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Review--A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

A Dance with Dragons
George R.R. Martin
Bantam, 2011
(For those that haven’t read the book, an attempt has been made to make this review as spoiler-free as possible.  Still, read at your own risk).
Where Have all the Heroes Gone?

After what had become for A Song of Ice and Fire fans a seemingly interminable delay, George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons was finally released on July 12, five years and eight months after the release of the previous book in the series, A Feast for Crows.  In that nearly six-year absence, the series took on fans like a submarine made out of wiffle balls takes on water.  With the delay, the new-found mega-popularity and the attention-getting HBO series, a lot of fans had grown worried that Martin might be too busy, too rich, too worshiped to be able to produce a volume that lived up to its predecessors.  It turns out that they had no reason to be worried.  I have some concern about the overall message of the series, which is reinforced in this volume, but A Dance with Dragons is not only a worthy addition to the series, it is also the best-written and most intricately plotted of the bunch.  

Since I’m attempting to avoid spoilers, I’ll avoid discussing the plot of the book beyond the following skeleton:  The majority of A Dance with Dragons takes place in parallel to the events of A Feast for Crows.  As such, the book is mostly about those characters who were not present in the previous volume, including fan-favorites Tyrion, Daenerys, and Jon.  Once the events of the novel move past those in A Feast for Crows, a few of that novel’s featured characters make their way into A Dance with Dragons.  The book covers the events in Westeros, at the Wall, and in the Far East.  All three of these settings host compelling stories and nearly every chapter has great impact on its own.  Martin is on top of his game here.  The writing, loaded with poignant observations and clever wordplay, is easily the best in the series to date.  There are no throw-away chapters, no fluff here.  Martin leads us down a number of paths that don’t reach a legitimate conclusion, but even those that turn out to be dead ends feel like worthwhile detours.  Unlike my experience with A Feast for Crows, I don’t feel like this was a long book with a much better, shorter book inside of it.  

I’m not as happy with the book’s message as I am with the writing.  Since A Game of Thrones, there has been an undeniable thread of moral ambiguity running through the series.  Martin wants us to be aware that “good” characters can be capable of great evil and that “bad” characters can act for the greater good.  We are asked as readers to allow for the redemption of characters that we have witnessed doing unspeakable acts and to believe that heretofore honorable characters can suddenly behave despicably.  A Dance with Dragons continues with these themes.  In fact, it is becoming difficult to judge who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.  This is likely exactly what Martin wants, but I think the tactic could end up with a number of unintended consequences.  The most damaging consequence is already starting to manifest itself for me personally:  I’m running out of characters to root for.  With each book, the combination of Martin’s willingness to kill off major characters, his insistence on exposing flaws, and, finally, my reticence toward allowing a handful of acts, no matter how good, to erase my memory of earlier horrific deeds, leave me with less and less characters to be emotionally attached to.  I’ve seen enough discussion of the moral ambiguity in the books to know I’m not the only person feeling this way, but I’m sure it is a minority opinion.  I’ve talked to readers this week who love Jaime, Tyrion, Cersei and other characters who shall remain nameless since just revealing their existence in the book would be a spoiler.  For me, I’m beginning to long for a character that I can throw my emotion behind without reservation.  Going into the final two novels, I’m no longer certain that it is even possible.

The overly-long moral exploration above notwithstanding, I really enjoyed A Dance with Dragons.  Martin has been one of my favorite writers since I read “Sandkings” in Omni over 25 years ago.  It has been a joy to see one of the nicest guys in the business get the recognition and reward he deserves.  A Dance with Dragons will certainly continue that success and, like Martin, it truly deserves it.  

Danny Webb


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