A Dance with Dragons

George R. R. Martin
A Dance with Dragons Cover

A Dance with Dragons




I don’t really know what to say having finished, ‘A Dance with Dragons’.  Part of me feels glad to have ‘caught up’ but overwhelmingly I feel glad to have reached the end, because deep down I feel I have reached the end with this series whether another book or two is published or not.  I hate to say it, but despite the complex, living world, the multitude of plots and machinations over thousands of pages having reached the end I feel exhausted, disappointed and perhaps most criminally, bored.


There’s no way around it, but despite reading this last / latest volume of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, I can’t help feel that my overwhelming emotion is one of boredom and relief that the book ended.  At its heart, this book and the book before it (and almost certainly the two remaining planned volumes) have become too big.  There is to much going on, and it is out of control.  The complex Machiavellian plots have spun off and Martin instead of keeping a tight reign on the story decided to show us absolutely everything he has ever thought of.  Where the novel needed to be tighter, he decided to let his imagination and word count run wild.  It’s a mess of a book in many respects.


I suspect most readers know the story by now.  After, ‘A Storm of Swords’ Martin set to work on his fourth volume in the series.  During the writing process he realised he needed two books instead of one.  ‘A Feast for Crows’ was completed in 2005 focussing on events in the South of Westeros and then six years later ‘A Dance with Dragons’ was completed focussing on events in the North and on the continent of Essos.  It hasn’t been so bad for me in reading this series because I only started reading it a year or so ago, and I am aware of the delays, and I was also a fan of the television adaptation so I kind of get where we are.  I really don’t like the Martin bashing over the time for him to write the remaining books – it’s unfair to ‘demand’ the labour from him.  The books will be finished when and if they are finished (I mean, look at the reviews for ‘The Winds of Winter’ – some people are just really arsey).  There is a big but coming here, and that is that Martin’s writing style and the way he structures his novels does not lend itself well to five and ten year gaps between novels.


I know as I am writing, that I have a lot of criticisms of this book so I guess I should start on the positives.  The first thing I appreciated as a reader was that this novel is the first one I have read where there is significant divergence from the events in the television series and as such these ‘new to me’ plots were interesting and engaging – at first, anyway.


As always, the world feels big, there is a lot you need to keep your eye on and you feel like you are reading a ‘living’ world.


As previously mentioned, the book focuses on the North, where King Stannis is clinging onto whatever scraps he can to claim legitimacy as ‘King’ and he is taking his fight to Lord Bolton of the Dreadfort.  Meanwhile, the Nights Watch are assessing the outcome of their victory over the Wildings and what may be coming towards the Wall.  Meanwhile in the East we have whatever it is Daenerys Targaryen is supposed to be doing, but more of that later.  The sections in the North are by far the more superior chapters in the book.  These sections feel like a good ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ book.  You’ve got the aforementioned King Stannis and his uneasy alliance with the Nights Watch taking it to Lord Bolton, who is Warden of the North by consent of the Iron Throne back in Kings Landing.  Lord Bolton has a shaky alliance with some of the Northern lords and not others with treacherous Frey’s in the mix.  You’ve still got the remnants of the Ironborn presence in the North holding onto territory as the Crannogmen undertake their guerrilla warfare, and then the appearance of ‘Northern clans’ into the mix.  Added to that you have the Nights Watch long term enemies, the Wildings pouring from the North towards the Wall, running from something far worse.  Alliances are formed, lies are told, betrayal and confusion are never far away and now and again there is the occasional explosion of violence.


Two things really jump out in the Northern sections.  First the unspeakable cruelty and all-around nastiness of Ramsey Bolton.  He is absolutely fucking disgusting – an irredeemable bastard of the highest order.  He’s almost cartoonish in his abominable behaviour.  We know in the earlier books just what a sadistic bastard he is, but here he is turned up to eleven (and then a few more).  It can be quite hard to read sometimes but it is clear he revels in rape, torture, dehumanisation and cruelty.  It's relentless but I think adds to the book.  In ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ most characters are shades of grey and even the ones you like do unspeakable things.  The series is littered with villains, but even the worst of them have a rationale for their actions.  Ramsey isn’t like that.  He’s just an absolute bastard.  If there is another book, I’d love him to get his comeuppance.


The second thing is the use of weather as a plot device.  Winter comes, and heavy snow falls, to the point where people cannot travel safely.  Lord Bolton and his forces are holed up in a fortress and the snows come down.  Martin does a brilliant job of lulling both the reader and Bolton into a false sense of security.  One clearly goes from thinking they are untouchable and secure to realising that as the snow falls, they are actually trapped and in significant danger.  It’s only a few chapters but I loved the absolute paranoia as bad things happen to people who don’t trust each other.  It reminded me of ‘Alien’ in a way, where people who should be safe are totally isolated and trapped.  Best section in the book for me.


The other section of the book though has significant problems.  We have hundreds of pages where absolutely nothing of note happens.  Daenerys Targaryen has spent four books wandering around aimlessly.  In this book she basically sits on her arse in the city of Mereen worrying about stuff and doing very little about anything at all.  It’s a real failing of this book, in that there are about a million plot threads of people basically travelling to see her to fall in love with her when she is the limpest, most boring character ever written.  Daenerys is basically Martin’s wank fantasy.  A teenage girl who the world adores (but hasn’t seen) but who actually can’t do anything for herself and has little agency.  It’s a load of crap really.  Honestly, I’d read about a third of the book and I realised nothing happened but a bunch of people travelling through Essos.  It’s a book about walking about!


So, we’ve mentioned that Martin had let the series get out of control, so what does he do?  He introduces yet more plots and characters, most of which could easily be cut to make it even more wordy and convoluted.  I honestly think he should have put this out as two shorter books and cut half of it out.  The book desperately needed an editor.  There are lists upon lists upon lists (like we don’t need to know what every character has at every meal).  Certain phrases creep in again and again (sadly ‘boiled leather’ is only mentioned a few times).  It goes on and on and on and on….


Characterisation takes a hit too.  I am left with the impression that most of the characters (especially in the Essos sections) are no longer players in ‘a game of thrones’ but rather pawns in Martin’s game as they are endlessly moved about.  Poor Tyrion, one of the best characters in the series has a couple of paragraphs where it seems he is making a difference to the story despite being a massive character in the book.  Many will remember the repetition of, ‘You know nothing, Jon Snow’ back in ‘A Storm of Swords’ to the point where it became a running joke.  It could be said though that it was an important point of Jon Snow’s lack of awareness of how the world really was.  Not only does this phrase crop back up a whole bunch of times but there are at least three other characters who think or say a repetitious phrase over and over again.  Once is effective, every bloody character doing it as a quirk is absolutely annoying (as an aside I read a comment where one was defending this as ‘brilliant characterisation’ – I disagree, it is lazy.  The reader should buy into a phrase, not roll their eyes).


The book also felt problematic as hell.  In the absence of a gripping read, many of the things that make books like this successful just came across as trashy and shitty.  ‘Grimdark’ is supposed to be bleak, it’s supposed to be unforgiving, sometimes the bad guys win.  It’s supposed to be cruel and you’re supposed to expect anything to happen.  The problem with this book, is that the pacing is so ponderous and the text so verbose and meandering that little of the nasty stuff has an impact.  And because it doesn’t push emotional buttons it just reads like a load of shit.  Rape and torture can be effective plot devices but it seems every other page Martin, stuck for anything resembling an exciting plot has to throw in a little more dehumanisation.  He will literally introduce a character just to rape and murder them a page later over and over again.  It’s boring.


The continent of Essos cannot be helped be read as a pile of racist trash.  Essos is ‘othered’ as the non-white continent.  Although there are descriptions of allegedly distinct cultures, they all boil down to the ‘savage uncivilised people’ living off slavery, where most of humanity live a vile existence of subjugation.  I know people will defend it as fantasy, but literature is full of ‘not-Egypt’, ‘not-Africa’, ‘not-Asia’ and horrible depictions of these cultures.  I mean, what the hell is Daenerys if not a ‘white saviour’ to free the people from their own subjugation?  Every other page has a ridiculous racist trope, from ‘they fuck like horses in the open’, to points where he may as well refer to people with ‘watermelon smiles’.  And of course, let’s not forget the sex slaves, who you know, are ‘really into it’, having been trained from birth.  And this goes on chapter, after chapter, after chapter…  It’s ridiculous at one point where a character frees some slaves then effectively murders half of them, treats the rest as sex slaves and then chains the others to the oars of a galley and declares them free, ‘you’re not slaves, you’re thralls’.  I am sure Martin is trying to be cute in his observation that things are little different slave, or not, but really the rest of the book is screaming in it’s Whiteness that he’s reinforcing the point he thinks he is pushing back against.


I know we’ve talked a lot about how long the book is, but when I was reading it, I could often hear Matt Berry’s Laszlo character from ‘What we do in the shadows’ declaring, ‘WHO GIVES A FUCK!’.

Bran Stark gets a couple of chapters being dragged in the snow – Who Gives A Fuck – cut it.

Victarion Greyjoy gets a couple of chapters on the seas - Who Gives A Fuck – cut it.

Jamie Lannister gets a couple of chapters accidentally forgotten from the last book – Who Gives A Fuck – cut it

Arya Stark carries on her other slow, pointless, standing still plot for a chapter – Who Gives A Fuck – cut it.

Worse, there is a significant character introduced whose plot arc thankfully appears concluded which takes up hundreds of pages, largely based on a sentence in the previous book.  Martin could have shaved a few hundred pages out of this easily and had a tighter, more effective novel.


I know this is going to sound rude, but this is the first novel where I could really tell that Martin’s background is in television writing.  The first, is that American television drama is notoriously boring and slower paced compared to European drama.  Very little happens in episodes (I know there are exceptions) and everything builds to a cliff-hanger.  Series are dragged out (and notably often dropped without a resolution) because they want you back.  A novel can’t work like that, it has to be self-contained as a work in its own right.  TV can get away with it because you’re tuning in next week to see what happens.  Martin uses the same devices but the you are not waiting a week to see what happens – you are waiting YEARS!  There’s a character in ‘A Storm of Swords’ whose last chapter ends in a cliff-hanger.  ELEVEN YEARS and two books later the character is reintroduced for a sentence or two then promptly dropped for the rest of the book.  So okay, we know they are still about but when is the payoff coming?  Never, that’s when.  And to be fair, if you are going to use cliff-hangers in a novel that’s fine, but in a series of books?  That’s just ripping off the reader.  It’s almost as though he thought, ‘oh yeah, forgot about them, better put a line in’.


The other thing that reminds me of TV is that he has jumped the shark once to many times.  One shock now and again in media gets everyone talking.  Repeating that same shock time and time again just lessens it.  I am reminded of pro wrestling.  Once upon a time a run-in from someone not involved in a match was a shock and increased drama – the industry then used it that much that whenever a match reached a point of high drama, the audience were trained to crane their necks to see who was running in.  They’d forgotten how to tell stories and become formulaic.  In the earlier novels major characters you’d invested in lost their lives and it was a shock.  Here there are at least seven instances where a chapter ends on a cliff-hanger and you are led to believe a character is dead.  I can think, off the top of my head five characters in this book who are wandering around who at one point in the series have been declared or the reader assumed to be dead.  There are probably more if I really think about it.  What this means is a couple of ‘cliff-hangers’ towards the end of the book you generally think are probably going to be alright one way or another.  And I am getting into spoiler territory here but right at the end of the book a character who has not been present at all comes back and takes action to develop the plot significantly.  It’s like, ‘are you taking the piss?’.


I feel like I have been scathing in this review, and it’s probably not as bad as I am making out.  I guess it’s just disappointment that something that could have been brilliant is such a mess.  I still care about the world, the characters and the overarching plot and that matters.  I’m convinced there is a good book in here, but the problem is that it is mixed with a bad book plus everything else the author thought was interesting before an editor got their hands on it.