Originally published under the pen name “ghostlovesinger” at ToweroftheHand.com, September 13, 2011.
Warning: The following review contains spoilers for A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. A Dance with Dragons is a fantastic book that was well worth the six-year wait between novels. George R. R. Martin once again shows off his superb writing skills, gives us new insights into his insanely detailed world and its history, and continues to unfold a beautiful and tragic story that lifts our hearts as high as honor before devouring them with its teeth, Dothraki-style. Long-time readers have been on this roller coaster before, but no matter how many times it happens, the downward spiral still gets you right in the gut. The ride is as fun the fifth time as it was the first, and the screams are as big a part of that as the peaks, if not bigger.
Of course, those weren’t my initial impressions.
When I first finished the book at four in the morning on the third day of reading, I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it. If you’d asked me then whether I was disappointed, I probably would have said yes. At that time, what I was feeling wasn’t anything close to the exhilaration of having just read a great novel. I felt drained. I was a little depressed. It was late, and Jon was dead. I just wanted to sleep.
Fortunately, given time to reflect and a solid night of rest, I felt differently. Don’t get me wrong, the book is hellishly depressing. It’s a book about failure. It’s a book where the primary characters don’t get anything they want, don’t accomplish any of their goals and largely find themselves in worse situations than when they started. It’s horrible. I began reading with the expectation that after the well-written but discouraging A Feast for Crows, this new novel would take a different tone. After all, we were coming back to Jon, Daenerys and Tyrion, all characters who ended A Storm of Swords on pretty high notes from a reader’s perspective. There was a lot of excitement to finally see what happens next.
With that in mind, what happens next is extremely frustrating. Martin, in his infinite literary sadism, isn’t about to just give us what we want. Jon and Dany have similar story arcs in the book, both of which involve the misery of command, the first-time wielding of actual power and the first-class bungling of it to truly drastic effect, while Tyrion goes from fugitive to captive to slave. It’s downright infuriating at times. This wasn’t what I’d signed on for. Or so I thought.
What I’d forgotten was that Feast and Dance were originally one book, and that’s something that Dance drives thoroughly home. It features the failures of Jon, Dany and Quentyn just as Feast featured the failures of Brienne, Cersei and Arianne. This entropic theme prevails over both novels when taken together, and there’s no relief in sight. We’re reading the middle of this series, not the end. This is not the time for our heroes to rise up, fulfill their destinies and do great things. This is the time for decline. This is when things get bad.
Which is not to say there aren’t high points. Jon decapitates Janos Slynt, Cersei takes an incredibly satisfying walk of shame, Wyman Manderly serves up some Frey pie and Dany finally rides a dragon. And nothing dulls the edge of constant failure more than the story of Theon Greyjoy, which features one of the most inspired transformations in fantasy along with some of the best writing. Martin’s ability to turn Theon, of all people, into the emotional soul of A Dance with Dragons while everything else is going straight to hell is the mark of a truly phenomenal artist. Despite Jon’s apparent demise (yeah, right) and Dany’s obstinate lingering in the east, Theon’s road to redemption is more than enough to bolster my confidence in this author and his story.
A Dance with Dragons refuses to resolve a great deal of issues, introduces a number of other issues that serve only to complicate things further (I’m looking at you, “Aegon”), expands a cast of characters that was already unwieldy, and falls far short of satisfactory when it comes to continuing the tales of people like Davos, Bran and Sansa. However, these complaints are also part of the book’s brilliance. There are so many things left to discover, so many characters left with unfinished arcs, that there’s no chance of any lack of anticipation for The Winds of Winter. The worse things get, the more fun it is to watch them get better, and the more a character fails, the more it means when they finally succeed. This roller coaster might be going down, but it’s also starting to speed up, and I, for one, am still very much enjoying the ride.