There are a number of ways in which George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons has been defined by its circumstances rather than the text itself.
It became almost a book of prophecy, initially intended to arrive soon after the last book (A Feast for Crows) but then entering into an endless series of delays. It was promised but never delivered, all the more problematic given that it was meant to hold the answers we had been waiting for. It was positioned as the second half of a larger whole, a continuation of a novel now over a decade old, and on some level an apology for a novel that some felt moved too far astray from the story they wanted to see.
The book’s challenge, in true fact, has nothing to do with these circumstances; in fact, the book’s greatest challenge is making it seem as if these circumstances do not even exist. More than ever before, Martin’s task is to get us lost in the world of Westeros and the lands beyond the Narrow Sea, to make us forget that we haven’t visited them for what based on some commentary has been an eternity. While the novel’s intertextual links to the book’s predecessors will remain, a reminder of what expectations have been placed before the text, it would be unfortunate if this book felt like an “answer” in any fashion. It instead needs to feel like its own statement, a statement not in response to criticism but in defiance to expectation.
I’d argue that Martin has managed this task. Although the novel’s odd position results in some issues with balance, strong thematic ties bind these stories together and fall into familiar rhythms that only gather more momentum as the book hurdles along. It is satisfying in every way I wanted it to be, and dissatisfying in every way that Martin intended it to be, ending on a note of utter disarray that nonetheless makes the novel (and its predecessor) feel whole.
I wrote all of this before diving into the discussion of the novel online, discussion that then made me incredibly self-conscious about the above. Now, it isn’t that I started to doubt my opinion: my reaction to the book has not changed upon reading these comments, and in some ways I feel more confident now then I did a week ago (when I liveblogged my reading experience). However, I have become wary of writing a larger review when it appears inevitable that I will be positioned as an apologist for having no large-scale problems with the narrative that Martin has put forward. I have my complaints, some of which I’ve seen bandied about, but the central complaints I’m reading about the novel are things that never really occurred to me.
It reminds me of when both Battlestar Galactica and Lost had their divisive series finales, both of which I enjoyed even while I had my quibbles with each. I’d be discussing the Lost finale with someone who hated it, who felt it shit on everything they loved about the show, and I’d sit there explaining why I felt absolutely none of those emotions and was satisfied. After having numerous such discussions, it became clear that we simply viewed the story differently, were watching for different things and for different reasons.
So when it came time to sit down and truly tackle A Dance with Dragons, it started with a question I didn’t want to be asking: could it be that I have been reading A Song of Ice and Fire wrong all this time?
[NOTE: There will be NO HOLDS BARRED spoilers for the entire novel. Admittedly, I'm vague about some details and probably won't ruin every twist and turn, but I'm still forbidding anyone intending on reading A Dance with Dragons from reading.]
“Am I Reading it Wrong?”
I’m aware that seems like an absurd question, and as a critic I don’t feel self-conscious about my personal reading of the novel (which is, after all, personal), but a narrative emerged in the comments on my live blog that gave me pause. Someone suggested that “critics,” like those in the New York Times or TIME Magazine, were in love with the book while fans seemed to be comparatively (and relatively) dissatisfied. As someone who spent the entire first season of the HBO series mediating these two roles, a “fan” of the novels who happened to be a television critic, I got sort of caught up in the idea that my opinion of this novel would somehow mark me as one or the other, and became fascinated by the idea that liking it would be considered more critical behavior than if I had disliked it.
I want to start with something that was written in more of a critical space, although ThinkProgress’ Alyssa Rosenberg is similarly positioned in that critic/fan space given her writing about the HBO series.
I could go through and discuss a number of Rosenberg’s points, some of which I relate to and others I found a bit surprising, but I want to focus on one in particular:
But while I though certain parts of A Dance With Dragons were profoundly moving and very effectively structured, the novel as a whole left me with grave concerns that Martin has a coherent master plan to bring the story to a manageable conclusion. I’d expected that this would be the point in the series when events—if not Martin’s world as a whole—would start to contract and gain momentum as the story moves towards a central conflict.
This is a common refrain, especially for television critics: we hear it all the time, this discussion of a “master plan” that writers should have before embarking on any type of serialized narrative. It’s designed to reassure us that the writers aren’t just making it up as they go along, that every move they make is a calculated effort towards providing a satisfying conclusion.
And I think it’s sort of bullshit. In fact, I’ve always felt it was sort of bullshit.
Now, for the record, I think Rosenberg is perfectly justified in complaining about the breadth of this novel, which does outstretch itself at a certain point (especially once it starts returning to numerous AFoC perspectives). I also understand that the book would be a disappointment if you, like Rosenberg, went in expecting this to be the point where everything started coming together. However, the idea that we should be “concerned” about Martin’s control over this series just doesn’t sit right with me, at least based on my experience with A Dance with Dragons (and, to be fair, my experience with the entire series).
What’s odd is that Rosenberg’s conclusion is where I’ve been all along: she suggests that, to her mind, “the only way to continue reading the novels is to focus your emotional energies on a couple of key storylines and characters,” which isn’t exactly a new concept for me personally. I’ve been reading the series this way from the beginning, taking or leaving certain pieces of information as I see fit. I’d argue that no one outside of the most hardcore of fans pays attention to every single detail, and I’d also argue that even they probably focus their emotional (if not analytical) energies on a few key storylines. I feel everything Martin writes is important to something, but I don’t think it’s important to everything, nor do I think that “everything” is a definitive thing. It’s a relative concept, different for each reader as the meaning of the series becomes mediated through their reading experience.
With Evolution comes Expansion
To me, Martin’s story hasn’t become unmanageable. While there are more characters than ever before, and the books have expanded their focus to new locations, I have never felt that the story has outstretched itself. Now, we could argue that the plot of the novels has become more complicated, perhaps even too complicated, but I think we need to separate story and plot for the purposes of this discussion. Even as the narrative expands, the central themes at the heart of it have not changed, the story remaining consistent even when the plot takes twists and turns. You could list out dozens of different plot threads that Martin follows through point-of-view chapters, but you could just as easily lump most of those together under themes that chart back to the very first novel.
Now, it’s fair to say that some examples of this expansion are less successful than others, although I think even there we’re seeing a kneejerk frustration with expansion without closer consideration. Much of the novel is spent charting the course of three characters on their way to see Daenerys (Tyrion, Quentyn and Aegon), and I’ll admit that the least interesting of the three is the only one who actually makes it to Meereen. Quentyn’s arrival is the ultimate anti-climax, albeit by design: of the three suitors, he was the one who never stood a chance. While Aegon is more exciting and actually a Targaryen, and Tyrion’s counsel could prove a valuable asset (and a meeting of two characters we’ve become attached to who have never met), Quentyn is a quiet and unassuming kid who has nothing to offer but a useless piece of paper.
In truth, I actually quite like Quentyn’s storyline. There is something tragic about this kid and his entourage (already half dead by the time we pick up his quest) arriving in Meereen to find that the quest was futile from the beginning. Say what one will about the Dorne storyline in AFoC (which I often struggle to recall), but I thought Quentyn’s quest did a lot to put the place into greater context. Dorne is, more than any other territory, a piece on a chess board waiting to be used. While Stannis aims to use the North in a similar fashion, the North obviously doesn’t move as one, and has power only when it achieves the unity that the Starks managed (and that neither Bolton nor Stannis could probably achieve). By comparison, Dorne seems like it can act as one, but in a way that requires stealth and strategy as opposed to outright war. It’s the epitome of a “wait and see” approach, waiting for that precise moment to make their move and then hoping that they have made the right decision.
We can see this idea filter throughout the storyline. If Viserys had not gotten himself killed, had he stayed in Pentos while Dany went off with Khal Drogo, maybe it would have worked. And if they had gotten to Dany before she made the decision to settle herself in Slaver’s Bay, perhaps her counsels might have convinced her that his arrival was a sign that she should sail west as soon as possible. As Quentyn struggles with the rejection, and the idea of going home having failed his father, you realize that the Dornish succession is such that he was never supposed to be in this position. The fate of Sunspear wasn’t supposed to be on his shoulders, and the pressure pushes him to do something rash, dangerous, and ultimately suicidal.
However, Quentyn is a case of expansion rather than contraction, of Martin introducing and then following an entirely new narrative this late in the series. Of course, that narrative also reaches a conclusion in this book, which makes it an episodic story that makes a strong case for itself based on the themes it introduces and the way it frames Dorne’s role in the larger conflict. On the first point, this is the book where “the next generation” became more central to the story, with Jon and Dany being central figures while Aegon and Quentyn stake their own claims (and I’ll get to Theon in a bit). They are all of a similar age, and they are all at different stages of independence. Aegon has had every decision made for him, while Quentyn hasn’t had to make decisions; Jon and Dany have each taken on great responsibility they might have never imagined, and they both struggle with what they think is right, what they know is right, and what will keep them alive.
It is true that the book expands well beyond this generation, but I’d argue that they are the heart of this novel, and that their struggle to fight the war their inherited while still struggling to define themselves remains a key throughline in the series as a whole. I also think it’s a story that is broadly relevant for a character like Tyrion, who as a dwarf has more in common with this generation than with his brother and sister’s. I have seen a lot of complaints about Tyrion’s story, which takes up a large chunk of the novel, but I was quite taken with the way he tries to take on a new identity. While I agree that Martin spends a bit too much time using his journey as an excuse for filling in geographical details and dropping in on certain characters, and I certainly wanted him to shut up about where the whores are already, there’s something very meaningful about the character being removed from the environment where he was so defined by his relationship with his family.
I could go on to talk about how Tyrion’s journey becomes a struggle between the new life he is meant to live and ghosts of the past, with Penny offering both a counterfactual glimpse into what his life could have been and a constant reminder of his nephew’s death and his subsequent actions, but I think my larger point is that I’m in this for the characters. I see so many complaints about the fact that “nothing happened” in Tyrion’s storyline, but I don’t see how the journey counts as “nothing.” While Tyrion was removed from the “center” of the plot, if there is such a thing, I think the character benefited from moving to the periphery and coming to terms with his relationship with the Lannister name while living a false identity (a theme common to the books, given Tyrion’s river companions, Arya’s evolution into a Faceless (Wo)Man, Sansa masquerading as Alayne, etc.). There’s something very meaningful about his conclusion, signing his family’s fortune away with the name that he has been running away from for the entire book.
The Daenerys Debate
I had the same basic response to Dany’s storyline, which has perhaps been dealt the most criticism out of any part of the novel. Martin does a fine job of exploring the nature of Daenerys’ power, and the theme that eventually emerges of those who were born into leadership and those who have trained for it. Dany’s choice to stay in Meereen is an effort to prove that she is capable of ruling a people, but she quickly realizes that her rule is tenuous at best. I’ve seen some references to the storyline serving as an Iraq war allegory, which sounds about right given that you could also compare it to Battlestar Galactica‘s New Caprica arc (which was much more overtly allegorical), but I think it also just says something about Dany’s naivete. Dany’s chapters showed the impulsiveness of youth, and how ill-suited it is within an environment like the one she inherited by choosing to stay in Meereen. Her relationship with Daario is the youthful dalliance she should be having at her age were she not a Queen before her time, and her eventual exile with Drogon is yet another step in her journey of self-discovery.
And yet, I’ve seen numerous people suggest that “nothing happens” in Dany’s storyline either. With all due respect to these people, I really wish they’d cut the bullshit and just say they didn’t like what happened in Dany’s storyline, because this is not “nothing.” Martin, admittedly, has done some problematic things with Dany’s storylines that have cultivated this level of resentment towards the character: after a spiritual awakening at the end of A Game of Thrones, Daenerys’ journey has been all potential without much in the way of realization. The dragons are born, but they’re too small to do anything; she receives a prophecy, and then sits around waiting for it to come to fruition; she has a chance to sail West, but she turns it down to free some slaves. The notion of Dany climbing onto a dragon’s back and flying across the Narrow Sea was introduced so early on in the series that every chapter in which she doesn’t do so seems to actively piss people off to the point that an interesting case study about leadership (something that filters through just about every novel in a major way) gets dismissed as “nothing.”
That’s why I’m sort of confused as to how any of this qualifies as “unmanageable,” as I would continue to argue that there are clear thematic parallels that bridge everything together. Martin expanded his focus to Meereen, continuing to flesh out the lands beyond the narrow sea, but the themes are play seem just as relevant to what’s happening in Westeros. The parallels between Jon and Dany are perhaps the most obvious, but Cersei could be another potential parallel for Dany, with Meereen and King’s Landing each proving difficult to ‘contain’ for their female leaders (if we extend back to A Feast for Crows, where Cersei’s battle with the High Septon would logically pair up with Dany and the Harpy, as Elio and Linda pointed out in their overview of the novel at Westeros.org).
The Thrill of Divergence
I remember when the HBO series was airing, and someone confided in me that they had no interest in who ended up on the Iron Throne, expecting that I would give them thirty lashes for being disinterested. However, I don’t necessarily think that I care all that much about that question five books in, which is perhaps why I’m not too concerned when the story moves away the solution to that question. While many of Martin’s POVs are focused on that question, the single most interesting one in the novel has nothing to do with it. Theon Greyjoy, having been transformed into Reek by Ramsay Bolton (nee Snow), has no aspirations towards the Iron Throne, his story instead focused solely on survival. Where the repetition of key phrases grew tiresome for some characters, “Reek, Reek, rhymes with ____” perfectly captured the kind of conditioning necessary to survive the torture he faced, and the way Martin alters the language of the chapters throughout the novel to track his reclamation of his former identity is just brilliant given how hated the character had been before this point.
Stories like that are why I’m perfectly willing to follow Martin on his divergent paths. There is no question that Martin’s focus remains extremely broad, the story expanding widely because he’s a writer who loves to explore: you can tell he doesn’t write with outlines, and I agree there are parts of the book that need an editor. However, I don’t think any of his new paths are digressions or tangents, stories that serve no function but to indulge Martin or to indulge the fans. One could perhaps argue that Aegon is a “game-changer” added just to throw a wrench into things, but I don’t think it truly changes the game at all: there’s a new player, but he fits into our pre-existing expectations and nicely ties into a generation of young leaders who are about to have the future of Westeros on their shoulders (or, in the case of Jon Snow, faced the consequences of that weight earlier than they had expected).
No, I don’t think A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons are as singularly enjoyable as A Storm of Swords, arguably the finest book in the series, but my impression of the series has not changed after reading them. The themes remain consistent, the cast of characters is expanded but in ways that mostly could have been predicted (with perhaps the exception of Aegon), and my excitement for the series’ conclusion remains more damaged by the passage of time than by the actual text in front of me. Perhaps that will render me an apologist, but I read the book much as I read the earlier ones: devouring each chapter, thinking it would be my last, before seeing the name of the next chapter and becoming too curious to possibly put the book down.
That thrill of discovery, of not knowing where Martin might be heading next, is maybe my favorite part of Martin’s series as a whole. The point-of-view character method has just been tremendously useful for this story, and it continues to be a great outlet: using Ser Barristan as another angle into Dany helped add depth to the Meereenese court, while using Asha as an angle into Stannis’ march on Winterfell was a nice way of bridging the two novels that were once one. Through Davos we get to meet Lord Manderly in all his glory, and then through Reek we get to see him play the patsy while plotting war from behind his jowls. The way Martin uses these perspectives to impart and withhold knowledge remains his greatest skill, and I remain kind of shocked that this thrill remains even after five books.
I wonder, though, if it hasn’t also hastened the kind of criticism that these last two books has received. When you’re constantly adding new POVs, and when it becomes natural to isolate each POV as its own separate narrative, the novels become umpteen different stories each begging for a conclusion that, frankly, never comes in A Dance with Dragons. I think there are too many cliffhangers here, something Martin argues is because of some last minute edits that pushed material out of the conclusion, but I also think that the problem of “more POVs” has less to do with the actual story and more to do with the way it influences the reading experience. It separates the novel too broadly in our minds even if thematic links could bridge the stories together, and the lack of much in the way of convergence (especially relative to previous novels) does make for a conclusion that seems designed to draw criticism.
Faith in the “Why”
I guess my point, if I can use the singular in a post this long, is that nothing in A Dance with Dragons made me doubt Martin’s “Why.” I think there are some moments that suggest the “How” might be better served with more editing time and a more organized approach, but the story has not been so far outstretched that a conclusion would be unmanageable. Paired with A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons takes Martin’s characters further astray, but I could always locate the center of Martin’s story, a notion less beholden to plot than to themes that filter throughout that enormous cast of characters. I’ve never been one to get caught up in details within the books, nor have I been overly concerned about the story becoming condensed, centralized, or contracted. Instead, I’ve been reading to discover something about the nature of Westeros, the nature of these characters, and the nature of themes I’ve had in my mind since I first read A Game of Thrones at 15.
And I got that from A Dance with Dragons, leaving me satisfied and excited to see what’s next (and resolved, of course, to waiting quite a while before that happens).
- I enjoy how Martin’s various different reveals would all present their own adaptation strategies to television, some translating directly (like Rattleshirt morphing into Mance) while some becoming immediate where Martin’s are gradual. We would know that it was Jorah who abducts Tyrion in the brothel, just as we would know that Mance was masquerading as Abel at Winterfell. The latter point is something I’ve seen quite a few people get only after reading others discussing it, and I definitely realized it a few chapters before it was first pretty logical and had a “Duh!” moment. On television, though, both of those reveals would shift into instant gratification (and yes, note my use of the hypothetical here, pessimistic as I am that the show would ever last long enough to get to this point).
- I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t get another Bran chapter or two – it’s not as though his storyline necessarily connected with any other timelines, so I sort of feel like Bran was likely one of those final chapters that Martin cut out (although I might be wrong). I loved all of the implications of Bran’s storyline, but they felt like just implications more than I would have liked.
- The prologue/epilogue were interesting bookends – I’ve always been quite taken with his prologue structures, and I like how all of the hyper-specific discussion of Wargs largely fades away in favor of a more subtle exploration of how the Stark children are using their abilities to different degrees. We know that Bran taking control of Hodor is a grey area, but he doesn’t, and I like that Martin leaves it to us to make those connections (a benefit of not having a narrative voice of his own to insert even if he wanted to).
- I’ve already written over four thousand words here, so I’ll leave it to you to ask any further questions if there’s something you want us to discuss within this space – have at ‘er!