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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A Clash of Kings: George R. R. Martin

Follow-ups novels to successful first ones are tricky beasts. Having set the bar and thus expectations high with Game of Thrones, it was always going to be difficult for George R. R. Martin to satisfy hungry and demanding readers who fell in love with the intricate world and in-depth characters of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. The good news is that Martin does not disappoint, nor does he compromise his standards. On the contrary, he not only meets but exceeds anticipation as he dives once more into the world and wars of the Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons and Targaryans (however it’s spelled – sorry), the Night Watch, the Wildings and the Others.

Commencing where the action finished in Game of Thrones, the reader is once more swept along in the battle for supremacy between warring sers, lords and their various factions. Only, where there was once a single king under which to rally men, lands and armies, there are now four at large in the Kingdom – a Kingdom divided, afraid and, as war creeps into every corner and power is continually contested, fraught with danger and the plagues of broad-scale conflict: famine, disease and petty crime – particularly in the city where death and destruction come from within as much as from attacking enemies.

Martin uses the same shifting points of view to tell this tale as he did in the first book and we jump from Bran, to Catelyn, Theon, Tyrion, Danys and some other characters as well, allowing us greater insights into their motivation and personal weaknesses and strengths. So fine is the writing and so skilled is Martin that while it’s sometimes a wrench to leave a character, you soon segue into a different mindset with ease and plunge into his or her story feeling bereft when you are momentarily pulled away again. Sometimes the action from one chapter to the next is parallel, other times, it occurs in a different zone and time, but not once do you lose the pace or sense of urgency that haunts these pages and keeps you reading.

Martin’s world is a dark, corrupt one where spirituality and secular power both collude and collide and where no-one is safe – not a warrior knight, a beautiful queen, an innocent peasant, a loyal maester or even a child. He exposes war and the struggle for hegemony for what it is: ugly and damaging for everyone – the lower classes particularly, who suffer the whims, machinations and anger of their overlords, though the mighty are not spared hardship or heartache either.

Unrelenting and fabulous, I highly recommend this second book and, having already jumped straight into the third, I know the standards are just as high and the narrative equally compelling.

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Game of Thrones: George R.R.Martin

I read this book many years ago, not long after it first came out and remembered being awed by its scope and the dramatic and realistic flair of the writing. Of course, the passage of time can sometimes alter the way you feel about things – especially genre books. Usually, because you’ve read so many more in-between and educated yourself about the style and tropes that are used, expectations are raised. When I heard there was a TV series based on Martin’s books, I was a bit dubious and, I confess, watched it rather reluctantly at first – but not for long. The series, by HBO, was visually stunning and superbly acted. It’s fabulous to see fantasy being taken seriously for a change on the small screen (I know there are examples that do – but most are film. Few TV shows do honour to fantasy except in a kitsch fashion – I am thinking of Hercules and Xena here and excluding the fantastic True Blood which deserves it’s own paean).  On the contrary, this series persuaded me to reread the book – partly to test its appeal again, but also to see how closely the show stayed to Martin’s original vision. Well, in terms of the book and its initial appeal, none has been lost. Once again, I was drawn into Martin’s fantastically realised world with its liege lords, Banner men, dire wolves and the central families: the Starks, the Lannisters, the Taegaryans (however you spell it – sorry!) and the jostle for power that’s described as the Game of Thrones.

When I first read the book, I found the concept and place that remained with me was The Wall and the black-garbed men, the NightWatch, who swear an oath to protect the realm from the Others – the creatures who roam north of the great dividing barrier. Yet again, I was struck by the imaginative scope of such a place and those who dwell within its icy, remote grip and the culture they’ve created. Likewise, the horse lords, the Kalesi, and his bride, the disinherited Danys, were wonderfully drawn. But so are the castles of Winterfell, Kings Landing and the politics and inter-relationships that govern the realm comprised of seven very different kingdoms. Of course, Tyrion, another Lannister, would have to be one of the most memorable characters created: wise, witty, world-weary – he’s someone you initially loathe and champion – the latter becoming the default reaction.

This is such a powerful story that is full of machinations, twists, turns and bloodshed but always underpinned by human relations. As such, it really is a stand out addition to the historical fantasy genre. The TV series is also marvellous and stays true to Martin’s vision, so much so, swathes of dialogue (and his dialogue is rich, offensive, real and engaging) appears in the show.

A terrific book that initiates a wonderful saga. Unashamedly love it and the show – in fact, the theme song is now my ring tone.

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