Here’s the problem: A Dance with Dragons is a very long book which does not have enough plot.
I poked around for other ways to start this post, but that’s what it boils down to. I haven’t been waiting seven years, having only finished A Feast for Crows a year ago, but even so A Dance with Dragons fails to be as satisfying as the previous four volumes. Almost everything I was expecting to happen fails to happen – not necessarily bad, but it’s not that interesting things happen instead, it’s that the characters wander round doing things I don’t really care about, marking time until they can be manouvered into the right position, and the ending fizzles out.
Daenarys, for example, starts off in Meereen. Having decided at the end of A Storm of Swords to stay and rule Meereen, rather than leaving the freed slave city to its own devices, she spends an awful lot of chapters not doing a lot. She finds out that ruling your conquered city is hard, and trying to dismantle the structures of slavery is also difficult, and that sometimes you have to make a political marriage to further the cause of many rather than marry the man you really want, but I was disappointed with how much Daenarys actually got to do – she made some decisions, married in order to broker peace, and showed some compassion towards the sick, but at the end of the book there’s still a battle brewing with Yunkai and Volantis and probably some other places I have lost track of, just like there was a battle brewing with Yunkai and Volantis on page 12 except now some people have moved around. And Dany finally rides one of her dragons, and flies away from Meereen, maybe to start a whole new plot. I do at least like what they do with the dragons, who are not anthropomorphised fluffy creatures but vicious and unpredictable killers who have to be locked away, and Dany does not immediately master the dragon and fly around having happy adventures, so there is that.
Meanwhile Tyrion is across the narrow sea. His plot runs like this: he joins up with a group of adventurers on a boat trip, gets captured, gets dragged on another boat trip, gets captured and sold as a slave, escapes from slavery and signs up with some mercenaries. And this puts him outside Meereen at the right point to possibly take part in the battle, which will happen in book six. Probably. Yes, there’s some character development. Yes, he learns some useful information. Could it have been done in fewer chapters and with less comedy dwarf jousting? Quite probably. I like Tyrion, and I like Dany, but outside of them and a couple of other characters, I find it hard to care about any of the hundreds of characters in the Meereen chapters, or to keep track of who they are. GRRM has talked about the “Meerenese knot”, the problem which plagued his writing of trying to get all the characters lined up in the right place at the right time, but I don’t think he’s quite managed to unpick it.
It’s not all negative, or I wouldn’t have ever made it through a thousand pages – there’s a definite quickening of the pace about the halfway mark that drew me back in, and the chapters set in Westeros are more engaging. It may not be officially winter until the closing chapter of the book, but it certainly feels like it, with Bran and his companions trekking through the snow, and the march of Stannis and his armies through the storms of the north. It’s essentially a continuation of the politics, treachery and uncertainty of the first few books, as the Manderlys and Freys and Karstarks trade their allegiances and plot to turn on Stannis and Roose Bolton, and it also brings some of the best chapters every time we go back to Reek. Once again Martin makes an unlikeable character sympathetic; this time he undergoes horrendous tortures at the hands of arguably the most evil character in the books, which is pretty much guaranteed to win my sympathy, but every chapter is heart-wrenching and awful.
And again we’re setting up for a battle, and again we don’t get it. We get some developments (and it took me far too long to work out who the bard at Winterfell and his women were), and Ramsay Bolton’s letter implies that Stannis has been defeated, but that’s presumably a feint, as he didn’t capture Reek and Jeyne. I don’t mind if we have a battle, or if Stannis and his host freeze to death in the snow, or if a dragon swoops down and saves them all, but it spends quite a long time not happening, and while the icy march is atmospheric and Asha is an interesting character, I want something to happen.
Even when old friends from A Feast for Crows return, it’s sometimes frustrating. Cersei’s chapters are riveting as she continues her downward spiral, and I liked Arya’s and Melisandre’s chapters – in general, the female characters get a pretty good deal. Jaime’s sole chapter poses more questions that it answers – Brienne we can presume is either not dead, or undead, but we have no idea what her final cry was, or whose side she is on. And that’s another thing I noticed – for all of Martin’s tendency to kill off characters, there’s not a lot of death in A Dance with Dragons. At least one character thought to be long dead turns up alive, there’s at least two death fake-outs that I recall, and I’m certain that the surprising final death is not a death at all, since it’s so heavily hinted at in the prologue. About the only death of note is Quentyn Martell, who spent a whole book getting himself over to Meereen so he could get fried by a dragon (presumably to show that it’s not the “blood of the dragon” that is the key to controlling them). The series is ramping up the magical and supernatural elements, but I would rather not have too many characters turn out to be magically undead in some way or another.
In summary, it’s got some good moments but they aren’t really enough to push it along, and I wish that it had been edited down into one book along with A Feast for Crows, as it would make a single really fine novel.
A note on the Kindle edition: the Kindle price came down below that of the paperback, so I bought it on the Kindle to save lugging around a thousand-page brick. And I regretted it. First, for a couple of practical reasons: it’s hard to flip back and forth to the maps and the character pages at the back while you’re reading. This is not enough to spoil the experience. What was almost enough to spoil it is that the Kindle edition is very badly formatted. There are hyphens in the middle of words, weirdness with the starting words of chapters, but worst it is missing a whole lot of line breaks between speakers, rendering conversations very confusing. For example:
“Do you have a better way?” Quentyn asked him. “I do. It’s just now come to me. It has its risks, and it is not what you would call honorable, I grant you … but it will get you to your queen quicker than the demon road.”
“Tell me,” said Quentyn Martell.
Either Quentyn is having a conversation with himself, or there’s something funky going on. I tried deleting and redownloading the book, but it didn’t fix it. This is the first time I’ve paid more than a few quid for an ebook, and it’s got the worst formatting so far, and it’s not a good advert for the Kindle store. If I’d bought the hardback and torrented the ebook I could at least have gone in and fixed the line breaks as I went along.