Wow. And I thought A Clash of Kings was rough going. This… was a slog. (Warning: there will be spoilers for books 1-4, or roughly seasons 1-4 of the show, but none for this particular book.)
I could write, here, a plot summary, itself a thousand pages long, of how we ended up here and some of the precise things that happened in A Dance with Dragons, but when I really sit back to think, “What happened?” in this book, I am frankly not sure. Some characters from the prior book, A Feast for Crows (which I actually liked), who appeared to be maybe-dead are here revealed to be not-dead; similarly, several characters are maybe-dead at the end of this book, while others are definitely-dead, and all of these deaths or not-deaths will have consequences. This is Martin’s MO. Killing or maybe-killing characters is what he does. So what’s the problem?
For one, the gimmick is just much less clever. How many times does “PLOT TWIST! S/HE IS DEAD!” work before it’s actually mundane? Certain deaths, like those at the Red and Purple Weddings, or like Oberyn’s, seemed shocking — and indeed they were –but there was also groundwork laid there that opened up the possibility for those characters to die. By the time we got to this book, it’s not “groundwork” or “foreshadowing” so much as it is “Captain Obvious’ musings on life and death.” There was one death (I think this one was an actual death, not just a maybe-death) that I was genuinely surprised by, and it happened in the epilogue. The other attempted kills seemed like inevitability, whether it was from that character pissing people off and not skillfully reading the situation, or behaving in such an unbelievably naive way that has you wondering if that character is in the same book as everyone else, or doing a character about-face away from general competence, OVER AND OVER again … it goes on.
To be fair, each of these things WOULD get someone eliminated in this world of ice and fire. But when taken together with A Feast for Crows, which is concurrent with most of this book, there are close to 2500 pages that are so much talk and so little action. Anything that resembles foreshadowing is delivered with the subtlety of a lead mallet, and everything else is voluble exposition of questionable necessity. When one considers where the main characters have advanced in the narrative beyond the cataclysmic events of A Storm of Swords, and what the concrete consequences have their actions have been, well… sure, there have been some, for some of the characters. But it took an ungodly long time to get there, and with about a billion side tangents that add color to the narrative but don’t move it forward. In a smaller book, color and detail is great. In this series, with already, what, 10 main POV characters, dedicating a random chapter to the captain of the boat that Tyrion was on for awhile, long after Tyrion has excited that scene, stage left? No. Don’t do that, GRRM.
There is a big issue that’s become apparent in the series, and that is that GRRM is trying to be everyone’s narrator in all things in the world. And while he was brilliant in his initial worldbuilding, creating Westeros and beyond, and shaping the main players in it, I just don’t really believe that he is up to the task of telling the whole story in the scope that he’s obviously established the last two books. There are some authors who do excel at this, who can continually introduce new characters and landscapes and keep all of those balls juggling in the air, and still write a tight plot with forward momentum. I don’t think GRRM is one of them. It seems to me that the two best ways to do this, based on models of series that do this a bit better, are to:
a) keep tiny details and enumeration to a minimum. GRRM is awful at this, whether it’s listing each of forty courses on a dinner table to describing the exact sigils and banners of every house present at some gathering, etc. He also uses certain phrases repetitively that are clearly meant to be idiomatic of Westeros, but for some reason they start to grate, because it’s like these characters are just saying these quippy phrases to each other with no meaning behind them.
b) publish on a yearly, or at least every-other yearly basis. We KNOW this to be an issue, and the fact is that he’s just losing people, psychologically, when he drags out installments of the story in a 6+ year publication cycle and THEN once he does, his readers find out he hasn’t even told them what’s going on with the characters they’re familiar with. If he published more frequently, memories would be more fresh, and the higher turnover rate would at least make us think we’re moving closer to the conclusion more quickly.
I’m just frustrated. Obviously I’m going to read the next books as they come out, but I’m not encouraged by the direction that A Dance with Dragons took.