Valar morghulis. All men must die. And in A Dance with Dragons, everyone dies.
OK, I'm teasing you. But I'm also being completely serious.
N.B.: As always, this review does not contain spoilers for this book, but there are significant spoilers for previous books in the series. I know you're still going to read it though, Dad, even though you haven't read the books and it's going to spoil the TV show for you.
A Feast for Crows focuses on the political situation in and around King's Landing in the aftermath of the Battle for the Blackwater and the Red Wedding. With Tywin dead, the Lannisters are melting down in a big way: Cersei feels she can't trust anyone, and she is desperate to stymie the growing influence the Tyrells have over her precious Tommen, our Boy King. This ultimately gets her into a lot of trouble, and later in A Dance with Dragons we learn the consequences. But first we get to catch up with all the characters absent from A Feast for Crows: Jon Snow and Stannis at the Wall; Daenerys, Barristan, and Jorah in Meereen; Tyrion the fugitive; and Theon. Yes, Theon. You didn't think he was dead, did you? When Martin kills a character, he does so in a bloody, onscreen way. Heads roll—literally.
There is more than one way to die. We see this emphatically across the cast of A Dance with Dragons, in Jon, Theon, Arya, Gilly's boy, Tyrion, Daenerys, Cersei—you know what, I'm just going to stop, because I could probably list the whole cast. Here's what I mean though, and this is why A Dance with Dragons, even with some very noticeable flaws, not a disappointment. The entire cast is undergoing a cataclysmic crisis of identity. For some, like Arya and Sansa, this has been happening since A Storm of Swords. For others, like Tyrion (or Brienne), it has been a part of them their entire lives, because they do not fit into the normative moulds, but lately even their carefully-constructed senses of self have been eroded by events. Others are merely overwhelmed by the enormity of the tasks they face: Jon Snow is now Lord Commander of the Night's Watch and must deal with a flood of refugee wildlings; Daenerys must decide whether to stay and defend Mereen against the slaving masters or cut and run for Westeros. Martin is not afraid to kill off characters for real—there are a few well-established characters who meet their deaths, and a few who are, by the end of the book, not quite dead but in definite mortal peril. Nevertheless, practically every member of the main cast is dramatically changed between the beginning and the end of this book.
Jon Snow has long been a somewhat problematic character for me. He is endearing, both for his earnestness and his loyalty, and I cheered when he became Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. But let's be honest: he's also a little of a Marty Stu (TVTropes alert). I mean, he's been a member of the Watch for how long? He's how young? And he still gets elected Lord Commander? It's a bit of a stretch—one that Martin uses to demonstrate how truly desperate the Watch is for men and for leadership. If they are electing the green Lord Snow as their commander, things must be dire indeed. Jon is gone though, and Lord Snow is now in charge: Master Aemon advises Jon to "kill the boy", and Jon takes this to heart. We were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of Lord Commander Snow in A Feast for Crows, when he dispatches Sam to Oldtown. We relive that conversation from Jon's perspective this time, and it's an interesting experience, because we see which parts of the conversation Jon gives priority in contrast to Sam's perspective. But sending away arguably his best friend (not to mention his best adviser, Master Aemon) and forcing Gilly to switch her baby are just the first of Jon's hard choices. The entire book is a litany of Jon attempting to do what he considers right for the Night Watch, and for the realm, even though he knows it will be unpopular. He must walk a careful line as he treats with Stannis—the Night's Watch shall take no part in the affairs of the realm—and attempts to make peace with the wildlings.
I'm also really intrigued by Arya's continued mission to become no one. Both she and Jon are children of Eddard Stark who seem to be pursuing a path that irrevocably severs them from their former lives. There are … opportunities, perhaps one might even call them temptations, for Jon to abandon such a path before it is "too late", if ever it will be too late for him. Arya, on the other hand, maintains her identity as a Stark—for now. But who will she be tomorrow? The next day? She is being trained to do more than kill, to be more than an assassin; she is an acolyte in a religious cult that worships a god of death and brings that god's gift to those who ask. It's creepy and compelling to see what's being done to someone who, remember, is still just a child.
Everyone's identities might be in flux, but that doesn't mean they're all in flux an equal amount, or with an equal amount of interest for the reader. Theon Greyjoy begins A Dance with Dragons as Reek, a creature of Ramsay Bolton. He has been tortured and flayed and treated like less than an animal. Yet circumstances require "Theon" back, and so he is slowly brought out of his shell, and I find this recovery far too hasty if Theon is really as far gone as Martin depicts. He too quickly regains his sense of individuality and volition, and I'm aware that A Dance with Dragons is already long enough as it is, but it still felt rushed.
At the other extreme, Daenerys' story advances more slowly than I'd like, and it's not just because I'm on Team Dany. I think she'd make a kickass Queen of Westeros, and I'm anxious to see her descend upon the Seven Kingdoms. I am looking forward to Cersei Lannister learning that Daenerys fucking Targaryen has returned on the back of a dragon and leading an army of freed slaves. I understand, however, why she feels she must linger in Meereen. Firstly, she does not want to abandon the city or let her subjects feel she has abandoned her. Daenerys has begun to turn herself into a legend: she is the Mother of Dragons; she is the Mother of us all. That is a tough act to live up to. Secondly, Daenerys has been on the run her entire life. The closest she has come to home has been a house in Braavos with a red door, or maybe it was Drogo's tent on the Dothraki sea. In either case, Daenerys has always been on the move, and she has never had control over where she was going. For once she has an opportunity to rest and choose her own moment of departure. I think she is relishing this new type of freedom, even if that is not the wisest way to spend her time.
Still, if there is any big problem with A Dance with Dragons, it has to be the paucity of dragon scenes. Dany gets one big crowning moment of awesome that I won't spoil, and Quentyn Martell has the audacity to try to steal Dany's dragons and bring them back to Dorne. (Yeah, that doesn't work out well.) But come on, Martin! We've been waiting for these dragons since they hatched at the end of A Game of Thrones! I'm not asking that Dany tame all three of them and start riding them into battle immediately. So far, however, they seem like more of a liability than an asset, and I keep waiting for someone with some dragon lore, like Tyrion, or that maester who left to find Daenerys at the end of A Feast for Crows, to show up and become her dragon whisperer. I like to think that I am someone who can appreciate the slow burn, the gradual but incessant build up to a final, gratifying climax. And I know Martin is working toward that. But I just wish he could have thrown a little more dragon dancing our way. Or maybe just some dragon cavorting. Dragon promenade? I'm flexible.
Last time, I mentioned that Cersei sucks at the game of thrones. In A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin makes it clear that everyone sucks at the game of thrones. But it's not their fault, not really.
The dramatic shifts in POV with each chapter offer us a unique sense of duality when it comes to viewing the political situation in Westeros. In King's Landing, the councillors squabble over the threat from the Iron Islands and how to finally dispatch Stannis. Thanks to Cersei, the Iron Throne's debt continues to grow, and she has somehow managed to empower the High Septon even as she incurs his disapproval. Good job! So among the inner circle around Tommen, there's a certain sense of unease; no one is feeling secure at the moment.
In the North, there is a similar atmosphere, but the insecurity is directed toward Stannis. Davos becomes an emissary and attempts to secure some support for Stannis, but Stannis' strength seems to be flagging: he has few men, little coin, his fleet is in tatters, and winter is coming to the North in a big way. So even as Stannis continues to wage his war, because he is a man governed by duty and not sense, the consensus among the North seems to be that he's not destined to rest his laurels on the Iron Throne.
What this, along with Cersei's own situation, shows is that all of the claimants to the throne are in a precarious position. Even those who have the Iron Throne at this moment aren't sure they can keep it. Meanwhile, every other claimant, from Dany to Stannis, has more immediate problems to face before they can march on King's Landing. And, just to shake things up, Martin tosses a new claimant into the mix. We finally get a glimpse into Varys' machinations, and while the new contender does feel like he's coming out of left field, it totally fits with Martin's motif of mistaken identity. I stand by what I said in my review of A Storm of Swords: it doesn't matter so much who finally ends up ruling Westeros as it does how much of Westeros will be left when the dust settles. The Seven Kingdoms are fracturing, crumbling, and decaying. And winter, and the Others, are coming.
A Dance with Dragons doesn't deliver what I expected. Somehow, though, it still manages to deliver enough to make me enjoy and appreciate the book, as well as its contributions to the Song of Ice and Fire. Martin indulges in a peculiar new way of titling his chapters, using somewhat fanciful names like "the Prince of Winterfell" or "the Queensguard" instead of proper character names. To be fair, it's not exactly hard to discern whose POV it is. Perhaps this is supposed to emphasize each character's shifting identities and priorities. Because A Dance with Dragons lacks a watershed moment like the Red Wedding, but just like A Storm of Swords, I finished this book with a clear conviction that nothing is ever going to be the same, and that we are heading to one hell of a final confrontation.