From the Wall to Slaver’s Bay, the world is blighted by war and chaos. In Westeros, the War of the Five Kings continues to rumble on, as Stannis Baratheon regroups his forces at Castle Black and prepares to march against the Boltons, with the northern houses divided between the two sides. In King’s Landing, intrigue seethes as two queens prepare to stand trial. In Dorne, long-gestating plans finally start to see fruition. In the Free Cities, an army of exiles and sellswords from Westeros gathers, breaking their contracts in the hope of finally seeing home and hope again. In Slaver’s Bay, a young girl must try to unite warring factions howling for her blood, unaware that her every command sends reverberations through the balance of trade and power in the world, and even dragons may not be enough to protect her…
A Dance with Dragons is the fifth novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series and probably the most eagerly-awaited epic fantasy novels in the recent history of the genre. It may be six years since A Feast for Crows was published, but it's eleven since A Storm of Swords came out and the last time we saw new material from Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen or Tyrion Lannister, the arguable central triptych of characters around whom the whole series rotates. The risk is high that Martin would deliver a novel that fails to meet expectations.
Fortunately, he succeeds in giving ASoIaF fans a book that is almost everything its predecessor wasn’t. Whilst Crows was tightly-focused and constrained in geographic setting, Dragons is huge, epic and sprawling. The novel covers events happening almost five thousand miles apart from one another, with a huge cast of characters, old and new. Where there are new characters, they are there to serve specific plot points and get the storyline really moving along, whilst some major existing characters are simply not featured where they have nothing to contribute to the storyline. Martin employs a fairly strict POV structure this time around: Dany, Jon and Tyrion (and, to a lesser extent, another character) get a significant number of chapters each but everyone else only gets a few. Once their work for the novel is done, they’re outta there, and other POVs only show up when needed. This gives the novel a busy, revolving-door feeling at times as characters come in, do what needs to be done, and then get out, and gives some individual storylines and chapters a rather concise, focused feel, despite this being a huge, long book. Certainly with these ’lesser’ POVs, there’s little to no time for filler, though with some of the bigger POVs there are rare moments when Martin dwells on a story point a bit too long or delivers bit of background information which, whilst intriguing, doesn’t really contribute much to the storyline at hand.
It’s a busy book with lots happening, possibly more than any other book in the series bar only A Storm of Swords (I took notes whilst reading, and by the end they amounted to a ludicrous 12 A4 pages in length). It’s also the most disparate, and the geographic sprawl would make it easy for Martin to lose control of either the timeline or the plot focus. He doesn’t do either, and by the end of the novel the timelines have been pretty much re-synched (with plenty of AFFC characters reappearing in the final few chapters to resolve their cliffhangers and keep everything moving). Thematically, the book is much concerned with the notion of deeds, not words (the term “Words are wind,” is oft-repeated, probably a little bit too much) and the notion that you can only know people by what they do, not what they say. Disease and pestilence also play a role, whilst for the military engagements Martin expands his influences to include Napoleon’s ill-fated march into Russia during the winter of 1812. These scenes are vivid enough to make you feel chilly even if you’re reading the book on the beach.
This series is known for its plot twists, sudden shocks and major character deaths, and Martin doesn’t stint here. Some twists are genuinely shocking (though a couple have some carefully-built-in get-out clauses), on the level of the Red Wedding or higher, though others are a bit more predictable, with the author having taken care to lay some groundwork in earlier novels. Other elements come out of nowhere: the resolution of a key, major backstory mystery from the very first novel (probably not the one you’re thinking of) is unexpected in both happening with two books still to go, and also in the amount of detail it gives. Another twist is bravely pulled off with almost solely the use of new characters and actually works, throwing almost all of the carefully-constructed fan theories out there for a loop (and it's done with the economy of chapters that A Feast for Crows was at times crying out for).
Characterisation is particularly strong, and Martin seems to relish some descriptive passages. A detailed account of the Doom of Valyria – quite a few books overdue – is spine-crawling and disturbing, whilst another one of Martin’s trademark huge feasts may feel over-familiar right up until you realise what’s really going on, at which point a belly laugh is the only possible response.
A Dance with Dragons is a somewhat bleak book. Winter has fallen in all its fury and it really doesn’t seem possible for the war-ravaged Seven Kingdoms to survive, particularly in the North, with no harvest taken in and little to no supplies put to one side. Some characters are trapped in nightmarish situations whilst others have to be careful with every decision they make lest they trigger chaos and bloodshed. But there are moments of comedy and lightness, and the feeling that in the darkness there is still hope for these people and their world, if they can turn things around.
Towards the end, A Dance with Dragons picks up an irresistible momentum which brings us towards what looks like the biggest convergence and battle in the series to date. But, in a misstep that could have been fatal if not handled better, we never quite get to that climax, which seems to have been mostly delayed to the start of The Winds of Winter. Instead Martin breaks off the book on a series of titanic cliffhangers that dwarf anything seen previously, and only a few story threads find any sense of resolution. But, just as that sinks in and a small note of disappointment creeps into things, we then get a couple of concluding chapters featuring some of the most pivotal and startling moments in the series to date, and the real sense that whatever readers think A Song of Ice and Fire is about, or how it will end, Martin is not necessarily interested in doing the same thing. The ending is impressive, despite the cliffhangers, but brings in a little note of bitter sweetness: waiting a year for The Winds of Winter would be hard enough, but the fact that we know we’ll probably have a lot longer to wait is truly frustrating.
A Dance with Dragons (****½) solves a lot of the problems experienced in the previous book in the series and brings renewed energy and focus to getting this story towards the endgame. A series of cliffhangers, some over-used terms (though "Nuncle," only gets one airing, thankfully) and a feeling that Martin might be revisiting some plot elements a little too freely dent the book's achievements, but a series of emotionally intense and surprising final chapters restore the faith that Martin has regained control of the story. The novel will be published on 12 July in the UK and USA, but given how many bookstores have broken the embargo, you may get lucky before then.
Full disclosure: I am a moderator on the Westeros.org website, the creator and chief admin of the Game of Thrones Wiki and someone who is mentioned in the acknowledgements of the book. Whilst I have tried to have been as honest as possible in my review, you may want to bear those factors in mind.