Review of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS by George R. R. Martin
A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE BOOK 5
Bantam, July 2011
War drags on in the Seven Kingdoms. The earlier major players are now largely dead, but their children and heirs battle on. In the north, Jon Snow is now commander of the black watch along the wall. In the trading cities of the south, Daenerys rules over theformer slave city of Meereen--and the natives are restive. Although she speaks of seizing her native kingdom, Daenerys knows that the slavers would return if she leaves, and cannot abandon her adoptive children. So, the world beats a path to Daenerys as every second son, exile, and wanna-be power on the outs makes the voyage to the woman who mothered dragons, and who has a claim to be rightful ruler of the seven kingdoms.
George R. R. Martin's (see more BooksForABuck.com reviews of speculative fiction by Martin) epic series A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE was eye-opening and genre-stretching. I remember reading A GAME OF THRONES practically breathless. Every plot twist (and boy did the plot twist) caught me by surprise. Every character I grew to love seemed set up to fail. Martin's strong writing continues, and he has the knack of writing characters complex enough that we care about them, seeing each one as hero of his (or her) own story. Even Queen Cersei--an adulterer, incest participant, and murderer, becomes sympathetic. Here, though, in the fifth book in the series, the characters seem smaller and more focussed on every-day details.
Again, I think Martin does fantasy a favor by adding not only the blood and dirt, but also the reality of war and occupation. Victory is not a matter of marching armies through town in a parade, it's sullen opposition, sneak attacks, and worrying whether your allies have betrayed you (or if your dragons have been eating your peoples' children). Managing a rag-tag force on the distant border isn't all about battling giants, it's watching larders empty and worrying about starvation. That being said, we get a LOT of that kind of detail in a book that stretches for 959 pages (not including the lists of characters).
One of the key dangers in writing series is that authors find the need to move characters from point to point. That, to a large extent, is what is happening in A DANCE WITH DRAGONS. Tyrion is traveling to meet Daenerys--but doesn't quite get there. Stannis Baratheon is traveling toward Winterfell--but doesn't quite get there. Several suitors are trying to get to Daenerys--but mostly don't get there. Arya is learning to be invisible and to be an assassin--and actually makes progress. Ultimately, I appreciate what Martin is doing and I think he's adding key elements to a genre that has, to a large extent, offered its readers easy blacks and whites, simple solutions to complex problems. But I wanted to see more happen. Fans of this series could, I fear, skip the entire 959 pages and pick up the next volume without having to scratch their heads and wonder what has changed. The answer, to a large extent, is not much.
Okay, I'm a fan of Martin's. Martin continues to be an effective wordsmith, continues to create a wonderfully complex world, continues to frustrate (and reward) his readers by refusing to let his characters find simplistic solutions to the problems they face. Overall, fans of this series (like me) will want to read A DANCE WITH DRAGONS. There's enough here to entertain and fascinate--but I do think it could have moved a bit faster.
Too generous? Too stingy. Or did I miss the whole point? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll publish the best letters I get so let me know if I can use your name.
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