tyrion Lannister, Daenaerys Targaryen and Jon Snow (though one of the most fascinating chapters in this book is about the most underused of the original set of characters: Bran Stark).
A Dance with Dragons is a very good book, and vastly better than its frequently tedious predecessor, A Feast for Crows. If I don’t rate it quite as high as my two favorite books in the series, A Game of Thrones and A Storm of Swords, it’s only because some of that secondary character bloat still persists and there are some scenes in the midsection of the book that sag and drag a bit. (You can tell when Martin’s inspiration is starting to wane, or maybe his appetite is starting to wax, because he spends page after page describing the foods his characters are eating. Lark’s tongues are a favorite. So are crusts of bread soaked in bacon grease.)
But surrounding these scenes are some wonderful set pieces and I don’t think it will surprise anybody that this is the book where he finally unleashes Daenaerys’s unruly adolescent dragons on the world. (It’s in the title, so if that’s a spoiler, it’s Martin’s fault.) And a thrilling, terrifying trio of reptiles they turn out to be. It’s also the book where winter is no longer merely coming but has clearly started to arrive. (The title of the next book, The Winds of Winter, implies that things will be getting colder still.) Two of the three main characters get cliffhangers at the end, though for some reason the cliffhangers seemed a bit more ambiguous this time around. One of them made me say “WTF?” more than it made me say “Wow!”, but it still made me want to read the next book to find out what the hell happened. And it’s difficult to say exactly what the final scene of the book portends, but it seems to signal some major changes in the story.
So is the book worth reading? Oh, yeah. Even if some scenes are slow, A Dance with Dragons is still a clear return to form after the occasional stumbles in the previous book and there are some wonderfully unexpected twists. As usual Martin goes on far too long, but I’m happy to forgive him for it. I do have to wonder exactly how the television series will handle the way Martin left so many of these characters out of the previous book, but the producers have already begun to film certain sequences out of order relative to the books and one supposes they’ll simply have to do some plot thread juggling when seasons four and five arrive.
But what are they going to do if Martin hasn’t written books six and seven in time for seasons six and seven? Your guess is as good as mine. But I definitely see a spin-off series for those dragons.