A-ha! So THAT’s how the picture is supposed to look! After the meandering of A Feast for Crows and the curious decision to split the venues – A Dance with Dragons is a strong return to form for George R.R. Martin – a book that manages to recapture the pacing and tautness (despite 950 pages!) of the brilliant A Storm of Swords while giving the previous book more context. While I cannot recommend Feast except for hopeless Ice and Fire addicts, where we are left after the fifth volume gives me a bit more appreciation for the last two books in tandem. But yeah – no doubt – A Dance With Dragons is a lot of fun. We get the plot development (more on that – oh is there more – below) that is necessary, and the advancement in CHARACTER, all while digging further into the themes that have defined the series. But more than that, this book intersperses this stuff with some spectacular action scenes (blessed are the viewers of the HBO program if they can make it this far) and real gameboard changing stuff. Of course – what that gameboard really is seems to be different depending on who you talk to. There is the game being played for the Iron Throne, but it is starting to feel like that game might barely matter.
Indeed, if all you did was watch the television series, it would be impossible to even guess exactly how the stakes have been raised. Yes, we know that there is danger above the wall – as we have discussed before and the mysterious Melisandre seems to have some pretty cool magic, and that the Red tradition in general has given us reanimated dead people like Beric Dondarrion. We also know that dragons exist. But the first two books, and even most of the third are firmly grounded in the battle for King’s Landing, the Iron Throne and the various players. What you end up getting out of this book though, is a sense that courtly machinations of the Tyrells, Lannisters, Boltons and Baratheons are kittens with balls of string in comparison to what the real issues are.
- Indeed, the only person who seems to fully understand the big picture – or at least the part of the picture that matters the most – is Jon Snow. His scenes this time play like a cross between one of those nightmares where you cannot tell a loved one that he or she is about to die, and the frustrations that mediators in one of those Israel-Palestine peace negotiations must feel. Jon’s origin story is still very foggy – but in his manner he is very much Eddard Stark’s son. My heart went out to him as he tried to gather wildlings, giants, and his own very loosely banded together group. In some ways it is a fool’s errand – we only need to recall the bloodshed at Craster’s to understand just how flimsy the ties are binding the Watch – but he alone understands where the real danger lies, and the level of manpower required to even begin to combat it. Jon is trying so hard, so when the Watch turn on him, it is heartbreaking. Now, could he really be dead? Personally, it feels like it’d be cheating for Martin to wipe off the single most charismatic of the heroes – and as we know from the prologue, Jon’s connection to Ghost is much much more personal than even he understands. He has a way out of his cliffhanger, if he knows how.
- Melisandre also understands the big picture – sort of. Or at least her dogma has accomodated for the big picture – Rhillor and The Other. There is Red, and there is everything else (which would be a slogan for Sammy Hagar too but no mind). But this is just religious mumbo jumbo – I am not sure whether this is something she has any real experience with. She can do some low level magic, like creating an illusion to get Mance Rayder on a clandestine mission, and she has visions – but I don’t think she really gets how close to the “other” of her teachings she really is. With her and the odious Queen Selyse, Martin has neatly set up a possibility of these folks being totally duped by their religion. However, considering Jon’s current situation, I am not sure how much vindication this is.
- Indeed, is the Red and Other distinct? Sure, Thoros of Myr can reanimate dead people. Sure, Moqorro could heal Victarion Greyjoy’s wounded, diseased hand. But Others are (noticeably less loquacious) reanimated people too. We know that there is reanimation, warging, the whole bit. Are these really different things? After all, Ghost seemed to be taken by Melisandre too. I think this is all the same thing being tapped into – it’s not like Allah and Vishnu are describing distinct whatever-the-hell-you-call-them.
- So, three bullets and no dragons? Oh there are dragons – are there ever dragons. Quentyn Martell sure figured that out (talk about a cockamamie scheme). Daenerys in Mereen has built up reservoirs of resentment and fear with her dragons and her emancipating ways. Much like other historical epochs, ending slavery is nice, but you sort of need to consider what’s next. She had a lot of interesting advice in this term – while Barristan’s was the most noble, Shakaz the Shavepate seemed to be the most practical, if not brutal. Dany’s marriage made sense to me – if it was a mistake, it would have been one I made. And in any case, it set up that marvelous scene with Drogon in the fighting pits.
- I guess a review/commentary would not be complete of course without Tyrion – who has to be the most loveable of the series, if not dripping with the tortured hero chops of a Jon Snow. He of course is on the lam for killing his father – and kind of sort of for not exactly killing Joffrey. He is very much far away from the ethereal struggles in the North, though he is certainly fascinated by the dragons too. Certainly the ship he was directed to by Varys and Illyrio is interested. Tyrion’s adventures this time are a weird rollicking sort of counterpoint, more actual adventure and travelogue. Tyrion gets by on his wit, and that is a pleasure. I have no idea if his scheme to get them on the Second Sons and to escape slavery will work – but it was the best card he had, and he is nothing if not a card player.
- And one of the people he played with was Young Griff on the ship. Young Griff, and who he really is – is one of the great reveals in the book. Did we ever really consider that Aegon Targaryen might not have died during Robert’s Rebellion? It still seems far fetched, but there he is. Or is it him at all? Why did Varys send him on a boat with their hand picked choice to be the next king? Indeed, why Varys cares – aside from loyalty to Rhaegar and the Targaryen previous – is hard to peg. If this is a game for Iron Throne superpowers, it’s a long one. And the young lad might not be up for cooperating from early indications.
Overall, this book is a return to form after the interesting, but decidedly “lesser” fourth book. Considering the history of this series, we have to be prepared for anybody to die at any time. That said, usually I think, the deaths come from obvious errors, if not morally at least tactically. I guess Jon might be gone – but somehow, I doubt it, or maybe I hope it is not the case. Who knows. For a 959 page doorstop – it’s a good, taut, exciting sort of adventure, not in the league of the third book (what is), but probably the second best book in the series.