With HBO’s adaptation of Martin’s epic fantasy series almost finished, even if the series itself certainly isn’t, I will be revisiting my original reviews from 2011 of the five books in the series completed by Martin. I have already posted reviews of A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, and A Feast for Crows.
A Dance with Dragons is the fifth book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (on which HBO’s Game of Thrones is based, with season one covering the first book). It does not, however, follow the traditional pattern of picking up where the fourth book left off. Rather, due to the fourth book ballooning out of control during writing, A Dance with Dragons picks up where the third book left off. A Feast for Crows (book 4) was limited to the action in south Westeros and Braavos; A Dance for Dragons concentrates primarily on the action in the North, the Free Cities (not including Braavos), and Slaver’s Bay. Not until more than halfway through the book is a plot thread from the fourth book continued chronologically. And make no mistake, the concentration is all on the North and Essos. Only six chapters of the seventy-three total take place in the south of Westeros. While this leads to greatly missed fan favorites being heavily featured (Tyrion, Jon, and Daenerys POVs combine for almost half of the chapters in the book), other fan favorites are almost absent (Arya, Jamie, and Cersei POVs combine for only five chapters). There is no shortage of action and politics as Jon tries to prepare for the coming of the Others, Stannis and Roose Bolton maneuver for control of the North, and possible allies and ruthless enemies begin to converge on Daenerys.
The split between A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons causes some issues (neither feels like a solid, standalone novel), but it makes sense not just geographically but in terms of an inflection point in the story. A Feast for Crows in many ways wrapped up most of the major plotlines that drove the first three novels, while A Dance with Dragons features storylines previously on a side stage becoming the main show. Martin appears to be on his way to righting the ship after stumbling, and if the sixth book is weak, it cannot be blamed on its predecessors. The timeline issue, at least, has been resolved, and Martin ought to be able to move forward in the usual fashion. I personally rank the book above only A Feast for Crows in the series.
For all of its good points (basically everything I don’t specifically mention in this review), the book is not without its weaknesses. The plot continues to suffer from a greatly reduced pace, lacking the breathtaking rush to climax of the first three books. Much of the suspense of the story has subsided as well, and the climax is minor compared to that of earlier books. This is probably unavoidable for a “middle” book, forced to worry more about transition than anything else. What is not unavoidable are Martin’s portrayals of the “good guys” in positions of leadership; they frustrate, as Martin continues to mistake justice for cruelty, honor for stupidity, mercy for weakness, and leadership for an inability to listen.
I decided to pick up the series after HBO announced the show, and I knocked the first four out in a few weeks. A Dance with Dragons was the first ASoIaF book I had to wait for, if only for a few months. I was studying for the bar at the time, and I took a couple days off to blow through my freshly printed hardcover copy as quickly as possible. I was disappointed when I closed the book, although that disappointment was muted by my excitement from the first four books. There is a certain naivety above, viewing the timeline issue with books 4 & 5 as a temporary blip like the inapt timeline decision Robert Jordan made in Crossroads of Twilight. In retrospect, it is easy to downgrade A Dance with Dragons on the basis of an interminable delay eight years and counting in Martin finishing the book 6. But that is unfair to this book. Crossroads of Twilight, after all, is much easier to stomach when you can blow right through it and move straight to book 11. The cliffhangers of book 5 wouldn’t rankle if we could see their resolution in book 6. Martin fixed a lot of story issues here. The blame for the delay in book 6 must rest with Martin’s dilatory work habits.
3.5 of 5 Stars.