George R.R. Martin’s A DANCE WITH DRAGONS is the fifth book in his “Song of Ice and Fire” saga and it’s a huge improvement over his last book in this series, A FEAST FOR CROWS. But before I get into this review, I’d like to give you a few words of warning: if you haven’t read my reviews for books one (A GAME OF THRONES), two (A CLASH OF KINGS), three (A STORM OF SWORDS) and four (A FEAST FOR CROWS), you will be completely lost. (This is your last warning.)
A DANCE WITH DRAGONS starts off with all the stuff that was missing from book four, A FEAST FOR CROWS. Here, we find out what happened to Tyrion Lannister after he killed his father (for good reason; Tywin Lannister, though gifted as a military strategist, was a bad piece of business); we find out what is going on at the Wall with Lord Jon Snow (he’s now the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch despite his tender age — he’s under twenty); what’s going on with Bran and his psychic talents; what’s going on with Theon Greyjoy (can he ever be redeemed?); and finally, we find out what’s going on with Daenerys Targaryen for good measure (hence the reference to dragons in the title, as she has three). Once we’re caught up with them, we get to read a little more about the people the last book, A FEAST FOR CROWS, featured — namely, Queen Cersei Lannister, King Tommen Lannister, Queen Margaery Tyrell-Lannister (she’s married into the Lannisters twice now and has yet to consummate any marriage; Tommen is far too young at age eight to attempt the marital bed, and Margaery is around fifteen or sixteen), and a little bit more about Jaime Lannister.
First, I’ll start with my favorite character: Tyrion. In A STORM OF SWORDS, Tyrion killed his father because he found out that much of his life was made unnecessarily horrific due to something his father did when he had just hit puberty. Not to put too fine a point on it, Tyrion married, then the marriage was annulled; that wouldn’t be so bad except Tywin Lannister, Tyrion’s father, told everyone that Tyrion’s wife was a prostitute, and convinced his elder son, Jaime Lannister, to go along with the deception as that was the only way Tyrion would’ve believed it. Tyrion’s wife was named Tysha, and we don’t have any idea what happened to her; there have been zero hints.
Note that Tysha was the one person who’s loved Tyrion for who he is; she had no problems with him being a dwarf, with being somewhat funny looking (unlike Peter Dinklage, who plays Tyrion on HBO’s series “Game of Thrones,” the book-Tyrion is described as being odd-looking from the start), with having mismatched eyes, etc. So if Tywin Lannister would’ve left well enough alone, Tyrion would’ve enjoyed at least ten years of wedded bliss by this point with the only person he’s ever clicked with, and wouldn’t have ever had anything to do with other prostitutes.
At any rate, Tyrion’s on the run, and he goes through a series of adventures, most of which don’t get him anywhere. He’s trying to get to Daenerys Targaryen, but the saying “the best laid plans often fail” would pretty much cover that; that Tyrion runs across someone else who has a claim to the throne of Westeros along the way is sheer happenstance. (Even though other reviewers have discussed this, I’m going to leave this alone.)
The thing that struck me most about Tyrion’s plight is this: he is nearly suicidal. He killed his father for what I believe were excellent reasons, but he’s away from the only person who’s ever cared about him besides Tysha — his brother, Jaime. And to find that Jaime was complicit in Tysha being driven off and treated as a prostitute nearly slayed Tyrion. So Tyrion’s mental state isn’t too good.
Plus, Tyrion’s been sheltered much of his life up until now, to a degree; he’s been wealthy and his caprices had to be tolerated. Now, he’s a dwarf who has to trade on how strange he looks to make a living, or at least get by some of the time; this is a demonstration of how George R.R. Martin believes life goes. Sometimes the good people win (Tyrion’s among the best people in the whole SOIAF series), sometimes they don’t, and “into every life a little rain must fall.” (Proverb intentionally misquoted.)
Next, there’s Daenerys Targaryen herself, who’s in a very odd position now as Queen of Meereen. She became the Queen because she freed a whole bunch of slaves at Slaver’s Bay; those freed slaves refused to be led by anyone else. This is akin to Daenerys’s “practice run” as a ruler before she returns to Westeros; she feels responsible for these freed slaves, and as her dragons aren’t fully mature anyway, she figures she’d better stay in place.
Of course, despite Daenerys’s gifts for ruling, she’s also a young woman. This means she has a lot of sex. With more than one partner, though most of it is with one, particular individual she seems to care for deeply. Daenerys also has to deal with all sorts of things rulers must handle, including an arranged marriage, taxation, trade, reparations, and other important and influential things; despite that, though, Daenerys does seem to enjoy herself in the bedroom a little bit more than I’d expected out of a woman who was widowed early from her “sun and stars” back in book one, A GAME OF THRONES, Khal Drogo.
Anyway, back to Westeros, where the next person dealt with is Jon Snow. He’s now called “Lord Snow” because he’s the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, those who watch for invaders of either the human or non-human sort at the very northernmost part of Westeros. (If you think of a huge wall, like the Great Wall of China, juxtaposed with Siberia, you’re probably fairly close as far as what Martin’s talking about, geographically.)
Lord Snow has an unexpected ally, this being King Stannis Baratheon, the legitimate heir to King Robert Baratheon (as all three of Cersei Lannister’s children were sired by her own brother, Jaime, none of them are legitimate heirs to the throne; King Joffrey was illegitimate and extremely cruel, then the throne passed over his sister, Princess Myrcella, to King Tommen due to the law of primogeniture). King Stannis is the only powerful man who understands how important the Wall is; Stannis has been convinced by a mysterious mystic named Melisandre, who has uncounted psychic powers and follows the Red God, R’hllor. I’m not sure what visions Melisandre has actually had, but she knows that the Wall’s important, she knows Jon Snow in particular is important, and as King Stannis’s chief advisor, she’s managed to get Stannis to the Wall in order to help reinforce it.
Now, this doesn’t make King Stannis any more likeable than he was before; he’s still someone who tolerates no nonsense, has an exaggerated view of his own importance, and often behaves very badly even for a seated king (rather than what he is, a pretender to the throne, though his claim on it is much stronger than Tommen Lannister’s).
That being said, there are a number of adventures at the Wall, some of which have to do with why Samwell Tarly was sent off in the last book, A FEAST FOR CROWS, to become a Maester (a scientist and a scholar, more or less). (Good thing it was finally covered here, eh?) Some others have to do with the remnants of Mance Rayder’s people who have elected to camp at the Wall alongside the Night’s Watch and King Stannis’s men (Rayder was called “the King Beyond the Wall” and was more or less elected to speak for his people because of his proven ability to lead men), and a little bit has to do with what’s going on at Winterfell (more about that in a bit).
Next, we deal with Bran Stark; he’s a greensinger-in-training, and he needs help. His psychic visions are so strong that they could easily overwhelm him and do harm rather than good, so he must be trained. Half the narrative here is getting Bran to the personage who can help him; the other half is how Bran learns to deal with his newfound abilities.
Now, we’re at Winterfell — where we see the odious Ramsey Bolton (actually a bastard and originally surnamed “Snow”) as he takes “Arya Stark” in marriage. This isn’t Arya, who’s actually still in the House of Black and White over in Braavos being trained to become an assassin; instead, this is Jeyne Poole, the steward’s daughter, who must pretend to be Arya or she’ll be killed outright. Bolton wants Winterfell even though it’s been sacked (by him, mostly, but attributed to Theon Greyjoy) and this marriage is what will get it for him.
But Bolton is so nasty that it’s hard for anyone to deal with him. He is cruel, ruthless, a torturer and murderer who gets off on both things, and has tormented Theon Greyjoy beyond all measure. Greyjoy is only barely sane now; he’s being called “Reek” because of Bolton’s nastiness in not letting Theon ever take a bath (part of it has to do with a childhood friend of Bolton’s, too, and Bolton’s own insanity), he’s lost fingers, toes, and possibly his manhood itself to Bolton’s torturers, and doesn’t seem to have much of a future, if any at all. Bolton amuses himself by continuing to hurt Theon in various ways, and also enjoys causing as much trouble for poor Jeyne Poole as he can; no one can stop him, and no one has the will to gainsay him due to his own abilities to terrify and cow people, not even his own father, Lord Roose Bolton (who isn’t a good person, either, but isn’t insane like his son).
How can this situation possibly be redeemed? And if it can be, what will happen to Theon? (That Martin actually made me care about what happened there was a masterful piece of storytelling. Theon was a puffed-up, arrogant little wart before, but no one deserved what’s happened to him since A STORM OF SWORDS.)
After all this, we’re finally up to what’s going on in King’s Landing these days; we see Jaime Lannister trying his best to hold the kingdom together with his uncle Kevan’s help (Kevan has been named the King’s Hand as he’s the most-able man in the kingdom). We see Cersei Lannister, who has a “walk of shame” in her future, and the way this is described is appalling. And finally, we see a little teensy bit of King Tommen Lannister — he’s really not ready to rule, though at least he’s of good heart, unlike his unlamented late brother, King Joffrey.
Even though much of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS is set-up for the next book, THE WINDS OF WINTER (goodness knows when that’ll be forthcoming, as A DANCE WITH DRAGONS was only released this past July and there were six years between books four and five in this series), I enjoyed reading it. I found it strangely moving, how Tyrion was looking for any remnants of whatever happened to Tysha on his quest to stay one step ahead of the bounty hunters (sent by his sister, Queen Cersei, before she ended up deposed by the Faith Militant — my term, not Martin’s — that she’d raised so high in the first place). I found it poignant to see Melisandre admit, at least in private, to having some sort of human feelings for Jon Snow (I’m not sure they’re romantic feelings; they seem closer to agape than anything else. But feelings are feelings in this case, from a woman I thought didn’t have any.), and I found it moving the way Theon Greyjoy did his best to reclaim his humanity amidst the extremes of depravity.
This is why I say that Martin is back on his game (pun intended); this is a very good novel, one that is far closer to the first three books in the SOIAF epic cycle than the last book, A FEAST FOR CROWS. Of course, you still need to read the previous novels or you’re unlikely to understand this one (a neat marketing trick that happens to be the truth in this case), which is why it’s so frustrating that this book ends with several cliffhangers and no idea when the next book is coming.
The only drawback here is this: this is a book that’s almost all set-up. Some readers have come out, in force, at places like Amazon.com to say they don’t like this and wonder why the plot didn’t move forward overmuch. And there are some static elements — why Daenerys doesn’t seem to learn much as Meereen’s Queen and why Tyrion doesn’t quite manage to achieve any of his objectives no matter how hard he tries, just for two examples.
Still. This is much better writing and much better storytelling than A FEAST FOR CROWS, almost up to the level of A STORM OF SWORDS in those two areas, and I was very glad to see it.