Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Dance with Dragons picks up the pace

A Dance with Dragons
Book 5 of A Song of Ice and Fire
George R. R. Martin
Bantam (2011)

Review by Clare Deming

After the publication of five massive tomes and two seasons of an HBO series based on his books, I think it's tough for anyone who is a fan of fantasy fiction to be unaware of George R. R. Martin's series, A Song of Ice and Fire. A Dance with Dragons is the long-awaited fifth installment in the book series, and finally brings back those favorite characters missing in the previous volume.

If you haven't read through A Storm of Swords (book three), then just beware that this review may contain spoilers for you. Anyone who has only watched the television series will be lost. In A Feast for Crows (book four), Martin continued his technique of rotating through different point-of-view characters on a chapter-by-chapter basis. However, some notable characters had been left out. Whether you agreed with this decision (as explained in an afterward to book four) or not, the absence of Daenerys, Tyrion, and Jon Snow rankled with many fans. Although this new volume returns to those characters, the events overlap with the timeline from book four, creating some déjà vu as news spreads across Westeros and beyond.

Tyrion Lannister's whereabouts have been a mystery, as he is one of the most wanted and recognizable men in Westeros. Accused of murdering Joffrey at his wedding, the Imp has also slain his father and vanished from King's Landing. In the opening of book five, he turns up in the free city of Pentos with Magister Illyrio Mopatis, who had helped sell Daenerys to the Dothraki in book one. Illyrio's motives are mysterious, but he convinces Tyrion that drowning himself in alcohol is not a worthwhile profession for someone as intelligent as the black sheep of the Lannisters. Tyrion heads toward Volantis with a group of mysterious companions, presumably to team up with Daenerys and her cadre of dragons.

Daenerys Targaryen sits ensconced as queen of the slaver city of Meereen. Her dragons have grown and cannot be trusted to roam free. She is threatened by armies from neighboring cities, as well as murderous rebels within Meereen's own population. Despite her original intent to return to Westeros to claim the Iron Throne as the Targaryen heir, she becomes bogged down by the machinations of numerous councilors, shady politics, and her own uncertainties.

In the north, Jon Snow guards the wall against the dark threat of wights and beasts of legend. He is also swamped by his newfound responsibilities, but deals with them more decisively than Daenerys. Surrounded by wilding prisoners, insubordination among his own men, and demands from Stannis Baratheon, Jon Snow makes his decisions and stands by them.

Like the previous books, there are so many major characters that if I try to count them I know I'll leave someone out. Bran travels with Jojen and Meera Reed, looking for more information about his dreams. Quentyn Martell, heir to Dorne, has a secret proposal for Daenerys. The Iron Fleet is on the move, but Asha Greyjoy has fled after her failed bid for the Seastone Chair. Davos Seaworth smuggles himself again. Jaime Lannister travels around a bit, flashing his golden hand and forging peace in the Riverlands. Arya Stark appears briefly, moving on to the next stage of her training, and Cersei Lannister must finally face some consequences for her actions.

Despite the length of this volume, you won't see Samwell Tarly, Rickon or Osha, Sansa Stark, Littlefinger, or Brienne in this one.

One of the most interesting perspectives in this book comes from Theon Greyjoy. No, he's not dead. But after we learn what he has been through, it would have been kinder if he had been slain. As disturbing as some of his scenes are, I was fascinated to read his interactions with his captor. I have also found someone to hate more than I did Joffrey, and that's a feat.

I thought that the pacing of book four dragged, so A Dance With Dragons is exciting in comparison. However, the dragons play only a minor role and nothing that happens in this book can top the events in the second half of A Storm of Swords. Still, the world is as richly drawn as all of Martin's writing, and the story expands to cover a larger geographical area as well as pulling in more characters.

The most intricate plot twists and shocking events occur in the north of Westeros. Unfortunately most of the characters in the rest of the world spend the entire time traveling with little resolution to their story arcs. I was also disappointed in Daenerys because I just can't make myself care about the plight of the slaver cities and all of her entourage. It's time for her to ride a dragon to Westeros, already!

For fear of sounding too critical, I just need to say that this is still a great book. The characters are phenomenal and the writing is better than almost anything else out there. If you loved A Storm of Swords and felt let down by A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons takes the series and reinvigorates it with newfound direction and hints at the fire and darkness to come.

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