Book review: George R.R. Martin’s “A Dance with Dragons”

July 12, 2011

By any measure, George R.R. Martin’s “A Dance With Dragons” is one of the Big Books of the summer, and it comes to us trailing a host of outsize expectations.

This massive fantasy is the fifth installment in a projected seven-volume epic titled “A Song of Ice and Fire.” The popularity of the series — powerfully augmented by the recent HBO adaptation of the opening volume, “A Game of Thrones” — has increased exponentially from one book to the next. It’s safe to say that no work of fantasy has generated such anticipation since Harry Potter’s final duel with Voldemort. Adding to the pre-publication furor is the fact that the most recent entry, “A Feast for Crows,” appeared way back in 2005. This gap has fueled a flood of carping and sometimes vicious Internet commentary from an assortment of disgruntled readers.

Well, those impatient souls can finally take a breath. “A Dance With Dragons,” all 1,000 pages of it, is now in bookstores, nearly six years after its predecessor. And it was worth the wait.

The “Song of Ice and Fire” series is a hugely expansive narrative set in a variety of physical locales and told through an array of constantly shifting perspectives. The principal setting for all five novels is the continent of Westeros, home to a group of formerly independent realms that have coalesced into a loosely united entity called the Seven Kingdoms. To the east, across the Narrow Sea, lie a variety of colorful desert cultures featuring, among other elements, a thriving slave trade. To the north, a vast wall 700feet high separates the Kingdoms from a haunted, impenetrable forest and from the various terrors, human and Other, that live within it. A prominent feature of life in the Kingdoms is the protracted nature of the seasons, which can last for years at a time. As the narrative begins, a long, deceptively peaceful summer is coming to an end. And, as the characters repeatedly remind us, “Winter is coming.”

The plots and counterplots that drive this mammoth enterprise take place against a complex backdrop of history, legend and myth. The most recent and relevant historical drama concerns Robert Baratheon’s revolt against the mad King Aerys Targaryen. After successfully deposing the king and scattering or killing most of the Targaryen family, Robert ascends the Iron Throne and finds, as so many kings before him, that power exacts a very steep price. Dissolute and increasingly uninterested in the practical difficulties of running a kingdom, Robert commissions the only man he can trust — Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell — to serve as “Hand of the King,” setting in motion a chain of events with enormous and tragic consequences.


‘’A Dance with Dragons: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book Five’’ by George R. R. Martin. (Bantam Books)

As readers (and viewers) of “A Game of Thrones” already know, Robert dies in what may or may not be a hunting accident, paving the way for a power struggle that forms the centerpiece of the series. A handful of contenders stake their claims to the Iron Throne, throwing the realm into chaos and affecting the lives of every major character in this densely populated saga. And there really are a staggering number of characters, many of whom disappear from view for long stretches.

“A Dance With Dragons” brings back several prominent figures who have not been seen directly since “A Storm of Swords” appeared in 2000. The most welcome of these is Tyrion Lannister, the sardonic dwarf who is perhaps Martin’s most vivid creation. Following a notorious act of parricide, Tyrion flees the Seven Kingdoms and travels to the east, where he hopes to offer his services to the exiled Daenerys Targaryen. Daenerys, sole surviving descendant of the deposed King Aerys and legitimate contender for the Iron Throne, currently holds court in the remote kingdom of Meereen, surrounded by enemies and accompanied by a trio of dragons.

Other returning figures include Jon Snow, illegitimate son of Eddard Stark and newly appointed commander of the Night’s Watch, which guards the Northern Wall; the devious and beleaguered Cersei, widow of King Robert; the dour, humorless Stannis Baratheon, Robert’s brother and self-proclaimed heir; and literally dozens of others. All of them play their large and small roles in the ongoing game of thrones. And all of them are vulnerable. Any player, however important, can be removed from the board at any moment. This simple fact lends a welcome sense of uncertainty to the proceedings and helps keep the level of suspense consistently high throughout.

Filled with vividly rendered set pieces, unexpected turnings, assorted cliffhangers and moments of appalling cruelty, “A Dance With Dragons” is epic fantasy as it should be written: passionate, compelling, convincingly detailed and thoroughly imagined. Despite a number of overtly fantastic elements (dragons, seers, shape shifters and sorcerers), the book — and the series as a whole — feels grounded in the brutal reality of medieval times and has more in common with the Wars of the Roses than it does with “The Lord of the Rings.” The result is a complex summer blockbuster with brains and heart, a book with rare — and potentially enormous — appeal.

Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry Into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”

A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

By George R.R. Martin

Bantam. 1,016 pp. $35

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