Friday, November 1, 2013

A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 3.60 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 4.21 / 5.00

This is the fifth book in Mr Martin’s highly acclaimed ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series. I have previously reviewed Book 1: A Game of Thrones, Book 2: A Clash of Kings, Book 3: A Storm of Swords & Book 4: A Feast for Crows

Warning: this review contains numerous spoilers for the previous four titles: if you have not read them, then I would suggest that you avoid the rest of my review.

Note: As I mentioned at the beginning of my review for A Feast for Crows, this title runs somewhat parallel to that book. However, whereas Book 4 deals almost exclusively with Southern Westeros, this title focuses on the Wall and the North, plus the various storylines converging in Essos. Also we see the return of Bran, Daenerys, Davos, Jon and Tyrion as POV narrators, thank goodness.

King Stannis Baratheon has shown that he is above petty politics and prefers to actually save the Kingdom from its enemies by moving his army north to support the Night’s Watch and the Wall. The two make an uneasy alliance after Jon refuses Stannis’ plan to install him as Lord of Winterfell. Jon does not want to assume the title because he believes that some of his siblings are still alive and have a better claim to it. Also he does not want to renege on his vow to the Night’s Watch. As Stannis tries to rally the North to his banner, Jon is harassed by dissension amongst his officers. Stannis moves south, capturing Deepwood Motte and taking Asha Greyjoy prisoner before heading to Winterfell, which is now held by Ramsey Bolton and his new bride ‘Arya’ Stark. However, the weather hampers their movements and so they are still miles away when Reek makes a break fro freedom, taking the abused ‘Arya’ with him.

Meanwhile, somewhere beyond the Wall, Coldhands leads Bran to the three-eyed crow through increasingly bad weather and whilst hunted by the Others. They finally arrive at a cave where they meet some of the Children of the Forest as well as the three-eyed crow himself. There, Bran learns more about his talents and comes to understand what his future will hold.

After murdering his father, Tyrion Lannister is on the run and headed east across the Narrow Sea. His first stop is Pentos, where he is wined and dined by Magister Illyrio Mopatis. However, it seems that the Magister sees Tyrion as a useful piece in his plan to place Daenerys on the Iron Throne because the former-Hand can offer her a great deal of very wise advice about how to manipulate the lords of Westeros. He sends off Tyrion to the Mother of Dragons with the news that he has persuaded the Golden Company of sellswords to support her claim to the throne. However, Tyrion’s travelling companions prove to include a young man that is later revealed to be Aegon Targaryen, heir to Rhaegar, who Varys replaced as a baby and then smuggled out of Westeros after the sack of King’s Landing. Aegon intends to join forces with his aunt Daenerys, marry her and then lay claim to the Iron Throne himself, but Tyrion points out that she may not want to give up her own intentions to rule Westeros and persuades the boy to take advantage of the chaos and begin a campaign of conquest at once. But then Tyrion gets very, very drunk in a whorehouse and is captured by Jorah Mormont, who hopes to use him to curry favor with Daenerys. Unfortunately, on the voyage to Volantis they are captured by slavers and end up in the Yunkish camp outside the walls of Meereen.

Inside Meereen, Daenerys has discovered that conquest does not always run smoothly. Staying to rule the city and practice her statecraft, she has found that people can be very difficult to manipulate. The Sons of the Harpy are killing Unsullied at random as well as others amongst her supporters and trying to undermine her authority. Unfortunately, her rather sizeable dragons are now getting difficult to control and have taken to raiding the local farmland, even killing children, so she has them caged in one of the old fighting pits. Then there is her man problem. She is in love, or at least in lust, with Daario Naharis, but he would be unsuitable as her husband. For political expediency she must marry Hizdahr zo Loraq, a wealthy Meereen noble man, but shortly before the ceremony she is approached by Quentyn Martell, who carries a pact that stated that Viserys was to marry Arianne Martell. He asks her to honor that agreement by marrying him, but she refuses. There then follows some rather dramatic dragon-driven chaos.

As with A Feast for Crows, we find POVs with obscure names, such as The Windblown and The Dragontamer. Our new POVs again add to the complexity of the storyline, but also add to our understanding of the many plots and schemes in play.

Expanding on the Dornish theme of Book 4, we follow Quentyn Martell in his travels from Volantis to Mereen as he attempts to follow his father’s wishes and claim Daenerys’ hand in marriage. Like many of Mr Martin’s characters, Quentyn is not really suited to this challenge, but he valiantly keeps in trying, even when everything goes wrong and he is the centerpiece of one of the funniest chapters in the whole series. As The Dragontamer he attempts to steal either Rhaegal or Viserion from their pit and it does not quite go to plan, as you might imagine.

Rather than being given Aegon’s POV we see him through other people’s eyes, much as we did with Robb Stark. Jon Connington, aka The Griffin, was Rhaegar’s closest friend and has been the young prince’s father figure, protector and educator since taking charge of him as a boy. Jon is tired and ill, but driven to do everything he can for his friend’s son, even when the boy is hotheaded and troublesome. It would seem that Aegon might be a forceful, charismatic leader like his aunt, but there are also echoes of his uncle Viserys’ petulance and narcissism. Only time will tell if he is a good or bad Targaryen.

The other two new POVs are characters that we are very familiar with: Melisandre and Barristan Selmy. The Red Witch has only a single chapter, but it proves to throw a great deal of light upon her character. As with Jaime Lannister, her motivations are not be what we expect them to be: she truly believes in the Great Other and is desperate to defeat it. This overturns the idea that she is merely a cynical trickster who is using Stannis for her own power-crazed gratification. There is still a great deal that we have to learn about her, but I expect it to be interesting and unexpected.

Sir Barristan provides us with an insight into how everyone views Daenerys, but also continues the commentary on Meereen after she leaves on Drogon. He attempts to continue her rule, but everything is spinning out of his control as the Queen’s absence lags on. He does his best, but politics is most certainly not his forte.

As we saw earlier with Jaime Lannister, Mr Martin likes to let his characters grow and change. In this title the biggest growth is probably that shown by Reek / Theon Greyjoy, who is arguably the most changed character of the whole series so far. First he was Robb’s snarky sidekick, then the spurned son trying to impress his father, then the turncoat and dreadful leader. Recently he has been a most unpleasant time at the hands of the vile Ramsay Bolton and has changed beyond all recognition. Indeed, Asha meets him at the end of the book and does not even recognize him as her little brother. However, by this stage he has also shown more courage than anyone could have expected of him and has escaped from Ramsay with the fake ‘Arya Stark’. Mr Martin signals this changing identity by using a variety of names for his POV chapters, beginning with Reek and ending with Theon as he finally reclaims his own identity. This rehabilitation is an astounding character arc and it makes me understand why Alfie Allen jumped at the chance to play him.

Finally, I cannot review this title without talking a little about the remaining Starks. Bran’s story is pure Fantasy and the realization of his destiny is very sad indeed, especially when one considers Hodor and Summer. On the other hand, Arya recovers from her blindness and is taking her first steps as a face-changing assassin: yay Arya! She is also expanding her warging, which I hope means that Nymeria will return to the storyline in a more substantial way. Then there is Jon, trying to cope with Sir Alliser Thorne: a man who should surely have had a quiet nighttime meeting with Ghost a long time ago. Amongst the men fighting against Jon’s command is Bowen Marsh, the Steward, who spends a great deal of time moaning and being a bit of a whiner. We leave Jon at a critical moment, with possibly the worst cliffhanging ending that I have ever read, especially as I know that The Winds of Winter is not due until 2015. Arghh! Write faster, Mr Martin!

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