A Dance With Dragons by George RR Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire: Book 5)

I just finished reading George Martin’s A Dance With Dragons about thirty minutes ago. I wasn’t sure what to make of it while I was reading it, and I’m still not..

Usually when I write a review, I sit down with the book fresh in my mind and just respond. This time, however, I was compelled to check out what others thought about it. Seems like most of the major reviewers like the NY Times loved the book. Nothing but good things to say. Best thing since sliced bread. Felt a little bandwagonish, did those reviews.

The reader reviews on Amazon, however, told a different story. Most of those were from hard-core Song of Ice and Fire fans, people who’ve been following this series (and waiting on this new book) for years – and they weren’t crazy about this offering. With almost 400 reviews in so far, the consensus gives ADWD three stars out of five. Reading through their comments, I was surprised that number wasn’t closer to a two.

So having read and said all that, I’m left to deliver to you, sans-a spoilers, my two groats. Hm. Okay. Here’s what I think: I think if you’ve done something very successfully once or twice, the public (and particularly entertainment junkies and fantasy addicts) demand you do it better AND different or they will, without much fanfare but with plenty o’ howls, summarily behead you. I offer George Lucas and his ill-fated Star Wars follow-ups, as well as M. Night Shyamalan’s post-seeing-dead-people career and the seasons of Heroes after the first as examples. If you show flashes of genius early on, brother, you’d damn well better be prepared to top yourself each time out from that point on. To paraphrase a line from a film you may have seen, “you either outdo yourself or you live long enough to see yourself disembowelled.” And GRRM has lived, career-wise, for a very long time.

Heck, the first five books have totalled over 5000 pages (that or thereabout). Lotsa ways for a writer to die – or even eat his own fingers -- on that kind of expansive type-turf.

So what did I think of the book? Is there actually going to be a review sometime in this review? Well, yes and no. And that’s exactly how I felt reading A Dance With Dragons (or as I like to call it, “He Was Not Wrong” (a line I am sure GRRM was making a commission off of each time he included it in the text)). The book was replete with richly complicated locales, infinite characters high and low, allusions to plush and impenetrable histories, and visceral situational details, all of which have become GRRM’s stock in trade. There is no doubt whatever the man is a brilliant writer who knows more about his world and its people than I daresay many of us know about our world and its people! (More about that later). I laughed out loud at Tyrion’s lines (he’s still got it). I turned the pages expecting so much, wanting so much.

Like any good writer, Martin doesn’t give us what we want. But neither does he often reward our devotion and our willingness to buy what he’s selling and suspend disbelief. This entire book feels like a build-up, one of those “origin story” superhero films to which we’ve been subjected of late. It takes place largely in the East – a whole new stomping grounds for the characters. It’s new, but it isn’t better and it’s not half as compelling. Why? I think in part it’s because it’s not entirely necessary. Westeros is big enough and its piles of wacky folk, even the dead ones, are high enough. Apparently not, thought George, and given what I said earlier about re-invention and the writer’s dilemma (“go to the well, or nuke the whole site from orbit?”), who can blame him for drawing that conclusion?

I understand why he did it. I just didn’t enjoy it half as much as I might have had he found a clever way to challenge us within the context we’d already come to love and understand. Recently I read a line, and don’t hold me to this but I think it was in Orson Scott Card’s helpful text How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy – in any case, let me paraphrase: “No writer has ever created a world 1/10 as layered and complicated as the one we all live in.” While reading A Dance With Dragons, I began to get the impression ol’ George had read that line too (or maybe had it quoted at him by Orson himself at some wine and cheese Lords of the Genre post-event soiree) and taken it as a personal challenge. And he comes close to succeeding, he does. But somewhere in the attempt, something about telling a gripping, meaningful tale is abandoned. Not a lot – maybe ten percent – but reflecting upon the book, I’d have to say it was an important ten percent. We feel lost at sea, at table, in the snow, on the march, and at meetings that are sometimes as dull as…the meetings many of us sit through at our jobs. Not me, but, you know, others.

A friend of mine who is not a big fan of the series but who has read A Game of Thrones on my recommendation once queried: “How can a guy write thousands of pages and not have an ending?” I’m afraid my friend will find no answers in ADWD, only more questions, more cliff-hangers, more puzzling kills, more ambiguous allusions, and quite a few extremely fat people. And unlike AGOT, ADWD doesn’t salve the wounds with resolvable layers; it really just hints at more layers. I don’t think you have to give the reader what they want: in part, your job is to convince them they want something, and then, after a while, give them something so much better they don’t even remember what they were pining for in the first place. It ain’t easy, but they don’t give out HBO contracts to just anyone, you know.. Set the bar high and don’t look down, or you are lost.

So buy the next book in six years and we’ll see what happens. And the one after that; as the purported last book in the series, that one should really offer up the meat. To use a tried and true comparison I’ve used before, I want to say that George R.R. Martin has become a little bit like Lucy suggesting she’ll hold the football for Charlie Brown. But are the readers as gullible as old Chuck? Hard to say. They bought it, they read it, and despite their complaints, they will buy and read the next one, too.

If sales figures are the gauge of a writer’s success, well, Martin is Rowling, I suppose. Still, I’m betting the faithful readers won’t be rewarded in either the Winds of Winter or a Dream of Spring, not entirely. They certainly weren’t here in ADWD. And for that, I’d have to say with all deference to GRRM’s unparalleled abilities in this genre, I recommend this book but with reservations. And if George were honest, and for all I know he’s the most honest guy in all of Meereen, he’d say to that: “He’s not wrong.”

8/10 I recommend this book but with reservations.

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4 positive reader review(s) for A Dance With Dragons

238 positive reader review(s) in total for the A Song of Ice and Fire series

George RR Martin biography

A Dance With Dragons reader reviews

from New York, USA

Honestly, it's really up to you because it depends what kind of reader you are. Are you a patient reader? Great! Not a patient reader? Then it's going to be tough, but don't be discouraged from it. After reading the first four books over just a few weeks, I have to say it took me a while to read this one. GRRM closes a couple mysteries that were first introduced in earlier books, but then introduces an entirely new set in ADWD. There were also a few issues I had with ADWD. One was that there were so many characters that I could hardly keep up by the time I got more than halfway through the book. The other was that GRRM seems to have a talent for making you love a character (as much as humanly possible) and then eliminating said character out of nowhere... so that you just sit there for a moment with the book wide open, slack jawed. Like, "What t-f just happened?" The third issue I had with ADWD was that, in addition to the 30+ characters that were introduced, the story seemed a bit scattered. I've noticed a lot of people are getting tired of having to sit on the edge of their seats, just waiting for the ending to happen already... but it is a lot like trying to solve a puzzle. The only problem is that GRRM has now placed so many pieces on the table that we (as readers) don't know where to start. I find the story compelling, however. GRRM hints at the complications we face quite often in our lives, whether directly or indirectly, as far as the complexity of humanity goes in general. ...It is very much like he's created a more magical, enticing version of the world we live in, which I find quite fascinating. Personally (and I'm not a writer, in case you couldn't tell), I felt GRRM could have done better with the main plot, but it is still a (very) good read.
6/10 ()

from Austria

Well, it's hard to know where to start... I'd been given fair warning concerning A Dance with Dragons, about how it was less interesting a read than the previous four novels (which I enjoyed). But I had to find out for myself and I found it a battle to make it all the way through. It wasn't that the book is bad, it isn't and it is written with the same style and skill utilised throughout the series. It was just that so little of interest happened, I found my concentration wavering and at times couldn't work out who was who as the chapters bounced from alternate character's points of view. The Daenerys chapters were by far the worse, followed closely by those features the Dornish. So in summary, not a terrible book, just not engaging enough.
7/10 ()

from Alaska

I am worried. I am worried about the HBO series being created concurrently with these books. I am worried because I do not want Martin to write his books in "screenplay" mode. I also do not want to write his books in an effort to outdo the TV series, with a sort of "How will they show THIS attitude?" The book begins with Tyrion drunk on a boat. A strong start. The book ends with Daenieres lost in Essos being found by an old acquiantence. It's random on the point of absurd. What went wrong? This book is wonderfully exciting, until the characters have their last chapters. (Spoilers). Arya is given another bizzare task by the kindly man, and the purpose for these tasks is as unclear as ever. Theon (oh right, he's not dead) finally escapes his horrendous captors. Cersei falls so low you wish she'd just been killed as a mercy. Jaime reunites with Brienne (not dead, but how she survived is not explain). Bran becomes immortal (I think). Davos goes off on a mission that is very dangerous, but there are so few hints about what it is that its merely a mystery, not a cliffhanger. Jon makes an awful decision that backfires, and but Dany's decision are so terrible you'd wish it would backfire more. There is a Dornish prince who never quite clicks with the book, and his journey begins to feel like Arya's in book 2. Meandering on the point of absurd. Victarion's and Tyrion's chapters are the only ones that consistently impress. Areo briefly returns for an interesting moment, and a new character appears, but does important things before we are convinced he is important. It results in a climax that feels too soon. Ser Barristan steals the last third, which is a nice surprise, but a poor reflection on the rest of the book. The prologue feels useless, though the epilogue is satisfying. It is too bad the book spirals downward, because otherwise it is one of the best. Because it follows a Feast for Crows, it must rise above the disappointment. But it can't, because it suffers the same problem as FfC, which is that it follows a moment between the end of the War of the 5 Kings and the final confrontation that I assume is coming. This book follows FfC, but the story proceeds A Storm of Swords. And it suffers for it, and while the characters are the ones we love, it just feels like more of the same. Literally, it's just something that we must suck up. Or maybe the series is on the decline. Who's to say. The stage is set for another outbreak of war, and the next book must surely explain what happened to Brienne/Stannis/Davos/ and continue the story of Samwell/Sansa that was left cliffhanging so well in FfC. The next book will be Martin's chance to prove that all this set-up has been worth it. Or else it will be the sputtering of a series that held such promise. As it is, this book has the potential to be great. It sets up the series for an excellent and compelling conclusion. We'll have to see if it pays off.
9/10 ()

from London UK

I agree with Jim Eaton's review entirely. For most of ADWD I was wondering when something was going to happen. When something big and exciting did happen (and it only really happens once), it was almost like stepping back to book three, back when the characters were mesmerising and the shocks were shocking.But then it was over, a cliffhanger was left, and that character was not seen again for most of the rest of the book. Most of this novel seemed to be treading water. It reintroduces favourite characters who had been withdrawn from A Feast For Crows for the sake of length.This splitting of characters and locations was a huge mistake that has pretty much scuppered both books, in my opinion. There is a lot of treading water here, a lot of needless obstacles thrown in the way just to stop characters getting where they need to be. It's not boring. It's just not really anything, and that's the problem. I think GRRM needs to take a lesson from Steven Erikson. Love him or hate him, Erikson wrote a ten book series, and each book in that series - barring the ninth one - had it's own story with a beginning, middle and end, whilst still advancing the main plotlines. Erikson didn't really do cliffhangers, yet the readers still flocked back. George should listen.
6/10 ()

7.3/10 from 5 reviews

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