Title: A Dance With Dragons, book five in the Song of Ice and Fire series
Author: George R. R. Martin
The gist: Martin takes high fantasy and smacks it around, much like if Tolkien, Stephen King and a serial killer were to write a book set in a realistically gritty medieval world with a plot loosely inspired by the War of the Roses.
Cover art: The covers for "A Song of Ice and Fire" have all been fairly plain and iconic, which I think is the best route for such an epic story with the sort of grand scale that Martin reaches. "A Dance With Dragons" bests the previous four covers, though, with an elaborate dragon shield with raised metallic embellishment over a matte background. Under the dust jacket is a gorgeous metallic stamped mandala that makes this hefty tome distinguishable and gorgeous to look at while hauling around without the more delicate paper cover.
In the aftermath of a colossal battle, the future of the Seven Kingdoms hangs in the balance--beset by newly emerging threats from every direction. In the east, Daenerys Targaryen, the last scion of House Targaryen, rules with her three dragons as queen of a city built on dust and death. But Daenerys has thousands of enemies, and many have set out to find her. As they gather, one young man embarks upon his own quest for the queen, with an entirely different goal in mind.
Fleeing from Westeros with a price on his head, Tyrion Lannister, too, is making his way to Daenerys. But his newest allies in this quest are not the ragtag band they seem, and at their heart lies one who could undo Daenerys’ claim to Westeros forever.
Meanwhile, to the north lies the mammoth Wall of ice and stone--a structure only as strong as those guarding it. There, Jon Snow, 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, will face his greatest challenge. For he has powerful foes not only within the Watch but also beyond, in the land of the creatures of ice.
From all corners, bitter conflicts reignite, intimate betrayals are perpetrated, and a grand cast of outlaws and priests, soldiers and skinchangers, nobles and slaves, will face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Some will fail, others will grow in the strength of darkness. But in a time of rising restlessness, the tides of destiny and politics will lead inevitably to the greatest dance of all.
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The best part: The chapters with viewpoints from Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow were what drove this book for me. A number of the other characters I love got face time as well, but in much smaller doses, and with (most likely) less influential happenings. While the Lannister imp provided the tale with much needed bawdy humor, Lord Commander Snow is up to his neck in Wildlings and the impending frozen dead that rise again to march against the land in winter. This provides the ice and Daenerys and her dragons provide the fire, which as of yet are separated by continents and an ocean from the frozen wights. The duality between Jon Snow's rule at the Wall in the north and Daenerys' rule at Meereen in the south balanced nicely, each of them being forced into decisions that take them further and further from what they actually want, which isn't necessarily what they need. Duty and desire often conflict, which is something that many of the other characters vying for the throne either don’t see or just don’t care about.
The worst part: There are too many viewpoint characters. Even after the killing off of some of our favorites in previous books we just keep getting more narrators. Sadly, most of them I don't even care about and they never end up doing anything that I wouldn't have preferred to read about in clipped narrative from a beloved character. Another problem is that this is a 1,000 page book in a series with four prior books of roughly the same length, so even avid fans who have read the series and watched the show are going to need recaps on what happened previously. I read the rest of the series about four years ago and enjoyed the first season of the HBO series, but even so I found myself struggling to remember what happened before and who some of the characters even were.
Characters: Most of the chapters featured viewpoints from Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, several Greyjoys, and Davos the Onion Knight, but with way too many other random narrators in between. While the occasional odd viewpoint chapter was needed to keep the reader up to speed on events happening outside the scope of the main players, I thought there were just too many and I was already irritated by Davos and the many Greyjoys. What I really wanted more of was Arya and Bran Stark and Cersei and Jaime Lannister, who had a chapter pop up once in a while but not nearly often enough for my taste. It’s not that the other characters were necessarily uninteresting so much as they weren’t moving the story forward much. Many of the characters were traveling, which gives the impression that Martin is maneuvering the major pieces of the story back together, but I suspect most readers could do with less on the travel front so as to skip to the parts where the characters actually end up somewhere where something is happening. That’s not to say all of the travel narrative was extraneous because, in fact, one of the most interesting bits of the story for me was Tyrion’s travels down the haunted river.
Plot: The death count continues. It's the kind of plot that makes your head explode because there are so many arcs and twists and no one, I mean no one, is safe. Quite frankly, I still haven't forgiven Martin for the Red Wedding and if it was any other author I would never have read past that in the previous book. I am 97.8 percent convinced that all the characters I love are going to die, but sadistically I can't stop reading. People who were hoping to have some plotlines concluded are likely to be disappointed, unless they were rooting for more deaths. While the various plots don't come anywhere near a conclusion it is apparent that they are winding closer together and headed in the right direction for an epic ending in the next two books. Although this installment dashed my own personal hopes for how the story will ultimately end, I still have a few ragged hopes for a handful of characters. As it were, much of the plot was dedicated to characters seeking out Dragon Queen Daenerys, who seems to be the prize at the end of the slaver’s road for just about everyone in this book.
Setting: As usual Martin nails the setting with vivid and anachronistically appropriate descriptions. So much of the book is Medieval-esque gritty realism, but when the fantasy parts do surface they are strange and wholly original, haunting and creepy. Haunted rivers and sicknesses that turn one to stone...the places he takes readers show off both the highs and the lows of the world he created. The man-made beauty of the Wall, as well as sweeping castles, elaborate fountains, gardens and the like contrast with the sketchy back alleys, whorehouses and dungeons, and because of the characters' travels the reader is also given glimpses into haunted river ruins, the sweeping grass plains of the Dothraki “sea,” the grey seas of the northern islands and the winter beyond the wall where the dead don’t stay properly dead. Winter moves beyond a setting and into character-like proportions, and while the characters have been saying “Winter is coming” for several books now, only a few have noticed that winter is actually here and far more dangerous than either the dance with dragons or the game of thrones.
Writing style: If you love a good long book then "A Song of Ice and Fire" is the series for you. Martin doesn’t mince words and is happy to wander off on a dozen different story arcs but even so the reader is left with the distinct impression that the series is moving toward a conclusion rather than becoming a never-ending, serial-type story. Martin is a master at storytelling and is clearly very knowledgeable about history, which weights this fantasy in a historical setting that feels a bit too real sometimes--for instance, with all the death and maiming (for clarification on why all the maiming you can consult this helpful flowchart).
In which I babble: It's sad when a fandom turns against the author creating the fiction. Martin has gotten a lot of whiners complaining about how long it takes for him to write a book or how one book got split in two because he couldn't make the plot fit into a reasonably sized chunk of book. I certainly would have traded cuts of a few extraneous viewpoints and a few less precise travel timelines for a book published a bit sooner but I also don't begrudge Martin and I don't like seeing people yelling at him for it. Let's face it, the more fans nitpick and whine and shake angry fists of Internet at him the worse it will affect the publication schedule. More to the point, breaks down the writing timeline for everyone over here and it shows that for size and word count Martin is actually quite a prolific writer, especially considering he’s also working on the HBO adaptation of his novels, the Wild Card books and a number of other projects.
“Free folk don’t follow names, or little cloth animals sewn on a tunic. They won’t dance for coins, they don’t care how you style yourself or what that chain of office means or who your grandsire was. They follow strength. They follow the man.”
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one. The singers of the forest had no books. No ink, no parchment, no written language. Instead they had the trees, and the weirwoods above all. When they died, they went into the wood, into leaf and limb and root, and the trees remembered.”
“Some men had faces that cried out for a beard. Ser Clayton’s face cried out for an axe between the eyes.”
“A few bright stars lingered in the cobalt sky. Perhaps one of them is Khal Drogo, sitting on his fiery stallion in the night lands and smiling down on me.”
"In Middle Earth there were two sides: the war was between good and evil, right and wrong. It was hobbits and elves and dwarves and men coming together to fight Sauron. Martin's books are set (largely) on the continent of Westeros, which has been shakily cobbled together into a nation known as the Seven Kingdoms. Not two: seven. Westeros is in chaos; it's a political jigsaw puzzle, and somebody just turned the table over, and everybody is on the floor scrabbling for pieces. It's impossible to know whom to root for." – Lev Grossman, Time Magazine
You might also like: "Lord of the Rings," Frank Herbert’s "Dune"
Facts about the author: Martin also maintains Not a Blog which, despite its name, is a blog.
Release date: July 2011
Purchase the book here.