It was interesting to read George R.R. Martin’s latest so soon after seeing HBO’s Game of Thrones and reading two fantasy series that some have attempted to compare to Martin’s epic, The First Law by Joe Abercrombie and The Prince of Nothing by R. Scott Bakker.
My first thought upon simply viewing the size of the tome was that Martin is clearly suffering from the same disease that inflicted Stephen King and JK Rowling before him. It would appear that some time in between A Storm of Swords and A Feast For Crows, Martin came down with a bad case of morbus nemendatorus.
This is the illness which strikes an author after he has become so prodigiously successful that he no longer sees any need to pay heed to an editor. It can be diagnosed on sight by the simple measurement of the thickness of the first book in the series and comparing it with that of the last book in the series. After reading A Dance with Dragons, it is abundantly clear that Mr. Martin has not yet recovered from it.
This does not mean that the book is not entertaining. I can state with authority that Martin at his most tediously mediocre is nevertheless superior to those who aspire to one day replace him. Even though his signature sex scenes manage to reach a pointless new low in A Dance with Dragons, they are less obsessive and embarrassing than Bakker’s monomaniacal focus on the theme and Martin’s realistic understanding of sexual relations is far more mature and convincing than Abercrombie’s reduction of most of his male characters, even the most heroic warrior, to little boys terrified of talking to girls. That being said, the book is mediocre for Martin. There is a journey, even worse, a river journey, with all the endless tedium that entails. The Daenerys storyline, once one of the most powerful elements of the epic, was reduced to what one Amazon reviewer accurately characterized as “the Bachelorette goes to Mereen”. And while it is perfectly realistic to consider the significance of logistics in a fictional depiction of warfare, to paraphrase Chekov, if in the first act you have supplied an army, then in the following one it should fight someone. This goes doubly when a great deal of words have been spent upon the logistical requirements of two armies.
On the plus side, Martin still has a gift for making the reader care about his characters and it is always a return to Westeros is always enjoyable. On the minus side, the book is flabby, the pace is snail-like, the plot is derailed regularly by the introduction of even more perspectives and tangents that are beginning to rival the notorious digressions of Victor Hugo, and a tremendous amount of time is spent in arguably the least interesting setting in the series. Martin could literally have cut the book in half and not only would absolutely nothing have been lost, it probably would have improved the story. Strangely, there’s very little in the way of either dancing or dragons in A Dance with Dragons. This doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth reading, it merely means that the book doesn’t mark the return of A Song of Fire and Ice to the level of the first three books in the series.
That being said, towards the end of the book, Martin appears to mostly recover his form. He also demonstrates that he has not lost his ability to take the reader by surprise. However, it must be said that A Dance with Dragons will provide very little in the way of reassurance to fans who fear Martin pulling a Jordan and dying before he brings the story to an end.