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REVIEW: A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

Dear Mr. Martin,

Has there ever been a more anticipated fantasy novel than this? Maybe, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of it. A Game of Thrones, the first novel of your A Song of Ice and Fire series, changed the face of epic fantasy. Made it darker. Grittier. And of course, that thing that happened at the end. It reminded us that the so-called ironclad rules of epic fantasy weren’t that ironclad after all. When HBO decided to adapt your series for television, I admit I was relieved. Maybe this would serve as the impetus to bring the long-awaited A Dance with Dragons to bookshelves! And lo and behold, after five years of waiting, it arrived. The real question is, however, was it worth the wait.

A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. MartinFor readers new to the series or who came via the TV show and are unaware of the history, the previous installment — A Feast for Crows — and A Dance with Dragons were originally supposed to be one book. But because the page count was increasing with no end in sight, it was split with half of the POVs in AFFC and the other half in ADWD. Now I was one of the people who actually liked AFFC and looking back, I remember thinking that ADWD might potentially be painful to read. Sad to say I was right.

As I’ve said before, the book dragged for me in the first half. There are many reasons for this. Among them were the POV narrators that dominated it: Jon Snow, Davos Seaworth, and Tyrion Lannister. I found Jon and Davos’s chapters to be painful. I’ve never cared about Davos. I couldn’t care less about him and the seven sons he sired (four of which died on the Blackwater). Nor have I ever been enamoured by Jon’s emo brooding which here is further punctuated by Stannis Baratheon. Jon’s emo brooding + Stannis’s grim, humorless self = a sad and sorrowful Jia.

Before people jump on me regarding Tyrion, let me preface this by saying that I liked Tyrion before this book. I really enjoyed his character. I think his portrayal is one of the highlights of the TV series. But then this novel happened and for what felt like far too long, I was told of whores, Tysha, whores, his father, and did I mention whores? We get it, we get it. Tyrion, what happened to you? Everyone is after the Imp because of the price on his head, but I barely saw any sign of him in the first half of the book.

And then there are Danaerys’s chapters. Oh Dany. I really want to like her storyline. It’s one I love: girl rising up from the dirt to become a fierce and awesome woman. It’s empowering. In a genre where female characters didn’t really come into their own until the last couple decades, and even then that can be debatable at times, I have yet to get tired of this narrative type. And after everything that’s happened to Dany, what’s not to like about it? But like many other epic fantasy tropes, I guess you wanted to subvert that storyline too?

I honestly felt like Dany was a mess in this book. I won’t argue that it wasn’t realistic because it is. She’s young and hasn’t yet to learned to play the Game as well as we’d like. But I was so frustrated with her chapters because her character progression was dreadfully slow and I thought she should know better. How many times has she been betrayed? She even has a prophecy to guide her along, but does she do anything about it? No, she just waits for the next person to betray her even though she knows it’s coming. That’s not attractive in a character at all. In the end, I got the distinct impression she was being obtuse for the sake of being obtuse, as in “the plot required her to be stupid and so it shall be!”  It also didn’t help that I found her taste in men atrocious. So it wasn’t until her final chapters in the novel that I enjoyed her storyline.

I wish I could say ADWD didn’t fall into the epic fantasy trap of introducing more POV narrators and characters, but I can’t. The latter is unavoidable so I expected it, especially in a world and series as large scale as this, but I really could have done without the former. I couldn’t care less about Greyjoys, lost princes and people who want to marry Dany in order to use her for their own ends. I just want the core group we met in A Game of Thrones. That was plenty. Apparently that’s just too much to ask.

Despite the initial premise that ADWD would cover only the characters not included in AFFC, some chapters featuring narrators from the previous novel were included. I didn’t have a problem with that myself, because it helped break up the monotony and at times, sped up the plodding pace.

In the end, it’s the pacing that bothered me most about ADWD. I’ve always considered you to be a master of pacing, even if part of that style meant fake outs and gimmicky cliffhangers. It worked for me and I was never bored. I was bored for stretches of this novel. Parts of it dragged and other parts were repetitive. For all that I poke fun at the portentous foreshadowing that characterizes A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve always liked that aspect of the series. But in ADWD, I found the writing as unsubtle as a pile of anvils dropped on my head. I don’t know if that’s a result of the long interval between installments. Maybe someone in the chain was worried that we wouldn’t recall the details. After all, some people haven’t read about these characters for eight years. But it failed for me here.

So was the wait worth it for me? Not really. Not for hardcover, and definitely not for rushing out on the first day to buy it and devour it. It’s yet more set up.  The plot doesn’t really move forward until the end and even then, it’s a tease of what could happen. This obviously isn’t the place to start for new readers. A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t a series you can pick up in the middle. You have to read it in order.

Will I continue reading the series? Probably. I’ve never had problems dropping a series if I grow dissatisfied with it, but I feel like I’ve invested so much time and effort in this series that I can’t stop now. I say this fully aware of the fact that it might be another five years before the next book comes out. Knowing what I know now, I can’t recommend this series to other people without many caveats. The wait between books is too long, and there is no guarantee it will be finished. At this point, I’m not even sure it’ll conclude in the promised 2 (or 3) volumes. Taken all together, this is a C.

My regards,

Jia

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Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at jia@dearauthor.com!

26 Comments

  1. Kate Sherwood
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 06:06:04

    I’m with you, 100%, except for the part about probably reading the next book in the series. I think this one (combined with the last) killed it for me. My current plan is to wait until the series is over (if it ever is) and evaluate reviews then.

    I haven’t seen a discussion of Cersei’s punishment yet, or her reaction to it, but to me,it was the final straw. It just didn’t ring true, to me, that this fierce woman would be damaged that much by that punishment. I should know better than to disagree with an author about his characters, but to me, it felt like a bit of a betrayal of the woman I’d been led to believe Cersei is. My Cersei would have cake walked through that punishment and laughed in the faces of the men who dared try to humiliate her. Damn.

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  2. Jia
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 06:12:11

    @Kate Sherwood: To be honest, I feel like Cersei’s characterization has been on a downward spiral since AFFC. For me, the Cersei in that book was a caricature of who I’d thought she was from prior. I realize this is part of GRRM’s storytelling — making you think a character is one way and then showing you otherwise through their POV. But still, I didn’t care for it at all.

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  3. Tae
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 07:53:55

    I was bored during most of this book because I felt like nothing really happened until the end. It was a let down for me as well. Of course I’ll read the next book, just won’t be as enthusiastic about it as the first three.

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  4. Christine M.
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 08:28:42

    I’ve always been intrigued by this series. Is there a way to pick up, say, the first two books in the series and stop there and be satisfied? Or just the first? Or am I doomed?

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  5. Jane
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 08:33:11

    @Christine M. I read the first three which are excellent. I’ve lost interest in the series because of the long wait. Book 4 was about the people in which I had the least amount of interest and I’ve read enough spoilers for book 5 to keep me satisfied. Nothing about books 4 or 5 have compelled me to read them. I don’t regret reading books 1-3 but as Jia says, the story is unfinished and looks to remain unfinished for a long time.

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  6. AmyW
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 08:51:52

    Oh, if only books 4 and 5 were combined into one book, with the boring parts (and characters) removed! But I’m honestly confused why so many people were surprised and upset about how it ended. Every other book ends with cliffhangers and if past books are any indication, there is very little reason to believe that what upsets people the most will be permanent…

    I’m still into the series, though, and will be picking up future books.

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  7. Jia
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 08:55:47

    @AmyW: Oh, I definitely agree. The Event that happens at the end of ADWD is classic GRRM Fakeout. If that’s actually permanent, I’ll be really surprised.

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  8. Sunita
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 09:12:46

    Great review, Jia, and thanks so much for taking this one for the team. I am saddened but unsurprised. When I heard that #4 ended on cliffhangers because the story became too big for one book, I naively hoped that #5 would contain all the story stuff that was left out of #4. No such luck.

    Like Jane, I’m sticking at #1-#3. If the next two (three?) start looking better, I’ll return, but otherwise it just goes in my mental archive as a great partial series.

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  9. Milena
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 09:36:15

    @Christine M.: If it’s any help, I didn’t have any problems stopping after book one. But then, to me it read like same-old fantasy, only with more dirt piled on for effect.

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  10. Brian
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 09:55:12

    Thanks for the review Jia.

    I’ve been a huge fan of this series, spending hour upon hour discussing it (online and in person), but have yet to read this one. The more reviews I read and folks I talk to (folks with similar likes) the more I think I won’t be reading this or anymore books in the series unless/until it’s been finished. We’re looking at 2-3 more books at this point and if things go like they have for the last few it could be 15 years or more before everything’s tied up, if GRRM lasts that long (and I hope he does).

    Maybe we need an ‘Author’s Cut’ ebook that combines the parts in Crows and Dance in chronological order. It’d be big, but it might make the narrative better.

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  11. Jane
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 10:17:16

    @Brian Didn’t Martin say after the publication of book 4 that the readers could interlace the pages from book 5 into it?

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  12. Jia
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 10:30:40

    @Jane: He said that, but I don’t know that I believe it. I read AFFC when it first came out so I have a several-year interval between that and ADWD. But a friend of mine read them back to back and said some scenes in ADWD were essentially scenes from AFFC told from a different POV. Needless to say, he put ADWD down and said he’d come back to it when AFFC was less fresh in his mind.

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  13. Christine M.
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 10:38:49

    Thanks for the tip everyone. I might pick up the first one and try to convince myself not to go any further.

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  14. Matt
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 12:07:14

    Did you review A Game of Thrones? I searched the blog and couldn’t find it.

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  15. P. Kirby
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 12:10:06

    I’m a huge fan of the first three books. I found them amazing. Then there was the looong wait for book four, an installment that delivered a whole bunch of new characters I cared nothing about.

    Honestly, I think after the first three books, Martin wrote himself into some sort of corner. Instead of stepping back and untangling the snarled plot threads in books one to three, he seemed to take the “needs more characters” approach. It’s like taking an already salty dish and thinking the cure is more salt. Throw in a bad case of world building disease and you’ve got a story line that is careening hopelessly off course.

    I haven’t read A Dance with Dragons yet. I will read it and the next and next, and next …. Because I’m still too invested in some of the characters to ditch the series altogether. But I’ll wait for the paperback editions.

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  16. Jia
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 12:33:45

    @Matt: Sorry, I haven’t.

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  17. Matt
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 14:20:30

    @Jia: Ah well. I was wondering if this series might draw me back into fantasy, but if the characters weaken overtime and there’s no imminent payoff, I guess it’s not for me. Thanks for the review. It was very helpful.

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  18. Jia
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 14:54:55

    @Matt: I think A Game of Thrones is one of those books that has more impact if you’d read it when it first came out, particularly if you come from a fantasy reading background. Because it really did change the epic fantasy landscape of the 90s by making it grittier and bloodier. Reading it now? Now that traditional fantasy has trended towards dark and grim, I don’t think it leaves quite the same impression.

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  19. Shelly
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 22:46:18

    I completely agree with you Jia. I was so bored with this one I had to force my way through the last 200 pages. Tyrion had been one of my favorite characters. So had Dany. I didn’t think their stories could be boring, but I felt like GRRM was bored writing them and was hating the fans and thinking “they all want Tyrion and Dany to meet so I won’t let them; aren’t I clever?”, and while their wandering and equivocating might be realistic it doesn’t make for an exciting story. It also felt like he needs some discipline, or perhaps an editor with the guts to get him back on track.

    Another thing that really bothered me about this book was his stripping power from most of the women who’d been strong characters in previous volumes and turning them into bad stereotypes (bitch, whore, infatuated schoolgirl). It doesn’t bode well for subsequent volumes if he keeps these trends up.

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  20. Matt
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 16:45:31

    @Jia: I had no idea that the original came out in the 90s. It was in the late 90′s or early 00′s that I discovered the The Hobbit and went on a fantasy binge. A couple of years ago, all fantasies began sounding the same to me. I was going to try Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix series, but I’m thinking I might boycott because of the whitewashed cover.

    Does anyone know if there’s a (potentially) groundbreaking fantasy on the horizon?

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  21. Lada
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 17:36:36

    Thanks for the great review, Jia. I’m glad you made the distinction that A Game of Thrones might have been a better book when it first came out. I’ve been sitting on it for a long time and finally started reading it in hopes of being swept away in a dark, meaty fantasy. But it’s actually kind of boring and I’ve been wondering why people were so enthralled by this series. I guess if I had not already read newer, more tightly plotted fantasy recently, I might like it better. It may deserve the accolades for changing the genre but as of now, it’s been easy to put down and the review for this book isn’t an incentive to keep reading.

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  22. Jia
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 20:41:22

    @Shelly: Yeah, when he first came out, I loved how he had lots of different kinds of women filling different roles. But as the series continues, I really dislike how he’s breaking them down.

    @Matt:

    Does anyone know if there’s a (potentially) groundbreaking fantasy on the horizon?

    That’s the million dollar question. I feel like we’re due one soon since A Game of Thrones came out in… 1996? (Maybe 1997.) And I don’t really think anything has come out since then that’s really changed the landscape in the same way GRRM did. Authors like Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie owe stuff to GRRM for making it all right for fantasy to be grim and dark. Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles are very well-received but it’s not groundbreaking in any way unless you count pretty prose as groundbreaking and tbh, I don’t think the fantasy genre care about that so much as story and originality and sense of wonder.

    @Lada: Yeah, I really do think it has more weight when you place it in the timeline of the fantasy genre. The epic fantasy genre of the 90s was essentially Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Terry Brooks and their ilk. Dragonlance too, stuff like that. So he did change it in terms of bringing dirt and blood to the genre but the pacing remained the same. In the decade+ since, we’ve expected our stories to become faster and more streamlined.

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  23. Erastes
    Sep 12, 2011 @ 05:07:50

    Hear hear! You have nailed every single one of my problems with the books. Apart from the turtles. OMG the turtles. I will not buy the hardback again, or race out on release day to get it. i’ll pre-order from the library and see if it’s worth the money. This one definitely wasn’t.

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  24. Upflyer
    Oct 22, 2011 @ 22:12:42

    Hi, I have not yet read ADWD and have recently finished the first five novels,after seeing the TV series. I found AGOT quite’hard going’ but that may well have been because I already knew what was going to happen and read it mainly as a prep. for the remaining novels; which I managed to ‘devour’ in under two weeks,so I guess that they were ‘gripping’ enough. I found AFFC mildly irritating ,in that I had ,suddenly, thrust upon me a whole new raft of characters that have not yet particularly enthused me. Jia commented on Jon’s dismal ‘emo’ outlook on life: similarly I find Samwell’s continued ‘cowardly lion syndrome’ to be wearing a bit thin, now that he has been ‘out and about’ in the real world for some time, apparently unscathed and no stranger to the delights of female company.
    Larry Niven’s “The Burning City” and it’s sequel ‘Burning Tower” is a good fantasy saga for those who prefer a more sparing and disiplined use of magic by their heros (and heroines). It is set in and around what is now California and northern Mexico ,in a mythical time ,prior to white settlement. Here magic is a non-renewable resource to be conserved for those occasions on which ‘nothing else will do’.

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  25. Justin
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 17:14:44

    Book 4 was a DRAG. Really almost stopped reading. But I’m about halfway through 5 and it’s definitely a step back toward the first 3. He really did screw himself over by making 3 such a page-turner. Everything else seems slow in comparison now. I want my ice spiders already!

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  26. Gayle
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 03:55:24

    @Shelly: I believe you hit the ‘nail’ on the head. Why should an author disrespect his readers and illustrate this by manipulating the storyline to be so unsatisfying. I am thrilled with the earlier plot-lines but the last 2 books (expensive if bought hardcover) are just fodder from a mind that seems to need to show his lack of concern for us. In despiration I did colour code the POV sections just to see if I could disect out the unessential characters – and I must confess it improved the read!

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