A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, has hit shelves around the world and returned fans once more to Westeros, to see what’s become of some of the most vividly realized characters in the fantasy genre. Six years in the making—or eleven, considering that some of the chapters in this novel were written to be published in the pre-split A Feast for Crows—and the question on the minds of many of the critics who’ve reviewed the book for such well-known news outlets such as TIME, the LA Times, the NY Times, and more, seems to have been, “Was it worth the wait?” So far, every one of them appears to have said yes. And, as you might guess, we’re right there with them.
If you’ve seen our video discussion, you know our views very broadly. To place some context with what follows, bear in mind that Linda and I consider all four previous novels to be high in quality, and the “controversial” 4th novel in the series (which we note, with interest, rates 4.10 across 20,000+ reviews over at Goodreads; the highest rated book, A Storm of Swords, is at 4.49) is certainly not at some far remove from its predecessors. For my part, A Feast for Crows is tied with A Clash of Kings while I’ve always placed A Game of Thrones and A Storm of Swords ahead of them.
A Game of Thrones is very tightly-written, and almost obsessive about setting and plot, with characters finely but briefly drawn in many cases and prose that only occasionally reaches the flourishes that Martin is capable of. There’s a special magic about the book that introduces a whole new world. But once that introductory novel is done, the style begins to slowly shift towards something that those familiar with his earlier work might recognize: a prose that makes atmosphere and place integral to the story. Part of it may be due to the increasingly-conflicted nature of the central characters being fertile ground for atmosphere: Tyrion Lannister becomes much more prominent, Ned Stark is out of the picture, Jon Snow finds himself in increasingly complex moral situations, characters like Jaime and Cersei Lannister provide their own perspective into the narrative. As the author himself states, a great part of his aim in writing the series is to write an immersive, vicarious experience, and it shows.
The story has evolved in the writing; it was envisioned as a trilogy of novels, with the first book ending somewhere around the Red Wedding. The time scale at which the story moves was something that Martin first expected to be quite brisk, spanning months between chapters, but this proved easier said than done. At some point—probably in the midst of A Clash of Kings—Martin decided to remedy this by planning the infamous “five year gap”, a jump forward five years following the end of A Storm of Swords with the stated purpose of allowing children and dragons both to grow older. It’s something he began writing, and tried to write for about a year, only to find it impracticable.
The solution? Scrap the gap and begin to fill in and compress that period, covering events that were important but which he had planned to simply gloss over in some suitably effective fashion that never materialized despite his efforts. This problem of chronology and how to get back to the material he intended to write is far and away the biggest problem Martin has had to deal with in terms of his plans for the series, as he stated in our interview. It’s a problem that he has struggled with for 11 years, attempting to bring the story forward to where it would have been had the five year gap taken place. The many difficulties and complexities have been discussed in great detail and we won’t rehash them here, but after five years of laboring at it was decided to publish A Feast for Crows with a geographic split rather than a chronological one. On the positive side, those sections of the story were complete to Martin’s satisfaction, but on the negative a number of crucial characters would have to wait until the next book.
Martin hoped (hoped) that the last pieces would fall in place and the fifth book would follow on a year after. Obviously, that did not happen. Besides the various problems simply related to filling in that period of time, a new one (or perhaps an old one) proved so intractable that it would be six years before Martin could solve the problem. Our interview above outlines what the issue, called “the Meereenese Knot” by Martin, was. Contrary to popular belief, it was not necessarily getting a number of characters to arrive in Dany’s location. It was, instead, determining the exact convergence between arrivals and events, so that the story could proceed without further false starts. A great deal of rewriting ensued as Martin—who had never written any of the books of the series to an outline—tried different approaches that led to blind alleys. Scrapping those and starting over may well have led to his having produced twice as many pages of material as was ultimately published (as his editor has estimated) in what is now the second largest entry in the series since A Storm of Swords.
But the knot, such as it was, is solved. Martin finally found an optimal configuration, beginning with an arrival at Meereen on the eve of a grand event and letting the story pick up steam from there.
One of the aspects of the novel that left most fans salivating is that three of the most popular characters—Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, and Tyrion Lannister—would return after a long hiatus, and something like half of the novel is devoted to them; the very first three chapters after the prologue features each character in succession. We find them each facing a sea-change in their circumstances and attempting to come to terms with those circumstances. Daenerys and Jon Snow are both left in positions of responsibility they never expected. Each attempts to do their duty as they see it, but Martin presents both with nearly impossible tasks. There’s a parallel here in how each responds and acts, in the different lessons they learn.
Some may argue in this novel that Daenerys seems paralyzed by responsibility compared to Jon Snow, but there’s a monumental task before her that’s more immediate and far more complicated than anything Snow needs to deal with, as readers will see as they proceed. It’s useful, too, to remember that Snow was raised a lord’s son, while Daenerys was half a beggar, raised to be wedded and bedded, not to lead in any capacity—the gulf she has to bridge is greater. The challenges they face cut to the root of some of the story’s central themes, and appear to be leading to the kind of resolutions that touch on some of the long-prophesied occurrences that constitute the “song of ice and fire”, and there’s a great deal in their chapters that will leave fans speculating and pondering in the years before the next novel.
Tyrion has quite a different story, however, and it’s one that is born out of one of Martin’s favorite quotes, Faulkner’s remark that the only story worth telling is that of the heart in conflict with itself. Some readers may have taken his final chapter in A Storm of Swords as a “great” moment, but in truth, the psychological impact of it was as damaging as anything Tyrion would have faced if he had gone in some other direction. The Tyrion of A Dance with Dragons is a broken man, in search of something or someone to believe in. His trauma is heartfelt, and the slow climb out of that trauma towards a functional existence is depicted in a fashion that’s as surprising as it is effective. This isn’t to say that the Tyrion who comes out of the end of that journey (both mental and literal) is the same man of the previous novels—change and growth is a constant in Martin’s world—but there’s a continuity of characterization that can’t be denied.
If there’s any flaw in the story as presented for these characters, it must be the chronology, once again. Daenerys is intimately a part of the “Meereenese Knot”, and Martin must complicate and flesh out her travails in a way that leads her story to culminate precisely a certain point and not a moment earlier. Tyrion, too, has a deliberate pace to make sure his story ends at the right moment. But wherever plot action is lacking, characterization and evocative renderings of the setting in which these characters move provide a window into another place, into another time, and into another life. For some this may be asking too much, but not for others. It may be useful, on re-reading, to think of the fact that Martin had originally intended Cersei and Daenerys to feature explicit parallels as women in positions of power and how they respond to it. Cersei’s opening chapter features her being woken up to news of her father’s death, much as Daenerys’s first chapter has her woken early to hear similar tidings (this parallel is even stronger when one looks at Daenerys’s second chapter). It adds an interesting layer to the text that may be missed.
Speaking of Cersei, of course, the fact that the story goes past the end point of A Feast for Crows means that we get her as a point of view, as well as Jaime, Areo Hotah, Victarion, Arya, and Asha from the previous novel. Extending their story just a bit further and keeping it in time with where A Dance with Dragons ends provides a look at how their stories continue. For the most part, all of these returning characters have relatively few chapters, and the bulk of the story is told from a combination of new characters and others returning from A Storm of Swords. For the sake of spoilers, we won’t discuss the brand new point of views beyond saying that two of them play an integral role in the resolution of the “Meereenese Knot” plot problem, and they both feature some of Martin’s strongest writing in the volume as they build towards central events of A Dance with Dragons.
With a total of 16 POV characters, the novel certainly is expansive in its sweep, taking us from the Wall and through the North, from Pentos to Meereen and back to Braavos, and giving us glimpses of the riverlands, King’s Landing, and Dorne. It may be said that the most effective area of action proves to be the North. At the end of A Feast for Crows, the white raven signaled that winter had finally come, and the consequences of this are told with bone-chilling and grim determination by Martin, piling on the hardships with blizzards and chronic food shortage and the ceaseless cold that creeps into the flesh and kills men only to see them rise again by night. The threat of the Others and, more directly, their wights is a constant feature in these chapters… especially in one of the returning POVs from A Storm of Swords, Bran.
Bran’s chapters are few, but there’s an incredible moodiness to them that has put some fans in mind of one of Martin’s most atmospheric earlier works, “In The House of the Worm”, with its dark imagery. It’s difficult to explain how some of the details in these chapters were determined long ago, when Martin first decided to start world-building to provide background for the first few chapters he had written. There’s details in these sections that have been lying in wait for 15 or 16 years, according to Martin, and perhaps give a sense that while he may be a gardener, the general shape of the garden and all its finest features have long been planned. The task Martin set for himself was monumental—more than he ever knew, with his short stories and his standalone novels and teleplays as his guides—but when the pieces finally come together, there’s an intense exhilaration that comes with it. With Bran, and with many other characters besides.
You’d think that after all of these years fans would stop trying to predict the story. Martin’s almost always a step ahead, and I recall the sheer amazement fans felt when novels like A Clash of Kings turned the apple cart over. The same happens here, especially after page 600 or so when the narrative has caught up with A Feast for Crows and moves beyond it. There are moments that were practically transcendent reading experiences, as Martin deftly turned terror into joy (or the other way around, as the case might be). The shape of the full narrative seems to be coming clear… but at the same time, there’s so many balls in the air and Martin has shown such aplomb in going in unexpected directions that there’s a very good chance that half the predictions made by fans at the forum will miss the mark. But that’s the pleasure in reading such a story: not only in the occasional pleasure of having an idea confirmed (and I admit, one or two notions I had proved right) but in having them frustrated in clever, powerful ways.
This isn’t to say that all turns are necessarily welcome by all readers, especially when they involve cliffhangers, of which there happen to be… well, a few. There’s a point Martin and his editor Anne Groell have noted: a pair of sequences intended for the novel were apparently, removed in the final weeks of work (one of GRRM’s own volition, the other at Groell’s urging). This may be why GRRM has said that the cliffhangers in this novel have proved somewhat more numerous than he would have preferred, suggesting that these sequences might have pushed the cliffhangers a bit further along. For some, the cliffhangers would be a genuine problem, especially with the prospect of a multi-year wait for resolutions. Mileage may, of course, vary.
If the story is somewhat slanted to the cliffhanger, however, we believe there’s more to it than simply having run out of time or space on the writer’s part. There seems to be a belief that Martin has structured the series in some very odd and displeasing way. But it seems fairly clear to us that on the whole Martin—with his TV writing experience—has very roughly applied the three act structure to the whole of the series. It is true that the earlier novels had… well, not “self-contained” stories, but certain things ended on pleasing narrative breaks: the King in the North and Daenerys with the dragons, the Battle of the Blackwater and the Jaime Lannister cliffhanger, the death of Tywin Lannister and Jon Snow becoming Lord Commander. Some of these felt like “action” climaxes, and in some cases some of these were nearer to a cliffhanger, but they brought about some sense of culmination. A Feast for Crows, as it happens, has some distinct stop points: Brienne’s cliffhanger (to mirror Jaime’s two books earlier), for one, and of course the downfall of Cersei Lannister.
We’d argue that the nature of these events has given us a hint of the specific form of the act structure that Martin has broadly applied to the work. If in the original trilogy the first novel was the first act, and that grew to be the first three novels in the series, then the second act must be A Feast for Crows... and A Dance with Dragons, which for over half its length really is the “other side of the coin”. The climaxes, the break points, in Martin’s second act are not rousing moments, but instead they are turning downward, leaving characters at their low point. In the broader narrative, looking at the POVs as a whole, we have very likely hit the overall nadir in the story for our protagonists. Matters were left bleak and melancholy in A Feast for Crows, and if anything, they are even bleaker as A Dance with Dragons progresses. From adversity comes dramatic tension, and we suspect that the following two novels will be ripe with drama; for some characters, there practically is nowhere to go but up.
I know of readers who quit A Game of Thrones because of Eddard’s death, and others who threw the book across the room and gave up with The Red Wedding. Will there be some swearing off the series because of Martin’s implacable insistence that things must get worse before they can get better? We’re sure of it. There’s always an urge to find hope somewhere, anywhere, and Martin is (as David Benioff said) “a savage god” who can be pitiless with his characters. And, by extension, with his readers. He calls the characters the children of his mind, but that does not mean they’re immune to suffering, to failure, even to death.
The down-beat endings of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons seem to mark the closure of the second act of “A Song of Ice and Fire”, and from here the narrative will begin its climb towards whatever the final resolution Martin envisions. With so many plot strands now converging, it’s clear that some of these will continue through to the end, and the final novels will probably feature more than the usual amount of bloodshed. And victories? They’ll happen, doubtless. But they might be Pyhrric, and at best there’ll be something bittersweet. Martin has promised that the end of the series will be a mix of the bitter and the sweet; Linda has a speculation about what the final chapter of the series will be, and in Martin’s hands, I could forsee there being many tears by the time that last page is reached. But now the third act looms, and Martin’s hope is that his plan for two final novels—The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring—will bring that to a close in a memorable way, one that brings thematic and story and character threads to a culmination worthy of what’s come before.
There are no easy answers in these novels, but that’s fitting when there’s a dearth of easy problems. Characters struggle and suffer with self-doubt, uncertain news drifts down rivers winding across an ancient and half-ruinous landscape, events spiral out of control, disaster looms at every turn. It’s a bleak novel in many ways, with even the “crowning moments of awesome” proving to carry a poisoned pill. But it’s the novel Martin wanted to make, the novel that underscores that at the heart of the story is the human heart, the struggles of men and women (and children) to exist and to thrive within whatever space is alloted to them. The story moves, and it reminds us that living can be cruel and hard… but ultimately, it’s worth doing, something not all the characters may have understood, which they may not understand even as they come out of the crucible that Martin’s put them through.
There’s a quote from this novel that perhaps best sums up the value of reading a book, and a series like this:
This novel adds a baker’s dozen and then some to that score, and it’s worth the journey through the evocative world and story Martin has created, with his characters—complex and confusing creatures, one and all—as our guides.
And if the down-beat climaxes and the dark turns leaves one depressed…