Reviewer: Craig Reade
Quick Rating: Enjoyable - but really needed a stronger editor
Winter arrives as the War of Five Kings sputters to an end.
Author: George R. R. Martin
Publication Date: July 12th, 2011
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
I first dove into A Song of Ice and Fire just two months ago, in a frantic effort to complete all four existing novels prior to the release of this installment in the series. And I almost made it too - I got through all 3,200 pages of story, sorted through my notes, and completed The Series So Far: A Song of Ice and Fire just 6 days after A Dance With Dragons was released. I've already covered the groundwork of the universe in that article, so if you are looking for basics to see if you are interested in checking this series out, it is best to start there.
I immediately dove into A Dance With Dragons, and after about a week I finally plowed my way through it - and decided I needed a break. My brain sufficiently rested, it was time to come back and finally review it. So how was it? (Fair warning, this review does contain some spoilers)
Well, I did enjoy it. I don't think there was any real question of that - anyone who honestly enjoyed the first four books is already wrapped up in the universe at this point, and just seeing what happens to these characters is going to satisfy some people. Even more appealing for some readers is the return of several characters that didn't make it into the last volume, A Feast For Crows, like Bran, Jon Snow, Daenerys, and Tyrion Lannister. This story is supposed to run concurrent with the events of A Feast For Crows, but as we start to approach the end, A Dance With Dragons again picks up and advances some of those plot lines. The one thing this novel can't be accused of is not being complete - every one of the main point-of-view characters any reader might care about gets at least a moment on stage.
As I mentioned in the previous article, I had some concerns that this volume would suffer from weak editing. Unfortunately, that is the case. It is impossible for a writer to work on a novel of this size for eleven years (parts of this book were originally intended for A Feast For Crows) and remain objective to structural problems. Sure, from a proofreading perspective the book is just fine, but the presentation of the overall universe has become such a nightmare that I honestly wonder if the developmental editing process has abandoned sometime after the release of A Storm of Swords.
The biggest problem in the narrative is the time spent on some of the new characters. In the last two novels, we have seen extremely extensive introductions to members of the Greyjoy and Martell houses - and all of that narrative space has ended up being wasted. Martin is treating some of these newer characters with the same weight and attention that he has given to the main characters of the series, despite the fact that they don't seem to play a role in the eventual resolution of the main storyline (like Balon Greyjoy), or may eventually play a role later on, but are largely irrelevant now (like Theon Greyjoy). Quentyn Martell is a great example of wasted space - so much time and effort was spent building up his story, only to have him rejected with a complete disinterest by Daenerys and ultimately die a fool's death.
Then there is the subject of death. Martin is not shy about killing characters - something that is praiseworthy. The death of Robb Stark was enormous and really set the tone that no one was safe. He has developed a troubling habit of trying to fool you into thinking a character was dead, when they weren't. He did this with Bran and Rickon early on, then later with Catelyn, then with Brienne - and in this novel he dropped that tease with Jon Snow and Stannis Baratheon as well. This has started to become a very frustrating and irritating part of reading these books. While the character isn't dead, they might as well be - after revealing they are still alive, the character is thrust into the background and largely ignored. Bran Stark has been in a holding pattern for a long time now - traveling north in a rather dull search for the Three Eyed Crow. He is finally learning to use his abilities as a warg, but he is completely removed from the main plot line to the point of irrelevancy. Rickon was never developed and is a non-entity at this point. Catelyn has been reduced to minor-character status, and Brienne hardly appeared in this book at all.
Among the other primary characters that readers first became interested in through the first two books, Arya is still training to be an assassin. A lot of time is spent with her, but on a character development that feels like Martin is just spinning his wheels. Sansa is a pawn in a power struggle that is struggling to get to the point or relevancy, Jaime Lannister spent this entire novel appearing at various sieges and ending them quickly (and redundantly), Cercei is out of power and humiliated - only Tyrion and Daenerys can claim to be both relevant and interesting. It has become harder and harder to get excited about things that happen in the book because of the lack of payoff for some of the characters we really cared about early on in the series.
The point is - it doesn't seem like Martin has a strong outline of where he wants this story to go. His characters are all over the place. Instead of structuring his books to accomplish some goal and using characters that will accomplish that end, he is simply writing every mundane detail that happens in the lives of every one of his characters whether they pertain to the story or not. Arya is a great example - why is he even including her in these novels? She is a fantastic character, but she has absolutely nothing to do with the story at this point. Why not write a couple novellas or short stories and publish them elsewhere (because on their own, some of her chapters are interesting), and bring her back fully trained when he needs her in the story again?
Martin clearly has a fantastic imagination, but he is getting to the point where it is obvious he either isn't listening or isn't being told when something can be safely taken out of a novel. Just because a section of prose is well written or interesting, it doesn't mean that it necessarily belongs in a particular novel.
I hate to spend so much time on the negatives of this book, because there is a lot of good here too. The overall story is still powerful and compelling. The characters are still rich and diverse - an especially strong positive in a universe with so many primary characters. As the series advances, it is becoming more apparent that the overall story is too big for an ordinary series of novels, and strong editing and a little more modern thinking about distribution could make this series so much more successful. The "Arya shorts" idea I mentioned before would have been received quite well from fans irritated about the long wait between installments, and almost certainly would have made the six year wait a little more palatable.
If you are a fan of the series, I think you will enjoy this one - probably a little bit more than A Feast For Crows, if only because of the characters involved. It's the longest book in the series yet and is a dense and difficult read at times, but the end result is worth it.