Review of A Dance with Dragons
The problems continue in Westeros and other kingdoms as winter begins and political tensions fray already troubled societies. On the run for his life, Tyrion journeys to distant lands while seeking protection and trying to ease his conscience. Jon commands the Wall and attempts to be the sort of leader he always admired while facing constant pressure from Stannis, the wild folk beyond the Wall and his own men. Readers also see the lead up to the struggle at Winterfell where the predatory Boltons make ready for Stannis while trying to set up their own dynasty. Daenerys commands a significant portion of the book as she attempts to be queen after liberating one of the city-states in the Slaver’s Bay, touching off an avalanche of political conflict for the whole region.
Where Dragons Tread
If the novel has a central theme it appears to be a search for knowing what is the right action to take. Tyrion being troubled by his conscience, for instance, is an interesting development to a pragmatic and fairly ruthless character even as he’s pushed into circumstances well beyond his control and hunted by his vengeful sister. Jon Snow attempts to do the right thing and be a man and leader like his father, Ned Stark. He is in constant reflection and has taken to heart the refrain, “you know nothing, Jon Snow.” He rarely feels certain he is doing the right thing, which makes him an obvious foil for the legions of duty-bound knights and religious fanatics that populate the novel, all certain of the rightness of their cause. Both Daenerys and Barristan struggle with judging what is best and for whom, with the former making personal sacrifices for the sake of her people and the latter always questioning his actions before taking them, wondering if he’s doing what is best for those he serves, namely Daenerys (873, 916). Even Cersei weighs her choice to put the needs of her surviving children ahead of her own status and ambitions (848).
Among the narrating protagonists, Daenerys remains one of the most ethically motivated characters, thinking of others first and arguing for a basic concept of human decency. When dealing with slavers making justifications for their way of life as a natural occurrence, she says “Slavery is not the same as rain [. . . .] I have been rained on and I have been sold. It is not the same” (208). Her experience along with concern for the wellbeing of others allows her to have one of the strongest voices in the book. Her character shows strength in moments when she personally gives aide to sick refugees, shaming the great men around her (476). One of the few characters to approach the moral tone she sets is Jon, who not only understands the seriousness of his command but also attempts to aide people north of the Wall for ethical considerations as well as strategic ones.
The Truffle Shuffle
What has been an asset to the Song of Ice and Fire in the past has become a burden; the enormous size of A Dance with Dragons leads directly to one of its biggest problems—aimlessness. In the entirety of the novel’s page count, it is difficult to see where this book, and the series, is going. There is virtually no major direction for most of the characters: Victarion and Jamie seem perpetually side-tracked despite that there are obvious destinations for these characters; that they cannot get there in a timely fashion is frustrating because little is added to the narrative otherwise. Every other chapter Tyrion ends up with a new goal because happenstance prevents him from continuing on. He plots to go to Dorne as part of an insurrection, but is kidnapped and goes in the opposite direction. He’s captured again on the way to Meereen, so he ends up on the wrong side of the siege. He escapes from a grotesquerie only to sign on with a company of mercenaries with a different agenda entirely. It is amusing to see him use his wits to get out of these predicaments, but it becomes tiresome to watch a character with so much potential tread water, especially after his noted absence from A Feast for Crows. Daenerys similarly stalls out. While she does continue to develop as a character, it is difficult to fathom why she couldn’t have does so while also propelling her sections of the novel. She even has a vision of Mormont who chastises her for not working to return to Westeros, her true home, but this scene comes way too late to be of any real comfort (940-1). Instead it almost reads like Martin declaring Daenerys has wasted her time and, by proxy, the time of the audience too.
It is clear no lessons were learned from A Clash of Kings, when the sections concerning Daenerys previously had come to a grinding halt. It makes sense for a character like Jon Snow to be mostly in one place; the development of the story and his character have placed him—somewhat against his will—in command of the Wall, which isn’t going to move. The story of Daenerys, however, has been one of moving toward reclaiming the iron throne since A Game of Thrones. Whether the reader sees this as a quest for justice or revenge, when she isn’t in motion toward that goal, the book suffers. Therefore, the prolonged stay in Meereen becomes irritating because she is constantly undermined by other characters and her primary motive for the series makes no progress whatsoever, leaving her with nothing much to do.
This lack of direction points to a significant concern for the whole series because readers should begin to question what is the end game of A Song of Ice and Fire. Previous installments had The War of Five Kings to give a sense of structure to the events within, but now it is difficult to point out any main thread that grants cohesion to the story. There is an alleged apocalyptic conflict between light and dark that has yet to manifest in any meaningful way. Many characters talk about an upcoming struggle of cosmic proportions, but readers are given no legitimate clues as to when or how this will happen or even who will be involved since some of the red priests are clearly in error about who will be the champion for the lord of light. Characters have been saying "Winter is coming" for thousands of pages, but it has yet to manifest in any meaningful measure.
Characters Get Cheaper by the Dozen
The lack of a focused story feeds into another concern, namely that the cast is monstrously large. Many characters add nothing significant to the story, like Jamie’s chapter or Melisandre’s. In fact, many of Jon’s early chapters bring nothing to the story that a reader didn’t know from A Feast for Crows, so their inclusion seems like filler without meaningful conflict. Quentyn Martell, however, is most egregious example with a storyline that goes nowhere. He might be considered tragic if he had any personality beyond youthful stupidity. He takes almost no actions of his own accord until the end, which doesn’t go well for him at all. He is only remotely interesting because of Barristan’s perspective on him: “[Daenerys] wants fire, and Dorne sent her mud” (785). This characterization, though, says more about Barristan than Quentyn.
The reader will also get the feeling that Martin must hate the people of Slaver’s Bay. While he has certainly introduced villainous characters before, they could always been seen as the heroes of their own little stories. Cersei is vile and ruthless but also wants to protect her children and chaffs under idiotic gender restrictions. Varys was sleazy and a spy, but he acted to keep the peace of the kingdom. Littlefinger is ambitious, manipulative, and treacherous, but he also wants to overcome the social stratification that rewards unthinking loyalty and incompetence more than a keen mind and hard work. Conversely, the characters in Slaver’s Bay are all cardboard villains, twirling their mustaches. They undermine the likable protagonists with deceit, terrorism, and fanatical adherence to a life built on slavery. There is no reason to be on the side of any of these characters because Martin gives them no redeeming qualities.
The reappearance of dead characters is quickly wearing out its welcome. For this book it only works in the case of Reek/Theon because readers see him dynamically change over the novel, earning back is name in some measure. Some characters, however, are mystifying in their very existence. One person, thought to have been dead before A Game of Thrones, suddenly appears, and while his survival may have repercussions for later novels, it is difficult to care about him or even necessarily trust that he is who others claim he is.
The Dance Goes On
A lot of time and pages look like they’re being misspent dithering on squabbles of questionable value (to the characters and the reader) when everything should be rushing toward the brink of the climax.
Martin, George R. R. A Dance with Dragons. New York: Bantam Books, 2011.
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© 2013 Seth Tomko