I had pre-ordered a copy of A Dance with Dragons from Kepler's, an awesome independent bookstore in Menlo Park. I swung by after work on July 12th, picked up a northbound Caltrain, and cracked open the book. I took my time getting into it - after all, these books don't come out too often, and I wanted to savor it. I read Martin's foreward, lingered over the maps (which include some new territory), and started in on the prologue. A fellow passenger noticed what I was reading. "I have to ask, who is the first point-of-view from?" he queried. I flipped ahead past the prologue, saw the name, smiled, and told him. Good to be back on that ground again.
Everything I want to say about this book is spoilery, so before I get into that: this book isn't as crazily mindblowing as A Storm of Swords, but I enjoyed it a lot, and would definitely rank it above A Feast for Crows. Martin famously took a long time writing this, and it has paid off with high quality. Some of the plot points may annoy me a little, but the storytelling is very strong, which, after all, should be the purpose.
Okay, let's kick off the
SUPER ULTRA MEGA SPOILERS
Tyrion. That's the first POV chapter. This made me happy, since Tyrion is my favorite character, and I had missed him since he shot Tywin in the gut at the end of A Storm of Swords.
I've also greatly enjoyed the new HBO series, and Tyrion is my favorite character there, too. I've come to realize, though, that the two Tyrions are fairly different. I'd forgotten that in the books, Tyrion always waddles everywhere. Peter Dinklage never waddles: he strides. Like many other characters from the books, some of Tyrion's rougher edges were sanded away. I'm glad that they kept his whoring and his strong instinct for self-preservation, but I never really wonder whether the TV Tyrion is a bad man. In contrast, in the books, even while I'm fascinated by him and cheer him on, I still keep wondering just what evil he's willing to do.
I have two minor stylistic gripes with the book (and maybe the series) that I want to get out of the way. First, Martin has an annoying habit of ending a chapter with the POV character POSSIBLY dead, but not DEFINITELY dead. Granted, he's earned this right: unlike with other series, there's always a chance that Martin has actually killed off this person. That usually leads to a re-reading of the last page or two, to try and look for key phrases that will show whether we need to worry. I've grown somewhat inured to this, and so when Martin did it to Tyrion (he falls off a boat and apparently drowns), I just yawned. Yeah, it sounded like he was dead, but it just made no dramatic sense to kill off such a major character in such a pointless way. Sure enough, a few chapters yet he was back, healthy as ever (though the same could not be said for the Griffin).
The other minor gripe: the same details are re-presented over and over again. Tyrion always waddles; Varys always titters and has powdered hands; Stannis is gaunt and stern. A bit more variety would be nice. That said, I've come to accept that, with the series now running north of five thousand pages, it's probably impossible for many casual readers to keep even major characters straight, and every bit of personal detail probably helps.
On the other hand, while repeated characterization details can annoy me, repeated thoughts do not. I thought this was done very effectively in this book: the POV characters have lived through so much, and experienced such trauma, that their minds have started to seize on and worry over details and thoughts that they can't get past. Tyrion has a parcel of good ones now. He re-lives the slaying of his father over and over again. He asks of everyone he meets, "Where do whores go?" His mind drifts back to Tysha and her ordeal. Tyrion is brilliant (is it just me, or did he just pick up cyvasse in this book? And become a grandmaster?), but a large portion of his brain is devoted to digging these ruts deeper and deeper.
Arya is similarly scarred. Her list of revenge subjects sounds like a rosary. Ser Gregor, Raff the Sweetling, Queen Cersei. She is trying to push this cycle out of her head with a new creed: "I am nobody."
Jon Snow knows nothing.
Theon has to remember his name.
You get the idea. There's a cool cumulative effect from this sort of repetition, and I think it really drives home the things that these characters are obsessing over.
Oh, another thing I liked: Martin still uses the POV names to separate his chapters, but for some characters whose identity has become particularly fragmented or damaged, the POV title changes as well. The biggest example of this is Theon, who probably goes through four or five names from Reek on the way to eventually reclaiming the name Theon. Also, we don't get any POV from "Arya", but we do meet "The Blind Girl", and instantly know it's her. It's interesting that Barristan doesn't use his name, nor any of Dany's suitors; they all go by their titles or roles instead.
Let's have some fun with speculation!
Jon sure seems dead, doesn't he? Even if he isn't, he's for sure out of the Watch. I kind of think he might be dead for real, though... those men mean to kill him, and he doesn't have many friends nearby.
I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, I do like Jon a lot as a character. Because he's so major, it would be a huge, Ned-esque blow to have him die, which would almost make it worth it. Stepping back from it a bit, though, it just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. I mean... in all honesty, we've now had five books (well, four with Jon) where he's being tempted to abandon the Wall. He always leans toward it, and always pulls back. I just don't get why he would finally abandon it now. Granted, Ramsay is a great manipulator, but really... if Jon didn't leave for Ned, and didn't leave for Robb, and didn't leave for Bran, then why would he leave now? WHO would he leave for? He seems to like Mance, but Mance was supposed to be dead already, and in any case isn't crucial to his plans. He knows from Ramsay's letter that Theon and "Arya" are gone; it's not like he has any realistic chance of finding them. Jon might be out for revenge... but again, if he hasn't revenged himself before, what's so much worse about now?
I've re-read the end of that chapter a few times, and will be curious to see where that plot thread goes. The book says that he and Tormund talk for two hours before they descend to the dining hall. What, exactly, did they talk about? Just the splitting of forces, or something else? I kind of wonder and hope that there may be some other scheme at play, something that will further involve the wildlings in whatever's going on.
While I'm sad that Jon is apparently dead, I also totally understand it. He's preaching desertion. He's abandoning his Watch. He swore an oath, and is breaking that oath. It's wrenching when Bowen Marsh stabs him, but I'm sure Bowen felt just as pained at what his Lord Commander was doing.
Oh, and one more thing: it would be kinda perfect if Jon is dead, because so many fan theories revolve around Jon: who he is, who is parents are, and what role he may have to play in the Ice and Fire to come. This is a series where so many prophecies have proven false, where so many interpretations have failed, and I love the idea that we as readers are no more or less skilled at predicting the future than Melisandre is from looking into the flames. I feel like we have a broader perspective than anyone within the series (well, except maybe Bran, now), but not a terribly deep perspective, and can easily miss things, and base our plans for the future on what we want to be true.
Moving farther south... I'm also very curious to find out just what happened (or is happening) at Winterfell; I was sure that we'd get at least one more chapter out of there. I strongly suspect that Ramsay is lying in his letter. Well, he's almost certainly unmasked Mance, and may have flayed the spearwives as well. But I kind of doubt that Stannis and his host are dead just yet. Ramsay is probably provoking Jon, and might even have predicted what he'd do and how the Watch would react. Anyways, there's a lot of ways that could go down. Winter could win, destroying both armies, within a few days' walk of each other.
So, yeah. Just who WAS that blowing the horns outside Winterfell? It seems like it couldn't have been Stannis. Is there some other force coming into play now?
The Feast for Crows POVs start popping back in near the end of the book, although we don't get much there; I think there's a single chapter for Jaime (a good one), and maybe two or three for Cersei. The south is a mess; the Lannisters are consolidating their hold on power, but they have lost so many forces, and have made so many high-priced allies, that they only tenuously rule.
I was pretty bummed about Dany's storyline in the book. Not because it was bad, just because it didn't seem to go very far. I guess that's part of the point - she's gotten bogged down in ruling a city, and dealing with the drudgery and pain of governing an unruly populace - but it isn't all that fun to read. I enjoyed getting Barristan's POV too, although he's stuck in the same slow-moving plot. Dany does eventually fly, which is pretty darn cool, but still, it seems like we could easily have gotten where we needed to in just a few chapters. I kind of thought that Martin was trying to synchronize his storylines: he needed Dany to spin her wheels for a while so he could bring Tyrion over from Westeros and join the two of them up. I'm no longer sure if that'll happen, though... after all, Dany is now in the Dothraki Sea, and Tyrion is rallying forces outside the city wall. Will we see yet ANOTHER Battle for Meereen? If so, what will be the point? I don't see Dany spending the next twenty years of her life serving as Mother Queen or whatever... it makes more sense for her to use Victarion's ships and head back to Westeros. Which is exactly what everyone's been asking her to do since the beginning of the book.
I'm not sure yet how I feel about Aegon. It felt a bit cheap for him to still be alive; the series has gotten SUCH great dramatic mileage out of the Sack of King's Landing, and Ser Gregor bashing in the babies' heads, that for him to just show up, seemingly out of nowhere, tends a little too much towards the deus ex machina for me. That said... it does put another fascinating wheel into motion. We'll see where it goes.
Eh. I'm probably failing to anticipate something really cool that'll happen in the next book which will only be possible thanks to the time we've spent in Meereen so far.
Okay, random thought time!
* Favorite POV character: Tyrion, still
* Least favorite POV character: Cersei
* Most agonizing POV character: Reek/Theon. I never thought I'd feel sorry for this guy, and remember feeling glad that he was going to get punished. Well, I take it back. I'm not glad to have learned how he was punished.
* Favorite plot thread: The bank foreclosing on Westeros. I'm not even joking. This is AWESOME!
* Coolest character evolution: Bran. C'mon, we've all been expecting something like this since A Game of Thrones, right? I love how Martin does magic, though. It isn't tricks or arcane flash like in other fantasy series. I thought Bran had a magical destiny, but I never imagined it looking like this.
* Favorite death: Hmmm. Books 1 and 3 had the best, it'll be hard for anything to top those. Here... I probably cheered hardest for Janos Slynt's; it wasn't particularly crazy, but it felt so right, and like a kind of justice.
* Favorite new character: Maybe Wun-Wun?
* Hodor: Hodor hodor hodor hodor hodor hodor!
* Places we didn't see in this book that I'm most curious about: The Eyrie and Oldtown. Something big is happening in both places, and I can't tell what.
I can't even begin to predict what'll happen next. I really hope that Dany heads westward - but, wouldn't it be cool if it turned out that the climax won't be in Westeros after all? The civil war in Westeros seems set to become even more confused, as Varys has untangled the Lannister/Tyrell alliance, Aegon begins his conquest (how, exactly, do they plan to take Storm's End?), and Dorne seems poised to enter the fray. Still, sooner or later the Walkers will cross the Wall, and so it seems like all of that needs to be sorted out quickly, or else it will be sorted for them.
END MEGA ULTRA SUPER SPOILERS
That's all I've got for now! This is a meaty book, and I'm still chewing over it mentally, so I may drop an updated post later on. If anyone has thoughts of their own, I'd love to hear 'em, just mark spoilers appropriately.