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A Review of “A Dance with Dragons”

I’ll admit it: so far, this blog of mine has been a bit too heavy on George R.R. Martin’s work.  Between the TV show and the books, I think I’ve made it abundantly clear that I am a fan.  Forgive me for that.  I’ll try to vary things more from here on out.  But for now, patience.

That said, wheee!  Oh, also, I’m going to try and limit any specific spoilers to the book or things that came before.  If something slips though, it wasn’t meant to – it’s just I likely found no other way to express the point.

When Martin made the decision in 2005 to split the large book that A Dance with Dragons was becoming, he thought that he could get the second half of it out within a year.  So he kept most of the characters that his fanbase preferred (like Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen) back and pushed others to the foreground in the newly-christened A Feast for Crows.  He also announced that the fifth book would be out one year later.  Things didn’t work out that way obviously and Martin has been quick to say that he’ll never make the mistake of predicting when his books will be out ever again.  It’s not just that “Dragons” took so long to come out, mind you.  It’s that he kept the fan favorites out.  Consider that the last time anyone heard of what happened to Tyrion or Dany, it was 2000 when A Storm of Swords was released.  

But there’s a reason you wait and wait patiently:  so that you can steel yourself for the holy hell that rains down on the characters you like.

A Dance with Dragons is not a nice book.  This is not an easy adventure, where the damsel will be rescued at the end, the hero will vanquish the villain and everyone will live happily ever after.  If you’ve read the series or seen the TV show, you’re aware of this.  All the same, it’s important to remember that as you plunge back into the world of Westeros.  The series’ build towards the arrival of winter (and all it will bring) has been slow but, by book’s end, it has ended.  Winter has arrived to the world and, to put it mildly, no one is prepared. 

There is a lot of traffic and travelling done by the heroes and villains of this story.  Some have fled across the Narrow Sea to the lands of Essos or gone to the Wall and beyond.  Others remain within Westeros but are moving from one part to another.  There is a lot of crossing of boundaries, both physical and metaphorically.  The story is resetting itself after the end of the War of the Five Kings and every character is aware that winter’s arrival is likely to make travel incredibly more difficult.  Ships are disappearing all the time, wracked by storms or taken by slavers or pirates.  In the North, things are so bad that walking from one side of a castle to another becomes similar to walking in the Antarctic – you can get lost fast and find yourself dying of hypothermia or drowning in snow.    

Some characters have risen to new positions and new powers.  But if you think that having one of the good guys in charge means things are going to turn for the better, you’re way off.  As Charlie Jane Anders pointed out in his review over at io9.com, “When the people in power worry too much about the fates of the little people, the innocent victims, bad things happen.”

Much of this part of the book – the good leaders trying to save everyone – reminded me of Fable III, the videogame that came out last year. In it, you naturally play a wronged prince/princess, who seeks to end the evil tyrant’s rule over your people and must face some evil threat off in the distance (funny how that always happens).  In any case, in order to ascend to your throne, you make promises to potential allies to win them over.  Two-thirds of the way through the game and you win your throne.  And then you are presented with the choice of being true to your word (and helping the little people) or trying to restore your bankrupt economy in the hopes of generating enough income to buy weapons and prepare for the incoming invasion of the evil threat.  Obviously, each choice has dire consequences – open up that new school for orphans and you may be dooming 10,000 people to their death.

It is a similar situation for many of the heroes in “Dragons.”  For example, Dany’s quest to free the slaves of Meereen, Astapor and the other cities of Slaver’s Bay hasn’t gone unnoticed.  She’s upended much of the economic foundation of Essos and the Great Masters who built their fortunes on the backs of slaves rise to oppose her.  Surrounded on all sides by people who’d kill her, she continues trying to spare the poor and desperate peoples she has freed – only to have them suffer hunger or die of plague.  Dany comes to face the direst of situations: watch those she would lead and protect die or submit her own values to the world around her.

And it is this loss of personal values – a loss of identity – that is the crucial aspect of A Dance with Dragons.  Martin has acknowledged as much.  For some of the characters, this is obvious and overt.  They come face to face with situations that force them to consider who they were and whether or not they will be that again.  The journeys of Bran and Arya are two such examples.  By the time the book is done, you’ve no idea if what they’ve signed up for is the end of who they were.  Such is the price that they may be called to pay in order to embrace the powers that lie within them.  For others, such as Tyrion or Ser Jorah Mormont, the loss of identity is more subvert.  They may have to take on new names and identities in order to remain hidden from danger or they may be forced to take a new role in order to escape with their lives.

But what is the point of living a life that isn’t your own?  Is survival enough?  Is seeing the next day sufficient justification when war burns through the world, winter is descending to starve you out and horrors of legend wait on the other side of the snows to make you their bitch?  Those are questions likely to come to the foreground in The Winds of Winter (AKA “Book 6”).  Questions still remain from way back in A Game of Thrones and you’re still not certain that the answers you got here are the whole truth.  Still, by the time “Dragons” is done, you’re back to getting that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that things have shifted in the world of “A Song of Ice and Fire” and that no character is safe or certain to see things out.

A Dance with Dragons is another great book in this series.  In many ways, it feels as if it is the halfway point in Martin’s saga.  Many of the sights and sounds that permeated HBO’s “Game of Thrones” are gone and I do fear that the inclusion of so much magic, genre material and darkness may be too much for general audiences.  The world of Westeros is devoid of heroes and those that remain pay a heavy price to be that.  This is not a message we like to hear often.  But given the hardships and difficulties of our modern world, perhaps it is one of the lessons that we should heed.    “No man becomes a slave unless he has chosen it.”

By the way, here’s a funny picture of JK Rowling getting a lesson in character assassination from the undisputed master of the idea.

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