A Song of Ice and Fire book 5
a review by Nalini Haynes
A Dance with Dragons is book five in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Have you heard of A Game of Thrones the book? Or Game of Thrones the TV series? If not, my first reaction is to ask where you’ve been hiding. My second reaction is to explain the beginning of the series for the uninitiated.
In the beginning…
A litter of direwolf pups (direwolf = BIG wolf) is found in the snow, one for each child of Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell, including his bastard son Jon Snow. The legitimate children from oldest to youngest are Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran and Rickon. Winterfell is a feudal fiefdom with allegiance to King Robert Baratheon, whose family comes to visit Winterfell. Baratheon’s wife Cersei is cuckolding him with her brother Jaime Lannister. Jaime attempts to murder Bran for catching Cersei and Jaime in the act. Cersei and Jaime have three children, Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen, all of whom have been passed off as Baratheon’s children. Cersei and Jaime have another brother, Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf with brains and attitude.
From this beginning the main characters spread out geographically, playing the game of thrones that, as Cersei puts so succinctly, you must win or you die. The series could have been called Game of Thrones, but instead is called A Song of Ice and Fire. I believe the song refers to legendary ballads. Ice is Eddard Stark’s sword that is later melted down and reforged into two swords. Fire symbolises dragons, the Targaryens (former royal family who are ‘the blood of the dragon’), prophecies about fire and a sword of fire.
A Dance With Dragons begins as the other half of A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in the series. Martin said the fourth book got too big, so he split it into two. Instead of splitting it across the timeline, he split it in terms of characters so the two books run parallel but focus on different characters. A Feast for Crows follows the adventures of Samwell Tarly, a black brother, Dalla, a wildling, and her son. Other threads focus on Brienne the Maid of Tarth, Jaime Lannister, Cersei and others. A Dance With Dragons returns to Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen (daughter of the murdered king from whom Robert Baratheon seized the crown), Jon Snow and more.
After nearly 600 pages, Dragons pushes past the closure of Feast and forges into new territory for the next 360 or so pages. So those readers who think they won’t miss out by skipping this book, beware! Revisiting Arya was decisive, signalling the closure of the overlapping timeline.
Some themes in this series include religious tolerance and intolerance, the baseness of mankind, torture (Guantanamo Bay anyone?), and social comment on political systems. I’m not sure if GRRM is intentionally working a few pop culture references into the story, but Sparrowhawk and Red Bull leapt off the page at me.
My biggest concern at this point is that GRRM is leaning towards the melodramatic at times as well as apparently re-interpreting some characters. While the developments with Jaime Lannister add real substance, Cersei’s prophecy and current behaviour is disappointing. The scene on the river that draws one particular chapter to a close in a melodramatic style is worthy of a soapy, where we later learn one person risks all in an act that went against his character and primary motivations. This was unnecessary. In my opinion this series needs to be concluded without introducing more central characters and while carefully avoiding devolving into a soapy. Two more books GRRM, okay, thanks, go!
GRRM’s prose is clear, decisive, descriptive when warranted and fairly concise although at times a little dry. Explanations are given when necessary to bring the audience with him on this epic journey, but he does not indulge in waffle. At 959 pages for book 5 in a series, A Dance with Dragons is compelling reading. While I believe this series is a masterpiece of epic fantasy, reading the full, unabridged version is not for everyone. That is why the audio books and TV series are coming out. And the graphic novels. So choose your medium and enjoy.
Previously published in Dark Matter issue 5, September 2011. This blog has been pre-dated to reflect the date of original publication.