Many spoilers after the leap.
Remember, I told you there’d be spoilers…
The Short Review
For a thousand or so pages almost nothing happens and then we get a bunch of cliffhangers.
The Long Review
Okay, so that’s not exactly it, but it’s pretty damn close. It is not, as Lev Grossman writes, the best of the five published Fire and Ice books. Both Grossman and Dana Jennings of the New York Times compare Martin favorably to Tolkien, with Jennings going so far as to say that Martin is “much better” than Tolkien.
(This following a gem of a sentence: “Like its predecessors “Dance” has its share of flagons ’n’ dragons, and swords ’n’ sorcerers, but that doesn’t make Mr. Martin the American Tolkien, as some would have it. He’s much better than that.” There is no quicker way to the heart of a fantasy reader than to turn a phrase like flagons ‘n’ dragons in your opening paragraph, believe me. Ugh.)
Other reviewers evoke Tolkien as well, mainly to point out how much grittier and more morally complex Martin’s work is than his British predecessor. I won’t delve too deeply into that line of argument. I will only note, oh so briefly, that there was nothing morally simplistic about Lord of the Rings and that grittiness and unsavory characters do not a morally complex fable make. Dance has both these things in spades, but I don’t believe it made Martin’s latest any more morally complex than Tolkien’s work. If anything, the fifth book has me wondering if the complexity I believed present in the first three books has survived the fourth and fifth.
The only somewhat mainstream reviewer (other than your humble narrator of course) that I would point you to is Alyssa Rosenberg, who hits the proverbial nail on the head many times over. I agree with essentially everything in her post, which is too bad since I really, really wanted to love this book as much as so many of the early mainstream reviewers apparently did.
From here on I will discuss the good (and there really was some very good stuff in this book) and the bad. We’ll start with the good, heading to…
Pretty much everything that happened in the north of Westeros in Dance with Dragons was excellent. If the book had been entirely at The Wall and at Winterfell, following Theon and Jon Snow and Davos and Stannis, it would have been a truly terrific book.
It also would have been about five hundred pages or so, which would have suited me fine.
Jon Snow’s chapters are almost entirely excellent. As a character, Jon begins to come into his own. He makes hard choices, right from the beginning. The execution of Janos Slynt was surprising and gratifying. It filled me with hope. Right up to the last of Jon’s chapters I was hooked. I will get to the last one in a bit.
Theon Greyjoy’s chapters were also riveting. Sure, Ramsay Bolton is a cartoon villain, but his victims are very real, and Theon (who goes by Reek for most of the book) is a shattered ghost of his former self. For all his treachery, you sympathize deeply with the man, as you do with Jeyne Poole who is wed to Bolton as Arya Stark so that Bolton can claim Winterfell. The torture in the books is truly disturbing, as it should be.
Davos had only two chapters which were among the best in the novel.
Bran Stark is similarly deprived. His brief storyline deepens the mystery of the North, of the Old Gods, and the Stark family, and the mystery is good. I wanted more. I wanted more of the North, more Bran, more Davos. Even if I wasn’t going to get all the answers, I enjoyed the parts of the book that extended old mysteries deeper.
Really, the entire storyline in the North, from Jon Snow remaking the vision of The Wall and the role of the Night’s Watch, to Stannis’s snowy march on Winterfell, was some of Martin’s best work, rivaling anything in Storm of Swords.
But alas, Martin spent most of the book in…
And by the East I mean the far east, Slaver’s Bay and the Free Cities. Quite frankly, to be both blunt and honest, and to speak for, I suspect, many if not most of Martin’s core readers, I don’t give a shit about Meereen.
I don’t give a shit about Meereen.
And why should I? It’s not Westeros, where the true story is unfolding. It’s not really part of the plot we’ve been working toward for several books and several thousand pages.
Daenerys’s chapters…oh there is so much to say about these. That they could have been cut entirely from the book and it would not have made one ounce of difference. That they are meaningless and boring. I hate to say that, but it’s true. Nothing happens. What does happen, nobody cares about. Chapter after agonizing chapter we get Dany wondering what to do about her chaotic rule over the slavers. We have Unsullied murdered in the streets and an inexplicable marriage to a noble slaver. It not only doesn’t make any sense, it doesn’t matter. None of it matters.
Dany’s choices are bizarre and her character suffers badly from them, as does the story itself. Almost everything that happens could have been written as hearsay in other POV characters’ chapters and it would have been far more interesting.
Barristan Selmy’s chapters were better, but still mired in a storyline that the books don’t need, and that actively harms the fifth book in a very troubling way.
Even Tyrion Lannister’s chapters fell flat. Oh how I hate to say it, but there it is. Off he goes toward Meereen, abducted here and there by various unpleasant forces like Jorah Mormont who, oh-so-coincidentally, is frequenting the same whore house as Tyrion and abducts him. The dwarf is tossed from one situation to the next, spending the first half of the chapters bitter and drunk, and the second half tugged along by forces outside his control. For all the things that happen to Tyrion in Dance almost nothing actually important happens. Each time a new disaster struck I groaned, not because I was worried, but because it all seemed like so much filler.
You basically could have cut Tyrion from the book (you know this is going badly when Tyrion and Dany could both be cut!) and it would not have made the tiniest bit of difference except for his encounter with the mummer’s dragon, Aegon Targeryen.
Yes, the son of Rhaegar lives, switched out at birth by the mummer himself, the “Spider” Varys who, we are learning, has played a far more active role in sewing chaos in the Seven Kingdoms to pave the way for the return of the Targeryens.
And yes, it’s pretty late in the game to be introducing a major plotline and a major character, but I can live with it.
Also traveling toward Slaver’s Bay: Quentyn Martell, Prince of Dorne, and Victarion Greyjoy, both on their way to claim Daenerys and her dragons for their own. Which leads us to…
Additional POV Chapters
I think pretty much all of the non-North additional storylines could have been cut (except for the prologue and epilogue). Quentyn had one function: to loose the dragons on Meereen and then burn to death for it. Of course, since keeping the dragons chained and absent from essentially the entire book (a book titled Dance with Dragons!!!) I suppose the whole thing struck me as a sideshow and a waste of time.
I’m still not sure what the point of the Victarion chapters is, or why he needed to be in this book (ever so briefly).
Other sideshows included a Dorne chapter (this one was interesting enough, but it could have been in Feast I imagine); a couple of Cersei chapters that were interesting enough as well, but didn’t really feel at home in this book; a single Jaime chapter in which almost nothing happened; and a brief moment with Arya Stark that also felt deeply out of place and unnecessary.
Perhaps my problem with these one-off POV chapters is that they just feel so hobbled by their brevity. Mostly, though, I think we should be given characters who we’ve been reading about for four books already, not new characters. And if we are given new characters, or old characters like Arya, we should be given more of their perspective, more of their story. I don’t want to read one Arya chapter. Just leave it for the next book. I don’t want to read about Quentyn. Have him show up in Meereen, then have him loose the dragons and tell about it from Selmy’s point of view. If he’s a POV character throughout the book, and then he’s just killed off…well who cares? What a time-suck.
Nothing Happens and then We Get a Bunch of Cliffhangers
Dance with Dragons could have been a good book, but it would have taken a bold editor with a very red pen to make it great. Perhaps Martin has simply suffered from his own success. The book felt unedited almost. Can he simply disregard the warnings of editors, or have they become little better than yes men?
I just can’t imagine reading a manuscript of this book and thinking “This is good. This is ready for publication.” It’s too long. It’s painfully slow. It oscillates wildly between excellent chapters in the North to some of the most boring moments in any fantasy series I’ve ever read…and these are Tyrion bloody Lannister chapters I’m talking about. Daenerys’s chapters…I have no words. They were awful. They hurt the books. I hope Winds of Winter shatters everything done to this series by Feast and Dance but especially by the time-wasting chapters of Dany Targeryen.
A good edit would have slashed this book by nearly half. With that sort of slashing, you could have combined it with Feast and created one very solid book.
Instead we have a lot of wandering around, waiting, and ultimately…
The first cliffhanger begins about halfway through with Davos Seaworth who is sent off to find Rickon Stark and thereby win the support of the Manderly’s. I waited the rest of the book to see what was going to happen with this really gripping storyline.
And guess what? Nothing happened. We got our first cliffhanger.
Then there’s Jon Snow who is stabbed (to death?) by his sworn brothers, just when he’s decided to march on Winterfell to give Ramsay Bolton a good beating. Is he Azhor Azhai reborn? It sure seems that way. So then why leave us with such a ridiculous cliffhanger? I mean, when it takes five years to come out with another book, and you leave us with a cliffhanger like this one…it’s a slap in the face. Either Jon is ‘resurrected’ as Azhor Azhai and maybe we finally learn that he is Rhaegar and Lyanna’s offspring, or he dies and I burn all the copies of my books.
Because at this point, killing off someone like Jon Snow would be a travesty of narrative fiction. Killing Ned Stark was brutal and brilliant and threw the plot forward. Killing Jon Snow will mean that we’re left with a whole bunch of storylines and characters that we don’t really care about. If I’m right, these books are really about Jon Snow – maybe him and Dany – but I think Jon is the central figure. He is the offspring of Fire (Rhaegar) and Ice (Lyanna) and he is going to be reborn in fire at the Wall. Somehow the dragons will converge at the wall to face the White Walkers, and Jon will be there.
If he’s not, I fail to see the point of any of what happened previously.
Other cliffhangers include what happens in Meereen, what happens with Dany, whether Stannis is truly dead or not (I doubt it) what happened to Theon and Jeyne Poole, Davos of course, Bran sort of.
Too many cliffhangers, and too many years until we find our answers.
My hope, at this point, is that HBO saves the series. I hate to say it, but they may be our last best hope.
Purchase the book: A Dance with Dragons: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book Five’.
Nick Baumann is largely of a like mind in his Mother Jones review. He also calls for more editing, but cuts to one very important flaw here:
The first book, A Game of Thrones, was told from eight different viewpoints; the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, had 17; A Dance With Dragons has 18. Those numbers actually understate the problem, though, because much of A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons take place contemporaneously. A series with around 30 point-of-view characters and at least a dozen ongoing storylines is inevitably going to start fraying at the seams.