There are few books that have arrived in bookstores with as much hype and anticipation as A Dance with Dragons; as the latest installment in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, the book has gripped the literary world since its summer release. Pairing long-time readers, who had been patiently waiting for the next book since 2005, with the new, rabid audience that had devoured HBO’s spring sensation Game of Thrones, A Dance with Dragons rocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, firmly establishing the series as a cultural icon. The first four books range from decent to absolutely brilliant, and fans were anxious to figure out where A Dance with Dragons would land in that spectrum. My answer: somewhere in the middle.
After the fictional kingdom of Westeros was left in shambles at the end of book three, fans braced for a new era in the series, one in which the characters would have to pick up the pieces of their broken society. Focusing on the ever-growing political mess in the capital city of King’s Landing, however, book four does little to restore Westeros to its former glory, leaving fans worried that the story could never be fully completed. A Dance with Dragons finally begins to provide solutions for Westeros’s misfortunes by making clear that the kingdom’s salvation will be at the hands of a foreign savior.
There are many things worth cheering about in A Dance for Dragons, particularly its focus on several fan-favorite characters. After being benched for the fourth book, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister are back in the spotlight here, and the book benefits from an injection of riveting excitement into each of their plotlines. Newly and controversially elected as the Lord Commander of the Wall – the 700-foot high ice barrier between Westeros and the heathens and monsters of the north – Jon Snow must learn to rule a squadron of men deeply suspicious of his every action. Daenerys, now the queen and savior of the foreign city of Meereen, deals with the fallout from her conquest of the city and her contentious abolition of the city’s slave trade. And Tyrion, now a fugitive with a bounty on his head, journeys east to seek the help of the silver queen Daenerys herself in regaining Westeros’s Iron Throne.
All three stories prove action-packed and invigorating – a real return to form for Martin. Surprisingly, however, a character long-hated and thought dead actually steals the show, returning to the series with one of the most tragic and gripping plotlines I’ve ever read. Martin has proved before that he can make heroes out of even the most loathsome of villains, and his talent is on full display in this latest work. He is a master at character development, and when that skill is paired with stimulating and even daring plotlines, as it is here, the results are absolutely triumphant. Two scenes in particular will leave fans breathless, and one of them will almost certainly be added – along with book one’s Baelor execution and book three’s Red Wedding – to the series’ most iconic moments.
Still, there are some major issues with A Dance with Dragons that call into question the series as a whole. For as strong as the four major plotlines are, the side stories sag with unnecessary load. Getting into the more uninteresting parts of A Dance With Dragons, fans will find themselves missing characters we probably won’t again for at least a couple more years.
There are only two books left in the seven-book series, and while the story has been great so far, I wonder about Martin’s ability to bring all the diverse strands together in the end. At the end of A Dance with Dragons, Martin is juggling literally hundreds of characters, almost all of whom he has invested a significant amount of time in. He has several major plotlines to wrap up – now they’re occurring on two different continents – and he just keeps adding more and more to the pot. I know there’s time left for Martin to make a neat conclusion, but he just needs to figure out some direction for the last two books. The “Meereenese knot” – Martin’s own reference to the force pulling all his characters east – needs to be unknotted. It’s time to return to Westeros, and it’s time to start cleaning up the complicated and beautiful mess Martin has made.