Review: A Dance With Dragons by George RR Martin

I dropped out of the ‘reviewing every book I read habit’ while attempting it last year, and I’m not planning to pick it up. However, I do like writing the occasional book review, and as part of the concerted effort to blog here more often, expect to see the occasional one dotted in amongst the political rants.

A Dance With Dragons is obviously the fifth book in the series, so if you haven’t read the others yet, be warned that there will be spoilers. If you’re watching Game Of Thrones on TV, then this really will spoil you for stuff that’s coming up in the next season. So if you don’t want to know any more, look away now…

One abiding theme of the whole of this series has been characters acting with the best of intentions inadvertently making things worse. Beneath all the sex, violence and magic, what Martin has been telling is a story about the cumulative effect of different decisions. One reason for having so many viewpoint characters is that it’s needed to tell the story that way – seemingly inexplicable decisions become logical when they’re presented from the point of view of the character making them. (The Cersei chapters in A Feast For Crows were a great example of this – she had a justification for everything she did, but each step took her deeper into trouble)

Because this is a mediaeval society, though, just about everyone is working on incomplete information when they make their decisions, and it’s what they don’t know that comes back to get them. Tyrion’s rise in A Clash Of Kings came because he was taking a wider and longer view than everyone else, but his fall after that came because he wasn’t seeing as much as he thought he was. At the moment, there are still a few characters who don’t seem to have suffered any major setbacks – Varys and Littlefinger spring to mind – but for almost everyone else, the consequences of their earlier decisions are coming home to roost. Daenarys’s decision to remain in Meereen means that she not only has to deal with the political implications of that, but that the various suitors who are heading towards her are delayed and diverted because she’s not where she’s expected to be. By the end of the book, her refusal to look back appears to have taken her back to the end of thie first novel – smouldering in the Dothraki Sea with a dragon before a khalasar.

At the other end of the world, Jon’s story is the other main thrust of the book, and he suffers for having a wider vision than most of those around him. It’s clear that the Wall was built to keep the Others out, but as they’ve retreated into legend, the assumption is that the Night’s Watch is there to keep the free folk out of the Seven Kingdoms. With the Others returned, Jon is trying to unite everyone behind the Wall’s original purpose, not properly comprehending that most – especially those who’ve spent years fighting wildlings – have not fully understood the nature of the threat. (Quick! Someone pitch Leadership Secrets of the Night’s Watch to a publisher – there’s money to be made)

One other interesting note is that the parts of the story in the south of Westeros are still relatively free of magical trappings. While the Northern sections are under the shadow of the Others and R’hllor and the Eastern ones teem with magicians, dragons, stone men and more, the people of the South are still dealing with the aftermath of a purely conventional war, with the magic little more than a rumour. However, it seems that both Cersei and Jaime are about to have to deal with some form of magic as another force ready to destabilise everything.

The other theme that’s rising to importance in the books – it’s been around since the start, but began to assume more importance in A Feast For Crows – is the nature of identity and who you are. This is prominent in Theon’s attempts to first forget and then reclaim his own name and in Arya’s discoveries amidst the Faceless Men, but it’s also stylistic as characters like Quentyn, Jon Connington and Ser Barristan have their chapters named after the role they’re playing at that time. (It’s interesting to note that while Tyrion uses aliases, he never becomes them) In a feudal society, the question of who you are and who you want to be is inextricably linked to what others want you to be, and how much they can do to make you into that, as is shown quite graphically by Reek and Ramsay.

There are times when the novel drags – some of the early chapters feel like they’re marking time until everyone gets into position – but overall it does propel the story forward, even if one of the big questions that remains is just how Martin’s going to conclude all this in just two more books. I’m now in the new position of having to wait for the next book to be finished, just like lots of other people have been for the last few years, but I’m very eager to find out what comes next.