September 23, 2011

A new review after the reread

The reread of "A Dance with Dragons" is now complete, and it was a fun journey. I developed a deeper understanding of the book, the characters in it and the greater story arc involved. This blog will not publish new posts after this one. You can continue to read work from me on The Tower of the Hand. The comments for posts on this blog will stay active, and I will continue to answer them. That being said, let's return to the issue at hand: a review of "A Dance with Dragons" after it has been reread. To say the least, the second read was a whole lot different from the first read. That was of course true of the other books as well, but in the current volume a number of issues fell together, making the statement necessary. There was a lot of hate out there after people had read the book, and I joined into some of it especially regarding the chapters taking place in the east. That was, I have to admit however, unjustified. "A Dance with Dragons" is a piece of art, much like the other books, and the widespread disappointment could not have happened like that if not for unrealistically high expectations. I confess myself guilty on that account too, of course.

The expectations were unrealistic simply because we knew from the start that the book would be the second part of what was "A Feast for Crows", which gave way to the same disappointed expectations only to be later redeemed after it had sunk into people's mind and reread several times. It's much the same with "A Dance with Dragons". When I stated earlier that it was "a piece of art", I meant it. Martin's writing skills, the great characters and the general storyline aside, are visible throughout the whole book. We already know his stunning ability to tell the story from the point-of-view of his characters, to play with the knowledge they have, with rumors and predjudices. This challenges the reader to question what he thinks he knows, and to gather the whole picture together from various sources and inclinations.

In "A Dance with Dragons", another style element of Martin's writing is even more visible than just the POV-perspective. He manages to hide things that happen between the lines, so they are only recognizable by the keen eye of the reader. You have to pay close attention to details, you have to have previous details from previous details in mind, and you have to have a feeling for the overall world. This, one could argue, makes reading "A Song of Ice and Fire" more work than just skimming through your everyday Twilight novel. It is much more rewarding, however. Just a few examples of things you miss on your first read, which are between their lines and for which you have to pay close attention: Arya killing her victim with a poisoned coin, Wyman Manderly killing the Freys and baking them into pies, Dany miscarrying a child in her last chapter and the possible fulfillment of the Azor-Ahai-prophecy in Jon's last chapter. All these things are there, and once you know they are they suddenly seem to jump into your face (think of Manderly singing a song about the Ratcook!). You most certainly miss them the first time, however. These novels are puzzles that need to be solved and fit together, and it challenges you and makes the read so much more rewarding.

Of course, these puzzle pieces are not everything that you can find in "A Dance with Dragons", to be sure. When I first reviewed the book after my first read, I thought that the overall theme was failure, since no one really succeeds with what he wants: Jon with his wildling peace, Dany with her Yunkish peace, Victarion, Tyrion and Quentyn with their quest for Dany, and so on. That is, however, not exactly true. The first important thing to consider when you read "A Dance with Dragons", a thing that easily gets out of your mind, is that it is the second part of "A Feast for Crows", and it works only to its full extent combined with the previous novel. There are several themes that span across both books. We will explore them in a moment. These themes, in any case, are interwoven between the chapters and affect several characters, and these characters solve their part of the respective theme differently. You as reader can compare their approaches and results before the story culminates, also a bit hidden between the lines, in the final chapters of "A Dance with Dragons" and prepares the stage for "The Winds of Winter".

The first theme that is explored in the two books is ruling the peace. Three characters share this arc, supported by some others. The three characters are Cersei (in "A Feast for Crows"), Jon and Daenerys (in "A Dance with Dragons"). All three of them only recently came in power, and all three of them face the end of a war and a delicate, unstable peace. Their approaches radically differ. The outcomes don't; they all lose their power at least temporary. Jon and Daenerys are at opposite ends of the compromise spectrum: Jon is uncompromising and forces his vision of the peace through against all resistance. In the end, his brothers are left behind by his policy, not convinced or adequatly informed about it, and turn against him. Daenerys, on the other hand, compromises to the point of self-denial. She accepts the point-of-view and the sensibilities of the Meereenese, leaving her own power base in the dust and betraying all her ideals. In the end, it is hard to decide if Meereen is her city at all, or if she just restored it completely. Cersei, of course, uses the power she has in an entirely different way. She thinks she has to display force, which is right to a degree, but chooses the wrong opportunities and wrong styles for it - most notable in her decision to cease payments for the Iron Bank.

Supporting characters for these story arcs are Jaime Lannister, who serves as an eye on Cersei's madness, draws the conclusion that he doesn't want to have anything to do with the downfall in King's Landing and leaves. There is Barristan Selmy, who advises Daenerys and with surprising capability takes up the rulership after her disappearance. And there is Melisandre, trying to guide and warn Jon, suffering from the fact that she needs guidance as well since her reading of the fires most certainly is wrong regarding Azor Ahai.

The second theme is the journey to yourself. Several characters are on the road, mainly Tyrion, Brienne, Quentyn, Bran and Arya. They are all lost in a way, trying to find a meaning, a purpose, and a new approach to their very self. This story arc is most developed in Tyrion, and least developed in Quentyn, but that is mainly a product of the pages these characters get and the purpose they serve for the overall story. Let's start with the characters with the fewest chapters. Surprisingly, and for me at least disappointingly, Bran only got three chapters. The journey to the Three-Eyed-Crow is finished in the first, which really comes to a surprise after the long journey through the North displayed in "A Storm of Swords" (which should silence those who claim that Martin just puts endless descriptions in the book to lengthen it. Why not here?). In the second and third chapter, he learns that his powers are even greater than he thought and what true greenseeing is like. His character development is drastic: he severes himself from Jojen and Meera, uses Hodor as a tool more and more and fully embraces a fate as greenseer, which could very well involve to grow into a tree and never to leave again, becoming like one of the old gods himself.

Quentyn, a new character, only has four chapters. They are mainly a deconstruction of the classical knight's tale, since he fails consequently. Through his eyes, we see the fall of Astapor, though, and learn about the working mechanisms of a mercenary company. He also releases the dragons in the end, thereby changing the dynamics. He never really becomes self-aware, though, thinking that he has a destiny to fulfill that clearly is not his. Brienne is searching for a new purpose. Her quest for Sansa Stark is, the reader knows, futile, since Sansa is in the Vale. Through her eyes we experience the full implications of war on the smallfolk and the daily hardships and injustices that these people have to endure. Brienne is forced to reflect about her image of knighthood and the idealized image from the songs and stories and to finally discard it, which is another theme that drags throughout all the books, especially in Sansa's story arc.  Arya, after her journey through Westeros, finally reached Braavos and starts her training as an assassin, but it doesn't feel right. Should she go through with it, her character would cease to exist, which seems unlikely to happen. For now, however, she evolves into quite a different thing than she was in the beginning.

Lastly, there is Tyrion. In my initial review, I stated that his chapters are disappointing, dragging endlessly as kind of an Essos road movie. This is at most half-true, however. Tyrion is the character that is most profoundly lost, and his chapters reflect that. At the beginning of "A Dance with Dragons", he is permanently drunk, shoved around by everyone and pushed and pulled into directions, willingly submitting to whatever path is layed out before him. On the journey with Connington and Aegon, he finds much of himself again but is still plagued by his inner demons and without his own impetus. It takes his captivity and enslavement to reactivate the old Tyrion. At the end of "A Dance with Dragons", Tyrion is grasping opportunities, found his wits again and takes control of even the most desperate situations - most like he did back in "A Game of Thrones".

These themes are placed very strongly in the books, but it is nevertheless not easy to discover them, especially since they are spread over two books that need to be read as a unity. Only regarding these themes it becomes understandable that two things one would have expected to play a role in this book in fact don't: the Others and the dragons. The Others never even make an appearance again after having been featured so heavily in "A Storm of Swords", and the dragons are either chained or fled early in "A Dance with Dragons" and continue to play a role only in the final stages of the book. Several people have expressed doubts whether the Others would, after his pause in their appearance, pose a conceivable thread in "The Winds of Winter" or if they would just be viewed as a convenient plot device. Again, one has to read carefully and aware. Throughout Jon's chapters, the threat of the Others is always there. They make no appearance, but the wildlings - who refuse to talk about it - where seriously attacked by them in the aftermath of the battle with Stannis, and everything Jon does - really everything - is driven by the knowledge that the Others are out there and that they are in a fight of life vs. death. His failure is to realize all this and to do nothing to convince others, mainly Bowen Marsh, of it.

Other themes are more woven in the narrative and more difficult to find. This is especially true for the prophecies. To really grasp everything going on in that respect, you have to not only keep in mind all the prophecies that were muttered throughout the four previous books - word for word - but also really look out for small details. The fuflfillment of the Azor-Ahai-prophecy in Jon's last chapter is such a thing. Ser Patrek of the Mountain sports a big star as sigil and gets beaten to bloody pulp, therefore we have a bleeding star, Jon's wounds smoke and Marsh is crying, so we have salt in his tears. Now Jon only needs to survive somehow and/or be reborn, and we have the propehcy fulfilled in the unlikeliest manner imaginable. Such small details - which may be, keep in mind, totally meaningless distractions - can be found through all the book.

The attention to such details and the careful orchestration of every event and character development are what makes "A Dance with Dragons" such a piece of art. I know really and totally understand why Martin needed so long to complete this. It's not only the story itself, like I first suspected, which is complicated enough in its own right. All the small things and details that all add up and fit must have given him real nightmares and pose a logistical nightmare without precedent. I am humbled after my second read, and are more convinced than ever that Martin knows what he is doing and that all the ordeal of waiting is worth it. I was wrong not to trust him, and so were all who until now think that "A Dance with Dragons" is the weakest book of the series. This is my sincere opinion. I repent, and I make ammends. And I can't wait for "The Winds of Winter", which I will then hopefully not burden with expectations that it can't and quite frankly shouldn't fulfill.

28 comments:

  1. This is the last post on this blog. I will stay tuned for comments, but there will be no future posts. I thank everyone in advance for reading! You will find more of my work on the Tower of the Hand in the future. It has been a fun ride, and I am deeply grateful that you all made it with me.

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  2. I just wish I had followed with you from the beginning. I was doing my own re-read around the same time.

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  3. Hi Stefan,

    Thanks a lot for writing all this up! I really enjoyed reading your re-read ;)!

    Cheers,
    Marc

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  4. You do a great job. As a reader, you are thorough and perceptive. Thanks for this blog, and I look forward to your contributions to Tower of the Hand.

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  5. This was great! This really helped fill in gaps of things that I missed.

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  6. What everyone else said.

    Your writing and perceptions are on point.

    Thank you thank you thank you thank you for undertaking this project. I think that even if I had re-read this book a hundred times, I still would have never uncovered the layers you managed to do.

    Bravo!

    [Your command of the English brings us native speakers to shame, to boot!]

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  7. Thanks again for leading the way through a very worthwhile re-read.

    Well done.

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  8. Thank you very much Stephan!!! I thoroughly enjoyed your efforts and insights, and am proud to say that you made the book(and the series for that matter) a million times better.

    I will have to disagree with the post Janele had speaking of your command of the language. I am in no way bashing you, but there are a cpl dozen mistakes and/or confusions throughout the project, but none of them bothered me in the least and none of them through the point you were trying to make off course.

    Once again, thank you


    ** btw, is there one of these by you, or anyone, for the first 4 books? If not, I know for sure you will get support from us if you wanted to tackle it. I would most definitely be good for a $5 donation per book, a few more people and you could at least make it worth your while. nateneighbor is my gmail tag if you want to talk about it or can point me in a direction for quality re-reads

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  9. Hi Nate,

    no offense taken. I can't be perfect, obviously. I'm no native speaker after all.
    There is no project (yet) for rereads of the other books, but perhaps I'll make one in the future. In the meantime, read more of me on the Tower of the Hand or on the Westeros boards.

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  10. Hi,
    I haven't finished Dance yet (just started Jon 11), but I'm finding this blog (and your essays on Tower of the Hand) really interesting and quite well-balanced. You make a lot of insightful notes, and I especially liked your reading of Jon. Thanks :)

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  11. Thanks a lot, and have fun with the read!

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  12. I don't think I've ever read a decent fantasy series where I didn't hear people complain about "endless descriptions of stuff". I was also wish Bran had more chapters, but I also realize that this is mostly because the few we got were so fantastic (and to be fair, he only had 4 in ASoS). I hope he leaves the cave though. I wanna see him rustle up an army of wolves and march south, but I'm guessing GRRM will have more interesting uses for his powers in mind.

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  13. Oh that's what the blood in the last chapter was all about..i thought she had been afflicted with the bloody flux...I also didn't catch the freys in the pie..i was really surprised when you said it.AND yes i would really like Jon to be azor ahai as i actually never thought his character was cool enough before.

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  14. Hi Stefan,

    Thanks for your efforts. I am one of those people who watched Game of Thrones on HBO and then started reading the books. I read a lot but, honestly, cannot believe I have missed such a masterpiece till now. Glad that I have joined the bandwagon!

    Your rereads were brilliant. Though I read novels multiple times, I was not finding the time to read ADWD again, or in fact the whole series for the second time. This blog gives me a great deal of peace regarding the series and the various doubts and questions I have harbored.

    One question though, if you could answer please...

    In the last Dany chapter, she gets the Control of Drogon just before the end. Could you clarify how she does it, please? Because, the whole chapter showed the journey she went through (eating berries, etc) was because that she could not control the dragon.

    Again thanks a ton!

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  15. I'm not quite sure, to be honest. I think it's most part a game of balls, and Dany simply submits Drogon by sheer personality and empathic bondage.

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  16. Great 2nd review! I'm just finishing my 2nd read as well...

    Did you realize that you didn't mention Theon at all in the review? He's another character on the quest to find himself (and his name), and is such a great part of DwD.

    Thanks for all your insightful posts!

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  17. Dear Stefan, thank you so much for your insightful blog. I was really disappointed with the meandering Dany/Tyrion chapters on first read so skipped a lot of material and started reading your blog just to fill in gaps. You inspired me to go back to the book and read along with your blog, and I finally perceive the artistry and richness of the text. I can't say ADWD is my favourite in the series, but I at least have my respect for GRRM's project restored. The downside is I know have to wait YEARS to continue....Anyway, thanks for the inspiration!

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  18. I just started reading the series a few months ago so I was able to keep rolling book after book until now, and I am experiencing Ice and Fire withdrawal for the first time. But I can tell this blog is going to be a big help with that as well as help to answer so many of the questions that I already forgot I had from reading this massively complicated and wonderful story. Thank you so much for all the time and effort you've put into this!

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  19. I'm hoping that Jon is the fulfillment of the Azor-Ahai-prophecy as well, but it could just as easily be Jamie, as we now know it's possible he shares the line as well.

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  20. I am a newish reader too, and I never understood why anyone bashed AFFC, but I fell prey to all of the cliched feelings about the last book. Then I found the boards at Westeros.org, and realized that in my frustration I had missed a lot. So I am going back and rereading the whole series, and I started with Dance. I agree that it is very good. I think people wanted more obvious resolution or reveals, but once you get past that and just read it, it is a pretty fantastic ride.

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  21. I've just completed a re-read of ADWD and this blog was instrumental in helping me understand it and therefore enjoy it more the second time around. I didn't agree with all your conclusions, but you helped me think deeper about the different themes and sharpen my own ideas. Thanks so much for this blog, you did a terrific job! :-)

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  22. I've re-read "A dance with Dragons" more than 5 times already, and Yes, I agree, that it is a piece of art. George R.R. Martin writes a story that we all, can feel disapointed, excited, mad enough that you wanna throw the book away, then suddenly pick it up again to know what happens next.

    Plus there's also the thing of Jon Snow being stabbed.

    lol

    When Martin stated: You're definitely gonna see more of the "Others", in the next book "The Winds of Winter". I think it means the wall has been breached!

    I checked all POV's of the people in wikipedia, not one of them is on the wall, but within the realm its trying to protect. lol

    Good gods! we are gonna see the Others in POV's of Theon Greyjoy and those others in the NORTH!

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  23. This is very sad. All of you people reading these two worthless books (AFFC and ADWD) and trying to convince yourselves that they are better than you originally thought. They are boring, tedious novels written by an author whose muse fled him sometime after ASOS. There are so many wonderful books out there in the world, and their brilliance is apparent the FIRST time; re-readings are to catch the smaller details. What a profound waste of time to re-read Martin's drivel.

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