Book Review: A Dance With Dragons, George RR Martin

Finally, I’ve finished this book. I say that with a mixture of both relief and disappointment. Relief, because it took me so long to read – in fact, I think I read about seven other books while I was completing this one. But I’m disappointed too. You see, once I was firmly ensconced back in Martin’s epic world, and travelling with Daenerys, Tyrion, and Jaime, admiring the tenacity of Arya Stark, suffering with Brienne of Tarth and experiencing The Wall with Jon Snow, I didn’t want to leave.

To say the plot thickens would have to be the biggest understatement ever uttered in the presence of a fantasy saga.

Dances With Dragons begins by returning to the same period that the fourth book, A Feast for Crows covered, only this time, we discover what the characters excluded from that novel have been up to before being carried forward with the rest of the cast so the overall story progresses.

War and the struggle for power occupies the Seven Kingdoms. We return to the beautiful and bold young Daeneyrs in the East, as she seeks to both protect the children of her new realm all the while keeping her eyes trained west. With her Unsullied, growing dragons and a city seething with corruption, murder and disease, ruling is demanding. Plots are rife and the young queen is depicted as both salvation and ruin of those she leads. Rumours of Daenerys and her dragons have reached Westeros and there are those who will do anything to either have the rightful heir to the Iron Throne delivered from the east and brought home or destroy her and her creatures once and for all.

And then there’s the presence of another claimant to the Westeros throne. Is it possible that someone survived the brutal slaying Robert Baratheon orderd and which wiped out all but two Targaryen children all those years ago?

The focus also returns to Tyrion Lannister who, the last time we met had escaped King’s Landing having just murdered his father. Cersei has set a high price on his head and reaped the grisly consequences of that (as does, in a poignant way, Tyrion) and, despite all those who seek to bring the Imp to justice and/or kill him, it’s no surprise that Tyrion not only evades fatal capture but somehow both survives and even profits from the greed and calculations of others. He may be an exile, but Tyrion is still a master manipulator. Yet, as his story progresses, there’s also a humbling of his character, one who always possessed depths and shades that only the reader seems to be able to appreciate. Throughout Dances, these layers are revealed as he is brought lower than you would credit. There’s no place for Lannister pride when your stature is the butt of jokes, what looks you did possess have been ruined, and you’re enslaved, but Tyrion somehow manages to rise above all this. In Dances, his gentler side and spirit of survival comes to the fore alongside that rapier sharp tongue and wit which never fail to satisfy.

Activity at The Wall, with the capture of Mance Rayner and the arrival of Stannis Baratheon and the Red Priestess, Melisandre, keep the new leader of the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow, tested; we also learn the fate of the other Stark children (though Sansa is not included) and the tale of young Bran and Ayra are fascinating. But, perhaps the most shocking stori


es of all are reserved for the two character readers just knew would face terrible consequences for their actions: Cersei Lannister and Theon Greyjoy.

Cersei, who wielded power and abuse with equal measure, misjudging people, failing to read situations correctly, using her erotic capital for her personal gain and control and causing little more than the suffering and destruction of the people she has the privilege of leading (albeit as Regent), pays for what she’s done to the Seven Kingdoms.

Then there’s Theon Greyjoy… while we knew revenge for what he did to Winterfell would arrive, he suffers in ways that no-one, not even a traitor should have to with the maniacal and cruel Boltons. Some of the scenes with Theon are heart-wrenching and difficult to read. They are a psychological study of not only torture, but Stockholm syndrome as well.

Again, Martin writes chapters from different character’s points of view, allowing the reader to experience the narrative more richly and fully. However, he also dedicates some of these to minor characters and while they are interesting and allow you to enjoy (!) the action from an alternate perspective, they are also confusing at times as you have to work out the complicated relationships and loyalties with the major players – who does this character support? Why? What’s their motivation? are questions that tend to hover and interfere as you read.

Like all the books before, Dances ends with questions unanswered, major characters poised on the brink of great change, life and death. However, with the next instalment, The Winds of Winter not expected for some time, we have to wait. That we can expect the book to be around 1500 pages is not as exciting for me as I’d hoped. I adore this tale of power, leadership, love, loyalty and betrayal and the constantly shifting alliances and what folk are prepared to do and what sacrifices are made (by all classes) so rulers can satisfy their lust for power and achieve their goals – or not – but it’s a such a huge investment.

In the meantime, I have the wonderful HBO series to enjoy and to remind me of events that now feel like they occurred another lifetime ago.

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Book Review: A Feast for Crows, George R. R. Martin

Compared to the first three books in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, A Feast for Crows took me a long time to finish – I am talking  months. Not because it was slow, ponderous, or a boring read – quite the contrary – it is such an accomplishment. I think I took so much time (reading almost a dozen books concurrently) in order to savour and appreciate the new depths and richness of this ever-expanding tale, it’s cast of characters, and the complexities that Martin introduces.

For this novel elevates the plots and cunning of desperate men and women to a new level. We left the action in book three with King Stannis on the Wall, Sansa Stark disguised as Petyr Baelish’s bastard daughter, Samwell Tarly voyaging to distant lands on a mission from Lord Commander, Jon Snow, and Arya Stark now in the East, about to join a strange cult. Then there was the shocking death of Tywin Lannister and Tyrion’s role in that, and the consequences of Daeneyrs ruthless march across the East to contend with as well – and that’s before we consider what all the others characters such as the Greyjoys, those in Dorne and other places were up to.

This book, instead of concentrating on the entire cast of Song, only deals with half of them. Until I reached the end of the book and saw Martin’s explanation for this, I was feeling cheated! But having now read the first few chapters of Dance With Dragons (which occurs concurrently and then joins the timeline and forges ahead) I understand why. Nonetheless, despite the meatiness of this book, there is a sense of a tale half told – and I am not sure, having set up a different mode of telling and accustoming readers to it, that it worked as well.

But I am being picky. Very picky. And that’s because Martin sets the bar so high for himself and our expectations – and, despite my reservations he does deliver. This novel is both about physical quests and the psychological and emotional toll they exact and the inner growth or lack thereof that they facilitate in those undertaking them, and a study of power and its effects: on the wielder and those upon whom it is exerted.

While Feast explores twelve characters in the saga intensively, I felt, Cerei Lannister was the star, possibly because so many of the central characters are connected to or reliant upon her in some way. Now Queen Regent to her eight year old son, Tommen, we see Cersei in her element, and her determination to seize complete power at any cost. Refusing to listen to advisors and the rift between her and the now handicapped Jamie growing, we witness her slow unravelling. Taking terrible measures to protect her remaining children’s future and her fledgling awareness of her own vulnerability, despite the trappings of authority, Cersei’s story is a tour de force of how absolute power corrupts absolutely. I can only imagine what her downfall and comeuppance will be like, for I’ve no doubt, she will receive them in the way only Martin can deliver and not in due course.

The novel also follows the warrior-maid, Brienne of Tarth, and her quest to find Sansa Stark and we grow to appreciate even more her nobility and loyalty to not only Catelyn, but Jamie Lannister as well. Her sufferings, because of her ethics, gender and sex, and determination to continue are heart-wrenching and her outsider status is both highlighted and sympathetically explored. Along with Tyrion Lannister, I think Brienne of Tarth is a rare and composite character who engages with the reader and who arouses both protective feelings and a sense of wanting them to have the opportunity to prove to the world that they are more than they seem and much  more than anyone gives them credit for.

The story of Sansa Stark is also fascinating. Now styled as the bastard daughter of Lord of the Eyrie, Petyr Baelish, Sansa tries to forget her origins and assert her new identity and care for the simpering child of her Aunt. It is through Sansa’s story that Littlefinger’s strategies and conniving come to the fore. Sansa would be easy to dismiss as one of the more lightweight characters populating an epic where these are scarce, but Martin lets us know in Feast that to do that would be to underestimate this young woman: after all, she is a Stark.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and the magnificent writing, action and dialogue, I confess, I missed Tyrion and Daeny and wanted to know what was happening on The Wall and in the lands beyond. I also felt that the novel again became bogged in details about minor characters and their political and other allegiances. Though I can appreciate the violent, greedy Greyjoys and the sea-culture that formed them, I find that part of the novel less intriguing than the others and look forward to those chapters ending. That said, I also understand and am in awe of Martin’s ability to construct and manage this unbelievably intricate world and even the parts I don’t enjoy as much do add to the whole, giving it a verisimilitude that is likely unparalleled in a great deal of fantasy literature.

Overall, utterly magnificent. My awe for this writer’s imagination and capacity to create just grows with each book.


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