A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in George R. R. Martin’s epic “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, was released in July. Why, then, am I only now writing this review?
Compared to Martin’s six year hiatus between books, a four month hiatus to write a review doesn’t seem so bad.
I kid, I kid. In all seriousness, I needed some time to mull this book over before I committed my thoughts to the page. “A Song of Ice and Fire” is being hailed by critics and fans alike as the best fantasy series in a generation. Indeed, some go so far as to dub Martin “The American Tolkien.” HBO’s adaptation of the first book of the series, “A Game of Thrones,” is winning accolades left and right and bringing a horde of new fans to the long-running series. But does this latest installment live up to the hype?
In this reviewer’s opinion, no. I hate to say so, because the first three books (and even the fourth, to a point) are marvelous. Martin ignores the common clichés of fantasy fiction, instead delving into a world where magic is rare, fantastic creatures are rarer, and political intrigue is the name of the game. They almost read more like historical fiction set in medieval Europe than epic fantasy novels. It is a refreshing change of pace for readers like me, who have been reading reversions of the same hero’s journey for years. But the fifth book in the series proved to be a massive disappointment.
Book four, A Feast for Crows, focused on a new set of characters, leaving some fan favorites like Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, and Daenerys Targaryen to wait in the wings. The anticipation I felt about returning to these characters was nearly unbearable. But as I began turning pages, my enthusiasm dimmed. I started to dread point-of-view chapters from certain characters, including all three of the afore-mentioned fan favorites. I’ll explain why, with as few spoilers as possible. (Skip this paragraph if you’d rather go into the book with no spoilers at all…) Dany, previously seen leading an army to free a nation of slaves, spends the entirety of book five pining after a mercenary and making terrible decisions. You know that feeling you get when watching a horror movie and a character does something unbearably stupid? This was the feeling I got from each and every Dany chapter. Jon is seen struggling with leadership, which could have been interesting if dealt with in a less introspective way. His decision to distance himself from everyone also distanced him from me, making him feel very flat and one-dimensional. Tyrion spends 90% of the book drowning in wine and self-doubt, a huge departure from his usual clever, snarky self.
All of this might have been acceptable, had anything of import happened during the course of the book as a backdrop to all of this character building and setup. Overall, the entire thing felt as if I were on a raft floating down a river. In past installments, Martin had thrown some rapids in here and there, and the occasional waterfall. I kept waiting for that excitement to come, but it never did. The one big twist of the book felt as if it had been tacked on to the end as an afterthought. The repetitive use of a few certain phrases and a couple cases of extremely obvious deus ex machina should never have made it past the editor’s desk, but those problems are miniscule compared to the issues of plot pacing and character development.
Now that I’ve gotten all those negatives out of the way, I want to impress upon you that it wasn’t all bad. The writing was clear and concise, and while it could have used some editing, it wasn’t a trial to read. Not all of the characters were bad, either – one in particular grabbed my interest and held it throughout the book. I can’t say much on his count without spoiling things, but let’s just say that his name “rhymes with weak.” His story was masterfully woven, and in true Martin style, I found myself cheering for a character I’d previously despised. The resolution of his story-arc was immensely satisfying.
However, ten great chapters out of seventy-three do not a masterfully woven epic make. I’m holding out hope that the last two books of the series live up to the potential of the first three, and that A Dance with Dragons is simply a lull in an otherwise fantastic series. If you’ve already read the first four books, reading book five won’t be a waste of your time. Just don’t go into it expecting the quality of work you’ve seen in earlier novels in the series, or it will be as much of a disappointment for you as it was for me.