From A Game of Thrones onward, one of the pleasures of reading George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series for the first time is seeing your favorite character’s name in bold type at the start of a chapter. Out of respect for those readers, I have avoided anything that might be considered a spoiler in this review.
Less than a month after its release, it’s tempting to write that A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, is impossible to judge on its own.
It arrives in bookstores with almost six years of hopes and resentments behind it. The first 600 pages are dedicated to bringing characters absent for a decade in readers’ lives to the same place in the timeline as their Seven Kingdoms counterparts in A Feast For Crows. Once it passes that point, it’s yet another middle book, bridging the gap between the conclusion of A Storm of Swords and setting the stage for the final conflicts yet to come. And with the relatively high profile nature of the author and his fan community on the Internet, it’s difficult to set the book down without speculating on Martin’s intent, the efficacy of his implementation, and what took him so damn long.
But as a fan since A Game of Thrones first appeared in paperback before the turn of the century, I suspect the temptation to digress over those factors is merely a defense mechanism. I want there to be a reason I didn’t love A Dance For Dragons as much as I had hoped to, other than it’s just not very thrilling, nor complete.
A Dance With Dragons isn’t the same disappointment as A Feast For Crows. The saga’s best characters are all present, including most players already featured in the previous book. A returning side character even evolves into a fairly threatening villain, rare for a point of view character in this series. Though they are thinly spread out, there are some of the trademark jaw-dropping shocks that attribute to much of the series’ popularity and were missing in the last installment. Here and there, that old sense of quick wit comes through in the dialogue. And though the events of the narrative are far apart and many threads are left hanging, they are connected by theme. Those who dance with dragons are like to get burned.
But Martin’s more frustrating tropes are in full force as well. Previously fleshed-out characters endlessly ruminate over the same lines of italicized dialogue in memories that now solely define them. Continuing in the same vein as the confusion of free agents that plagued the Seven Kingdoms in the last two books, four mercenary legions with constantly shifting allegiances, each populated with their own traitors, muddle the wars beyond Westeros. Characters often serve as little more than viewpoints to forthcoming plot twists vaguely alluded to at the end of a chapter. In by the end, an entire story arc and the fate of several main characters is left completely unresolved, their fates only hinted at by an unreliable source.
Having mostly abandoned the strong viewpoints central to the first three novels, and often relying on disguising the identities of characters already known to the reader, the emotional stakes in A Dance With Dragons are low and Martin’s tricks more transparent. When no one sees the bodies, there’s no longer that sense that no one is safe. When no one is as they seem, there’s little impact to be had from their betrayals. It’s that sense unreliability that makes this fifth book in the series a step back in the right direction, but ultimately unsatisfying without knowing what is to come and when.