A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

Warning! Here be huge spoilers! Read the book first!

This isn’t a book review. A book review would focus on the merits of the book—perhaps the characterization, a nod to the complicated and convoluted plotting, occasional felicities of language, and so on. Having marathoned my way through George R.R. Martin’s most recent entry in the Song of Ice and Fire, I’m still in the “Wow!” “No way!” “Arrgh!” stages of the reading process.

Anything more intellectual than coconut gelato is currently beyond my mental powers. But I have some disconnected thoughts that I’d like to share. Above all, I wanted to give all the other readers a place to comment on the book. This is an anything-goes thread. Spoil away. If you haven’t read the book, read these comments at your own risk. And, please, let us know what you think, as thinking is still beyond the powers of my gerbil-like brain.

I can say this, though: this book is good. I laughed, I cried, I kept reading long after the sun had set and rose again. I’d missed these characters, especially Tyrion, Jon, and Daenerys. I’ve learned more about the characters who had previously only been ancillary. And I met new, exciting characters who send the plot spinning in unanticipated directions.

That is not to say that everything that happens is good, though. In fact, I am disturbed by Tyrion’s wanderings, Dany’s governance, and Jon’s fate. That disturbance has two levels, as it were: I feel profoundly moved by their tragedies and triumphs, but I am not entirely happy with how those tragedies and triumphs are portrayed. Well, I’m not happy with how Tyrion’s story was told. Jon and Dany and everyone else? Aces.

Tyrion is one of those poor souls who is on a journey of self-discover without realizing he’s on it. As the book opens and he is still reeling from the events in King’s Landing, he wanders around asking everyone “Where do whores go?” In doing so, he is attempting to give shape to his quest: he could find his lost youthful love, if only he knew where to look. Not knowing that, he falls in with various plotters for the Iron Throne.

And then, he undergoes what should be the most humiliating experience of his life—and this is where I started to feel like Martin was pulling a Marti Noxon, putting beloved characters through such hell just for the sake of flames and charred flesh. Tyrion is bought as a slave and forced to join Penny, the young dwarf who performed with her now-dead brother at Joffrey’s wedding. That’s right, Tyrion is forced to perform as a slave and as a contemptuous, ridiculous dwarf—to do exactly what caused Joffrey’s death and his own downfall—and yet we never get his perspective on the culmination of that arc, a performance in front of thousands of people. He briefly recalls it, and at one point thinks that contempt is the only universal emotion, but Martin seems unwilling to really show us Tyrion’s inner processes as much as he had in previous books. We see what he is doing, but not what he is thinking as he does it. Too painful? Or is Tyrion achieving a state of peace? Either way, I wish we could have, as it were, been there for this character, known what he was thinking to, in a way, lessen the emotional burden (for us) of trying to guess what he is going through.

Dany, on the other hand, is trying so hard and failing horribly. As we left her, she was realizing that she could not just conquer, but had to learn to lead. In A Dance with Dragons, she learns the difficulty of leading and the perils of dragon-keeping: like the mighty power of the khal or her own Unsullied, the dragons are a violent, powerful force. She can contain her soldiers, but cannot yet contain her most deadly weapon. That force is nearly her undoing, as she, like Tyrion, must hit rock bottom before arising anew.

Unlike the experience of Tyrion’s journey, Dany’s chapters allow us to journey with her as she wanders towards enlightenment and a new stage in personal growth. (That makes it sound like a self-help book, for which I apologize.) She learns to go back, to recall and understand, and seems poised to move forward as the book ends.

Jon, however, might not be moving anywhere again. His Ides-of-March moment was horrible, but not as surprising for me as it was for him. I certainly hope he’s not dead, but I can also see how he got himself into this situation: by not explaining fully to the people around him why he was doing what he was doing.

Should he have explained his strategy of saving the wildlings to prevent more zombies and to increase his army to fight the zombies? Maybe, maybe not. The idea that leaders owe us an explanation is an artifact of democracy, and Westeros is anything but. Nevertheless, Jon’s refusal to understand the power of a word here and a promise there seems horribly reminiscent of Ned’s mistakes in King’s Landing in A Game of Thrones.

As in that book, and in the show itself, the most disturbing part is watching a hero do exactly what’s right, exactly as we know he’s doing it wrong. Martin is phenomenal at seeing all the pieces on the cyvasse board, and all the emotional, physical, and governmental implications of each move. Reading Jon’s downfall was just as heart-wrenching as reading Ned’s. I can only hope the cliffhanger ending really is that, and not the end of his story.

Everyone Else is up to their usual hijinks. There’s cannibalism (don’t eat the Manderly pies!), gelding, murder, just betrayal and misguided honor, sex, death, dragons, and monkeys. Even listing the different events would be impossible, whether organized by categories, loyalties, location, or hair color.

Nearly all of those events, however, are tinged (sometimes saturated) with failure, desperation, and a sense of the impossibility of succeeding at doing the right thing. This novel is depressing. Whereas the first few books were about the failures of the best-laid plans, this verse of the Song seems to be about the impossibility of any plans. Everything goes awry. Entropy rules—sometimes by accident, sometimes because of a well-placed crossbow to the stomach.

There are a group of people (they live inside the internet and have no corporeal bodies) who suspect that Martin has no idea what he is doing. I choose to be unusually optimistic and assume he knows exactly what he is doing. And that worries me. I want happy endings, but every character that I love seems to be on a tragic path. What I wonder most of all is how, with everything spinning constantly towards chaos, there could be any ending but death. Most of these characters seem to have moved past the possibility of a happy ending. What would that even look like? Would Dany and Jon settle down in a nice castle with a white-picket defensive perimeter and two cats, a direwolf, and three dragons in the yard? Perhaps A Dance with Dragons is the moment of false peril, when everything looks so grim that we can’t imagine an escape—and the next two books will move towards a happy resolution that doesn’t involve too many valiant and noble deaths.

I hope so. And that I can hope so strongly for the good, and be so sad about the bad, means that Martin has written a powerful chapter in this long, complicated, and heartbreaking story.

Three and a half out of four geldings.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

15 comments:

Ben S. Dobson said...

I'm not sure how the recent comment thing on the sidebar works, so even though this post was all spoilers, I'm putting in a spoiler warning to my comment so it doesn't give anything away there.

Here it is: SPOILERS BELOW

I agree with most of what you said, but I honestly felt like Jon was actually doing a good job. I didn't get the Ned come again thing--in fact, more than once he made decisions that were less about honor and more about the greater good.

To me, the issue here was that he was dealing with old traditions and ingrained prejudices. In some ways, it felt like the opposite of Ned's situation--he was maybe the ONLY guy who understood they had to do something they found distasteful for the greater good. Meanwhile, Bowen March and the rest were sticking to their outdated codes and traditions. I felt like he explained time and time again what he was doing (he did explain to them that they needed to save the people at Hardhome so they wouldn't turn into wights, for instance), and that they needed the Wildlings, and why, to the stubborn old guard. They just wouldn't listen.

It was clear that things were going to go bad, but I don't think it's so much because Jon didn't play the political game as because it was an impossible game to play--they were never going to agree to working with Wildlings, and he wasn't going to put his head in the sand and ignore them.

I'm like 100% sure he's not dead, in any case, but my reason is pretty meta--if he is, that's not just 'woah, shocking, what a GRRM move', it's bad storytelling. We haven't got any closure to his arc, unlike Ned, who basically existed only to die as a catalyst for other events, and to show that in this world, honor isn't always a great thing. People like to talk about how he'll kill anyone, but I don't think that's true--characters aren't -safe- simply because they're important, but he also isn't just going to kill Jon Snow on a cliffhanger with no resolution and have us come back to 'oh yeah, turns out he really was dead' in the next book.

Josie Kafka said...

Ben, thank you for your great comment (and for putting the spoiler space at the top).

I definitely agree with your final point, especially if we think about the Brienne situation: just like Jon, her arc ended on a "Dead or Alive?" cliffhanger, and she made it through.

With Jon, though, we do have three options: dead, alive, undead. There are those two undead wights in the ice cells, waiting to go off like Chekov's shotgun. "Cold Hands" (who I assume is Benjen) is proof that someone can be only part-wight. I'd hate to see that fate for Jon.

Harry Earle said...

I have frantically scrolled down to comment as I haven't read the book, but I swear I saw the words 100% dead flash by as I did so *gulp*

All I wanted to say for now is Wow what a fast review Josie, I can't wait to get my specs on and catch up so I can allow myself to read the actual review instead of just the title.

Again, you're a star for getting this up so fast!

Valerie said...

I heard so much about the series that I wanted to try it out but I can't figure out which book is first and what is the intended reading order?

Josie Kafka said...

Hi Valerie,

Yes, yes, do try it! It's very good.

The order can be tricky, as there are 5 books in the US and 6 books in the UK. This is the US order:

1. A Game of Thrones
2. A Clash of Kings
3. A Storm of Swords
4. A Feast For Crows
5. A Dance with Dragons

In the UK, one of those books was broken into two parts, but I can never remember which one. You're safe buying A Game of Thrones now, though, as that is definitely just one book.

Have fun!

Mark Greig said...

It's A Storm of Swords that in two parts over here, Josie. All the rest are one book, although A Dance with Dragons might also be split when it comes out in paperback.

Josie Kafka said...

You are a prince among men, Mark.

Valerie said...

Thanks for the info Guys, I shall head to the nearest bookstore

Iago said...

SPOILERS


I've just finished it today (in fact I've read all 5 in the 6 weeks since the series finished) and I am getting quite annoyed with the cliffhangers GRRM keeps putting in - they lose their potency after a while. I don't think Jon is dead, I think Melisandre will bring him back but I got the impression the reason the Nights Watch finally turned on him was his oathbreaking - planning to leave and take on Ramsey Snow - as he was just about getting them to accept the Wilding situation, particularly after he'd found a way to feed the new mouths.

Similarly I'll believe Stannis is dead when I see the body and even then there can be mistakes. Look at how many 'dead' characters are running around Westeros, the Free Cities and Slavers Bay quite alive (as well as at least one dead character who is running around dead): the POV structure means mistakes are frequently made.

A lot of the Dany chapters were great and I really enjoyed Tyrion's journey, both physical and emotional. I loved the final few pages, with Varys revealing himself fully - wonderful stuff. A couple of burning questions remain - where the heck is Rickon? Is he supposed to be some in-joke in that he exists but is always forgotten about? Why bother to bring back Catelyn if you're going to ignore her for an entire book?

I really hope that GRRM is done laying out the pieces on the board and we start seeing some resolution. Vary's revelation gave the previous two books a strong structure but now Martin needs to do something with it. I can only imagine how frustrated people who've been waiting years for these books have felt.

bagarnbakarskor said...

SPOILERS




I, for one, think Martin would be untrue to the type of storytelling established in these books were Jon's body to survive. I thought he made it pretty clear through the Warg perspective in the prolougue - as well as Jon's connection with Ghost interspersed throughout the book - that at the beginning of the next book, his spirit will inhabit Ghost, probably to then possess whichever human character would be best suited for the task.

It also appears Dany will get (take) herself a brand new Khalasaar, possibly from that Khal Pony guy. Yes, I know his name is Pono, but that doesn't exactly inspire awe, either.

As for Tyrion, I didn't really notice any change in how much we get to see of his mind working. The disconnectedness or whatever one chooses to call it is, I think, more or less to be expected taking his experiences and personality into account. He has gone beyond cynical (something I find massively appealing) regarding himself and most everything around him, and bears an ever increasing world of hardship on his little back, keeping his footing with black witticisms, neverending scheming and sheer tenacity alone, and still somehow manages to be the character (seemingly) best off at the end of the book.

RAH said...

I too, tore through the book like a mad man. Also reading the other books from the time the show began till the new one came out. And I see that Martin is a great writer, boarderlining poet, but damn! If I wanted to read about rape, murder and the beating of women, I'd read a history book! I understand drama leads to more emotional storytelling, but whose going to want to keep reading these books when the only charcters left are Cersi, littlefinger and some other
douchebag who nobody cares about. Because To tell you the truth, I will always love these books, but I don't know if I will continue to read these bloody things. And it was the Ceaser-like end for Jon that did me in, while assholes like Victorion go around buring women in a skiff, Jon gets stabbed four times by his own men. Now grant it, Jon may be alive, most likely, but according to Martins productivity, the wizard of winter won't come out till my kids in high school. So on that note I must warn yall...watch out for Varys...Because I believe he's the only whose playing the game like a wizard would. He always has an ace in the hole.

Kelly said...

Don't know if this has been said, but did anyone notice the entire Baratheon family has been wiped out!?!? Gendry is the only relative left, so hopefully we'll see more of him in WOW.

sunbunny said...

Only commenting here to bemoan the fact that the paperback publication has been pushed back OVER A YEAR!!! Seriously? I'm way too cheap to buy the hardcover of this thing. Grumble grumble.

Juliette said...

sunbunny, try Amazon.co.uk - it's out in paperback over here, though it's in 2 volumes, so probably just as expensive!

This probably belongs with TV discussion rather than book discussion but... I really hope Tyrion doesn't end up having to ride a pig (or a dog) on the TV show. That is not a good visual. Make him a gladiator, which is much cooler (and cheaper, special-effects-wise). They might make him a juggler, since he's joked about that a few times. Also, I hope they write out Penny, who drives me insane.

sunbunny said...

HAHAHA finally finished. Definitely the weakest so far of the series. There was so much of not a lot going on. SO MANY SEA VOYAGES.

As realistic as seeing a teenage girl dither and fret over running her empire is, I didn't like it. I'd rather root for Dany as the ultimate badass slave freer burning mean people to death with her pets girl rather than the wahhh what do I do I don't know what to do what should I do person. Her story definitely picked up after the wedding. Which - can I just say - we got THREE weddings in this book and no one died at them. YAY!

I've never much cared for Jon (the stuff at the Wall, like the stuff in Essos, is too far removed from the other story lines and it just bores me) but that didn't stop me from throwing my book across the room when the Night's Watch started doing scenes from Julius Caesar. Jon is just like his dad (who, sorry, is definitely his uncle and not his father). He does the Right Thing to his detriment. What is it with Stark men and communication?

In a weird twist, Theon actually became my favorite POV character for this book. I really enjoyed his struggle with identity and overcoming all the horrific stuff he had to endure at Ramsay's hands. When he identified himself as "Theon" it totally reminded me of "I'm Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. And you are?"