George R. R. Martin's fifth installment in his A Song of Ice and Fire series stumbles over its own excesses. A Dance with Dragons has the advantage over its predecessor in that it has some of the series' most popular characters: Tyrion, Daenerys, and Jon. However, it lacks the compelling story arc that A Feast for Crows had with Cersei. This book, and the previous one, has Martin trying to do too much with his world: too many characters to follow and too many details about settings outside of Westeros. It seems that Martin has fallen in so much love with his world and his characters he forgot to write a story around them. We learn "much and more" about the lesser known free cities across the sea, but as the goal of the series is to land somebody on the Iron Throne, why should we care about the history of the free cities? This is the first novel in the series that forgets its characters are supposed to be playing a game of thrones, and in the end it is the worst the series has to offer.
***Warning: This review contains spoilers. If you have not read at least the first four books in the series I would not recommend reading on.***
A Feast for Crows was the first novel in the series not to kill off a king, but it certainly had fun with a certain queen regent. A Dance with Dragons doesn't have quite so much fun with its kings or queens. The only two it features, anyway, are Daenerys and Stannis, and it may be surprising to learn that Stannis fares the better of the two. Stannis is the only character playing the game of thrones; anybody else interested in playing are too far from the action to make an impact. However, the problem isn't simply that nobody is giving this game a go, but that for those who aren't, very little happens, despite the promise of A Storm of Swords.
A Storm of Swords ended with a lot of very interesting events that gave readers plenty of reason to want to read the next book. Unfortunately, after two books the most interesting of these still have not come to fruition. If you remember, Tyrion murdered his father and fled with the aid of Varys and Jaime. Where he went and what he would do was one of the biggest mysteries of the series. It turns out he was shipped off to Magister Illyrio, who you may remember from the first book as the man who aided Viserys and Dany. The plan is to get Tyrion to Dany so he can give her some aid (or she could kill him for being a Lannister). Tyrion travels with a group led by Griff and his son Young Griff, who are both more than they seem, though I think it's a mistake for Martin to introduce two such high profile characters so late in the series. While the idea of Tyrion counseling Dany sounds fun, what really happens is that Tyrion sets off on a series of misadventures. Fortunately Tyrion's signature humor is still intact, at least early on. Later he becomes more serious, and he's continuously brooding over his first wife, Tysha, and wondering where whores go. This sudden obsession with Tysha slows Tyrion's sections to a crawl.
Dany, if you remember, was having an exhilarating time conquering the free cities with her Unsullied army and freeing slaves. Her path to Westeros seemed all but paved. However, readers will be disappointed to learn that Dany has decided to settle down in the city of Meereen, where a faction of people called the Sons of the Harpy have started a small rebellion against her. People are upset she has abolished slavery. Dany has a decision to make: stay and fight, or move on. Her conscience tells her to stay, though her closest advisor, Ser Berristan Selmy, tells her otherwise. Dany's sections are some of the novel's dullest, as she addresses the complaints of the Meereenese people, obsesses over the sellsword captain Daario, and begins to realize her dragons are growing larger and more unruly. Because Meereen is not Dany's end goal (or is it?), it's difficult to care about the city's internal politics.
Jon's conclusion in A Storm of Swords was just about as exhilarating as Tyrion's. I was looking forward to seeing him in action as the new Lord Commander on the wall. To be sure, Jon has the fastest and best start in the entire novel, but it's sad to say the highlight of the entire novel is when Jon punishes Janos Slynt for insubordination - and that's in the first hundred pages. Jon's main struggle is his balancing act between obeying the vows he made to the Night's Watch and his desire to help Stannis win the north. Once Stannis, leaves the wall, though, Jon's sections slow to a crawl. We learn far more about the wildlings than is interesting, and Jon broods over the fact that those who counsel him disagree with everything he does. Towards the end Jon's decisions grow more questionable. He mirrors Dany (and even Cersei) in the fact he makes poor decisions and fails to heed the counsel of those wiser than him. While this could have been intriguing, it gets bogged down in too many needless details.
Theon makes a return. For those who have kept up on the show, it will be no surprise to learn that Theon is still alive, but this is his first appearance in the novel since A Clash of Kings. Just as in the show, Theon has been kept alive as Ramsay Snow's pet. If you thought Joffrey was bad, wait until you learn Ramsay's hobbies. Theon has been reduced to less than a man, less than a dog, into a creature named Reek. He has become so fearful that he quickly dispels any thoughts of his previous identity. He is Reek, it rhymes with meek. However, Theon becomes instrumental in helping the Boltons capture a fort and then establish their claim to Winterfell by marrying Ramsay to a false Arya Stark. Though I thought Theon was a despicable character in book two, I found Ramsay so revolting I was hoping Theon would finally get the better of him. Theon's parts, however, move just as slow as the rest. So slow, that a promised showdown towards the end of the novel gets delayed by heavy snowfall.
As for the rest of the characters, a large number receive their own perspective at some point or other. Davos and Bran are some of the more interesting of these, but each only receives three sections and they are done halfway through the novel. Davos, in the fourth book, was reportedly beheaded. Whether that actually happens I will leave for you to discover. However, his parts are some of the most suspenseful and exciting in the book, thanks in part to an awesome showing by Wyman Manderly. Bran finally reaches the three-eyed crow, which turns about to be much different than imagined. Here Bran realizes his destiny, though the novel is done with him almost as soon as he gets started. Asha Greyjoy has a couple of chapters, though mainly for the purpose of keeping an eye on another major character. Victarion also has a few sections of his own, as he sets out on his quest to marry Dany. Some of Victarion's parts are actually some of the best as the novel approaches its end. He is one of the few characters actually taking action and there is some promise in what he has to offer.
Quentyn Martell promises to play a major role, though ultimately disappoints. In the fourth book, it was revealed that Arienne Martell had a secret marriage pact with Viserys, but Doran believes that pact might have some weight in convincing Dany to marry Quentyn. Quentyn's marriage to her would also have the benefit of lending her a large army in Westeros. However, he's not a very attractive fellow and doesn't have the stomach for bloodshed. Arya has a pair of chapters that show her continued training to become an assassin for the many-faced god, however not much happens. It's a shame where Martin has taken Arya's story and her character. Hopefully he improves on it later. There's an appearance by Areo Hotah, though I forget the contents, and Jaime has a single chapter that ends by closing up one cliffhanger from the previous book and simultaneously creating another. Late in the novel Barristan Selmy gets his own chapters. He's similar to Ned Stark and Davos in that he has a high regard for honor, only it's too bad he's not in a more compelling situation.
Part of the fun of the series has been watching people effectively or ineffectively playing the game of thrones. The problem with this last book is that very few people play at the game effectively. Dany and Cersei fail to listen to the wise counsel of those around them. Jon does the same on the Wall. Most of those who do have the ability to play effectively are either too far from the action (Tyrion) or not given a perspective (Varys and Littlefinger). Jaime's sections in the fourth book were so refreshing because he was actually getting things done, and Griff and Victarion also seem to be making very strategic decisions. It's just too bad those last two are newcomers to the series.
The first three books in the series are excellent because each chapter ended with a compelling revelation or twist. In A Dance with Dragons, you will find yourself underwhelmed by the conclusion of a majority of the chapters, and none of them will excite you. That's not to say this is a bad book. It's still an impressive feat and it still has its moments of entertainment. Overall, though, it feels like sitting on a roller coaster that climbs up and up very slowly, but once it reaches the top and begins its descent you realize you're only ten feet off the ground and wish you hadn't wasted so much time waiting in line.