A Dance With Dragons

During my University years, I used to walk in bookstores in my spare time to find out new titles and authors, turning over the pages of different books to see if they could catch my interest, touching them, even smelling them (it may seem quite fetish, and maybe it is, but anyone who loves books not only for what’s written in them but also as objects will understand what I mean). I bought many books this way. And this is how I got to know A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin some 10-11 years ago.

I read the books available at the time in very few days, then I waited almost one year for the third book (that had been splitted into three books in Italy), three further years for the fourth (that had been splitted into two books in Italy) and five further years for the fifth, that has been released worldwide in English on July, 12th. This is the bad thing about becoming keen on sagas that have not yet been ended by the author. You must be patient and wait. And maybe, in the meantime, read the first books more than once, so that you don’t lose the thread.

A Dance with Dragons is the fifth book of A Song of Ice and Fire. The long awaited fifth book. The one fans have longed for so many years after having been (partially) let down by the fourth, where Martin decided to pause the main charaters and plots to take us all in different areas of Westeros and to introduce us new points of view and stories. The one where we meet again Queen Daenerys, Lord Commander Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister, three of the most beloved characters in a saga that sees the number of names and points of view constantly growing. The one where we eventually know about the fans’ nightmare that has been known as “Meereenese knot”, the reason why this book took so long to the author to be written. I finished the book two weeks ago and here are my thoughts about it (SPOILER ALERT – if you don’t want SPOILER about the book and the saga don’t read beneath the dragon).

A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin

George Martin is probably one of the best plotter in the world. And A Dance With Dragons is a further confirmation of this statement, if one was needed. The book has sixteen characters that are points of view (just to make a comparison, the first book in the saga, A Game Of Thrones, had eight), and they are intertwined in the different plots with a sort of magical ability that very few storytellers have.

THE FACTS

There are two main places in A Dance With Dragons: The Wall, where Lord Commander Jon Snow has to deal with three different enemies (the Wildlings, the Others and his own Brothers of the Night Watch), and Meereen, where Queen Daenerys, after freeing all the slaves, has to face the difficulties of ruling a city and of being a queen. The greatest part of the book is about facts that have one of this two characters as a centre of gravity, probably suggesting that these are the plots that will be developed to the end of the saga (that should feature two more books, both yet to be written). Nevermind the fact that A Dance With Dragons ends with both Jon and Daenerys in serious difficulties: fans get used to this kind of twists in Martin storytelling style and everyone knows Jon and Daenerys will eventually be there to save the Seven Kingdoms.

The other chapters are about sub-plots that are nonetheless of great interest.

Bran finally founds out who the three-eyed crow that visit his dreams is: he founds him with the help of Coldhand, he meets him and the Children of the Forest and he starts his main training as a Greenseer and Skinchanger (he is definitely going to be one of the most powerful characters in the next books, certainly with a key role in the events to come).

Half a world away, his sister Arya continues her training as a Faceless Woman in the House of Black and White and she goes through her first assassination assignment (one of the best part in the book).

The North is at war: on one side, Lord Bolton is trying to extablish is own bastard Lord Ramsay as Lord Protector of the North, by wedding him to a fake Arya Stark (we found a shattered and torn Theon Greyjoy as a POV in these magnifically written chapters); on the other side, Stannis Baratheon is marching to Winterfell in order to save the fake Arya Stark (which he assumes to be the true one) and to win the alliance of the North Lords in his fight for the Iron Throne.

There’s also a completely new sub-plot that may turn many characters’ plans upside down. It seems, in fact, that Rhaegar Targaryen’s son Aegon has not been murdered at the end of Robert’s Rebellion, as we used to know so far. He has been saved and hidden by Targaryen’s loyalists Varys and Illyrio Mopatis and he is a grown boy now, ready to claim his right to the Iron Throne, aided by the people who taught him to be a good warrior, a good leader and a good westerner: Lord Jon Connington, Ser Rolly Duckfield, Haldon Halfmaester and a misterious and fascinating septa named Lemore. After hiring the Golden Company, one of the strongest sellswords company beyond the Narrow Sea, they move to Westeros and start conquering castles near Storm’s End. This is probably one of the most difficult twists to understand. It may seem Martin wants to force this sub-plot in the events and it’s quite shocking in the consequences it may have. I can hear you asking: What about Daenerys? Wasn’t she supposed to be the last Targaryen alive? What about dragons? I know … all we can do is wait and see. After all, one of the many prophecies in the books is also about a mummer’s dragon …

Where have all the Lannisters gone? Jaime is POV in one chapter. He is still in the Riverlands to set the last things up after having convinced Tullys to give up Riverrun. Everything seems ready for his return to King’s Landing, but Brienne shows up and tells him she knows where Sansa Stark is and that she needs his help to save her from the Hound. We don’t really know any more about this. Cersei is POV in two chapters. She must face serious charges, she is permitted to return to his son King Tommen before her trial, but she has to submit to a terrible penance walk (naked and shaved) from the Great Sept of Baelor to the Red Keep, during which she almost faint. Tyrion is lost. The murder of his father harasses him, as do the last words Tywin spoke before dying: “Wherever whores go”, with reference to the place Tysha, the first and probably only woman Tyrion has loved, is. He is overwhelmed by events, never able to take his destiny into his hands. We found him first with Lord Connington’s crew, then kidnapped by Jorah Mormont, then again sold as a slave to a Yunkish Lord and forced to perform fighting in a mock joust with a female dwarf. Only in the end Tyrion manages to take advantage of the events as we are used to see him doing when he comes to an agreement with a sellswords company with the final aim of returning to the Seven Kingdoms. There’s only one element in common in his long and tormented journey: Daenerys, who Tyrion seems convinced to reach in order to offer her his wits and services as a counsellor.

A few more chapters are dedicated to House Martell, which is preparing to play a major role in the Seven Kingdoms in the books to come, and to House Greyjoy, with Victarion heading to Meereen to meet Daenerys and Asha that fails to keep Deepwood Motte in the North and is hence held captive by Stannis.

MY OPINION

A Dance With Dragons is a long book, a book where many things happen, where many characters are met (again), where many plots are expanded. Yet, it is the fifth book out of a seven book planned saga, and maybe the one so far where the sense of incompleteness is higher. Martin is able to pull the strings of his amazingly wide world, but in some way this world is becoming too crowded and in some twists you can almost smell the attempt to take time in order to let all the pieces fit. After all, this is what the Meereenese knot was about.

Daenerys is the character that suffers this necessity the most. She seemed regressed to the Vyseris-period, a baby-queen unable to take decisions and to make political moves, driven by her feelings rather than her wits. She is far from Daenerys Stormborn, from being the Mother of Dragons, and she is almost unrecognizable. In her last chapter you can read between the lines a consciousness raising, but we all hope this time is for good.

On the other side, A Dance With Dragons is George R. R. Martin at his best: amazing descriptions of events and places (not to say food and feasts); a setting that has almost none credibility gap and that continues to grow and to expand as lines go by; characters that navigate their way in the world through greyscales that make judgements almost impossible for the reader; crucial hints about main events or twists hidden between the lines of a description, of a fast-paced dialogue, of a thought by one of the main characters. If I am that much into A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin storytelling abilities is the main reason, and A Dance With Dragons has not let me down.

Things I liked:

  • Jon’s role as the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch;
  • the parts where Westeros’ history is told (events, legends, background);
  • Bran, Theon and Arya (the way she carries out her first assassination assignement is really kickass!) – their chapters are simply great.

Things I didn’t like:

  • Daenerys’ role as Queen of Meereen;
  • release the dragons!;
  • Quentyn Martell’s epic fails – I started to have a fondness for him.
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