A Dance With Dragons: Religion, Fanaticism, Torture, and the Dangers of Stagnation
I am a huge George R.R. Martin fan, and so I have been waiting for this particular book as best I can for five years, looking forward to finding out what's going to happen to my favorite characters and in my favorite plot lines.
Does Martin live up to my hopes? Well, largely yes, but that's something of a complicated answer.
While the plot does go forward and we get tons of interesting developments for fan-favorite characters (Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Tyrion Lannister, to give three examples), I'm not sure if the story is any closer to its overall resolution of the plot of the whole series. This is partially because about half of the book is happening at around the same time as the last book, "A Feast For Crows," and partially because certain prominent characters (Daenerys, Tyrion, and one other important character who shall remain nameless) are on the wrong continent and show no real likelihood of getting to Westeros for the story to actually come to an end.
When talking to a friend of mine about the Song of Ice and Fire series in general, he explained to me that a big reason why he disliked the story is the Daenerys plotline. And I can see where he's coming from: although Daenerys is a very interesting character (I'm pretty sure she's a general fan favorite, and she's certainly a favorite of mine), her storyarc is and has always been too separate from the other characters. She is literally on another continent, and she has made exactly zero progress with her attempt to reconquer Westeros from the Baratheon dynasty (now the chaos following the War of the Five Kings). This book has made her story arc even more frustrating, as in the last book she found herself ruler of a city-state, Meereen, and her feelings of duty imprison her into attempting to smooth out the relations between it and its neighbors.
Don't get me wrong, the Meereen-centered chapters are fascinating (especially learning about the culture, which is very different from the vaguely European culture of Westeros). However, with every passing one it becomes harder to figure out exactly what Daenarys' role in this story is, and why Martin has devoted five books to following her around. Even as characters from other story streams encounter her, this storyline in particular feel like it should be the focus of a separate book series. This becomes even more pronounced when a different character fulfills Daenerys' role as "conqueror from across the sea," making her seem even more irrelevant to the rest of the story. Hopefully the next book will make it clear exactly what her purpose in this story actually is.
Another sort-of issue about this book is that most of the storylines are relatively static. As I mentioned above, this is partially because the book had to catch up with the previous book, "A Feast For Crows," so nothing super-drastic can happen. Many of the story arcs also seem to be at roughly the same point: after a massive conflict has ended and just before another one will almost certainly break out. For instance, Jon Snow and the men of the Night's Watch have managed to beat back the invasion by the wildling hordes, but now they need to deal with the probable attack by the Others, while Daenerys has conquered Meereen but needs to deal with an alliance of nations who want to crush her. This means there's tension in these chapters, but no action to release it. This is not helped by plots to suddenly shift, meaning that more often than not the expected payoff doesn't happen at all. Although what actually happens in these chapters is consistently fascinating, and also a lot more realistic-seeming than you usually find in an epic fantasy plot-- characters make decisions that seem like good ideas which turn out to be bad ones, characters working at cross purposes to one another end up hampering each other, and so on--the effect can be a little frustrating, plot wise. Several plotlines seem to only get started and then disappear, others seem to be constantly on pause, a few just sort of meander about, and one turns out to have been essentially pointless. The individual plotlines are very interesting, but their resolutions are once again pushed on to the next book, which is a bit frustrating when reading the 5th 900 page book in a series.
However, by no means is the book bad. There are tons of interesting characters, and pretty much everyone gets a chance to shine. The many plots almost always end up going somewhere unexpected, which helps distract from the issues with the plot mentioned above. Martin shows us he is a masterful world builder, and I particularly enjoyed discovering the cultures of the various Eastern nations which up until now had mostly just been mentioned in passing in most of the storylines except Daenerys'. We get several unexpected but more than welcome appearances by characters I wasn't expecting. Martin also shows his readers some small mercies in resolving some of the cliffhangers from the previous books, although of course he then creates some even more nailbiting cliffhangers to replace them.
Even though I spent more of this review criticizing this book than complimenting it, in general I liked it. The feeling that not much happens (which is only true if you look at the series as a whole, not at the individual storylines) hurts the book, but the individual chapters are full of interesting and well-written characters and beautiful descriptive writing, and the story never lacks for plot twists, tension, and unexpected outcomes. Even though the Daenerys storyline is still largely unconnected to the Westeros-based plots, it is still both interesting and well-written, and Daenerys as a character is still fascinating. All in all, this is a great book, but I hope that the next one begins to tie together the rather disparate plot threads of the series. Definitely read this if you're a fan of the series (which you probably already have), and hope with me that Martin doesn't take another 5 years to write the next book.