Monday, July 18, 2011

Book Review: A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin (Non-Spoiler Review)

Well it took me just under a week but I finished A DANCE WITH DRAGONS (5th book in GEORGE R. R. MARTIN’S A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE SERIES) on Sunday morning and decided not to write my review till today since I wanted to spend a day thinking about it first.

It was requested that I try my best to avoid spoilers in this review and I fully plan to do that. So if you are concerned I will not be spoiling any major plot points, or even smaller plot points. I will however mention broader scope things and I am going on the assumption that if you are reading this review then you have read books 1-4. So, there you have been duly informed.

So how about the book. Did I enjoy it? Yes and no (AKA mixed feelings). Am I surprised that is my reaction to it? Not at all. In fact I fully expected to feel this way.

Let’s start with the structure and length. The book clocks in at around 950 pages hardcover (not including maps and house name list pages) and of that about 600 pages is spent bringing the POV’s that were absent from AFFC up to the same end-point. This equates to characters like Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen killing time. The first 600 pages could be called “Holding Pattern Till We Catch Up”, and while Martin throws in some good solid stuff and a few major twists it really does feel like a bit of a slog for large chunks. It’s nice to have new or hidden-new POV’s like Reek, Varamyr Sixskins, and Melisandre in the book bringing a fresh view into the proceedings but people like Davos Seaworth who I never really cared much for (and who existed previously as a POV window onto Stannis Baratheon) are simply boring. He has one chapter where something interesting happens, but mostly it adds up to a lot of travelling and trying to get Northern lords to bend the knee to Stannis.

There is, it should be noted, one MAJOR development in the first half of the book that could be considered a game changer. Just an FYI.

For this first section the book spends time with our main characters doing things that CAN be interesting but get overdrawn. This book is largely about good people attempting to rule in good and honest ways whilst Martin shows us that even good can produce bad, and in some cases evil. That’s a great thing and a wonderful juxtaposition to the events in the South from AFFC with generally bad people doing bad things. It would be great…in another book. This is a book we were waiting six years for and while it’s nice to show us this I feel like it didn’t need 600 pages worth of material devoted to it. Certain things, especially in Tyrion and Daenerys’ storylines by page 500, feel like overkill. It had me thinking “Okay, I get it George…can we move along please?” Is this an awful thing? No, but it got a tad tedious and had the rest of the book not delivered I’d be upset.

That said, Bran's storyline throughout the entirety of those 600 pages IS totally interesting and enthralling and almost better than Jon Snow's chapters. So there's that. 

Thankfully, the final 350-ish pages are nearly completely win. In fact there is a discernable moment (a chapter of events in the Sunspear on Dorne) in the volume where we move on from AFFC and things move forward. Characters from AFFC (Cersei, Jaime, Arya ect.) show back up and this barge of a book turns into a speedboat, as Martin leaves the doldrums behind and gets to the goods.

The latter quarter of the book is full of setup for the next book and people move into positions where the tension is palpable and events happen that cannot seemingly be undone producing some surprising results. There are also events that staggered my brain with their revelations and those are always good. Are there cliffhangers you ask? GALORE. Nearly the entirety of the last 100 pages is cliffhangers, a few stronger than others, but enough to keep people guessing and coming back when the next book drops.

(Insert joke about how long that will take here)

The final 350 pages made the read satisfying but the first 600 can be a bit of a chore to slog through to get to the good stuff. It’s like having to eat a middling dinner with 3 items you dislike and one you do….to get to eat the luscious, yummy dessert. I think the main problem lies with two issues: Firstly,  splitting the book (AFFC and ADWD) VIA POV instead of mid-story was a HUGE mistake. I think I would have preferred it the other way round and the fact that he did that presented a logistics problem with time and progression. So by doing that he HAD to create 600 pages of “holding pattern” before he moved things on. IMHO that was a mistake. This brings me to the second issue:  You could actually have covered the events in both AFFC and ADWD in one book, easily. In fact, I used to say that as long as ADWD made the split in POV make sense then I would forgive it, but it just doesn’t. What actually happens in both AFFC and ADWD (first 600 pages) could have been totally covered in about 800-900 pages total…making a tighter narrative that got the same points across. I only hope that the Book4-5 fiasco does not continue to mar the series with long waits and humdrum filler.

I don't mean to sound as if I am being unnecessarily harsh here. That's not my intention, as I enjoyed visiting this world again and Martin's prose is as good as it ever was. I read it rather voraciously for like 5 days, I just don't find it perfect. It IS however, SCADS better than AFFC if only because it concerns more interesting characters and a lot of the action takes place outside Westeros and that made it have a really nice global flavour. Still a solid read, and it totally delivers in the end.

That said, with things now moving forward at a fast pace the next book THE WINDS Of WINTER can hopefully get back to the great style of the first 3 books which are still amazing. I can hope.

If you read this book it will be for those final 350 pages. The first 600 have some interesting info and a few good developments but overall it’s filler-ish with a rather disappointing Tyrion arc actually. The end of the book is all LIGHTNING….while the first half is all sound and fury signifying…well you get the picture.

It totally delivers in the end and makes the wait worth it, I'm just glad that the AFFC/ADWD timeline/holding pattern stuff is over now and hopefully it's going to be all cream from here on out.


  1. I ordered my copy from SFBC, and I'm still waiting for it in the mail. I'm dying! I hope it comes today. Your review makes me not quite as excited, but I love this series so much I'll take anything at this point.

  2. This was loads worse than AFFC purely based on the Dany chapters. Nothing happened, nothing happened in a place we don't care about, and Dany whined for a while while nothing happened in a place we don't care about.

    Everyone else, while their stories could easily have been shortened as well, still managed to hold at least a little bit of interest. Tyrion for example, did nothing, but he did it in interesting places.

  3. Hi there Scott and/or Chris! I am new to this err... Review Blog? (sorry, I'm not sure what the proper term is) but I have read a "decent" amount of science fiction/fantasy (well, as much as a freshly turned 18 year old can read.)

    Now while I'm familiar with GRRM's GOT HBO series, I have yet to read any of the novellas. Usually I'm one of those people who reads first and then watches the visual representation, but it didn't work out that way this time. Just based on the show though, it seems straight up my alley (I'm a big Spartacus fan.) While I was prepping to go and splurge my money on Amazon buying up the books, I stumbled onto your review, yay Google! I read the review, then I read another and another and well, I pretty much spent the next couple of hours on your site (I'm not a stalker!) Loved it! You guys are great, I wish I knew about this place last year when I really got into reading, it would've made seeking out good books so much easier.

    Anyway, the thing is, I have read Jordan's WOT series a while back. Now "read" might not be the best word to use because I only got through up till the 6th book, or the 5th, I'm not too sure. That's actually kind of the problem. While the first and second books were great IMO, the next several consecutive novels were significantly less... great. That's not to say they were bleh horrible, but they were slow. Like a stretchy piece of taffy slow. I found myself re-reading the same line more times than I can count, and not realizing it because honestly, there were more than a few parts that were just plain dull and I found my attention wavering. Personally, I hate not finishing a series that I started, I always feel obligated to read till the end but I just couldn't. I felt like I was going to get nowhere even by the time I reached the final chapter (only to begin the same process again in the next book.)

    The part in your review about the first 600 pages being slow reminded me of Jordan's series and I felt dreadful. If I could not finish WOT than how could I hope to finish GOT? I really don't want to start up a series just to drop it before I read all of it, again! You see, I start college in September, and I'll have very little time to really "read", so every moment counts.

    Therefore, I just want to know what you think. If I couldn't handle WOT, should I even attempt to read GOT? Or should I just go back to reading Mistborn (love it btw.)
    Thanks in advance! And thanks for this err… blog!

  4. Thanks for your kind comments Andrey, they are much appreciated. :) We are really glad you enjoy the site and we hope to continue to produce fun and interesting posts and reviews.

    GOT in any world is leaps and bounds better than WOT's bad slog books. Even though AFFC and ADWD both have significantly slow bits and there's a bit of stagnation they are by no means like as bad as the middle WOT books are. I wanted to throw some of the middle WOT books at my wall...and I've never felt that way with a Martin book.

    That said, if you have little time and don't mind waiting, you could put off reading the GOT series until the next book THE WINDS OF WINTER is out and hopefully things will ramp back up.

    There is a plethora of good fantasy and sci-fi out there to be had in fact while you wait.

    Short answer is that no, these two middling books in the GOT series are NOT anywhere near as tedious as the WOT's just that not oodles moves forward and is more like posturing for certain characters....but they ARE slow...especially compared to the first 3.

    I'd go back and finish up MISTBORN...and if you haven't tried it yet Sanderson's other series that starts with THE WAY OF KINGS...

    beyond that there is an amazing 10 book series out there called The Malazan Books Of The Fallen by Steven Erikson, starting with the first book GARDENS OF THE MOON it is ten books long and is complete (as the tenth book came out earlier this year). It is amazing and if you like Martin, then you might also like Erikson.

    If however, you'd like shorter reads since you will be in school, I can recommend
    Jim Butcher's (my fave author) Dresden Files series (starts with STORM FRONT) which is (as of today's release) 13 books long so far and totally amazing...or his epic fantasy series (also complete) called Codex Alera that starts with the book THE FURIES OF CALDERON and continues for 6 books, and is also excellent.

    So, if you choose not to do GOT, there is oodles to keep you occupied.

    Hope this helps.

  5. Thanks for replying Scott, you're good people! Funny you should mention Jim Butcher ;) I actually got hooked 3 years ago when I started to read Codex Alera. Since then I've met Jim twice (thank you, Comic-Con ^_^), had my Storm Front, Changes, and First Lords Fury signed and dedicated and got a free Wall Map of Alera signed and autographed by the artist and of course Jim himself! Hopefully he comes back this year so I can get my Ghost Story signed. Wait. Speaking of Ghost Story... (moar Bob, yay !)

    Actually, my freshly acquired interest in reading hit off with him, or rather, through him because I learned about another amazing author, Simon R. Green, through the recommendations on Amazon after buying a ton of Jim Butcher novels. Green's Nightside series is plenty awesome, but what really made me spend hours burning the midnight oil was his Deathstalker series, simply amazing. Space opera eventually led me to Orson Scott Card's, Ender's Game, Pathfinder, and The Lost Gate. From then I've jumped around a bit from Terry Brooks to Raymond E. Feist, Anthony Piers, Patrick Rothfuss, Robin Hobb, and others.

    Also, I actually have Steven Erikson's, Garden of the Moon downloaded on my Kindle! I was planning to start it in June but I was too busy watching GOT and finishing Jon Sprunk's Shadow's Son (coincidentally you guys also reviewed it!) I'm aware that it's a long series so I think that I will put it off for now until the winter holidays. It's that or Michael Hicks's, In Her Name...hmmm.

    As for Martin's GOT you certainly made me breathe a bit easier, and since there's about a month of summer left I think I'll read the first book for now to whet my appetite. I can't help myself since its sitting right there on my desk, its shiny blue cover luring me towards it *drool*

    Thanks again for all the recommendations and I'll definitely be around, so don't you stop reviewing stuffs!

    (BTW, have you watched the live action show based on the Dresden Files? Did you like it, I sure did :)

  6. " splitting the book (AFFC and ADWD) VIA POV instead of mid-story was a HUGE mistake. I think I would have preferred it the other way round and the fact that he did that presented a logistics problem with time and progression. So by doing that he HAD to create 600 pages of “holding pattern” before he moved things on."

    Spot on.

    "It IS however, SCADS better than AFFC"

    Couldn't disagree more. While the Brienne meanderings were somewhat tedious, I thought there were some outstanding plot progressions in that book that made it a sublime read that contrasted well with the more exciting first three volumes. I loved Arya's arc in AFFC as well as watching Sansa mature into a (potential) Littlefinger protege. I even enjoyed unraveling Doren Martel's machinations and thought he was a very compelling character. Unfortunately I think Martin took that particular arc and really dropped the ball with it in ADWD.

    On the one hand this was a very disappointing read. But on the positive side I won't be tortured waiting for the next installment.

  7. Oh, and one other thing. The Malazan series is a great 10 book series only if you count two of the Esselmont additions. The final two Erikson books were rambling and even more tedious than ADWD.

  8. THE CRIPPLED GOD was one of the BEST Fantasy finale books I have EVER read. You're totally entitled to your opinion Dave....but you're wrong man. It was everything it should have been and more. I honestly don't know how you could call DoD and TCG 'rambling and tedious" as they were fairly jam packed with stuff.

  9. Oh and my comment about ADWD being scads better than AFFC was only in reference to it dealing with charcters I like most in the series (Jon, Tyrion, Bran, Theon ect.)

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. thanks for the spoiler-free review Scott! :)

    Almost every review of ADWD that I've read has been mixed feelings. Everyone is happy to get back into the story and catch up with Bran, Tyrion, and Dany, but we don't really care about Davos. Although now I'm really intrigued for a Melisandre POV!

    I'm still torn. do I read ADWD now, or do I wait until an announced release date for TWoW?

    I slogged through Wise Man's Fear, so nothing happening for 600 much not bother me, and do wants me some Martin lighting! oh, I'm so torn!!

  12. @Dave F. I deleted your post, sorry what you said in it is considered a mega-spoiler and I don't want our readers to be spoiled if they haven't read it.

    In regards to your point, if you feel that you were hoodwinked, or that revelation came out of nowhere then you really didn't read the series close enough. It's all there if you re-read it. Erikson planted a lot of stuff from as early as GotM. If you still thought the eway you did at the end of TCG then I am afraid you missed the point of the whole series. Those internal monologues that you bemoan are integral to the story and the characters. Like LOST before it, the series is about the journey, the destination is totally beside the point.

  13. Sorry, tried to keep it vague. Guess not.

    Part of the problem with these Mega Series is that foreshadowing that takes place in earlier books may have been read many years before the ultimate payoff. I have no doubt Erikson planted some seeds in GoTM and elsewhere, but I read that like 10 years ago. It's asking a lot of reader who has other things going on in his life to keep track of that kind of minutia for that long.

    Another problem is the shear number of characters and plot lines that winked in and out of the story over the years and their relationship to each other. Maybe I'm just simple minded, but after a while I lost the ability to keep track and then I stopped caring.

    I require three things in fiction:

    #1. Characters I can root for (or against).
    #2. Quality writing.
    #3. Compelling story.

    Erickson's characters were some of the best I've ever come across in fantasy. Original, funny, tragic, gritty, you name it, it was there.

    Erickson's writing was very hit or miss. Some of his chapters soared. Anything with Tahol and Bugg was worth it's weight in gold. However, there was just way way too much random musing by too many of the characters. No doubt some of that information was important to understanding their motivation, but from a writing standpoint it just caused many chapters to lay there like a turd. Which is also no doubt why I may have missed some of the key points of the series. I was bored spitless.

    Was there an overriding compelling story to the Malazan series? There were so many plotlines left unexplained or hanging that it's hard for me to get excited about the one story arc they did complete. Particularly since the resolution uses just another version of the duex ex machina that Erikson loves so much. At some point if you solve every problem by pulling a rabbit out of your hat that's just lazy.

    I agree. It was a good journey. Right up until the end when we got lost and ran off a cliff. When it ends like that it's very hard to recommend that other people follow your path.

    I'm glad you found the entire Malazan series enjoyable. You obviously worked much harder at it than I did and earned the extra pleasure.

  14. We always knew that resolving the Daenerys story into the larger Westeros plotline was going to be problematic. And indeed DANCE illustrates just how hard it is to make any developments that takes place across the Narrow Sea relevant and interesting to the larger overall story.

    DANCE also suffers from WHEEL OF TIME-itis where the books pick up too many new characters as the series goes on, each of whom demand precious real estate that would normally have been taken up by the core characters we've enjoyed from the earlier novels.

    I always feel like I need a FIRE AND ICE companion book to map the geneaology of the supporting cast. DANCE is full of descriptions of throw away characters who'll never have a single line and are never spoken of again. While its nice to know what their family crest is, who they supported in a previous war and where they live now it doesn't add much to the story's momentum.

    (Althought I've mostly dismissed that last point as a harmless Martin writing tick that only drives me nuts when I find myself expending too many brain cells trying to map the whole thing out in my mind.)

    But I enjoyed it, returning to the land of Westeros was like putting on a comfortable pair of old shoes. And even if the shoes don't perform as well as they used to when they were new and shiny they're still better than a lot of other that just clutter up your closet.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...