A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume of the A Song of Ice and Fire, at the same time that it is one of the more concise novels of the series, containing virtually only three main plots – which helps to move the narrative forward –, it also suffers from the remnants of the bad planning surrounding the previous book, A Feast of Crows.
With the separation of these last two volumes by the characters’ location in the world created by George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons ends up with the stories that take place in two main locations: the North of Westeros, especially around the colossal wall of ice, focusing on the characters of Jon Snow and King Stannis; and the continent of Essos, with Queen Daenerys.
The stories of Daenerys and Jon share the same argument: the notion that being a good person does not necessarily mean having the ability to lead. Khaleesi knows she needs to prove that she is able to rule a city if she wants to conquer all of Westeros, and therefore remains in Meereen, where she discovers that the search for justice can poison one’s soul and, even more important, that notions of morality and ethics sometimes need to be severely twisted or neglected if one wants to remain in power. Meanwhile, the new Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch must at the same time deal with the growing supernatural threat of the White Walkers, with a gigantic army of wildlings, with betrayals and intrigues within his own organization, and with the more frequent demands of Stannis, Melisandre, and their small army.
There’s also the plot involving the imminent war for the control of the North. With Winterfell devastated and the Starks broken and scattered, the sinister House Bolton, whose main symbol is a flayed man, becomes the official “protector of the North”, thanks to the support of the Lannisters. However, to be able to consolidate its power it needs to extinguish Stannis.
The book initially switches between these stories, with some brief pauses for some minor subplots, such as Davos’ mission to get support for his King; the strange and psychedelic journey of Bran in search of three-eyed Crow; and the journey of everyone who is traveling to meet with Daenerys – like Tyrion and the innocent Prince of Dorne, Quentyn Martell.
Daenerys’ journey has the longest and most complex chapters of the book. Her rule in the city of Meereen can be considered her biggest test for the future legitimacy of her still remote conquest of Westeros. Holding a crown, Daenerys needs to stop the murder of her people by a local rebel group, contain an army of slave traders, a plague that is decimating most of the population, and her own dragons, which are becoming even more rebellious, violent and dangerous. Therefore, it doesn’t take long for the Queen to understand why it is said that conquering a city is easier than keeping it. And as for her training, her numerous, distinct, and not entirely trusted advisers are useful for exposing what choices she can make in each situation. The Queen is given the scheming Resnak, who offers more bureaucratic tactics of persuasion and diplomacy (Your majesty should marry to calm the slavemasters), the violent Skahaz with his bloody and brutal proposals, (Or maybe kill them all during your wedding), and the living reminder of her goal, the noble Barristan Selmy (Forget all this and go to Westeros). With these pillars exposing three possible choices to tackle every problem, the development of Daenerys becomes a character study, in which every decision contributes to forming her image to her people. Nevertheless, the narrative also shows the character’s inner conflicts, even with shades of sexual immaturity, to the point where she screams at her lover: “I am your queen and I command you to fuck me.” This helps to make her more palpable to the reader, by being a good counterpoint to the image of power and mercilessness that her dreadful dragons cast on her.
Jon Snow, on the other hand, surprises as the youngest Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, being a wise, harsh and relentless leader. The novel develops him well, showing his responses to those who refuse to obey him, and contrasting them to his apparently amicable relation with the wildlings, in which the boy assumes the posture of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Also noteworthy is his gradual affinity with King Stannis: by always giving objective, honest but respectful answers, Jon practically takes the place of Davos as the iron king’s advisor, and it is extremely gratifying to watch their relationship take on the outlines of friendship, and note that, in the background, one is usually rooting for the success of the other – a bond that is imperative to make Jon’s inconsequential action at the end sound plausible.
And finally, we have the plot that takes place in Winterfell, told mostly from the perspective of the Greyjoys. Theon finally goes back to having his own chapters since they had disappeared after the end of the second book, and here his point of view certainly doesn’t disappoint. With the purpose of transforming Ramsay Bolton in a villain even more unidimensionally evil than Joffrey and more brutal than Gregor Clegane, George R. R. Martin gives Theon a penalty even greater than one would imagine. Transformed into Ramsay’s pet, the once heir to the throne of the Iron Islands is tortured and humiliated constantly. Theon has the skin of his fingers skinned, and is hunted, beaten, burned, and even used to make Ramsay’s wife more “wet” to his Lord. With his identity and personality completely twisted (“Serve and obey and remember your name. Reek, Reek, it rhymes with meek”), Theon is responsible for developing the Bolton’s sick personality – Ramsay hunts women in the woods, rape and kill them, give their names to dogs, and even make a pair of boots with their skins – and reveal their plans and stratagems to the reader. Meanwhile, his sister, Asha Greyjoy, only serves to give the complete picture of the siege to Winterfell, since her point of view doesn’t add anything new to Stannis’ march to war.
However, even though these are the three main plots in the novel, Martin also gives Tyrion virtually the same amount of chapters to tell all his misadventures to get to Daenerys. The dwarf, after a sudden change of personality in the third book, goes back to his time of glory of A Clash of Kings, in which, even in completely unfavorable situations, he could turn things around thanks to his sharp tongue and endless wit. The only problem of his journey in this book, therefore, is its size, since Tyrion goes through all his pages just being thrown around the world while trying to survive a multitude of adversities, never getting anywhere. Even so, the character has his pride tested and is led to accept his nature without shame.
So, if the book had focused only on these main stories, with the slight pauses for Davos, Quentyn, and Bran, and completed them, A Dance with Dragons could certainly have been one of the best novels in the series. However, as life is an ocean of frustration, George R. R. Martin’s Ghost of Christmas Past has come back to haunt the book’s narrative and, as the author himself warns in a note at the beginning, the characters of A Feast for Crows return to complete the stories that should have been concluded in the previous novel.
Cersei, Jaime, Cat of the Canals, and Victarion all return to have chapters that should, in theory, end their arcs. Besides the obvious fact that these chapters should have been in the previous book, where they would not make this narrative come to a halt, they still share the same qualities and faults of before. While Cersei continues very well into her journey of self-destruction and insanity, the irrelevant story of Jaime ends with one of the most gratuitous hooks in the whole series. Cat, meanwhile, after approximately six extremely similar training chapters throughout two whole books, has her last one here almost end with the sentence “On the morrow you will go to Izembaro to begin your first apprenticeship,” which has the potential to get even the most benevolent reader frustrated. And Victarion continues as disposable as ever since he just keeps traveling to Essos. These chapters not only affect the pacing but also don’t belong together with them thematically.
To make matters worse, with the entire book preparing the events for the battle between Stannis and Roose Bolton, it is a bit disappointing that the whole event is postponed and doesn’t transpire at the end. Just imagine what A Clash of Kings would be without the battle of Blackwater or The Two Towers without the battle of Helm’s deep: they would be stories without their climaxes, without the parts that complete them and confer meaning to the whole thing. Now just add this to the fact that Jon Snow’s arc ends in a predictable anticlimax, and that Daenerys’ gets more and more convoluted as it gets close to the end, instead of marching to its conclusion, to fully realize that the novel gets completely lost halfway in, without knowing where to go and what stories to tell.
On the other hand, the prose appears to be a little more playful than in the previous books, having Theon, for example, rhyme his new name Reek with words that explain what he is feeling at the time, and the narrative also shows some versatility with the points of view, presenting the reader with Barristan Selmy and the Priestess Melisandre’s – although the latter doesn’t add much to the plot, besides hinting to Jon’s high purpose. At the other extreme, Martin continues to be ineffective in his ways of dramatizing the ever-greater exposition of his fantastical universe, as here he just reduces the character of Jorah Mormont’s to a boring tour guide.
A Dance with Dragons had great potential. With only three major plots, the book could have benefited from its more limited focus and substantially moved its storylines forward. And if the first half of the novel seems to fulfill that promise, the last one demonstrates once again that perhaps Martin has indeed lost control of his creation.