A Dance with Dragons... a year later

When A Dance with Dragons was released, I didn’t write a review of it, in fact, I barely discussed within my community of fellow Fantasy fans. I wrote a piece or two about it, debated a bit with friends, but otherwise, I let one of Fantasy’s most impactful and anticipated releases slip me by. This is odd given that I run a fairly well trafficked Fantasy and Science Fiction publication, A Dribble of Ink, and a lot of my readers were interested in hearing my take on the fifth volume of Martin’s mega-successful A Song of Ice and Fire. But, I let them down, and, a year later, I’ve thought a lot of why I never wrote about the book, never formally reviewed it, despite enjoying it a fair bit more than the average fan seems to have, and it’s all because of expectations. Mine, and those of the fans around the world.

At first, as an entrenched fan, I felt special. Because, you see, I’d discovered Martin years earlier. He was my little secret. But, then it became clear that Martin wasn’t just a fad, wasn’t just a passing ghost of geekdom on the mainstream, he was a real thing. Maybe it was seeing Martin spoofed on Saturday Night Live, or when he was sitting there in the crowd at the Emmys, but finally it clicked with me. He’s not my secret anymore. Hell, he’s not even our secret anymore. Fantasy has a new ringleader, he wears a Greek sailor’s hat, thick glasses, and rides a wave of popularity the likes the genre hasn’t seen since The Lord of the Rings.

A Dance with Dragons swordExpectation is something that Martin is familiar with. He openly struggled with the demons it raises, and it was a force that nearly crushed A Song of Ice and Fire as he struggled for nearly 11 years to rein in the chaos surfaced at the end of A Storm of Swords, producing during that time the two most criticized volumes in the series. This expectation doesn’t come simply from his ravenous fans, but from, among others, his publishers, the execs at HBO, the cable providers, and Martin himself. A Dance with Dragons came at a time in Martin’s career as a writer when his career as a pop-culture icon, or at least the creator of pop culture icons, was about to explode beyond the walls of Fantasy geekdom, where he’d been a darling for years, and, with shocking speed, become a factor with mainstream audiences. All of a sudden, it was cool to like George R.R. Martin, to discuss dragons and dwarfs around the water cooler. Everywhere you turned, whether they were old or young, socially ill-equipped or popular socialites, Martin’s books were rarely far from sight. Your mom was reading them. That kid behind the counter at the 7-11 was reading them. Martin’s rise to fame isn’t unprecedented, but it’s not hard to imagine how difficult it would be to stay afloat in the ocean of new fans, detractors, and critics. Fantasy fans are often a forgiving bunch (just look at the middle and later volumes of Jordan’s still-successful Wheel of Time series, for instance), but this wasn’t the average group of Fantasy fans anymore. I’m not sure that anyone, Martin, his publishers, his family and friends, were prepared to weather the storm.

So how can any novel live up to such expectations?

In a sense, it didn’t. It couldn’t. In the intervening years between A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, Martin’s audience grew so large and ravenous that anticipation levels were so dangerously high that, no matter what Martin did, he was bound to disappoint. A Storm of Swords was a climax novel, bringing many events from the first two volumes to a head and all the tension building over the first two novels unleashed itself in a bloody fury. Martin had a delightfully chaotic playground to play in, full of villainous soldiers, virtuous (and not so virutous) women, and righteous fools. Every storyline hit a climax at once… and A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, which are essentially one long novel split over two volumes, were left to pick up the pieces. Act two, if you will, in the longer work of A Song of Ice and Fire. Now, all stories need an act two (arguably), and Fantasy series are often plagued with ‘middle-book syndrome,’ in which the authors must move the pieces together, preparing for the third act and the climax. But, could there be a less compelling time for ravenous new fans to be anticipating a new volume in the series? They gobbled up the first four books, and then were met with the second half of the second act of a looooong series. From the perspective, it’s no surprise that the novel failed to meet the expectations of its fans, new or old.

Tyrion Lannister, from Game of Thrones

Martin was free to write the first three volumes (and, it could be argued, the fourth as well) of his series in relative obscurity, without the weight of his legion breathing down his neck. How that affected the eventual quality of the release, if at all, will probably never be known. I was among those fans with heady expectations, and that same anticipation kept me from talking about the book, not trusting my own opinions after finally reading the novel after so long. Were my disappointments a reflection of the novel’s innate qualities and failures? Or because I wanted one thing, and was served another.

A year removed, I would argue that A Dance with Dragons is a good-to-great novel, and a poor-to-okay addition to A Song of Ice and Fire. Some of Martin’s best writing happens in A Dance with Dragons, from his improved prose, to Reek’s chilling character arc. Equally, some of Martin’s weakest writing happens here, like Dany’s insipid behaviour as she treads water, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to her, or bloated descriptions of attire and banquets. Thirty years from now, however, a new reader will discover Martin’s series in a bookshop (or whatever passes for a bookshop, should they no longer exist) and she will devour the series, gobbling up all the goodness found in Martin’s seven (or eight) volumes. During the middle portions, she’ll hit something of a bit blip, her enthusiasm might wane, but she will push on, and reflect on that period as a necessary evil for the series, the first tip of the boulder that sets of the avalanche that happens in the following volumes. Or so I like to think. Hope.

[I]t’s flawed and fascinating, overlong, but dense with riveting relationships and a labyrinthine plot.

Was A Dance with Dragons the best novel last year? No, it wasn’t. Is it the best on the Hugo shortlist? No, it isn’t. Will I vote for it? No, my vote will go to Walton’s wonderful Among Others. But I think there’s an argument made, one that might be unfair to Grant, Corey, Walton and Mieville, that A Dance with Dragons is to George R.R. Martin as The Departed is to Martin Scorsese — it’s flawed and fascinating, overlong, but dense with riveting relationships and a labyrinthine plot — and, for an author robbed of a Hugo in 2001, when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one of the weaker volumes in J.K. Rowling’s equally enormous Harry Potter series, won ‘Best Novel,’ would it not seem just for Martin to finally get his hands on the Hugo he deserves by taking home the prize with one of his weaker volumes. Or maybe I am just too fond of irony.

Early in A Song of Ice and Fire, Tyrion Lannister says, “I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples and bastards and broken things.” And that so succinctly sums up my thoughts on this hulking mess of a book. As Tyrion is compared to Jaime, A Dance with Dragons appears broken against its older siblings, struggling to find its place in the series proper, but, when all is said and done, I think we will look back on it as a volume of transition, change and, most importantly, an ugly duckling that one day proves an important piece to Martin’s magnificent swan.

This article was first published in issue #319 of The Drink Tank, edited by Christopher J. Garcia and James Bacon.

  • Meg July 12, 2012 at 6:40 am

    I think a magnificent swan would be sharp and lean, not drunk and bloated?

    The thing that surprised me about ADWD is the dissonance that things were moving so slowly, like molasses. It didn’t seem like the series is anywhere near its conclusion. Martin is still at the top of his form in terms of character psychology–though I wish he would shake things up a bit and get them out of their old settings and habits (get Jon off the damn Wall please!)

  • Paul (@princejvstin) July 12, 2012 at 7:11 am

    Flawed and fascinating. I think that’s fair.

  • Aidan Moher July 12, 2012 at 7:14 am

    That’s the thing about ugly ducklings, Meg. They look like one thing, and turn out to be something else entirely.

  • Rob B July 12, 2012 at 8:37 am

    This might be the most level headed reaction to the book I’ve seen. I admit I may have been overly glowing when I initially read it but it is not a great showcase of Martin’s best efforts. The bright spots are indeed some of the brightest of the series, but Dany…just Dany.

  • Justin July 12, 2012 at 9:00 am

    Really? I didn’t see any real bright spots outside of the Theon stuff, Rob. But I think we can all agree the Dany sections were extremely weak.

  • Rob B July 12, 2012 at 9:18 am

    I thought -most- of the Tyrion stuff was very strong, I liked the Jon stuff, the Barristan Selmy stuff. Maybe part of my enjoyment of the Tyrion chapters was his absence in the previous volume.

  • Ross July 12, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Wow that was a very heartfelt post my friend! I remember when I was maybe 13 I was at a summer camp reading an R.A. Salvatore book when some kid came up to me and said: “Dude do you like Fantasy? Well then you need to put that trash down and check this guy out…” (Martin) Like most readers, once I dipped my toe in the pond that is A Song of Ice and Fire I was hooked. I think it’s cool that Martin went mainstream. It’s like when you’re favorite band becomes recognized by everyone else you can’t help but feel a little bitter, but I think this was inevitable. On the bright side of things, when I announce to a room “winter is coming” a few people now know what I’m talking about;) Great post.

  • WHM July 12, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    I agree that this is a solid, fair view of the book and one that is close to my own on an emotional level.

    On my blog I outline a more spirited defense of A Dance with Dragons that came from stepping back a bit. To summarize: I think it makes sense that Dany and Jon are going to get bogged down at this juncture. Martin is ruthless in his exposure of character through the lens of realpolitik. Dany and Jon are charismatic and intelligent but also young and not as ruthless as they need to be. That’s what the whole point of this volume of the tale is.

    Plus even in A Dance with Dragons, Martin is still putting more pieces on the board and taking more off and twisting them about more than you’re going to find in almost any other work in the genre.

  • Malena July 12, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Storm of Swords was a tough act to follow. I am waddling through Feast for Crows only because there are still potent stories gripping me, but I am a bit squeamish about tasting Dance. I have read every review I could get hold of, and talked to those who have read it already. Everyone has the same complain: “ too much Dany, too little of X, Y and Z (depending on their favorite character.)” My love affair with Daenerys Stormborn was way over by the end of Clash of Kings. I wonder if the same has happened to Martin. Maybe she has lost her magic for him, but being such an important character, he insists on giving her the center stage

  • Tony S. July 12, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    I think you’re being too negative. A Dance with Dragons is a very successful book. Martin actually redeemed himself from the mess that was A Feast for Crows. The fan base will continue to grow and Martin will continue to have a cash cow in A Song of Ice and Fire for as long as he wants to keep it going. And, in my opinion, that chapter when Daenerys Targaryen first rode Drogon was one of the most exciting in the whole series.

  • Paul Weimer (@princejvstin) July 12, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    I do think that things changed for the series after A Storm of Swords. But we might all have to take the long view once the series is complete.

  • Noldorimbor July 12, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    I must be the only person on the internet that loves A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons without any “but”s. It also seems I am the only person on earth who wasn’t bored with Dany chapters in ADWD, I found myself quite willing to read the next Dany chapter in fact. For me Jon was the boring one..but not so boring to make me want to “skim over pages “or “just read what happens on wikipedia” or post angry threads on various forums.

    How much one waits between books certainly has a role on it. I never had to wait for more than a month for ADWD, so I never had imaginative storylines growing in my head – except The Wall being destroyed and Rickon coming riding Shaggydog screaming “The North remembers”, of course!- so I wasn’t crying for Dany to get back to Westeros as fast as she can. Now however, I find myself building my own plot for the last 2 books, and I knew it’s a dangerous path that will result in me hating The Winds of Winter 4 years later, so I decided to stop thinking about what I suspect / want/ guess will happen. I found this blog instead and now am exploring lots of other good books that I never knew existed… :)

  • Aidan Moher July 12, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    I found this blog instead and now am exploring lots of other good books that I never knew existed…

    That’s music to my ears, Noldorimbor. Thanks for coming by!

  • Elfy July 12, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Excellent review and very measured, it’s not dissimilar to my own view of the book. Also glad to see your’re getting behind Among Others for the Hugo, it’s my pick, too.

  • Michael Sulivan July 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    Hey, Aidan, I just wanted to stop by and tell you how exceptional I thought that last paragraph was.

  • Hilary July 13, 2012 at 11:49 am

    A well written review, but not one that I agree with at all (except the part about being an entrenched fan, with which can definitely relate). While ADWD frustrated me and while I wanted to strangle Daenerys pretty much the entire book, I believe her character arc was supposed to be frustrating. I wasn’t Martin’s writing that was weak – it was Dany’s attitude and actions that were weak. I believe that Martin fully intended Dany’s storyline to be grating and frustrating for the readers. It’s all part of the fallibility of the characters that makes ASOIAF so fascinating. I understand that many readers were unhappy because so many questions were left unanswered and many favorite characters acted irresponsibly, but that doesn’t make the writing weak or the story less compelling. Don’t get me wrong – I was intensely irritated with Dany and Jon and Tyrion for almost the entire book. In fact, ADWD was probably the most aggravating to read of all the books so far. But in retrospect, I realized that ADWD consumed my mind far longer than any of the other books in ASOIAF and has become one of my favorite in the series so far. In my opinion, ADWD showcases Martin’s genius.
    While I know the readers wanted some resolution after waiting so many years, I tried to remember that ADWD is one part of a greater story – and a vital, fascinating part of the story. Not a weak second half of a second act, but a brilliantly executed (albeit exasperating) bridge that will lead us into the climactic third and final part of ASOAIF.
    I enjoyed reading Stefan’s (who is a German blogger and often writes essays for Tower of the Hand) A Dance With Dragons Re-Read Project, which is a fantastic summary and commentary and gave me additional insight into the actions of the characters and their reasoning. You can check out his re-read here: http://adwd-reread.blogspot.com/. I wholeheartedly agree with Stefan – ADWD is a work of art.

  • Joseph July 13, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Such a great example of your milage may vary. I think Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the best of that series, and A Dance with Dragons is Martin’s second best book.

  • sf September 3, 2012 at 1:22 am

    I think it’s the best one tied with ASoS. I think it’s in a style that most people aren’t used to. It reads more like a Russian epic then a conventional novel. To me this makes it better and more satisfying.

  • […] A Dance with Dragons, A Year Later (originally published in The Drink Tank) […]

  • […] contribution to this collection is an essay/critique of A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin, where I analyze how fervor and anticipation can be the enemy of objectivity and fair reviewing […]

  • ann May 5, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    i find the games of thrones fascinating but unfortunately I became dienchanted by the many scenes of sexual depravity which detracts from the essence of the theme. also, I became bored and started to skip pages and wondered why the starks are being eliminated one by one and what purpose did bran serve by being a skinchanger and greenseer when he could not change events or help his siblings,

  • speedy June 27, 2013 at 6:54 am

    I start reading “dance with dragons” , expecting to read a book about Weasternos …maybe the story of Dany, keeped aside for 5 books from the Westernos’story, like aces in Martin’s slive, will at last be united with the main story…maybe at least I will start getting some answers…who is Jon? how did Cate suvived?..
    I wasn’t disapointed like other readers that my favorite characters turned bad , it is was what fascinated me about this book, the reality that good people , pushed on the right buttons can do horrible things..I wasn’t angry that the story doesn”t really goes as I expected to go..,maybe Jon is dead, maybe the Starks will be extinct…life usualy does not go how WE want it to go…

    but what REALLY dispointed me is that at the end, I realized I did not read o book about Westernos. The ” dance..” is all about other words, with other plots and other characters (LOTS and LOTS), fascinating of course, like all Martin’s writting, BUT NOT ABOUT WESTERNOS.
    …and I’m getting really frustrated to keep start reading storys that never ends…

    so, next book, I will not be in such a hurry to read it (Martin for sure is not in a hurry to write it).Maybe I” ll wait until the hole series will be printed (if ever..)

  • Casey October 28, 2013 at 8:36 am

    I used to agree with you on this subject, until I read this guys riveting essay on the book.


  • […] fiction essays, commentaries, and reviews from around the internet. I was pleased to contribute my own essay on George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with […]

  • JARH February 25, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Goblet of Fire is a “weak” book? Your not a HP fan, aren’t you? I tought the first three books in George’s series were great, but the last two… I mean, does something happen in those 2500 pages?

  • Anna February 25, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    Hillary. Amazing response. I agree and I believe in all of the 7 hells that the climax will prove your point.