In many ways that matter, much of what needs to be said about A Dance with Dragons has been said by other, smarter individuals. Arriving at the end of a six-year wait for fans of the books and soon after the first season of Game of Thrones aired, it was easily the most-anticipated fantasy novel of the year (with Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear close behind, at least for me). Many fans speculated endlessly about the reason for the delays in the book’s completion, leading some to hypothesize that Martin would never finish or that he had crippling writer’s block. The real reason for the delay was more mundane but not less profound: A Dance with Dragons took six years to write because it’s an enormous, enormous novel. More, it’s a great one.
What’s best about A Song of Ice and Fire, and what’s best about A Dance with Dragons, is that the story never becomes dependent on its own fantasy trappings. It is a pan-global political thriller that happens to be set in a medieval-ish fantasy world. It’s history and character that drive this world, not prophecy and dark evil. The evil in this world is the evil that exists in the hearts of the people who desire, above all else, power. It is the characters that guide this world, not prophecy, not happenstance. The world is populated by real, breathing individuals, not archetypes.
There is a depth, both of world and of character, that few novels I’ve read have been able to achieve. It is a series in which everything feels deliberate and significant. Part of the criticism I’ve seen leveraged against Dance is that nothing happens. And when compared to the tectonic, game-changing events of the series third book, A Storm of Swords, then, yes, it does seem that Dance is a bit uneventful. Some fans had the same critique of the previous volume, A Feast for Crows. But there are fires burning all over this world. Feast and Dance are volumes in which the pieces left over after the events of Storm are beginning to slide into place for the final standoffs. By the end of Dance, the end is beginning to take shape. When I finished, I looked back at what had taken place, tried to think about the implications for this world, and I was mostly just left muttering, “Holy shit,” under my breath.
I realize that I haven’t said much about the plot yet. That’s deliberate. It’s impossible to talk about the plot of Dance without giving away serious information on the other entries in the series, and there is nothing I want to spoil for readers less than these books. I love them, and while I’ll admit that I didn’t like Dance as much as previous entries in the series, that’s only because the other novels are so good and I loved them so much. Dance is most certainly a great fantasy novel, and it loses a bit of its sheen only when placed in comparison with its peerless peers.
Which is not to say the book is without other faults. The book is extremely long (coming in only a few pages shorter than the longest—and best—entry in the series, A Storm of Swords) and I would argue a bit too long. While it matches Storm in length, it does not do so in economy. A few of the plot lines meander, beloved characters have arcs that fall a bit flat, and just when things seem poised for an epic climax, the novel ends.
All of these things aside, though, I loved A Dance with Dragons. I spent an afternoon on my honeymoon reading it on a beach on Lake Superior, and I can’t think of a world I more enjoy slipping into than the Seven Kingdoms.
A Dance with Dragons gets five helpings of lasagna from me.