[I received one of the copies of A Dance with Dragons that were accidentally released early. (Spoiler-phobes should avoid the comments to that article.) What follows are two reviews of the book. The first is an informal, completely spoiler-free commentary for fans of the series who want to read a quick judgment of the book. The second is a longer, more wide-ranging review, which includes some mild spoilers about the premise of various characters and the structure of the book, as well as comments on theme and tone that may imply larger spoilers. Spoilers for earlier books will also occur.]
So. Is it better than A Feast for Crows?
The question is a leading one; it assumes that Feast was a bad or a weak book. I actually liked Feast quite a lot, both on first reading lo these many years ago, and on rereading it in recent weeks. Considering what the evolution of the story had made it, I thought it was the best book it could possibly be, and that the author's atmospheric world-building and vivid characters were supplemented by a sense of encroaching doom, the imminence of magic and of winter.
But of course I'll concede that for many the book's relaxed pace and style was a disappointment after the ridiculously-eventful A Storm of Swords. A Dance with Dragons has more surprises and revelations than Feast, but those who absolutely despised that novel will very possibly be frustrated by this one as well, unless what they disliked was the particular characters involved rather than the structure. The beginning is strong, with a number of developments and answered questions people may not have been expecting, but after that the middle of the book returns to the significant but very gradual plot evolution that characterized Feast. There are some atmospheric world-building and set pieces that are very effective, but perhaps not worth inclusion in a book that's very long, and focuses on only half the characters to boot. (Some of what seems irrelevant may turn out to be important later, of course.) The climax, though, ups the ante again, with more sudden and shocking developments, capped by what I think is the best final chapter in the series to date. The Winds of Winter looks set to return to the constant action and rapid development of A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, and while some may wish that could have happened at the beginning of Dance rather than near the end, I think there's enough going on in this book to satisfy all but the most disaffected readers.
[Mildly spoilerish review begins here.]
Here it is. Nearly six years after the last installment of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin's gritty epic fantasy, the new book, A Dance with Dragons, has arrived. But in some ways the wait for this book has been even longer, as 2005's A Feast for Crows only featured half of the series' major characters, because the novel grew so much during the writing process that it couldn't be published in its original form. The author originally hoped to published this companion volume within a year of that book, but the story grew more and other problems intervened. As a result, A Dance with Dragons marks the first appearance of some of the series' most popular characters in over a decade.
Tyrion Lannister, the brilliant but increasingly bitter dwarf son of one of the realm's great houses (Richard III is an obvious general model for the character), has fled the royal seat at King's Landing after murdering his father. Aimless at first, he is soon set on a new path by an ally of the eunuch spymaster Varys, who had been vital in his escape. But the journey he faces is long, uncertain, and dangerous, and several dark developments along the way threaten to further his decline into cruelty.
Jon Snow is now Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, the organization sworn to guard the massive Wall against incursions from the frozen north. Jon is determined to make the changes he believes necessary to meet the Watch's purpose in changing times, but he must contend with doubtful subordinates and the presence at the Wall of the rebel king Stannis, who seems determined to test the Watch's commitment to staying out of the politics of the realm. Caught between the king and the Watch, Jon must walk a narrow path where a single misstep could bring disaster.
Daenerys Targaryen, last survivor of the realm's former royal house, is half a world away, trying to rule the city she has conquered. She has three dragons and a large, well-trained army on her side, but Meereen's customs are alien to her, its people difficult to rule without draconian measures she cannot accept, and the price she must pay for control may prove more than she can bear. Even the blood of the dragon is not guaranteed easy allegiance.
These are the three most prominent characters of A Dance with Dragons, taking up about half its length, but there are many others, including a few returning faces from A Feast for Crows. The presence of those characters and their storylines gives the novel's climax an added energy it sorely needs, for the middle of the book is, by structural necessity, slow-moving, as various situations gradually approach the breaking point. This pace may be familiar to certain frustrated readers of A Feast for Crows, who had expected something closer to the relentless action of A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series. But A Dance with Dragons is undeniably more eventful than A Feast for Crows, and certain character arcs are structured to end in the middle of the book, which means that their resolutions come early and offer a jolt of action to counterpoint those arcs that are still developing.
Questions of plot aside, the author's characterization and world-building are as fascinating as ever. Jon and Daenerys are very young, and unlike many youthful heroes in the fantasy genre, who rule nations or command armies when little more than children and do it perfectly, they have their flaws and failures as well as virtues and successes. There are no unambiguously good or bad leaders in Martin's world, only characters with different personalities and worldviews who are all determined to manipulate the current chaos to their own benefit. As rich as the milieu has been in the first four volumes, A Dance with Dragons gives us awe-inspiring new locations, as well as old ones seen in new ways. The Winds of Winter may be the title of the next volume, but this one gives us a haunting foretaste of what that chill will be like.
The world of A Song of Ice and Fire has always been harsher than that of many fantasies, inspired by real history, less romanticized and putting as much emphasis on the cruelties and desolation of medieval warfare as on noble heroism and elegant courtly intrigue. A Dance with Dragons is no exception, and the evolution of the story in this book is along dark lines, dominated by failures that sow seeds of chaos the next volume seems likely to reap in abundance. The final chapters mark a return to the unexpected and fast-moving action to which fans have become accustomed, and confirm what many readers have hoped: that a beloved but delay-plagued series is, after a long middle period, finally entering its endgame.