First Line: The night was rank with the smell of man.
I should probably preface this by saying that when it comes to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I have officially achieved fanboy status. With the exception of this most recent installment of the series, I’ve read every page at least five times. Hell, I even have the official 2011 calendar (May’s illustration of “The Red Keep at King’s Landing” is my favorite, I think, although January’s “Winterfell” and the two-page spread of “Pike” run a close second and third) and subscribed to HBO solely to watch the mini-series based on the first book. I say that not because I think I’m unable to put together an unbiased review of A Dance with Dragons, but because regardless of what I put down here, I am thoroughly invested in the series, and it will take a catastrophic failing on Martin’s part to make me abandon my fanboydom.
And that’s what’s at the heart of a series, isn’t it? Hooking the reader into not just wanting to know what comes next, but needing to know. I need to see how things work out for the characters Martin has so successfully brought to life. I’m thoroughly invested in the ones I’ve come to adore (Tyrion Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Arya Stark), those I’ve come to loathe (Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Victarion Greyjoy), and the myriad of other characters, large and small, major and minor, that fall somewhere in between. And I mean myriad in the true sense of the word. With this latest book, my count of point-of-view characters in the entire series reached a whopping 26, with 18 in Dance alone. This far and away eclipses the PoV numbers in previous books, which has steadily increased since A Game of Thrones (Game of Thrones – 8; A Clash of Kings – 9; A Storm of Swords – 10; A Feast for Crows – 12).
In fact, a total of 11 new PoV characters took the stage in books 4 and 5 combined, which leads to the only complaint I have of the series. The last two books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, have felt rather disjointed. Despite the vast scope of the alternating plot-lines in the opening three books, the overall story was tightly wound, held together not just by the masterful plotting of so many different and contrasting elements, but also by the individual character journeys that Martin utilizes to tell the story of the war of the seven kingdoms of Westeros. Books four and five, however, seem to lose much of that focus on character and shift to an emphasis on a plot-driven means of storytelling. The result is being left with a nagging sensation that somewhere along the way Martin has lost his previously firm grip on the overall story, and now he’s struggling to rein everything back into place.
There are a few notable exceptions, though. Arya, for example, is still a primarily character-driven storyline. Indeed, she has become so far removed from the other storylines that her chapters seem almost aimless in comparison. The difference is that they are, for me, much more enjoyable as they are focused almost completely on her own personal journey. Davos is another exception, I think. Though he is more intricately bound to the overall story of Westeros, he has a finely crafted storyline focused on his own personal journey as he deals with complexities of the world around him.
But then there are the seemingly throw-away PoV characters like Griff and Quentyn Martell. While somewhat interesting, their storylines are brief and seem to be there only to perform a specific action or provide a specific element necessary to the overall plot. Martell’s storyline, in particular, was wholly unsatisfying due to its brevity. While I think his death is intended to have much the same effect as Eddard’s in A Game of Thrones, it ultimately fails in this. With more than double the number of PoV characters in Dance, Martin just doesn’t have the time to get me invested in Martell in the same way I was with Eddard. His chapters are few and far between, and his existence in the book (even though we did meet him briefly earlier in the series) is needed only to get the dragons free from their imprisonment and help introduce The Tattered Prince. While I’m sure Martell’s death will have ramifications in subsequent books, it felt almost extraneous in Dance and he will likely have more of an impact on the overall story as a corpse than he ever did as a PoV character.
More importantly, at times I find myself not trusting Martin to tell me the truth through his PoV characters. His reliance on perceived death as a cliffhanger, for example, has left me feeling cheated, especially when the death is of a PoV character. In one case in Dance, I gasped and cried out “oh no!” when I was led to believe a major PoV character had died. When this character had another chapter a few dozen pages later, I felt tricked. Worse, perhaps, is that Dance ends in much the same fashion with one of my favorite PoV characters. Is the character dead? Martin wants me to think so, but I’ve seen this little trick before so I have my doubts. It’s one thing to clear up the speculation in a few pages, but with years coming between books I think it’s an weak plot device from someone who had no problem whatsoever killing off Eddard Stark in book one, a character who was, arguably, the hero of that book. After three books of unbiased, realistic, almost heartless storytelling, I find it a cheap ploy to entice the reader with such a device. I’ve reached a point where unless I see a PoV character’s death through someone else’s eyes, I simply don’t trust that element of Martin’s story, and that leaves at least five PoV characters absent without leave.
Make no mistake, though, Martin is ultimately in his usual fine form with A Dance With Dragons. Not only is the book well worth the five year wait, I’ll happily (not to mention impatiently) wait another five years for the next if Martin needs that long to get things back under control. And then, just as soon as my pre-ordered copy lands on my doorstep, I’ll gobble it up (but, honestly, George… I’d prefer not to wait five years, ok?). Though that may be due in part to my fanboydom, it’s also a testament to the series as a whole. While I think A Dance With Dragons suffers due to the expanding complexities of Martin’s story (as does A Feast for Crows and most middle books in other extended series’), it remains a crucial component of what will undoubtedly become a canonical work in the fantasy genre.