I have reached a sad point in my life, which is to say that I have finally caught up with George R. R. Martin’s writing in The Song of Ice and Fire series. I was disappointed with the previous novel in the series, A Feast for Crows, because it only told the story of half of the characters in the series and finished by leaving several of the important characters in limbo. A Dance of Dragons had the same format, but it was the second half of the story that A Feast for Crows began, so it was vastly more satisfying.
In A Dance of Dragons, Martin moves forward the stories of Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow. Jon is maturing as Lord Commander and balancing the armies of the wildlings and Stannis Baratheon, while also trying to draw the support of the Night Watch as he challenges their long held traditions of keeping the wildlings to the north of the wall. Meanwhile, Tyrion is doing his best to survive in the Free Cities, where he has become a political pawn that is being moved towards Daenerys. It quickly became clear that she is become a nexus of the action, but also that this is not the novel where the central action will begin.
The beginning of the novel has jarring moments if you read it directly after A Feast for Crows, because some scenes are repeated in order to orient the reader to the fact that the action of the two novels are occurring simultaneously. Yet we are launched into Tyrion’s story, as Tyrion finds himself shipped to Magister Illyrio, who we first met when we were introduced to Daenerys in A Game of Thrones. Tyrion is still coming to terms with his fall from power and the murders of his father and Shae, while trying to figure out how to make a new life for himself. In the beginning of the novel, he is moving in a wine-dulled haze through the world of the characters around him, but through Martin’s imaginative misadventures, we see him emerging back into the witty and brilliant planner that made him such a successful King’s Hand. After a full novel without him, Tyrion’s return alone would have made To Dance with Dragons a satisfying read.
Yet, Martin also gives us Jon Snow and Daenerys Targeren, who are two young people that are maturing as rulers. They are both faced with conflicting factions of people that they need to make operate well together, with their own deaths as the price of failure. It is a compelling narrative, though readers who are easily turned off by politics in fantasy novels may struggle. There are many scenes devoted to political meetings and the military threat of both the Yunkai’i and the Others. We sit in the throne room of Daenerys and follow Jon as he walks the line between Stannis Baratheon, the wildlings and the Night Watch. There is very little time spent on the north side of the Wall, so we lose the mysticism that we saw in the previous novels. We know the Others are a gathering threat, but we are less aware of them than we are of the Yunkai’i, who line up at Mereen’s gates and blockade the harbor.
Perhaps the most haunting narrative of the novel is that of iron born, who operate as minor characters in this novel, but are narrating the happenings of the War of the Five Kings from their placement. Given the amount of page time that they received in A Feast of Crows, it is not surprising that Martin put them in a less pivotal role in To Dance with Dragons, but both Asha and Theon become important pawns in the North. Theon’s narrative relieves the potential of the novel to turn into endless political meetings. Martin’s great strength is showing the humanity of these strong personalities that dare to play the game of thrones.
Certainly this was another adventure novel of the same quality that Martin always puts out, with the excellent characterization that we are used to seeing from him. Although the larger story arc is left incomplete, the subplots that the novel narrates are compelling enough to make it a page turner. Although the novel was titled A Dance with Dragons, and we do see more of the dragons and the Targaryens than we have since A Clash of Kings, the novel still feels misnamed. The story of Westeros is inching forward in Winterfell, while Daenerys keeps learning painful lessons about the sacrifices required of a dragon queen. Winter has finally arrived and I, for one, can’t wait to see what that means.