Cultural Reading: George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons

The last book I purchased on the day of its release was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, fitting given Friday’s release of the final installment of the film adaptations of that series.

I remember going to my local grocery store early in the morning and picking up a copy, and then returning home to do nothing but read for the remainder of the day. I finished that book in just eight hours of reading, writing a live blog and a full review by the time the day was done.

That did not happen with George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons. Yes, I went out to get the book early in the morning, and I returned home and spent most of the day reading. However, this is not a book that can be consumed properly in a single day (at least for me), and it’s also something that I feel less comfortable evaluating as I read along. A few people have tweeted asking me for my opinion, but this particular book sort of confounds our traditional evaluation methods for literature.

This is mainly because the book is functioning as a chronological sequel to one book and a narrative sequel to another: despite coming after A Feast for Crows, it is picking up from A Storm of Swords. While I reread the end of A Storm of Swords to refresh myself on where we last left these narratives, there are nonetheless parts of A Dance with Dragons that pick up on story threads that were vaguely referenced in A Feast for Crows, which draws attention to the parallel narratives unfolding.

I don’t raise these as flaws so much as complications, especially to trying to offer initial impressions. While I am certainly enjoying the book, I sort of hesitate to make any broader statements given the myriad of variables within the current narrative structure. However, since many of you have asked for some thoughts on the novel and because shutting off my critical instincts for an entire 1100-page tome is nigh impossible, I plan on dropping in with some daily thoughts on my progress. Nothing evaluative, and nothing too complicated, but just a dialogue.

One ground rule, though: do not, under any circumstance, discuss or even gesture towards things I have not yet read. I’m going to include the page number that I am on, and I don’t want any details or even vague references to future events. I don’t even want “Oh, just you wait” style comments. I realize this could limit discussion, but I want to try to remain spoiler-free for the book, and I currently know extremely little about where the story is heading (or, rather, I know only what the book has led me to believe).

[Note: Spoilers for A Dance with Dragons, up to page 306, after the jump.]

Day One | Page 306

One Step Removed

With Jon, Dany and Tyrion as our main point-of-view characters thus far in the novel, the internal dialogue so central to Martin’s writing style threatens to feel a bit repetitive. Jon, honor bound to his post as Lord Commander, debates whether or not he should have taken Stannis’ offer to give up the Black and take Winterfell as his own. Dany, honor bound to ruling over Meereen, wonders whether she should have simply left the city sacked and headed for Westeros. Tyrion, still haunted by the circumstances surrounding his father’s death, keeps asking anyone he meets where the whores go as Tysha’s memory rattles around inside his brain. At every stage in their personal journeys, these three characters are faced with situations that force them to dwell on the past, all while headed down what appears to be a dark road.

Arguably, all three characters are also dealing with situations out of their control. Jon, not officially part of the war effort, can only give Stannis advice and watch as he has to feed/clothe/protect the consequences. Dany, although doing her best to hold control of Meereen, sits in her palace while shadowy figures hunt her men, cities conspire against her, and Drogon roams the countryside hunting both beast and man. Tyrion, although having successfully pieced together the mission he is a part of with Griff and Young Griff, is still a small pawn within a larger scheme perpetrated by Illyrio and Varys. While all three characters are undoubtedly important, and are among my favorites in the entire series, they are more subjects than leaders in their current positions – even this late in the series, they remain pieces in the game of thrones, limited in their agency.

This is perhaps no more apparent than in “Reek,” Theon Greyjoy with a few less fingers and toes, who is being used in a far more vicious sense. Tyrion may not be having the skin peeled off his fingers, and Jon might still have all of his toes, but they are all at least one step removed from the primary decisions driving this conflict. Dany, meanwhile, is the piece that absolutely everyone wants to use, which the book has played up nicely by keeping her isolated from almost all of it. With news of her dragons spreading wide and far, and with more suitors than she could possibly handle, Dany is considered the key to victory even as she languishes in an unwinnable war to keep her adopted city safe.

The idea of certain characters as victims of the once-eponymous game of thrones was something that the television adaptation really focused on, and I think it’s a key component of this particular story. Quentyn is perhaps the best example of this, a young prince who has the entire fate of his people (and the pressure of his father) on his shoulders in a foreign land. Unlike Aegon, who is in a similar position, Quentyn lost much of his escort, leaving him that much more vulnerable to the volatile nature of this situation. Not only are all of these characters subject to a game being played by a different generation, but they are also all fighting for a different cause. Aegon and Quentyn can’t both marry Dany, just as Stannis and Aegon couldn’t share the Iron Throne. Something has got to give in this scenario, and the juxtaposition between these different perspectives has drawn that out nicely.

For now, the book thrives on its reliance on second-hand information. Whether it’s Theon infiltrating Moat Cailin, or Davos smuggling himself into White Harbor, or Tyrion and Haldon going ashore for information, we are very rarely at the heart of major decisions. The one exception, Stannis’ time at Castle Black, is told through the eyes of a character who has only limited control, and whose inner dialogue constantly reminds us (and himself, really) that he must pick no side and play no active role. Despite this, though, the novel has maintained a great sense of momentum, and even as the characters have simply traveled further down the path the novel laid out for them Martin has managed to emphasize how the inevitable remains compelling when you focus on how the reality of it all is handled by those who are either made responsible or who choose to make themselves responsible for the situation at hand.

Cultural Observations

  • I will say that Tyrion’s inner-dialogue is bugging me a bit: I get that he’s obsessed with Tysha, but the constant return to the crossbow sound and Tywin’s last words has made him seem more one-minded than usual. I like the juxtaposition between his steely wit and his inner turmoil, but the turmoil’s a bit repetitive.
  • I had honestly forgotten what had happened to Theon, so piecing together the first Reek chapter was a fun realization. I did, though, immediately jump to the logical conclusion that Theon was going to be a wrench in the “Pass Jeyne off as Arya” plan, so I’m excited to see where that goes.
  • It’s maybe a BIT too cute a parallel that Aegon was “saved” much as Mance’s son has been saved by Jon – not a bad parallel, really, but just a bit too convenient.

Day 2 | Page 605

What’s in a Name?

This will be a shorter update, in part because I’ve already written 4500 words today and thus haven’t had time to actually do any reading – that is going to change this evening, but I wanted to make a quick point before I charge on.

I think it was in A Feast for Crows that Martin first started shifting around chapter titles, although I might be wrong in that. I certainly don’t remember them before that, although my mind may be playing tricks. Nonetheless, when we start to think of A Feast for Crows and a Dance with Dragons as one larger story (as it was intended, of course), we see the pattern. Sansa masquerading as Alayne, Arya taking the name of Cat (and then Blind Beth), Ramsay losing his “Snow,” Jon choosing to keep his own, Aegon taking on the name of Griff (itself a false name for his Lord protector), Quentyn taking on the name of Frog, Jeyne taking on Arya, and finally Theon taking on Reek. I’m actually probably missing a few, but I spoke of not having time and spending it listing off countless more examples seems somewhat fruitless.

Theon’s chapters have been particularly interesting, and I’m quite captivated by how Martin is using chapter titles and inner dialogues to slowly reclaim the character from the depths of despair. The way the chapter titles shift in turn with his position is reflected (or at times contradicted) by what he calls himself: where once Martin avoided his former name entirely, now the third person “Theon” is widely used and becoming more common with each chapter. We are not truly able to see Theon regaining some of what once made him human, and that which was lost in Ramsay’s care, but we are reading it through the words Martin uses both in a broad sense (with the chapter titles) and in terms of the nature of the third person narrative. It’s a fine way to tell a story, and it’s made the Theon point-of-view chapters into highlights even if the actual content can occasionally seem a bit removed from where the story has the most momentum.

And let’s be clear: there is plenty of momentum. I don’t want to get into spoilers and speculation, but I spend a lot of time referring to the maps at the front of the book and trying to piece together where the story goes next. The sheer number of pieces in play has made that a particular challenge, but it has never felt overwhelming, and the utter satisfaction of the moment where the narrative of this book caught up with the one of the last made the story more brand without spreading it too thin. Our knowledge is just enough to make us knowing, smirking as characters make assumptions we know to be false, but still too few to make us feel that we needn’t keep guessing. Every turn is both predictable and shocking, logical but confounding, and it has done much to make reading the book an enjoyable experience.

So enjoyable, in fact, that I must return.

Cultural Observations

  • As I noted on Twitter, there is no greater thrill than turning the page to discover which point-of-view chapter is next – it’s why I always prefer them on even-number pages, so as to avoid seeing the name before I’m finished the chapter before. However, I will say that nothing could have dampened by enthusiasm at seeing “The Blind Girl,” not even that it was on an odd-numbered page.
  • It’s a simple thing, really, but introducing another dwarf character whose name we learn and whose story is shared is a really important bit of character-building for Tyrion, and his relationship with Penny has been a bright spot.
  • I’ll probably talk more about this when I finish the book, but my mind is always racing with “How will they adapt this questions,” especially in terms of missing limbs. I have to presume they’ll let Theon keep his fingers, although the skin on them seems like it will remain flayed.
  • I haven’t been counting, but it feels like we’ve had far fewer Bran chapters than any others. It’s the one story that Martin has done very little to connect to the main narrative, although I do like what we’re learning about the trees and the ravens and everything else in between. Intriguing chapters, and ones I’m invested in, but they feel like diversions more than any others.

Day 3 | Page 860

Martin’s Mysteries

When I was rereading through parts of the earlier books in Martin’s series, in the afterglow of the HBO show’s successful first season, I found myself lamenting the inevitable death of true mystery.

Now, Martin does not predicate his stories solely on mystery, but the nature of his storytelling methods means that you often lose track of the fate of different characters, only stumbling back upon them later in the story. As I’ve been reading along in A Dance with Dragons, these moments have been among the more thrilling, as Brienne rides up to greet Jaime or we suddenly return to Asha after presuming she had been killed during the attack on Deepwood Motte.

These mysteries can survive, albeit at a narrative cost. Brienne’s shocking return could probably be salvaged, leaving a mystery as to her whereabouts but nonetheless framing her survival as an end-of-episode shocker, but Asha’s survival would require abandoning Stannis for such a long period of time that it would prove infeasible. It would become a shorter mystery, is all – instead of lasting for multiple chapters, it would probably last for just the week between episodes.

In other instances, though, the mystery might be more difficult to maintain. Can, for example, the television show actually abandon Dany for such an extended length of time as everyone debates her fate? Or will they have to show us the princess and her dragon, wherever they might be located? Also, some of the mysteries exist only in the realm of fiction, as the visual component would ruin them immediately. Arstan Whitebeard turning out to be Ser Barristan shocked me in the books, but it would be plain from the moment we met Whitebeard in the series. The same can be said for Abel and his washerwomen turning out to be Mance and his spear-wives. Yes, I should have figured the Mance/Abel thing out immediately, but I was slow, and when I realized it there was this thrill of seeing a plan come together.

I don’t want to dwell on the problems of adapting this story, because Martin cannot (and should not) write with that in mind. This is his world, and thus far the novel has done a tremendous job of building and maintaining momentum through the choice of perspectives. However, as the perspectives become more plentiful (as they have now that the entire group of characters have become part of the story with the South back in play), A Dance with Dragons becomes more and more predicated upon isolation as a narrative technique. Sometimes the perspectives are less about the person whose eyes we’re seeing through and more about forcing us to wonder about the characters they’re not able to see (or that they don’t know are even there). This isolation, though, is something the show won’t be able to do to the same degree, which is going to create a much larger gap in narrative technique than in previous novels.

This is something I had sort of remembered from earlier novels, don’t get me wrong, but it seems particularly potent here – effective, without a doubt, but effective in a distinctly literary fashion.

Cultural Observations

  • Given the fundamental lack of Bran chapters, I feel as if we’ll be ending the book with one, but don’t tell me otherwise.
  • Seeing some definite parallels between Bran and Arya: Bran is the faces in the trees, while Arya is the faces in the crowds.
  • At this point, is Sansa/Littlefinger the only major narrative thread from A Feast for Crows that we haven’t picked up yet? One of the things that has really driven home the sense of mystery is waiting to see how the POV characters from Feast re-enter the picture, and I’d say Sansa is the biggest wild card at this point – sure, we haven’t seen Aeron at all, but I wasn’t invested enough to feel like we’re missing too much, and Victarion was the more logical choice in terms of the brothers.
  • I will be finishing up the novel this afternoon – will likely be writing some brief thoughts on the conclusion here before tackling the novel as a whole.

Day 4 | Page 959


Should I ever meet George R.R. Martin, I shall hold him over a cliff and ask him how HE likes it.

Review forthcoming.

[A reminder: do not hint towards future events in any capacity. I realize this could limit comments, but I’m not willing to risk people (myself included) being spoiled against their will.]


Filed under A Song of Ice and Fire

21 responses to “Cultural Reading: George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons

  1. JC

    I’ve quite enjoyed the little bits of history scattered throughout these early chapters, particularly with Tyrion as he traveled with Ilryio down the old Valryian road, and as he traveled down the Rhoyne with the Griffs. The books have always had a strong sense of some kind of glowing, mythic past, and I think that’s very much apparent as Tyrion contemplates the old hills that may have spawned the Andals, or the ruined beauty of Nymeria’s ancient castle. Nymeria’s castle in particular made me think what the people Westeros/Essos, a thousand years in the future, will think of this story, and how the story that we see will be distorted, adjusted, interpreted into the myths and legends of a new world.

  2. Jon snow

    so far the writing is on par with ASOS but the story isn’t a’s fast paced. Read just a few chapters less than you

  3. lylebot

    I’m at a similar point as you (on day 2). I think this book and the previous are revealing what the whole series is about: the world changing from a late medieval feudal society to something new and different. The characters that were most at home in the old world (Ned, Robert, Tywin) are all dead. Their spiritual (and actual) heirs (Robb, Cersei, Stannis) are dead or on the fast track to death. Meanwhile Dany, freeing the slaves, and Jon Snow, bringing Wildlings under his command of the (pseudo-)meritocratic Night’s Watch, represent a rising tide of egalitarianism. Jaime, with his increasing use of diplomacy rather than fighting to resolve disputes, represents a shift to a world where money and information are more powerful than strength and steel.

    And who’s going to hold the real power in this new world? Seems clear to me that it will be the people that understand economies (Littlefinger, maybe Tyrion) and the flow of information (Varys, maybe the Citadel).

    I could end up being totally wrong, of course. But the seeds seem to be there. I’m now having serious doubts that the series is going to end with a winner of the Game of Thrones, as opposed to ending the game altogether.

  4. Duvall

    Heh. Still, as cliffhangers go, this one seems pretty obvious.

  5. meera_reed

    One thing I found funny is the overwhelming critical praise for the book (Time, NYT, etc) but at the same time the -real- fans at places like ASOIAF forums seem pretty dissapointed. books 1-3 to me were largely their own functioning book and were masterpieces. AFFC was a step down and I feel ADWD is more like AFFC than the first 3. too bad

    • I’m more with the critics than the “real” fans on this one, I’d say – AFFC remains an awkward thing, but ADWD fares much better.

      • I’d hate to think I’m not a “real” fan!

        There’s some fans at the ASoIaF forums who have one conception of what the series is, and there’s some fans who have quite a different conception. In general, considering critical reviews plus aggregates at places like GoodReads, the ones who are the loudest tend not to actually be genuinely representative of the broader consensus of the merits of the books.

        I love my forum and the community, but we’re a very peculiar bunch, we die-hards.

        For my part, the book sits right about in th

        • Hah. Didn’t notice I forgot to actually finish this. ‘… right about in the middle’ of the books in terms of quality. Not as got as the 1st and 3rd, but I’m more sure now it’s better than the 2nd and 4th. Not that there’s some vast gulf between them.

    • garik16

      The reason for the divide is due in large part due to how the book works. The book, more so than AFFC, is a delight and a constant shocker/stunning piece of work throughout really. There are little moments where you can catch your breath.

      However, ADWD doesn’t end when you think it would…it ends somewhat abruptly on multiple plotlines.

      The difference here is how critics and fans think. Critics have said this “leaves you wanting more” while fans have been more upset, because well they wanted a clearer ending in those plotlines, even if there were cliffhangers – especially given the wait for this book.

      I’m more in line with the fans (I also have a problem with what I find to be a massively out of character moment in one character’s final chapter) here, but I get where it comes from.

      (I happen to have really liked AFFC btw).

      • What character are you thinking of, I wonder? Rather curious.

        It’s absolutely true that the novel ends a little earlier than GRRM would have wanted — he had to drop a couple of sequences that he wanted in there, just because the book was pushing the limits of publication and he couldn’t squeeze it in any smaller. So he admits that the cliffhanger balance is a little off. I’m not sure what leads to the fannish dramatics, but so it goes!

        • garik16

          I’m gonna leave out my critique of that character decision till Myles’ review (I don’t have a Westeros account – god knows I could post on there all day, and I don’t need the distractions), as I reread the book again.

          ANd yes I know GRRM dropped a few sequences, but the ones he has mentioned as moved to Winds were not the ones that would really….add much to “finish” Book V (It seems like they react to Young Griff’s actions, rather than the situation I’m talking of).

          I have no problem with how that situation came about (this is why I like the book) – it would’ve been out of character of GRRM and this story for it to resolve itself so easily. But the situation is ridiculously unresolved and several characters who were approaching it to begin the book….still haven’t gotten there.

          Essentially I expected a climax that never came.

        • garik16

          I posted my problems with ADWD, and the character in question, here:

          The 2nd part talks about the out-of-character ending to that character, which annoyed me a good bit.

  6. meera_reed

    My thing is that the Tyrion storyline in like 11 chapters, when you compare how much happens to Tyrion in less chapters in ASOS or ACOK is dissapointing. Same for Jon and Dany but less so in Dany’s case. Jon in ASOS goes through an entire wildling adventure AND ends with the battle for the wall. If that happened now ADWD would be all about Jon’s adventures with Mance and end before the battle. If ACOK was like ADWD there would be 4 Renly POVs about marching to KL ending with him dying and no blackwater battle. I still think the Theon POV was the best done. Davos and Bran too. Essos storylines were largely dissapointing. Tyrion never meets Dany, Victarion doesn’t get to Dany, quent dies? I think GRRM has lost the ability to tell a condensed story – part of what makes me feel ASOS is one of the best books Ive ever read is how much story he is able to fit into it.

  7. the poster who was promised

    This was a good review I thought that was more critical

  8. AO

    My copy finally shipped this morning! 🙂

    (frikkin, frakkin, delays, &^%$)

  9. Just finished the book. Did not put together that Abel was Mance, thanks for enlightening me haha

  10. Grayson

    I liked the book, but I also liked Feast, and both were very similar. They were suppose to be one book, so that was expected.

    I dont think Marting will be able to finish the series in 7 books. 4 had to turn into 2 books. Dance had to have sequences cut out because it got too big.

    I think the biggest flaw in the book was Dany. Her chapters were boring, and she was too passive. I would’ve liked more Barristan chapters and less Dany because Barristan at least remembers events from the past, which I find interesting. Likewise there was too much Tyrion. Less Tyrion chapters could’ve left space for Brinne (post Feast) or Jaime.

    Theon was definately the POV MVP of the book for me. I wanted more Theon chapters.

    Manderly was the non POV MVP of the book. Such a great addition to the already large cast. Did anyone else figure out what the “pork” pies were?

  11. Meera Reed

    I’ve come to the realization that I should give up hope for Myles ever actually writing a review. he would rather write a 8000 word treatise on AGT (i kid, i kid)

  12. Interesting thoughts as always. I finally finished myself and posted my review of Dance. Warning: lots of spoilers inside.

  13. Pingback: Cultural Reading: George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons [Review, w/ Spoilers] | Cultural Learnings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s