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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Book Review: Storm of Swords George R. R. Martin

I thought since I managed to read a number of books in the lead up to Christmas and beyond and having reviewed most of them on Goodreads (a great site that you should join if you haven’t already!), that I would reproduce these for my website as well. So, here goes! Love to hear what you think of the books I review as well.

I started this book with high expectations, picking it up after having just finished book two and being unable to bear even a pause in the saga that is the Song of Fire and Ice. Well, those expectations have not only been met, but exceeded, as Martin takes the reader further into the machinations of the major houses of the Seven Kingdoms and the lives of the characters that dominate this violent, passionate and dark tapestry. In this book, we follow mainly the story of Caetlyn, Rob, Sansa and Arya Stark, Stannis Baratheon, Tyrion and Jamie Lannister as well as Dany Stormborn and her quest to build and army and return to the West and reclaim her throne. Other characters are introduced, all of whom add depth and complexity to this amazing tale. The struggle for power continues as Kings clash, alliances are forged and broken, marriages arranged and people betrayed. The Wall is under threat and the Nightwatch greatly diminished… Can the Kingdom be saved or will internecine strife tear it apart before the enemies from beyond the Wall become a reality? All these questions and so many more are posed and, as is the way of this series, partially and marvelously answered.

The pace is relentless, the twists and turns are mostly unpredictable (though when they are predictable, the story does not suffer). If I had to offer a criticism, it would be that the huge cast of characters is sometimes unwieldy and there are times when descriptions of minor characters (eg. The names and details of all the gentry who offer alliances to the various men claiming kingship) don’t serve the story and instead weigh it down. However, you could also argue that the very same thing adds layers and verisimilitude to this wild and wonderful world.

What I particularly love is Martin’s fearlessness when it comes to plot and sacrificing beloved characters to stay true to the narrative. Stunning and unexpected, these moments add a delicious frisson and, as a reader, put you on the edge of your seat for, just as you thought you could second-guess Martin’s intentions, and even relax, he proves you wrong.

Fabulous volume… I went straight to the next one and was even more impressed with what I found….stay tune for that review – only I have read about a dozen books in the interim…:)

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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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