Weather forecast: rain. LOTS of it.
Back in 2010, I decided that (as with the Wheel of Time before it), I was done reading A Song of Ice and Fire until the series was finished. I hadn’t read any of the books since A Feast for Crows came out in 2005, and knew I would need to re-read to refresh my memory whenever A Dance with Dragons finally emerged — and then would have to re-read again some years after that, when we got book six, etc. Better to just stop and wait, however long that took. I sold my copies of the first four (to free up shelf space) and washed my hands of it.
About a month later, Martin announced the Really No We Mean It publication date for Dance, but that was okay: I was at peace with my decision. It came out in 2011, and I didn’t read it, and I went on not reading it.
But in discussing the show with friends, I’ve grown tired of dodging spoilers (sometimes unsuccessfully). So I kind of wanted to read the book, just to fix that problem. On the other hand, it had now been more than seven years since I read the books, and I knew that without a refresher, I wouldn’t find Dance as satisfying as I otherwise might. And yet, I didn’t want to take the time to re-read that much stuff. On the other other hand, teleidoplex told me I wouldn’t find it satisfying whether I re-read or not.
Reader, she was right.
I am putting this behind a cut because a) it’s long and b) if your personal parade is a happy one, I don’t want to rain all over it. Because I was not impressed with this book. No, that falls short: there are things in here that decrease my enjoyment of previous books. If reading about that is going to make you sad, then click away now.
Let me say this up front: I do not think this is as bad as Crossroads of Twilight, the absolute nadir of the Wheel of Time. Unfortunately, I do think it’s worse than, say, The Path of Daggers — which I consider to be the second-worst book of that series.
Just to give you a sense of scale.
Also up front: Martin faced a very large problem here. As I understand it, he had originally planned to jump ahead five years, to give Dany’s dragons and some of the human characters time to grow up. The more he thought about it, though, the less feasible that seemed, so he decided to write a bridging book, which then turned into two, Feast and Dance. Makes sense, in a way . . . but it creates its own problem.
These books cannot contain any of the awesome, game-changing events we’ve been waiting for. Those events are already earmarked for a later point in the story. Dany returning to Westeros? Not gonna happen yet. The Others mounting a big attack and either being thrown back or overrunning the Wall? Nope. Bran busting out in his full skinchanger/greenseer glory? Later, my friends. Which means, inevitably, that this is two books of delay on the things we really want to see. Two books of smaller stuff. Some of it is undoubtedly the stuff Martin always meant to have happen in the downtime, which he felt needed to be shown rather than summarized; some of it, one suspects, is new material invented to flesh out that period into book-worthy form. But alas, another word for that latter is “makework.” I wholeheartedly believe that Martin really tried to come up with interesting things to have happen, but ultimately, very little of it feels like it matters — and I suspect that very little of it does.
I mean, what do any of our characters accomplish in here? Tyrion’s biggest achievement in the entire story is discovering Aegon. Which isn’t much of an achievement, given that Aegon then goes and publicly declares himself in Westeros; it only matters because presumably Tyrion will tell Dany, whenever the two of them meet up. The rest of his chapters are about him eating, angsting, fucking women or thinking about fucking them, wandering through half the world getting infodumps about the places he passes through, being humiliated with stereotypical dwarf follies, and failing to actually meet Dany. As for Daenerys herself, she eats a bowl of stupid this book (to borrow a phrase from teleidoplex): she lusts after Daario, waffles about her political problems until they grow even worse, and apocalyptically fails to deal with the issue of her dragons. Jon does better for a while . . . then grabs a double helping of Dany’s idiocy cornflakes and sparks a coup. Bran gets, what, three chapters?, in which he starts to learn something useful, but doesn’t learn it fast enough to actually do anything useful with it. Arya reminds us she exists, then kills a guy. Theon serves to show us that Ramsay Bolton is the most over-the-top caricature of evil in the entire series, and to get entangled with a byplot that doesn’t even feel necessary. Asha is our pov on Stannis, ditto with the byplot. Areo Hotah’s entire chapter could have been cut. So could Quentyn Martell’s — I am so glad we wasted all that time watching him wander around only to see him get roasted for his stupidity. Cersei almost has a Crowning Moment of Not Really Awesome But Pretty Good Given Her Circumstances . . . but nope, she breaks before the end, and then we get to reflect on her pathetic-ness. Jaime reminds us he exists, then vanishes with Brienne. Barristan pulls off a coup; I guess that’s pretty good. Victarion randomly joins the “everybody is now going to go help Dany!” brigade, but doesn’t actually get there and help her.
Going into this book, I expected that it (in combination with Feast) would bridge that five-year gap and leave the various pieces in their starting configuration for the second half of the series. That is patently not the case, because even when Martin had a chance to do something relatively big here, he postponed it. Tyrion does not meet Dany. Victarion does not arrive with his fleet. Jaime does not do anything with Brienne. Stannis and Bolton maybe have their battle, but if they do we don’t get to see it, and maybe Bolton was just lying with that letter in the first place. Boom tomorrow; never boom today.
And instead of boom, we get . . . what? A guided tour of the sewers, both literally and metaphorically. I joked to friends that if I had live-blogged this book like I did A Memory of Light, it would have contained entries like “New drinking game. Take a shot whenever Martin describes someone pissing. Take two shots if he remembers to specify that the guy shakes the last drops off.” That was in the early parts of the book; later I would have gladly gone back to all the people pissing if it meant we could stop with all the shitting. Yes, okay, there’s an outbreak of dysentery or whatever; I got that pretty quickly, and did not need repeated descriptions. Then we have Stannis’ Donner Party hijinks near Winterfell, and an entire chapter devoted to nothing more than “Ramsay Bolton is a terrible horrible no-good very bad person here come revel in Theon’s suffering isn’t it nifty.”
You know what we don’t see? We don’t see Dany imprisoning her dragons. That gets ignored for about three-quarters of the chapter after it takes place, then gets summarized in flashback narration — even though it should be a fucking important scene. We don’t see Tyrion, Penny, and Jorah taken prisoner by slavers, either. In fact, we don’t see a lot of the turning points in this story; we just wander through the in-between stuff, while Martin falls victim of the stereotypical vice of the epic fantasy writer, the Interminable Journey (With Bonus Infodumps). We learn a lot about the history and culture of Pentos and Andoral and Volantis and Yunkai and Astapor and Meereen and even a random little grudge-match somewhere in the riverlands of Westeros, and all this stuff fills up words without giving the characters a chance to do anything of substance.
And maybe this is a random thing, but . . . what is with Martin avoiding people’s names in the chapter titles? It feels symptomatic of the problem somehow. Okay, for Arya and Theon it makes sense, given that part of what’s going on with them is the loss of their original identities (though that doesn’t explain why Theon is “Reek” for two or three chapters, then “The Prince of Winterfell,” then “The Ghost of Winterfell,” before finally being “Theon” again). But what possible excuse is there for titling Quentyn Martell’s chapters “The Merchant’s Man,” “The Windblown,” and “The Dragontamer”? Or for Asha, “The Wayward Bride” and “The King’s Prize”? Or how about Ser Barristan Selmy being “The Queensguard,” “The Discarded Knight,” and “The Kingbreaker”? (One of those goes several paragraphs without identifying whose thoughts we’re hearing, which is simply bad writing.) I considered that Martin might be trying to avoid spoilers for the people who flip through the books, but . . . I don’t see how it’s a spoiler to just title those chapters Quentyn, Asha, and Barristan. He’s been doing this on a regular basis since Feast, and it feels like this coy, artificial attempt to inject some kind of mystery into the tale. Like he’s worried that if he uses Quentyn’s name, readers will say “Quentyn? Who? I don’t know this guy. Why should I care about him?”
If so, that’s kind of a clue.
Can we take a moment to talk about Aegon? Becaues for the love of little fishes, whut. Surprise Targaryen heir! I find myself really hoping he gets squished like a bug, because right now, he’s Mr. Gary Stu. He’s got as good of a claim as Daenerys’, plus all the skills and education and so on that she so patently lacks. Minus the dragons, true, but since Dany’s reaction to those was “let me lock them up and not think about them because that’ll solve things I’m sure,” Aegon kind of comes out ahead. But where the hell did he come from? Varys knew about him all this time? Sure hasn’t been acting like it; the assassination of Pycelle and Kevan Lannister at the end of the book felt massively out of character for the Varys I’ve been seeing before. This was not foreshadowed enough, or possibly at all. Yes, it’s been clear for some time now that Dany would need two other people with Targaryen blood to ride the dragons, and everybody’s assuming Jon will turn out to be one of them. But that’s okay, because Jon has his own thing that he’s doing, his own brand of cool he can bring to the table. Aegon does not have his own thing; he’s basically just stealing Dany’s. Couple that with her being a walking disaster this book, and it’s massively off-putting.
Which, sadly, is my reaction to most of the story. It actively decreases my fondness for various characters. Tyrion lost a giant whack of sympathy when he killed Shae; this book does nothing to fix that. I kind of don’t care about him anymore. I’m annoyed with Dany, I’m annoyed with Jon. The list of characters whose chapters I was looking forward to got shorter and shorter as the book went along. And perhaps most damning: I cannot think of single moment in here that I want to go back and re-read. There is no scene of a character being really awesome in a way that will linger in my memory and make me grin when I think about it. There’s just piss and shit and cannibalism and people being flayed and stupidity and bad decisions and the payoff never coming.
Watching the show made me kind of want to re-read the books. Reading A Dance with Dragons made me less interested in watching the show. However much I enjoy what it’s doing right now, I know it’s headed into this pit. And I find myself actually hoping the show’s writers will rewrite things to be better.
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