(This is part 5 of an exploration of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.)
George R. R. Martin faced a difficult problem when he finished A Feast for Crows. He had written a significant portion of his next book — A Dance with Dragons — from the leftovers from Feast, but it wasn’t coming together. He faced the task of rewriting the unpublished half of a popular published book, breaking nothing in the existing narrative while improving the story.
This is why it took six years to finish.
Martin’s entire series is is a hydra: for every plot head he cuts off, another three take its place. A Dance with Dragons doesn’t cover much more ground than A Feast for Crows — mostly that already told in the last book — but makes up for it in the sheer breadth of character interaction and story continuity.
It is also about characters forced out of their depth. Adept chessmaster Tyrion Lannister becomes powerless; would-be child conquerer Daenerys Targeryen must learn to rule; and idealist Jon Snow learns the price of compromise in Westeros.
Ending spoilers ahead!
Having been found guilty of the death of his nephew King Joffrey and subsequently murdering his father, Tyrion flees King’s Landing with the help of Varys, Master of Secrets. He gains the help of wealthy merchant Illyrio and sets off for Meereen to court Queen Daenerys Targaryen . . . if he can get there. On the way he’s abducted by Jorah Mormount, spurned knight of Daenerys. Through sheer bad luck the two become slaves on the auction block outside of the gates of Meereen (along with Penny, a fellow dwarf Tyrion pities). He winds up in Meereen, but with no way of getting to Daenerys.
Yet Daenerys has troubles of her own. Her dragon Drogon has flown away, and the other two, Viserion and Rhaegal, are chained inside one of Meereen’s great stone pyramids. The conquered city of Meereen is plagued by an underground terrorism group, the Sons of the Harpy, opposed to Daenerys’s end to the slave trade in the city and surrounding area. Outside, the forces of Yunkai and its allies, who are hurting after the slave trade stopped, lay siege. To keep the city together, she agrees to marry a Meereenese nobleman, Hizdahr no Loraq, who may or may not be the leader of the Sons of the Harpy. Little by little her ideals are chipped away.
Newly minted commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow, faces similar trouble. Stannis Baratheon tasks Snow to re-fortify the Wall any way he can. However, Snow doesn’t have the men to do so, and no one in Westeros is willing to send him any more (or is in any position to do so). He makes an ill-conceived pact with the Wildlings: Snow will let them settle below the wall, in exchange for financial and martial support to defend it. Tension mounts within the ranks of his fellow brothers, as they see his consorting with Stannis and the Wildlings as tantamount to breaking his vows.
Just south of the Wall, Roose Bolton rules the north with his bastard son Ramsay. A cruel man, Ramsey chases naked women with his vicious hounds and keeps a human pet named Reek — in actuality Theon Greyjoy, one-time conquerer of Winterfell before Ramsay took it from him. Tortured and brainwashed, a broken ghost of a man, Theon obeys his master’s every whim. But he rebuilds his courage and identity when he discovers that Ramsey is betrothed to a fake Anya Stark.
Not far from Theon’s troubles, Asha Greyjoy marches as a prisoner of Stannis Baratheon. Stannis moves against Roose Bolton to take back Winterfell with the help of disaffected northern lords. Although he left Melisandre with Jon in the north, his soldiers are faithful to R’hillor, the deity of fire from far to the east. But when Stannis is caught in a snowstorm just miles away from Winterfell, and his followers being to die of starvation, Asha may soon become a sacrifice to the red god so that Stannis might break free of the storm.
Bran Stark, with stableboy Hodor and his companions Jojen and Meera Reed, ride with a wight named Coldhands far into the frozen north. There he comes upon the Children of the Forest, the ancient elven precursors to the First Men (whom Bran is descended from). The Children agree to teach him their ways of skinchanging and observing the world through the weirwood trees scattered across Westeros. But the Reeds grow restless in their underground cave, and Bran wonders just what the Children’s intentions are.
Here the plotlines from the previous book come back into the fold. Cersei Lannister, jailed by the Faith Militant for her rumored infidelities, makes a pact with the High Septon (on suggestion of her uncle Kevan Lannister): she’ll do public penance in return for skipping a public trial. But the penance the High Septon has in mind is humiliating to an extreme: walking naked through King’s Landing to show one’s shame to the entire populace.
Jaime Lannister has ignored Cersei’s pleas for help completely, as he is busy getting affairs in order around the realm. But as he tidies up remaining loose ends, Brienne finds him (herself worse for wear), claiming that the Hound has captured Sansa and that she needs Jaime’s help to defeat him. Coming after her recent encounter with undead Catelyn Stark and the Brotherhood Without Banners, Brienne may have other motives for getting Jaime to come with her.
Meanwhile, things heat up in the already sweltering Meereen. Daenarys, throughHizdahr no Loraq, brokers a tenuous peace with the armies of the Yunkai. On her wedding day arrives a very late suitor: Quentyn Martell, sent by his grandfather Doran, to form an alliance between Daenerys and house Martell. But Daenerys knows that Quentyn can offer no help when Dorne is across the narrow sea, far from Slaver’s Bay. She rejects his offer, but keeps him as her guest.
During Daenerys’s wedding celebrations, Drogon returns in time to foil a plot to poison her. Daenerys decides flying with Drogon would be a better life than ruling Meereen, so she tames him in a fighting arena in front of fleeing subjects and escapes from the city. She leaves her loyal knight Barristan Selmy to take care of Meereen in her place. But the Yunkai were biding their time until they could re-take Meereen with the other pro-slaver forces, and re-start their war in earnest. Quentyn Martell gets a notion that he can tame one of Daenerys’s dragons, one quickly dispelled when he burns to death in the attempt. And Tyrion, escaping from his owner with Penny and Jorah, sells away half of Casterly Rock to a company of sellswords in order to return to Westeros and claim what is his.
Tragically, after making moral and political compromises to keep the Wall defended and his protector Stannis viable in the North, Jon Snow is murdered by his fellow brothers. It was clear that all of the maneuvering Snow had to take to stay alive would exact a price — his fake defection and later flight from the wildlings, his pact with Stannis, his settling of the lands just south of the Wall. But it was keeping the giant Wun Wun for manual labor that drove his brothers to murder him. Snow was the most progressive leader in Westeros, but in a land where winter can last years, any sign of weakness cannot be tolerated.
Amidst all of this tumult, the Lannisters finally calm the southern half of Westeros under the eye of Kevan Lannister, who now makes decisions for King Tommen. But Kevan’s administration, and his life, is cut short by Varys. He tells Kevan what he’s had in mind all along: to keep the rule of any non-Targaryen ruler unstable so that the Targaryens may reclaim the throne. And with the arrival of the white raven from the Citadel signalling the start of winter, things will only worsen in the coming years.
I find it hard to imagine what other fans must have felt reading A Dance with Dragons after a six-year wait, but I found it much better than A Feast for Crows simply because Martin didn’t limit his focus. By covering more arcs (for much shorter periods of time), he cheats no one of their favorite character or locale while augmenting the epic nature of the series. Alas, not everyone made it into the book this time around — Samwell Tarly, Sansa Stark and a few others are missing. Also, Viserion Greyjoy’s arc barely begins two-thirds of the way into the book — one wonders whether Martin had a much longer story planned for him that was cut short due to length concerns.
Still, if this were the last entry in the series (and I certainly hope not!), A Dance with Dragons would make a satisfactory end, if not exactly a conclusion. And now the long wait begins for The Winds of Winter, coming . . . eventually.