Von Stefan Sasse
A Dance with Dragons Review
I was one of the lucky Germans to have received their copy of “A Dance with Dragons” two weeks early (or, to say it in Martin’s terms: a fortnight early). It took me a total of three days to finish it, starting afternoon of the first day and finishing it noon of the third. The first-read-experience was commented in the chapter-by-chapter-section of “The Tower of the Hand”, so if you are interested in that, look it up there. This text here will deal with the book as a whole, spoilers, twists and all. Consider this your last warning before you continue to read: there be spoilers. If you want to have an untouched experience for “A Dance with Dragons”, don’t continue reading.
Roughly the first 60% of the book cover the same time span as “A Feast for Crows” and shed some light on what happened north of Moat Cailin as well as what happens beyond the Narrow Sea. Most chapters cover the exploits of Jon, Tyrion and Daenerys, though there are three chapters for Bran, two for Asha Greyjoy, a couple for Theon Greyjoy, three for Barristan Selmy, three for Quentyn Martell, one for Areoh Hotah, three for Victarion Greyjoy, three for Jon Connington, one for Jaime, two for Cersei and one for Melisandre. In the prologue, we meet Varamyr Sixskins and the epilogue is delivered to us courtesy of Kevan Lannister. Including the last two, we witness the death of four POV.
The story in the North is relatively simple: Jon has to try to make something out of the victory over the wildlings at the end of “A Storm of Swords”. He has to haggle with Stannis Baratheon and walk a thin red line trying to maintain the independence of the Watch while securing the support of the king. Simultaneously, he tries to strike an alliance with the wildlings – where he is on equal terms with Stannis – to settle them in the gift. Most black brothers oppose this course, and Jon needs most of his time to grow into the role of Lord Commander (although he does that real quick) and to make the necessary arrangements. Mance Rayder is burned to honor R’hollor and dies screaming.
Bran marches north with Coldhands, whose identity remains unclear. Coldhands is dead, obviously, and he has been dead for long, which makes it unlikely that he is Benjen. His identity is not revealed, however. Bran makes advancements and can now warg in Hodor, several other beasts and has full control over Summer. Jojen gets weaker and weaker and threatens to die when the party is attacked by several wights. The fighting is brutal, and in the end they are rescued by a child of the forest, who invites them in the cave, where the Last Greenseer resided: they finally found the Three-Eyed-Crow.
Said Greenseer proves to be Brynden Rivers, Bloodraven, grown into the roots of the old weirwoods that grow here. He teaches Bran not only some secrets about warging, but also in the old powers of the children of the forest and in greenseeing. This is done by warging into any weirwood, so Bran can watch everything around them. He witnesses the events at Winterfell, past and present, and tries to contact Theon Greyjoy.
In the meantime, Stannis tries to gain allies. He is not successful, however, only Karstark declares for him. In this desperate situation, Jon counsels him to gain the allegiance of the mountain clans of the North (we remember, Bran encountered them before in “A Storm of Swords”). Then Stannis means to strike at Deepwood Motte, free it from the Ironborn and then march on the Dreadfort.
At the Dreadfort, Ramsay Bolton holds a cruel regiment, flaying, killing and raping for sport and holding Theon Greyjoy gruesomely maimed and broken as a pet of his. It is through Theon’s eyes, who has taken the identity of Reek, that we see the whole bestiality of the Boltons. These chapters are made for retching, as they are cruel and ugly. Ramsay uses Theon to gain control of Moat Cailin and to reunite with Roose Bolton. Then they call all their allies to Winterfell, to celebrate the wedding with the false Arya Stark in its ruins.
Also called is Wyman Manderly, the lord of White Harbor, to whom Davos Seaworth was sent to negotiate. Since his only surviving son is held hostage by the Lannisters and three Freys are at court to watch his actions, Manderly imprisons Davos and threatens him killed, which he supposedly does. In truth, he just kills a criminal whose hands he shortened before and sends Davos on to rescue Rickon Stark, who seems to be on Skagos (at least it is said he is where men eat other men, which would fit the description) and bring him back to White Harbor. Although that happens fairly early in the book, there are no further Davos chapters, so we don’t know how this mission is going.
In the meantime, on the other side of the Narrow Sea, Tyrion comes before Illyrio in Pentos, who tells him that he wants him to meet Daenerys and ally with her. He will be sent there with a sellsword named Griff. This sellsword soon reveals himself to be Jon Connington, the childhood friend of Rhaegar Targaryen who was forced into exile by mad king Aerys. In his custody is another Targaryen offspring: Aegon, son of Rhaegar, who supposedly was killed by Armory Lorch but obviously smuggled out by Varys before and groomed for rule. Tyrion mentors him for a short while, planting the idea in his head of invading Westeros on his own.
This succeeds only because Daenerys has not done what Illyrio and Varys expected. Instead of marching west, she stayed in Meereen. The Slaver’s Bay is not easily reached by land, however, and the way by sea is closed since the city is at war with Yunkai, and Volantis is half of a mind to declare war too. Daenerys has a host of problems to solve: the city hates her, and her Unsullied and freedmen die every night by hidden knives. The Yunkai’i prepare war, and then Xaro Xhoan Daxos shows up, posing an ultimatum: either Daenerys leaves the city, or Qarth will declare war. Which is exactly what happens.
Tyrion himself is soon abducted from Griff and Aegon by the hands of Jorah Mormont. Instead of pursuing him or trying to meet Dany, Aegon decides to make for Westeros, like Tyrion counseled. In Mormont’s captivity, Tyrion meets the dwarf woman Penny, who performed the mock joust together with her brother at Joffrey’s wedding feast. Her brother was killed, though, because of the lordship Cersei promised for Tyrion’s head. Tyrion performs acts together with Penny to save his life, becoming a mummer riding the great sow. Tywin is sure to rotate in his grave.
Meereen in the meantime is surrounded by foes. Daenerys can’t make use of her dragons since they have become unruly, attacking and devouring humans. She chained up Viserion and Rheagal, but Drogon escaped, never to be seen again. Her enemies outnumber her manyfold. The only option she sees, to stop the murder within the city walls and to prevent the storm from without, is marrying a chief Meereenese noble, which she does, but not after finally sleeping with Daario Naharis several times.
Jorah Mormont tries to reach Meereen with Tyrion, hoping to get a pardon by presenting him to Daenerys, but slavers attack their ship and take them all captive. They are sold to a Yunkish merchant, who uses them to entertain himself in the siege of Meereen. When a plague breaks out and takes their master, Tyrion manages to turn to Brown Ben Plumm from the Second Sons, who deserted Daenerys, who takes him, Penny and Jorah in his service in exchange for the promise of Pentos and nearly all the gold from Casterly Rock. With that, Tyrion’s story ends.
Daenerys in the meantime has celebrated the wedding with the Meereenese noble by finally reopening the fighting pits. In the midst of all the bloody gladiator battles, Drogon lands directly in the arena, killing some people. Daenerys manages to cow him and to jump his back, and then Drogon flies away. She can’t control him, however, and doesn’t manage to return. Barristan Selmy takes over matters together with some of her advisors, dethrones her husband – who tried to murder her – and rules the city as Hand in her stead.
All the while, two other people made for Meereen: Victarion Greyjoy and Quentyn Martell. While Victarion has lost half his fleet to storms, he manages to regain confidence by seizing ships along the way and with help of a powerful red priest, to whom he soon heeds for counsel. Quentyn can’t reach Meereen, so he joins up with some mercenaries, deserts them and reaches Dany the day before her wedding, unable to make her honor the old marriage contract that was done by Ser Willem Darry (!) and Doran Martell after their flight from Dragonstone years and years past. After Dany’s vanished, Martell decides that he has enough dragon blood in him to tame one of the remaining two dragons and prove worthy for Dany that way, but he fails and dies, engulfed by dragon flame. The other two dragons are loose as well, devastating parts of Meereen.
Daenerys herself is lost at the edge of the Dothraki Sea, starved and maddening. Finally, she manages to find back to herself by way of some visions and to finally acknowledge that her trying to rule Meereen was a mistake from the beginning. She manages to control Drogon, flies out in the Dothraki Sea and seeks out the khalasaar of Khal Jaqho, whom she meets standing next to Drogon. With this, the story in the east ends.
In the North, Stannis managed to turn the mountain clans and unites with Karstark and Umber to a strength of over 5000 men. Roose Bolton is in the ruins of Winterfell with nearly as many, but the loyalty of Manderly can’t be trusted. On the way to Winterfell, however, the whole army is surprised by a strong blizzard and soon stuck in the snow, without any food. Stannis’ people are dying by the score. Simultaneously, Jon Connington invades the Stormlands with the Golden Company.
On the Wall, Alys Karstark, the true heir of the castle (her uncle Arnolf has usurped her place) arrives, halfdead from her flight, and is taken in by Jon. She tells him that Karstark plans to betray Stannis at Winterfell and to turn cloak, so that the Boltons will easily defeat him. There is no way to reach Stannis, however. Jon manages to send Val beyond the Wall to seek out Tormund and to strike an alliance with him, admitting thousands of wildlings south of the Wall to man the castles there under supervision of trusted officers. Dissent grows louder and louder in the Night’s Watch.
Jon has some success with a Braavosi banker: the Iron Bank, rejected by Cersei, decided to back Stannis in hope of getting her money back, which could win him the war. Jon takes a credit as well, securing food for the Watch in the upcoming winter. The Braavosi soon marches off to search Stannis. Melisandre shows Jon that Mance Rayder isn’t dead, but going in disguise of the Lord of Bones, and he is sent south to rescue Arya from Ramsay Bolton. At Winterfell, in the disguise of Abel the Bard, Mance Rayder allies himself with Theon Greyjoy, who was awakened from the nightmare Ramsay put him in by Bran, who talked to him through a weirwood. They abduct the false Arya Stark and bring her to Stannis.
Briefly, we return to the Riverlands and to King’s Landing with one chapter Jaime and two for Cersei. Jaime makes peace with the last rebel lord, Blackwood, and ends the war in the Riverlands. After striking the peace, Brienne shows up and tells him she found Sansa Stark, but that the Hound threatens to kill her. Jaime leaves with her, not to be seen again. Cersei in the meantime sits in her cell in the Sept of Baelor, confessing some minor sins and atoning them, so that the High Septon may allow her trial by combat. Since Arys Oakheart was killed in Dorne, Kevan is able to make Qyburn’s champion a kingsguard, thus allowing him to champion for Cersei in the trial by combat as “Ser Robert Strong”. As atonement, Cersei has to walk through King’s Landing naked, however. In the epilogue, Kevan learns of the invasion of Connington and wants to bar the Tyrell attempts to gain more power, but he is killed by Varys with a crossbow to drive a wedge between the houses of Lannister and Tyrell and to prepare the Targaryen invasion.
On the Wall, Jon tries to make up a rescue ranging together with Tormund Giantbane to get the last big part of the wildlings that has gathered at the coast of Hardstown, after Cotter Pyke failed and is presumably dead. Before he can go on the ranging, however, he receives a letter from Ramsay Snow telling him that he captured Mance Rayder and killed Stannis and his host. He demands the false Arya back, or otherwise he will march to the Wall and kill Jon. Jon holds a speech before the wildlings and black brothers, announcing his intent to march to Winterfell himself and to kill Ramsay. The black brothers don’t want to follow him, but many wildlings volunteer. Outside the hall, some black brothers, led by Bowen Marsh, assault Jon and stab him to death. With that, the northern story is concluded.
George R. R. Martin complained many times about the complexity of the “Meereenese knot” that plagued him so long. If one looks at the whole storyline, you can understand why: many people try to reach the city, and the order of their arrival and the impact was important. Take all that into account and you acknowledge the nightmare it must have been to make all this up. After completing the book, I can fully understand why he needed so long to complete it.
That being said how is the book? It shares the same weakness as does “A Feast for Crows”: it is clearly the link between the storylines, featuring only half the characters. Sometimes the story boils down and just goes slowly; leaving room for ambience chapters that describe the country (a prime example is Tyrion driving down the Rhoyne with Griff and Aegon). Contrary to what many people had expected, me included, are the Tyrion and Daenerys chapters among the weakest of the book. Especially Tyrion’s chapters make for not very pleasant reads, being slow-paced and without the wits. Tyrion’s turn to a mummer in the second half of the book also never really feels right, although at least his witty remarks come back in that half.
Daenerys’ plot is complicated and involves several very strange names, with the gaps between her chapters being filled only by stray remarks, so it will be up to the first re-read to fully comprehend what happens in Meereen. The whole city is a bee hive of intrigue and murder, and the situation worsens by the minute. Dany fails on many levels, political as well as personal. Her freeing the slaves didn’t bring the new world she wanted. Slavery is soon reestablished in all but name, war is on her door where she wants peace, and the dragons elude her grasp. Fortunately for her she is way too wrapped up in the politics to give it much thought.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t give very much to the reader. The light that Ser Barristan promised to shed on Rhaegar and Aerys Targaryen, her ancestors, her traditions and heritage doesn’t come to us the whole book. Only in one of his own chapters, Barristan for a short while muses on the tourney of Harrenhal, and although this short musing will provide stuff for our most favorite theories, we are not closer to a conclusion than before and don’t really learn much.
Baby Aegon being alive is a plot point I disliked from the beginning. It just seems too much. Including Bloodraven, there are five Targaryens left after Robert seized the throne. While two of them are dead now, the reinstating of the dynasty and the drama of Daenerys being the last one (and unfertile besides) is lessened gravely by these events, and neither Jon Connington nor Aegon reach any depth of character worth mentioning in “A Dance with Dragons”. Together with the mediocre Tyrion chapters, this is the greatest disappointment in the book.
For all this, the northern storylines make up tenfold, however. Jon’s chapters are brilliant, well written, exiting and full of flavor. The same is true for Theon’s chapters, however, they are repulsive in their ugliness and all the blood that comes in them. What Ramsay does to Theon is really sickening, and you will come close to retching once or twice at least reading his chapters. The writing however is brilliant. The ascent of Stannis also makes for great reading. He is not exactly a likeable person in any respect, but before the Bolton rule we see through the eyes of Theon, his burning of people (gruesomely written as well) seems almost gentle.
I’m a bit disappointed by the Bran chapters, to be honest. There are only three of them, and there aren’t many mysteries revealed. Instead, we’re plunging headlong into the Children of the Forest and the Last Greenseer. It is very well written, make no mistake, but it all seems a bit rushed. Bran’s new powers and the strange and hostile lands divert him more and more from Meera and Jojen, and he uses Hodor as a tool more and more. These developments as a character don’t really have much room, however, since he quickly learns from Bloodraven how to warg into weirwoods. Then we never hear from Bran again for the last two thirds of the book.
If there is one topic that prevails the whole book, it’s failure. Tyrion fails to reach Daenerys. Daenerys fails to rule her city and to control her dragons. Connington fails to reach Dany. Martell fails to marry Daenerys or to control the dragons. Stannis fails in defeating Ramsay Bolton. Jon fails in persuading the Watch that what he does is necessary. Even Melisandre fails in what she wants to accomplish. The tone is bleak, and occasional sparks of hope are quenched soon enough. The few things that are accomplished are soon turned to ash.
That all being said, is the new book bad? By no means. Over some parts, it’s unsatisfying, to be sure. Things go badly, and the wrong people come out on the winning side. But that’s how it is in Westeros and Essos. That’s what makes Martin great. The only real downers over the whole experience are Tyrion’s chapters and the scarcity of information on Bran, but then, it’s highly up to your own preferences. One thing I know: when Martin killed Jon Snow, it was the Red Wedding all over again. Knives were twisted not only in his stomach, but in mine own too. Twists like this make “The Song of Ice and Fire” such a unique experience. I for myself can’t wait for the day when the winds of winter blow over Westeros.