After six long years, I’ve finally read A Dance with Dragons. Here are my thoughts.
SPOILER WARNING – stay out if you haven’t finished the book.
ADWD is two books in one – in more than one sense.
The obvious sense is that the first part of the book overlaps AFFC, before eventually it continues on from where AFFC left off, with appearances from Cersei, Jaime and Victarion.
The second, and more important, sense is that ADWD’s pacing is wildly variable. Early on, things happen. But as the book progresses, it ends up with a bad case of AFFC-itis – too many chapters in which too little is achieved, leaving too many cliffhangers. (To be fair to Martin, he acknowledged in an EW interview that “there are more cliffhangers than [he’d] have liked”.) By the end of the book, the Meereen situation still hasn’t been resolved! But the single best example has to be the Stannis storyline. In the early chapters, he seizes Deepwood Motte from the ironborn, raises a new army of northmen, and manoeuvres himself back into the war. Then he takes, what, three, four, five chapters (including the Theon chapters) to march on Winterfell? Halfway through the book, I couldn’t wait to see the Stannis/Bolton showdown that could be no more than a few pages away. By the end of the book, I was still waiting! Just how many words were necessary to tell us that Stannis’ army was stuck in the snow?
I have to say, after AFFC and now the later chapters of ADWD, my faith in this series is running low. This must be exactly how Robert Jordan fans felt. Oh, I enjoyed many things about ADWD all the same. And I’ll read The Winds of Winter. But, at least as of this instant, I have little confidence that the last couple of books will recapture the magic of the first three.
The start of Stannis’ northern campaign. Planning, manoeuvres, action. Yes, I thought, the previous books showed Stannis playing to his weaknesses. Now he’s playing to his strengths as a general. I couldn’t wait to see how the war in the North might develop…
Tyrion’s “dysfunctional buddy movie” dynamic with Jorah Mormont. I laughed hysterically at the scene in which they were sold into slavery, because while their fortune just kept getting worse and worse, that episode had to take the cake for “out of the frying pan and into the fire”.
The Quentyn Martell chapter with the mercenary army: I don’t know why I enjoyed this chapter so much, apart from the implausible-but-delicious depictions of the slavemasters playing general with their pathetic chattels, but enjoy it I did.
Many of the locations in Essos. I liked Volantis in particular, with its politics, history and local flavour.
Jaime’s cameo. I cheered aloud when I saw his name at the top of the page, and he didn’t disappoint me. In that one meagre appearance, he squeezed in a disproportionate share of my favourite dialogue/moments in the book (including a laugh-out-loud funny double entendre).
How Illyrio’s capability diminishes with distance. The man seems an omnipotent, omnipresent puppet master when we see him through the eyes of a character wholly in his power (Tyrion). He withers as Tyrion and Griff take their leave of him, and by the time the reader makes it to the Golden Company, he’s a much-shrunken figure whose plans, as one character points out, tend to go awry.
Lord Manderly. This guy is the Doran Martell of the North. He raises armies, builds fleets, and sends out a supposedly-dead man on a secret mission, all the while pretending to be nothing more than a lazy, gluttonous coward. I loved Roose Bolton’s sudden “uh oh” look when half-a-dozen of Manderly’s knights leaped up during an argument with the Freys. And I didn’t even grasp the significance of Manderly’s pies (see below)…
Barristan the Bold: Perceptive (assuming his character judgments are correct) and a supreme badass. Loved his second-last chapter.
The pacing, as discussed above. This is the elephant in the room.
Tyrion’s “where do whores go?” Luckily he stops after a while.
Arya’s training montage chapters – they didn’t grab me in AFFC and they don’t grab me here.
Things I noticed/missed
In the first three books, I missed the “R + L = J” hints, Renly & Loras, etc. In AFFC, I missed the hints that Sandor Clegane was still alive. How did I do in ADWD? Well, I recognised the jousting dwarfs immediately as the ones from Joffrey’s wedding, for which I can thank all the times I’ve read A Storm of Swords. On the other hand, I didn’t realise Manderly had cooked the missing Freys in the pies he served at Winterfell!
How did my predictions fare?
My pre-reading predictions fared poorly. I was sure Tormund Giantsbane would be a zombie the next time we saw him, and I was sure Stannis would murder his own daughter. Neither came to pass, although I’ll roll that Stannis prediction into The Winds of Winter (assuming Bolton was bluffing and Stannis is really still alive).
Once the book started, my mid-stream predictions fared better:
Quentyn Martell’s death: Quentyn screamed “doomed” (or, less charitably, “loser”) from page 1 – the word one reviewer used to describe him, “hapless”, says it all – and his attempt at dragon theft was one of the stupidest plans in the entire series, possibly even outdoing anything dreamed up by Ned Stark.
Davos’ survival: Manderly’s moustache-twirling pronouncement of death just seemed too convenient, too orchestrated for the benefit of the watching Freys, especially coming from a man who was rebuilding his army.
Barristan: This one I got wrong; I didn’t expect so honourable a man to survive the book. Well, there’s always the next one…
Daenerys: I expected her to end the book minus her army, minus her followers, but heading for Westeros. The first part of that prediction came true in a way I didn’t imagine, but the book’s pacing ruled out the final part.
Characters I feel sorry for
This being a GRRM book, there is quite the body count (at first I was counting the beheadings – I gave up after three or four). There were a few I felt particularly sorry for, though…
Jon Connington, aka Griff: The poor man lives decades in exile, and by the time he does finally return home at the head of an army, he’s dying of a horrible illness.
Ser Kevan Lannister: Killed because he was doing too good a job of delivering peace, order and good government! Not a surprise that he met his end, but, as Varys acknowledged, he deserved better.
For the Europa Universalis players amongst you
Doesn’t Daenerys’ storyline seem like a badboy war in a Paradox game, exacerbated by choosing the wrong choice at every step along an event chain?