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

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

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).

Cultural Observations

  • 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!


Filed under A Song of Ice and Fire

55 responses to “Cultural Reading: George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons [Review, w/ Spoilers]

  1. Jon snow

    you mention tyrion being a bastard – mistake or wild assumption

    • Slip of the keyboard, and not a reference to the Targaryen theory that Martin allegedly feeds in the novel. I think Tyrion is arguably treated as a bastard, having been considered responsible for his mother’s death, but ’twas just a missed detail.

    • quinn

      anyone who takes thi9s long to get to a point should not be published. The biggest problem with writers is that they are all trained to have one big point you make at the end of an extremly long, abhorent process of reading. The reality is multiple key points threaded throughout a story will keep someone interested and those together having an overall premise. This is all filler and even if he gets to his point in book 6 and 7 by now most people dont care……. let me say that again by now most people dont care. His books are equivalent to days of our lives in medeval times. Nothing more than that.

  2. stchoo

    My main issue with the book is that I’m fed up with Meeren. I kept plowing through Dany’s chapters with the faint hope that she would be done with that place by the end of the book. When it became apparent that she wouldn’t be, and that a good deal of the next book would probably still be dealing with the resolution of that situation, I became very frustrated. If they had at least resolved that situation, then I could feel that going into the next book we would finally be getting to the invasion we’ve been waiting for since the end of Game of Thrones.

    Now it wouldn’t surprise me if it wasn’t held off until the last book, and the next book primarily dealt with Aegon’s campaign in Westeros.

    You are right that it has been a waiting game with Danys, one that many are frustrated with. Now we have to wait several years for a resolution to a storyline (Meeren), that many are sick of, and would have hoped would have been dealt with by now.

    • Matt

      stchoo, I agree with you about the Meereen storyline not really working. The problem for me was that I was just not emotionally engaged in the fate of Meereen or its people. That Meereen is clearly just a truck stop on Dany’s road to Westeros (which we will likely never hear about again once she leaves) means that Martin has to put in extra effort to invest us in the place. However, the ex-slavers that Dany is trying to win over are so utterly contemptible that I found myself wishing she would just use one of her dragons to light them all up. The freed slaves are not very well-defined as people either, so while I vaguely wish them well, I don’t really care what happens to them either. The result is that if Meereen (the place I have no engagement with) had just magically evaporated halfway through the book, leaving Daenerys free to start for Westeros (the place that I have been made to care about), I would have been just fine for that.

      I think to really make us care about Meereen, Martin would have had to add A Meereenese POV. I know he has said that he doesn’t want Essos POVs because this is a Westeros story, but you can’t have it both ways. If this is a Westeros story than you can only expect us to care about the Westerosi characters in Essos but not the place itself. If you want us to care about places and peoples in Essos, then you probably need an Essos POV to engage us.

      Still, for me, the fact that I wasn’t engaged by Meereen or its people would not have been a big problem if all those Westerosi players in the game of thrones who were making their way to Daenerys actually made it to her. The whole Meereen arc felt odd because the whole book was building to things – the various Westerosi characters arriving in Meereen, and the war with the Yunkai slavers – but then the book just ends before these things happen. Some people call that a cliffhanger, but to me it felt like the story arc just ended before its climax.

      • stchoo

        I totally agree with you. Meereen is a truckstop. I think the big problem is that GRRM abandoned the timejump. He left Danys in Meereen at the end of the ASOS with the intention that there would be a few year timeskip. In that context, Meereen as a truckstop makes perfect sense. Danys needed to learn how to rule, and it would explain why she didn’t invade during the timeskip.

        Actually having to read about it proved to be something much more different. While reading about the journey of the various players has they try to reach Danys is interesting, having only one reach her, by the end of the book is frustrating, and makes it feel like a delaying tactic.

        I know GRRM has discussed the problems he had with the Meereenese knot, the basically order of the various characters meeting Danys, but the way the book ends, it appears on surface that his way of untying it, was to delay the bulk of the meetings to the next volume. Perhaps because I followed his NotaBlog fairly closely over the last few years, I created an unfair expectation that when he said he had untied it, that it meant we would get to read the results of said untying in ADWDs. I was not expecting him to delay it and put off its resolution to another book.

      • Completely agree. Although I enjoyed the general Meereen storyline a bit more than you seem to have, the story – and in fact the entire book – seemed to end before the climax. Some small part of me still thinks if I turn the page after the awesome epilogue (I am sucker for anything Varys and was waiting for him to reappear), there will be another chapter or two that resolves Meereen. This means that on some level, much like A Feast for Crows, I feel like I cannot judge this book completely without reading The Winds of Winter.

        And I had not noticed that every single POV character (with the sole exception of Areo Hotah I believe) are Westerosi born. We have absolutely been conditioned to care solely about the fate of Westeros, and while the broader world is fascinating, and I loved the glimpses of Essos geopolitics, we are led to believe by the very framing of the story if nothing else that it is, as you put it, a truck stop. And barring one character (the Shavepate), none of the Meereenese really interested me.

        That said, I ate up all of Selmy’s chapters. But that’s mostly because it was Barristan the Bold and not because his chapters revealed anything more special than another perspective (albeit one similar to our own – “HURRY UP AND GET TO WESTEROS; THESE PEOPLE ARE CRAZY”).

        – josh2blonde (now properly logged in)

  3. Daniel

    I’m largely with you. I only started getting some idea of the consensus opinions about the book after I finished it and was pretty surprised to see so much frustration. I guess I can understand why some people grew weary of Quentyn and Victarion and so many others, but the annoyance with Tyrion and Dany really seemed out of left field, and I’d argue their journeys are absolutely central to the wider narrative.

    Tryion simply had to deal with his actions at the end of Storm of Swords, not just the killing of his father, but the coldblooded murder of Shae (Tryion does not realize this, but I think his endlessly repeated question about where whores go is as much about Shae’s soul as about Tysha’s fate). His travels with Penny nicely paralleled those of Jaime and Brienne as did the contrast of the nature of his increasing self-knowledge and his brother’s own journey. ADWD left the character in a far more interesting place than when he started, and largely rehabilitated him beyond the mock-parody into which he intentionally transformed himself into at the end of ASOS.

    As for Dany, the novel finally addressed the question of whether we _should_ be rooting for her. By showing us what type of ruler she intends to become, we have a much better idea of what her reign would mean for Westeros, but Martin is a strong enough writer to ensure we’re still conflicted about the prospect.

  4. Myles, I am glad to see this review because I was so surprised by the general negativity to this book by the fan base as a whole. There has definitely been a dichotomy between traditional critics praising the work and a large segment of the people at the usual and haunts who find it dissatisfying. I wonder if this is just a typical response in this day and age? Do fans who can discuss a work like this for years, form some expectations of the narrative beyond canon, and then deride the work from the onset because it doesn’t match with their expectations? Does being a fan make it harder to appreciate the object of fandom itself?

    Since we are reading “epic” fantasy, there is a segment of people who I can see being annoyed at the lack of “progress”. But, I generally am pleased with the way Martin upends expectations of an epic narrative and usually finds the more realistic storyline . If Dany decides to rule in Merreen at the end of ASOS, she finds she is desperately out of her element now in ADWD. It’s harder to rule than to conquer. It’s harder to control the dragons than to hatch them. I like that we don’t get a cheat with Dany just because she has those dragons and has freed the slaves. Likewise, just because the Prince Doran said Quentyn will unite the Targ rule with Dorne, doesn’t mean it’s that easy. The assumption of the hero’s journey isn’t implicit in the narrative and I feel the work is stronger for it. Of course, this has been a reoccuring theme within the other books and GRRM.

    As for Aegon, while his appearance is a little jarring, I like how this sets up themes for the rest of the novels. Here is a kid who has been bred for rule in the best possible manner. Is he deserving of the Iron Throne because of that? What will Dany do with her power?

    I also felt Tyrion and Jon had great storylines as well. Jon certainly grew up as you lay out in your review and Tyrion had to (again resisting the urge to cheat and just let him be Tyrion again) reconcile his family name and his actions from ASOS.

  5. I certainly fall into the camp of having been wildly disappointed by ADWD. Regardless of whether or not there was any actual forward momentum the way in which the book is structured almost entirely eliminates any feeling of said momentum. We’ve been waiting for Tyrion to meet up with Dany for 6 years? Doesn’t happen. We’ve been waiting for Dany to even make a move towards Westeros for 6 years? Doesn’t happen (in fact, she’s farther away at the end of the novel than when she began). The entire Mereen plot was a loss for me. We’ve spent basically 4 books setting up the action in Westeros (with Dany’s plot as a seperate entity but with an understanding that it will eventually tie in) so to spend an inordinate amount of time on characters and a situation that I feel no involvement with this late in the game was a gross misstep IMHO.

    Theon’s story started and ended well but really seemed to drag in the middle. I got incredibly tired (in this POV and elsewhere) of the repeating themes (Reek, Reek…., where do the whores go, etc).

    Jon’s “death” wasn’t in the least surprising (and hence was a failure as a cliffhanger) for a couple of reasons. 1. He’d spent the entirety of the book pissing off constituents we we already know are willing to kill you if you push them too far. 2. Everyone knows he will be back in one form or another. I’ve yet to meet a single person who actually thinks he is well and truly DEAD.

    All in all the book just offered so little movement that I find it near impossible to believe that these myriad of storylines (which only expanded in this book) can be satisfactorily wrapped up in 2 books. I mean look at how quickly things moved in the first three books compared to the last 2. I’m concerned.

    • The Fool

      I don’t think we were supposed to think he died except in the most obvious sense. The prologue explicitly states both that Wargs jump into an animal after their human bodies die, and that Jon was a powerful but untrained Warg. It’s just the ending point of a tragedy, not a cliffhanger.

    • John

      I agree with most of the comment by mac707. I wouldn’t say I was “wildly disappointed,” as I felt the book was a significant improvement over A Feast for Crows (I really liked the Tyrion, Arya, Berristan, Connington, Asha, Davos and Bran chapters, at least), which was kind of a mess (way too many Cersei and Brienne chapters and the geographic split are the two biggest problems), but mac707’s main point about the lack of movement in the overall plot is dead on. I’m starting to get concerned that Martin won’t be able to get everything done in the final two books. I think Myles is being a little too defensive about people who say “nothing happened.” While he’s technically correct because that’s not true, he’s missing the point. When people say nothing happened, they’re engaging in hyperbole. It’s not true that nothing happened in a literal sense, but relative to the first three books, nothing happened. That is absolutely true. It’s not as bad as A Feast for Crows, but some of these plot lines DRAGGED. Every time I had to read another Daenerys chapter in which she was having her affair with Daario (every scene with him was death, and he can’t betray her fast enough so that Berristan can take care of him) or plan her wedding, I groaned. If not for the presence of one Berristan the Bold, who I think has made her chapters much more enjoyable since he joined her at the end of A Clash for Kings (and Martin’s decision to make him a POV character was brilliant–those were some of my favorite chapters in the whole book), I would have had a hard time getting through them. I was much more interested in the characters traveling to her because I hoped that their arrival would spice things up (and in Quentyn’s case, it did, though he was the only one who actually got face time with her). I felt the same way about yet another chapter in which Jon was settling more Wildlings south of the wall. I don’t have a problem with that plot, it’s just that it felt like Martin could tighten it up by a few chapters. He had the opposite problem with some of his other characters. In addition to important characters like Sansa being completely absent, two of the characters that weren’t in A Feast for Crows at all (Davos and Bran) disappeared halfway through A Dance with Dragons with no explanation. And just two Arya chapters is not nearly enough. I loved all five of her chapters from AFWC/ADWD, but there’s a serious problem when Cersei has more than twice as many chapters over the course of the two books. And speaking of Cersei, is Myles actually equating Cersei and the High Septon with Daenerys and the Harpy? Seriously, Myles? Let’s see. One queen is a genuine villain (I don’t think this is debatable) who is delusional and will resort to just about anything to get her way. The other is somewhat misguided and naive, but she’s an obvious heroine, and she’s genuinely trying to care for her people instead of only caring for herself (her ridiculous affair with Daario notwithstanding). And to compare the vicious, murderous Harpy with the High Septon who finally brings Cersei’s reign of terror to an end (for now at least–I’m worried now that Kevan Lannister is dead) is just indefensible and insulting.

      • My point wasn’t to suggest that they are equals, but rather that their particular efforts to hold onto leadership are equally thwarted by resistance that takes the form of a social or societal organization.

        Obviously, their motivations are different: Cersei craves power and status, albeit in part to protect her family (and, more cynically, her family’s reign), while Dany seeks justice and freedom. However, that doesn’t change the fact that their attempts to maintain control face similar challenges – I don’t see why that necessarily “equates” the two characters, although I will admit that I hardly see Cersei as an out and out villain in the way you seem to imply.

    • Dheep'

      The entire Theon /Greyjoy /Reek Torture left me pretty cold. The Iron Islands & The Greyjoy’s being a Repugnant ,Uninteresting Family (Storyline) ,living in the Bleakest place Imaginable.
      Meereen followed closely 2cnd after a while. Although some of the Developments at the end of ADoD were surprising and interesting.

  6. Maxwell James

    Like the other commenters here I had a very similar experience – enjoyed the book a great deal, if perhaps not quite as much as volumes 1-3, then went online to see fans and ex-fans in states of seething disappointment and anger.

    My sense is that this is the price of genre novels being slowly admitted into the rarefied air of critically-applauded “literary fiction.” And I mean that as a double-edged sword. The core demand of the disappointed fan is that there’s too much going on in the novels that is not directly relevant to the overarching plot – or even worse, holds promise of being relevant but then doesn’t fulfill it. Hence the complaints about Brienne’s “pointless” quest in book 4 and Tyrion’s in book 5.

    But the idea that everything should be relevant – should play into the Great Conflict – is itself a trope of the genre, and of genre fiction in general. I’m not exactly sure why that is; The Lord of the Rings, for instance, is full of lengthy interludes that are almost completely irrelevant to the greater plot. This idea is completely absent from the realm of literary fiction. For instance, in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, there’s a lengthy and incredibly haunting interlude about a Quaker woman whose son was murders and who now can’t stop dreaming about killing the perpetrator. It has absolutely nothing to do with the main plot or characters, and it goes on for some time. If it were a popular genre novel, I expect there would have been a massive fan outcry about how this segment derailed the plot and made the book needlessly complex and meandering.

    Or to take an example that probably was more of a direct inspiration to Martin – War and Peace. I love that book, but it is incredibly long, and it is filled with almost soap-operatic diversions that do a great deal to explore place and character but relatively little to move the overall plot (in terms of the love stories and the war story) along. For example, Pierre’s exploration of Freemasonry takes up a huge part of the second book and is quite funny, but serves mostly to set him off on a almost-purely spiritual journey that could have been achieved with a great deal more efficiency had Tolstoy cared to.

    At the same time, I think GRRM set this trap for himself – in part by being entirely too successful with his plotting through the first three books, and in part by clearly signaling that he wants his series to be seen as a work of literature. Tyrion’s adventures in particular seemed to me to be pretty directly inspired by Huckleberry Finn, including the riverboat journey, the backdrop of slavery and the odd-couple pairing with Penny. Because of his literary ambitions, I suspect Martin has intentionally played it looser with the plot than he originally intended, in order to more fully explore his world and characters.

    The question to my mind is: was Martin successful in advancing his literary ambitions for the series with this book? And there, I’m not sure. That’s partially because as a fan of the series, and having already been sold on the characters in earlier books, I know I’m willing to be more far patient with him than an unbiased reader. I think at this point, he will have to finish the series for anyone to have a really clear sense of whether it worked or not.

    • Couldn’t agree more – the lack of progress really isn’t a problem – in fact it’s an integral part of the realism and historicity of Martin’s work – there is frequently no ‘progress’ in history but that does not stop it being interesting. I think that Tyrion’s story was particularly interesting because the character departed from his quest for survival and instant gratification by any means and contemplated much more what he actually wanted from life and whether he wanted it at all. The sense of impending doom around Jon Snow was powerfully built though the cliffhanger of his obvious non-death is much less interesting that how much of Ramsay Bolton’s letter was truthful. The story in the north became far more unified by the end of this book though politically far more messy. The story in Meereen is also interesting and adds to the richness of Martin’s world though the Barristan chapters were much better that the Daeny ones, mostly as her character seems to have regressed since SoS due to her falling in love with Daario, though again this is very realistic – adolescents become juvenile and one dimensional in love. I would have liked the book to end with a large battle at Meereen with Daeny’s (potential) new Khalasar and the Ironmen rocking up at opportune moments but I will certainly buy the next book for that. I wasn’t any more frustrated by this book than any of the others – I desperately wanted the next one to be here already.

  7. I have a mostly similar reaction, but I was just a bit disappointed in what I think is the fall out from the decision to split books 4 and 5 by character rather than time (full thoughts on my blog). I have the feeling he made things hard on himself with this decision, and it was one created a bit out of both story bloat and perhaps a little burn out on his part (leading him to work on a lot of other things). Still, he remains a stunningly good builder of both characters and worlds, so even “slightly off” Martin is better than 99% of the rest of the genre.

  8. Briefly, since I am at work, I just want to comment on your point about critics now seeming to get flak for liking things MORE than fans (I’ll try to join the discussion of the book itself more fully later). I think most fans develop an intense emotional connection with the work itself, such that when a new entry betrays expectations, it causes a sort of gut reaction along the lines of “No! That is not how it is SUPPOSED to go!” Enjoyment and emotional connection somehow get conflated with ownership of the story or characters for many people. I know when the last Harry Potter came out, my girlfriend at the time threw a fit about a few minor story points that did not resolve as she expected, and no rational discussion would dissuade her. I also think that perhaps when you are a fan AND a critic, you are better able to recognize your own lack of ownership of the material, enabling you to better comment on the basic merit of the creator’s work while limiting expectations (though not tossing them out entirely. That would be silly).

    More later. Great review, Myles.

  9. Well, this is certainly the best discussion of the novel I’ve seen. Thanks, Myles.

    I’ve certainly had to deal with the question of why critics seem to like this book more than some portion of the fan base. Some have put it down to just being a matter of getting the book early, or the notion that professional literary critics are under immense pressure to keep advertisers happy, etc. And I think — very much as joshn2blonde suggests — is that, really, critics (even critics-who-are-fans) haven’t been on tenterhooks for six years, haven’t theorized the hell of what will happen next… or, in other words, they are much less likely to have expectations regarding what will or won’t happen, and consequentially don’t have the same expectation of “ownership” of the story in the way many fans do.

    After having my expectations turned over, for the most part, with the previous two novels, I didn’t enter ADwD with much expectation beyond a firm belief it really was going to be the other half of AFfC, a very thematically-strong book with a deal of development and some direct plot movement. What I got was a slight surprise — it’s less thematically unified than AFfC, I think, but there’s definitely more plot movement to counterbalance it — and at first I was very tenative if I liked it better or not. But after a couple of re-reads, I have to say, my esteem for the book kept rising. There’s a lot of good things in it.

  10. Myles, I pretty much agree with everything you’ve got here. I’m working through my own post, but you’ve hit a lot of my points. I have to say, however, that I saw Tyrion’s journey as an opportunity to ‘put him in his place’ – not only revealing the privilege he’s had in his life so far through his interaction with Penny, but also revealing Westeros’ place in the greater world. In the Sorrows particularly, the fact that much greater worlds than Westeros had risen and fallen to dust and ruin was very strongly illustrated to Tyrion. His journey allowed him to change from an embittered man who was bent only on vengeance to someone who seems more suited to offer advice to the Dragon Queen, someone more likely to be accepted into her service, and someone more dangerous for the knowledge gained along the way. That ain’t nothing!

    I was one of the people who read the book eagerly, enjoyed it greatly, and then heard rumblings of less-than-pleased fans and went looking for complaints and was surprised by them. Not only the complaints, actually, but also the vehemence of them, against aspects of GRRM’s style that have been largely present since Day One of the series. I mean, it’s one thing to feel that the length of some sequences could have been improved upon, but to complain about food descriptions and say ‘we get it, cut ’em out’ is sort of crazy. If you don’t like the author’s writing, why are you reading it?

    And I HAVE been waiting for six years, dying to see what happens. I think it’s a little unfair to suggest, Elio & Linda, that critics are any less inclined to agonize over what’s going to happen or wait on tenterhooks for the next book (or next season) because it’s their job. In my experience, critics are the biggest fans of media, and criticism of media that isn’t as great tends to be more harsh because there’s stuff out there like ADWD, that, while perhaps flawed, is still better and better written than most of the stuff out there.

    I think josh2blonde above may have hit the nail on the head with the matter of expectation. The rise of the internet has really allowed for a stronger sense among fans that they are stakeholders in their entertainment, which has done an immense amount of good in some ways; saving series from cancellation, for example. However, the other side of the coin is entitlement, where fans feel that they can dictate the creative process or even the storyline because they have been loyal, or because they’re owed something by the content creators. I think this is damaging, and a potential ticking timebomb if it takes hold. ‘The customer is always right’ doesn’t necessarily apply to artistic endeavour, and just because a story isn’t going the way YOU think it should doesn’t mean it isn’t going to end well or won’t end at all.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot; thinking it may require academic inquiry.

    • Fair enough, Nicole. It seems to me that one way to explain the division between critics-who-are-fans and regular-fans in their opinions was the level of expectation and perhaps consequential sense of entitlement… but maybe that’s the wrong approach.

      But why don’t critics who have been as expectant for this novel as the “die-hards” who are grousing feel the same entitlement? There must be some difference. Or is it simply that the critics are too small a sample size to really draw any firm conclusions?

      Linda does suggest to me that maybe a large part of it is that George’s work has become more “literary”, so to speak — less plot-driven, more thematic, with a greater leeway given to atmosphere and descriptive prose — than what one perhaps saw in _A Game of Thrones_. The sort of thing that might appeal more to a critic than a fan who really thinks of the story in terms of plot movement first and foremost, which seems to be the case with a large proportion of those who profess unhappiness with the novel.


      • Well, I think you have something there with the entitlement, Elio (and Linda, hello!). And I think expectation has something to do with it, though there’s something with fans that feel entitled that makes them feel their expectations are the only ones that are allowed to be fulfilled, otherwise the story isn’t working.

        (I have to say as an aside, that I felt badly for you while reading Westeros threads – enjoyment of the novel with mild criticism even seems to be grounds for being an ‘apologist’ over there. You’re very chill while taking a lot of heat.)

        It’s hard to say – it could be as you suggest, that the sample size is too small, but I think Linda’s got a good point with the differences in what people look for in a book. Critics are evaluating the book on a different level than a fan might – a critic wants a book that’s well-written, primarily. A fan might, after a long wait, just want the story to progress to a point that’s satisfying to them.

        I also think we’re just used to immediate gratification, so the more we become used to instant downloads, on-demand viewing, and pre-ordered books, the more we’re going to expect our media to be immediately in our hands. I’m less worried about how long GRRM will take to finish the next book than I am about the fact that a Canadian gossip columnist tweeted bitching about his 5 hour dinner at SDCC and ‘wanted to tell him to finish the series for the fans’. Dude, the book was just released! Let the man eat at a con!

        I’m worried about how much patience there’s going to be for people’s writing process. And I don’t know when ‘making it up as you go along’ became the worst thing you could possibly do EVER.

    • semisophie

      I think you bring up an interesting question regarding entitlement. With the rise of modern communication,we no longer have to wait for things to be… Wrought. We are used to being able to know what we want as soon as a question arises, and woe to those who deny us an answer.

      I would imagine the reading experience would be differerent if you had to wait six years rather than six months for the next installment, but fact that so many people have remained engaged for so long remarkable – especially given how – um, boring? – AFFC was. I trust the author, and he has give me reason to do so. Am I satisfied? No! But I’m still engaged. It’s a bit of a leap of faith, at this point, but the story has been hatched, and is certainly being nurtured by the fine men and women at HBO.

      Yes, the story goes too far afield, but I believe the author knows where he’s going. He has set up compelling, organizing questions and themes, strong plotlines that send even non-close readers like myself back into previous volumes. We knew it wouldn’t be over after ADWD. I’m still reading… (again)

  11. The “you’re an apologist!” screeds after AFfC grew unimaginative and uninteresting the umpteenth time, so they’re all pretty old hat now! I just kind of know that those who insist nothing happened with some of these storylines are — to borrow from Myles — just spouting bullshit.

    The story development is there, it’s just not the story development they were looking for.

    It’s a weird time we live in, where readers feel like they ought to have oversight on a story, and should know exactly what the writer is doing at all times.

  12. Shawn Cantu

    Thank you for this Myles.

    I think a central problem is that readers mistake reading ability with comprehension. Somehow, I suspect that a great many ADWD readers, if asked what the central themes of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea; would be stricken and say it was about a man proving himself to others by catching a fish. Shoot, nary a thing happens in The Catcher in the Rye or in A Confederacy of Dunces but they are two of my favorite works.

    Too many people seem caught up in seeing the operatic developments of the main story. I for one prefer the relaxed pace, or else I’d feel like I was reading the literary equivalent of WWE Raw.

    Complementing the above, I find that genre-specific readers and more pointedly, those who avoid “literary” fiction make especially poor judges of writing.

    Many of the characters are grappling with internal conflicts and made tremendous progress by the books end, several characters being figuratively transformed or enlightened. I also would point out that there is a great maturity to the themes and internal struggles these characters are facing. Unlike many childish inner demons found in other fantasyworks or even earlier in this series, Jon and Dany are in a very real struggle to preserve their principles and administrate.

    Put frankly, I enjoyed the book because I enjoy reading, I enjoy and love the diversity of voices that authors each carry. When I read Martin I love his voice, his prose and his storytelling. The fact that people read Fiction with expectations of the story seem absurd. The only quality that matters is if Martin’s world remained internally consistent, which I thought it did admirably.

    • I never liked the idea that if someone disagrees with you about a text, they’re ‘doing it wrong’ or not able to understand. Those kind of reactions (which you often see on both sides of debates, in fandom as well as things like politics) often strike me as a cover for insulting the intelligence of those who don’t agree with you. Every single reader comes to a text with a different set of expectations, desires, context and perspective. Surely then not everyone should come away with the same reading of that text. Also, I really have to object to the idea that genre readers are poor judges of writing, and only those who read literary fiction can really say what’s good and what’s bad. Canon in its original academic meaning I guess. There are brilliant writers in sci fi and fantasy, and there are appalling writers in literary fiction, and the reverse is true as well. Having read a lot of crap literary fiction, I tend to think that there’s an equal amount of bad writing everywhere – but then that depends on what I call bad, which is of course somewhat objective and massively subjective at the same time.

      Either way, it’s not a fair assumption to say that people who read literary fiction are automatically superior judges of writing to those who read genre.

  13. garik16

    My two main complaints with the book have been the following:
    Jon’s decisions in the end are totally out of character and the Daeny storyline ends early.

    The former isn’t talked about by anyone else, so maybe it’s just me. But Jon has come three plus books away from the idea that his family is in Winterfell and that it is the Night’s Watch. Now I understand him with Stannis, but his actions after the letter are totally a regression back to Book 1. There’s nothing in that letter that should command his attention other than say Arya, but he’s had that crisis in book 1. THIS ISNT NEW. Jon is bound to not leave the Watch and by making the overtures he does, he IS THE BAD GUY HERE, the oathbreaker, who deserves his seeming fate. And there’s no reason for him to do so at all.

    The latter has been addressed by others, but for me, while I understand and liked Daeny’s storyline here, and didn’t dislike Meereen, I thought that ending it there, where Tyrion and Victarion still HADNT MET DAENY YET is such a cop-out.

    Mind you, I loved the book overall….I felt it was explosive all the way through, but just ended early, which made it awesome (one other complaint, the Jaime chapter was a lame tease). But those two things bother me.

    • I believe I’ve read comments regarding the former point scattered around the internet, and I’ll admit it didn’t really bother me: I agree it happened too quickly, but I like the way that the rush of the moment seems to take hold, as it seemed a boiling over of frustrations that were building throughout the novel. Martin doesn’t linger on it, having Jon’s internal dialogue explain his way through it, but I think that’s a consequence of the rush to the finish line and a device to reflect that Jon *wasn’t* necessarily thinking clearly. That might make this an anomaly in his characterization, and we could quibble on whether it’s a justifiable one, but it worked for me.

  14. the poster who was promised

    My number 1 complaint is that after Jon not leaving the NW in book 1 for Robb going south and neds death why would he leave for that letter? Just didn’t make any sense. no one has given ‘me a good answer
    For that.

    For all the complaints – I don’t think anyone can honestly say they were bored or disinterested during the novel. I never was and that was not true for ‘me in AFFC where I lost interest in some of the Brienne and ironborn chapters

    • This is probably the show more than the novel talking, but I thought Aemon’s counsel nicely shifted Jon into the right mind set, contextualizing his role – back then, he was still young and following orders, and the Lord Commander had a job for him to do.

      Now, he has largely proved himself and done his duty, and on some level that makes him more willing to take the drastic measures he considers. I do think Martin rushed it a bit to get to the point of his death, but I didn’t find it a huge stretch (and it didn’t make me retroactively question his NOT leaving in earlier circumstances). Back then, one man could have only done so much – now, one man could lead a force to take back what was his.

    • One approach to an answer is that there’s a distinct difference between those cases and now: when Ned was dead, his brothers and sisters were alive. When Robb was killed, he had a lot of other things on his plate (he was still with the wildlings, then he had to defend the Wall, then he was voted Lord Commander), and hey, so far as he knew he had two sisters still safe and sound in KIng’s Landing.

      But as he thinks leading up to this decision, he kind of realizes that all of his family is dead or missing… except Arya, according to the report, the bride who’s run away. The very survival of his family is indisputably on the line now (so far as he knows) in a way that it never was before, and he can’t bring himself to ignore that and do nothing.

      • I should add, though, that while Jon announced his plans then and there, it’s not clear that he was going to take off immediately. So he may well have waited to see if there was more information to be discovered, and doubtless sorting out supplies and the like would have taken a bit of time. So it’s not quite as impetuous as it seems.

    • stchoo

      Jon also did show that he was starting to meddle more and more with the affairs of the North. He arranged that marriage for Alys. So he has shown that the NW under his command was interfering not only with the Wildlings, but with the rest of the kingdoms.

      I think some fans really want to see the Boltons get their due, and seeing Jon deal with them would be even sweeter. I know I got caught up with the excitement that we’d get to see that. Which made the attack on Jon so abrupt at the end of the chapter.

      I do agree, for all my complaints I did enjoy reading the book, it definitely wasn’t boring.

  15. Bas

    I just finished “A dance with dragons”. Enjoyed it a lot, an addictive read, as always. The big dramatic shock moment was considerably less shocking than the Red Wedding, or what we thought happened to Bran and Rickard, the execution of Ned Stark, the fall of Winterfell, or any of the other horrible horrible things that happen inside the dark confines of GRRM’s thoroughly twisted head. But after all those moments, a little less shock at this stage is welcome. Safe it for the climax.

    I won’t get into the nit-picking of what chapter/scenes/characters are too long or too brief. In the words of Neil Gaiman; GRRM is not your bitch. He knows what he’s doing. Think you can do better? You write a seven book series and see how long you keep readers’ interest boiling.

    I’m amazed at how well GRRM pulls off this incredibly entangled story and keeps it interesting and people interested, even after 6-year waits.
    I imagine that most other authors would have probably used the “revenge-factor” in a more instantly gratifying way.

    Part of what gets readers involved are the attacks on their beloved characters. We expect some form of payback for the characters we care for. What happened to Bran and to Ned Stark in book 1 fuels a desire to keep reading to see Starks kick some butt. But.. we almost never get any direct payback for our characters. In fact, the Starks go from bad to much worse. The (apparent) murder of Bran & Riccard, along with the Red Wedding and the fall of Winterfell…the resurrection of Cathelyn as a monster…. the reader gets shock after shock and while we tell ourselves to wait and that revenge is a dish best served cold, we find that the waiters keep forgetting to bring it to the table. Instead, we sink deeper in the misery of the practically extinct Starks, who at this point have to resort to morphing into trees and hamsters.

    The one exception that comes to mind is Tyrion “getting even” with his father. Other than that, GRRM systematically leaves this promise of revenge unfulfilled.

    For instance; Joffrey was eliminated by Littlefinger. Not by Ned Stark, not by Robb Stark, not by Cathelyn, not by Arya… And Littlefinger’s reason for this? He basically shrugs and says “Why not?”

    By the time Arya completes her transformation into a cold-hearted Faceless Woman…. how many of her family’s tormentors will there be left alive? Or is the whole point of Arya’s and Cathelyn’s fate to show how vengeance turns people into monsters?

    In any case, though it is somewhat frustrating, GRRM’s use of vengeance does make for a much more unpredictable story.

    • Tom Palmer

      Part of what gets readers involved are the attacks on their beloved characters. We expect some form of payback for the characters we care for.

      But bothers me is that it’s become predictable that he will kill off pretty much everyone by the end. That’s just as bad as not killing off any or virtually any main characters as you find in some books.

  16. Jimmy

    I can’t understand why people claim Jon is an oathbreaker and a deserter, because he wanted to go to Winterfell after Ramsay’s letter. He was leaving the wall, yes, but he also intended to come back (or at least that is how i took it). Or he would die trying. In any case he was not stealing away in the middle of the night without informing anyone about his plans or something similar.

    Leaving the wall (south that is) does not make you a deserter. Benjen did so. So did Alliser Thorne and Yoren. Even Sam does it. None of them is an oathbreaker. So, going south is certainly not enough.

    Sure, Jon’s reason to leave (for a couple of days) were a little selfish, but so was his plan to send Mance to the rescue. This plan of his was not met with the same hostility as this idea the deal with the problem himself. But if one plan is OK then the other cannot be ‘not OK’. It might be more stupid or more bold or daring, but i don’t think it is out of character.

    If there was something that might brand him a traitor and an oathbreaker, then it was him making common cause with the wildlings.

  17. Pingback: » Cultural Reading: George R.R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons … Technology and Maintenance Council

  18. Fantastic article. It really articulated many of my feelings/opinions/reactions to the book. Yes, there are a lot of new threads to follow, yes there were a lot of cliffhangers, and yes there was too little on a couple characters (Bran and Davos primarily) but I never once doubted GRRM’s skill and command of where this story is going.

  19. Tim Arr

    One reason so many net-fans are disappointed by the Dance with Dragons they got is that they’ve been writing a Dance with Dragons in their heads for many years now, and it doesn’t match up with the story GRRM is telling.

    You can see this attidude in this thread. “We’ve been waiting for Tyrion to meet up with Dany for 6 years? Doesn’t happen.” Some readers mistake what they believed would be the focus of the story for what *should* have been the focus of the story. I feel like I’ve seen this attitude developing on the various fan boards over the course of years. People would write things like, “Well, clearly what GRRM is going to do is *this*, if he does *that* it would be lame and I’d never read the books again.” Some folks are less interested in discovering what does happen than they are invested in what they thought should happen.

    That would explain the divergence in opinions between critics and net-fans. The ideal critic would skilled at seeing a book for what it is, rather than what they expect it to be. Not all actual critics approach that ideal, but taken as a group, they’re better at it than most of us.

    A Dance With Dragons is an impressive book with noticable flaws. (For me the worst is Martin’s self-insertion in the final Tyrion chapter, putting “I’m dancing as fast as I can” in the Imp’s mouth and having him participate in a thinly-veiled book-signing appearance). I hope that once the backlash dies down, more people will let go of their expectations and appreciate the narrative on its own merits.

    • Well said. It’s quite true that I’ve seen a lot of readers — even some blogging critics who are very favorable to the works — put forward some very direction notions of what will or should happen in ADwD before its publication. I kind of gave up on heavily speculating on such things after GRRM kept over-turning my expectations with book after book, so that may be why I’m among the diehards who quite liked it.

      I never, never got that idea about the last Tyrion chapter. Not to say you’re wrong, though; I think you may be right that it’s a sly nod to the writing. It rather reminds me of Petyr Baelish telling “Alayne” that he had expected it to take five years for Cersei to make a mess of things, but it’s all happened much faster, which many take as a wink toward the 5 year gap.

      I don’t actually mind these things, myself, though, but I can see how they can pull someone out of the story because an obvious, metatextual reading exists.

      • Tom Palmer

        Not well said at all. I dislike A Dance with Dragons for a lot of reasons but not because it didn’t measure up what I thought it should be. I would have been disappointed if it had been what I was expecting.

        • How is your statement refuting Tim Arr’s that “some readers mistake what they believed would be the focus of the story for what *should* have been the focus of the story”? He allows that not everyone who criticizes the book has the issue. But certainly, there’s evidence to show that some readers generally measure the book according to how closely it fit their vision of what it was going to contain.

          • Tom Palmer

            Mainly I just found it poorly argued and poorly written. Even if I’d agreed with him I would have thought that. In end it’s just a lame attempt to avoid having to deal with negative (or at least contrary) opinions by downgrading them as the words of people too stupid to understand the book.

  20. Pingback: Cultural Reading: George R.R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons … | Family Beach Hotels

  21. Tom Palmer

    And I think it’s sort of bullshit. In fact, I’ve always felt it was sort of bullshit.

    The worry obviously is that he won’t be able to wrap it up in a way that feels satisfying for those who had made it through to this point. If he didn’t go in with at least some vague idea of how it would all end, then he might get himself into a real pickle when he can’t come up with anything good that fits with all that came before. We might get the fantasy novel equivalent of the finale of The Prisoner.

    the idea that we should be “concerned” about Martin’s control over this series just doesn’t sit right with me

    It sits right with me. If he doesn’t at this point have any idea of how he’s going to end it, then we might find this becoming a 10- or 12-book series along the lines of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I’m not afraid he’ll die before finishing, I’m just worried (justifiably I think) that when it ends I won’t even care because the quality will have so massively declined by then.

    To me, Martin’s story hasn’t become unmanageable.

    It has, actually. He could still save it, but A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons will, even then, be remembered as the weakest parts of the series – a point where he stumbled but then (hopefully) recovered. ADWD is a quagmyre.

    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

    You could, but that’s really obvious to everyone. Tyrion’s story is another example of what’s wrong this book. He never gets where he’s going. I found his journey interesting but in the end it’s just frustrating because there’s no payoff anywhere. Sure, that will come in later books. Or will it? Maybe Tyrion will be yet another to be gratutiously and predictably killed off before he gets to where he’s going.

    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.

    Could you tell us what that is? It seemed inevitable that he would eventually do that, though I expected it a lot sooner.

    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.

    Again, obvious. You seem to think that people didn’t understand what he was doing. He spends far too much time on her difficulties in Meereen and then just when she was starting to learn something we’re left to hang for another – how many years?

    And yet, I’ve seen numerous people suggest that “nothing happens” in Dany’s storyline either.

    Nothing much does.

    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.”

    It’s not bullshit. What happens didn’t need to be stretched out like that for her to learn what she did and for the things to happen that he felt had to. It was sretched out and padded. That’s what people resent.

    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.”

    Again, no, that is obviously wrong. I would have been angrier with him if she had just hopped on a dragon and gone over to Westeros. For one thing she couldn’t take her army, and a few half-grown (or less) dragons aren’t enough. To take her army she needed ships, and more than anyone could or would give her. Again, the (heh) “case study” about leadership was interesting but didn’t need to be padded out like it was. I don’t expect things to just zip along. I don’t want a book where the only things that happen are those which will advance the plot. But this is ridiculous.

    • morgan lee


    • “If he doesn’t at this point have any idea of how he’s going to end it, then we might find this becoming a 10- or 12-book series along the lines of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.”

      A fair point, but do we have any evidence of this? My concern with the whole “ADWD has created grave concerns” is that I think there’s a difference between not knowing how he’s going to end it and not knowing how long it’s going to take to get there. Obviously, both have their issues, but I don’t know if any of the issues with the latter necessarily reflect on the former. I would agree that Martin has added enough paths that the initial 7-book plan might be extended, but I don’t think I’d agree that this suggests he has no idea how he’s going to end it. Your argument seems predicated on presuming that a lack of control in one area suggested an overall lack of control, and I think ADWD is thematically consistent in a way that gives me no sense that Martin doesn’t know where this is headed.

      “It’s not bullshit. What happens didn’t need to be stretched out like that for her to learn what she did and for the things to happen that he felt had to. It was sretched out and padded. That’s what people resent.”

      That’s what SOME people resent. For the record, I think your issues with Dany’s storyline are totally valid, and you back them up with a reading of the text. However, elsewhere online I’ve seen “nothing happens” used in conjunction with “That was stupid,” to the point where the former has become a shorthand for the latter. There’s a big difference between “ADWD was stupid because nothing happened” and “Certain Storylines in ADWD could have been condensed.” I’m fine with someone making a case for “nothing happens” that goes into detail, but I hate seeing it used as a critical shortcut.

      I guess my larger point is that I wouldn’t take the review above as an attack on your reading of the book – I obviously enjoyed it more than you did, and had fewer issues with the pacing of the narrative. I would contend that some of the broader concerns about the future of the series have been overblown, but I welcome and encourage close readings of the novel and its flaws.

  22. Thanks for your review Myles. I have been avoiding fan reaction until I finished, and now that I have I’ll probably continue to do so because I often find my enjoyment of a book sapped if I have to defend my enjoyment against a consensus of dislike.

    I’ve been reading ASOIAF since Game of Thrones first came out, but I didn’t read AFFC until right before ADWD came out, so for me the books really felt like two parts of a fairly unified whole. I liked AFFC, though I generally agree that Brienne’s and Cersei’s chapters could have used some cutting. But I loved ADWD. Partly I like Jon/Dany/Tyrion more than the characters we got in AFFC, but I also thought it was a better book, with much improved pacing and connections between the various storylines (especially in the first half). So I was pretty shocked when I realized fan reaction was so negative. But I guess I see what some of the objections are. It was a long book with winding story arcs, and as much as I loved it, some stories did sometimes feel like they were being complicated for complication’s sake, to mark time until characters got into the right places.

    But I very much understand how Martin got here, with some storylines that I think probably he doesn’t care about as much, let alone his readers, and with some characters effectively marking time to bring their progress in line with other character’s movements. Every chapter, every moment of delay and every excessive detail can seem necessary when you look back from where he wanted to get. I think Cersei is the best example of this. You want to get to Cersei on trial and out of power? Well, you need to show just how terrible a queen she was, and just how unaware she was of her own crapness. How do you do that? You show lots of different incidents, a series of mistakes over a long period of time. Otherwise maybe it seems abrupt, maybe it’s not earned. I still think Cersei’s chapters in both books (espec. AFFC) offered the best opportunity to cut, and in particular I think Martin to could have shown a series of mistakes in retrospect rather than feeling he had to show each mistake in detail in the present. Also of all the repeating phrases and thought patterns throughout both books, Cersei’s prophesy was by far the most obnoxious and unnecessary. All that being said, I get why Martin took as long as he did to get to where he wanted to be.

    A few random points:

    *Jon’s was my favourite storyline in the novel, and I have to say, re some comments that no one really thinks he died – I was uber worried that he died! I’m quite relieved to hear no one else is. My hope (amidst my worry) was that Melissande would give him a Beric Dondarrion style kiss of life… and you know nothing Jon Snow was definitely my favorite repeated thought pattern
    *I absolutely loved the idea of the stone men and the connection made between them and the greyscale of Stannis’s daughter. Maybe the details of what kind of disease greyscale was have been mentioned before, but I’ve never understood it properly until this book, and I am completely intrigued by Val’s comment that Stannis’s daughter is already dead. Really hope that thread gets picked up.

    On a (slightly) different subject, Myles your discussion of ‘reading it wrong’ has really fascinated me. I feel like there’s always a danger, in any reading of a text (not just books but TV, movies, comics, any kind of text), of creating this idea that there’s a right way and a wrong way to read something. And I think the division between fans’ and critics’ reactions on ADWD is a really interesting case study. Fandom has always existed on a very strange edge between consumer and critic, between audience and academia. And this particular debate is one that reaches throughout fandom and academia, about the ownership of the creator vs the ownership of the audience, the validity of different interpretations of a text versus the interpretation the author was trying to get across, what is there on the page/screen versus what a creator might say outside the text. Canon and non canon, and of course the use of canon in fandom itself being taken from academia. I wrote my dissertation on something close to this when I was doing my masters, and I feel the sudden urge to actually write an academic article about the difference between a critic, an academic, and a fan (or perhaps that’s the start of a really dorky joke, when those three walk into a bar…). Though Henry Jenkins has probably already covered the subject beyond what I can do.

    • Some great thoughts here, Karen.

      Two things:

      1) The Greyscale stuff was interesting to me as well – it was one of the parts of the novel that felt a bit “on the nose” in terms of setting up for the future, but I’d agree that its various evocations (the scene on the river, Connington’s illness, Stannis’ daughter and Val’s reaction) covered a wide range of storylines and narrative moments to make a strong impact.

      2) In regards to critic/academic/fan, it’s something that I generally try to avoid out of fear of making it so that I need to perform any or all of these roles. Jenkins, of course, has made “aca-fan” a term within scholarly discourse, but I don’t see the NEED for the term: I think academia (and society) should accept that academics have subjectivities, and that when dealing with media texts these can often times manifest as fandoms. I don’t feel like I need a term to capture my role as critic/academic/fan in light of a property like ASOIAF, in part because I feel like it’s context-sensitive: academic papers are written from an academic perspective, critical reviews are generally more objective, but both have elements of subjectivity that shouldn’t be seen as a problem (but also shouldn’t have to be defended to the degree of labeling yourself an aca-fan).

      For more on the latter, in case you missed it from the Spring, there’s a discussion about the term aca-fan at Antenna:

  23. Max

    Feast and Dance were meant to be one book. In Feast there is a minor character in the Arya/Sam story in Braavos. She is a whore called “The Sailor’s Wife”. She has a blond daughter called Lanna. She only sleeps with men that marry her for the night. I wonder if Braavos is where whores go.

    I think the problem that most people have with Feast and Dance is that there are several characters with varying degrees of importance being introduced this late in the series. I like both Feast and Dance because they expanded the world and showed that a feud between 2 families have created problems in all 7 kingdoms and across the narrow sea. The story moved past the Starks vs Lannisters. In fact, both have sufferend many loses. Despite holding the throne, the Lannisters have lost their power to the Tyrells.

  24. The Meereenese Noose

    I’m relatively new to the series (early reviews of the HBO show convinced me to just read the book instead). I just finished Book 5 and was eager to go online and look at other people’s responses. But, like Miles, I’m not really liking what I see.

    The responses from the fans seem to be overwhelmingly concerned with the mysteries and the prophecies, and whether we got any clues/answers to them. Many people seem to dislike Book 4 and 5 because “nothing happened,” which is a pretty shallow response. I’m having flashbacks (no pun intended) to the LOST days when all the “hardcore” fans could talk about was mysteries and answers, rather than about narrative, character, and what the show was doing right/wrong on those fronts. Speculation about who Azor Azai (or whatever) is fun, but it is pretty superficial. Where’s the talk about character and theme? Don’t just speculate on whether Tyrion is a Targaryen – tell me why that is important to the narrative and what it would mean to Tyrion, if he was. As it stands, the conversation on many ASOIAF fan outlets seems pretty shallow. Am I just coming into the conversation too late?

    A Song of Ice and Fire has been a pretty tremendous work so far. The charactes are rich and motivated, and the world is huge. I do have some nagging concerns about getting everyone back over to Westeros in less than 2000 pages, but it’s still 2000 pages. If the characters are still spread across the map like this at the end of Book 6, then the backlash and panic about resolution is going to sound more valid. Until then, Martin has earned the benefit of the doubt from me. I’m not really a reader – I guess I have a bad imagination or something – but I’ve always preferred movies and TV. This is the only thing I’ve ever read that I put on the same level as my favorite movie and TV shows, and if Books 6 and 7 keep up the level of quality 1-5 have had, then it will probably be my favorite fictional thing ever.

    In short, I’ll admit that my response to the book is definitely more positive than the average fan’s, but I totally agree with Miles’ assessment of the fandom. Patience, people. The story isn’t over yet.

  25. Tom Palmer

    Just talking about Book Four the reason I didn’t like it is because it was rushed out due to GRRM taking so long, and it felt rushed to me. It probably made Book Five poorer. I would rather have waited and had the material in AFFC worked in to ADWD. Maybe the publisher was worried people wouldn’t bother if they had to wait much longer, a concern unjustified I think.

  26. Vindesyn

    Am I alone in thinking that Aegon is a ” Mary Sue” ?
    A Targaryen, with so far great ideas, appearing out of nowhere ….
    Please, GRRM, tell me that you’re going to kill him and NOT see him on the Throne or near it (which is the same if he ends counsellor)!
    Because, right now, it seems like we have a bad plot waiting for us in the next book…
    Apart from this, I liked ADWD but it definitively wasn’t as great as Games.

  27. August Przybilla

    I just finished Book Five late last night after receiving the full set at Christmas. I had mistakenly thought it was the complete series, so imagine my delight when, with about a hundred fifty pages left to go, I began to suspect my assumption had been wishful thinking. (My daughter joked that maybe Dance With Dragons would wind up with “and then the ice people came down and everybody died! The End”) Now I log on to see it might be two more years (if we are lucky) before book six and who knows how much longer for book seven? I don’t know that I can go another two thousand pages, especially with a lengthy hiatus between novels. It was hard enough slugging through the first five, taking a much needed break around Book Three and then suffering through the flashback storytelling of Book Five. What, exactly, is the author thinking??? We fought two complete world wars in less time than this sagging saga requires. Valar morghulis! I’m about the same age as GRRM and appreciate that phrase more each day. And I’m certainly not about to go back to re-read One through Five when Six is finally in print. As my own personal Winter is coming, there’s always senility lurking just around the corner, so time becomes precious. A bit less elaboration, if you please, and cut to the chase! (I’m not so deeply enmeshed in the Song series as many so I’ve kind of given the author a break when it comes to the sometimes overly-descriptive passages. Umpteen servings of lamprey pie, fancifully ornate armor and coats of arms, etc, I write off as sort of a literary filler.) But, please, I’m starting to feel like Moses in the desert here!

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