A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin wrote (in 2005) of his decision to split his narrative into two separate books. He had already written most of the next book, he said, and would be publishing it some time next year. "Next year" became six years later; A Dance With Dragons did not arrive until 2011.
Immediately, this put the fifth book of A Song and Ice and Fire behind the eight ball. This book was finally continuing the stories of characters readers hadn't read about in eleven years. I for one scarcely remember what had been going on at the end of A Storm of Swords. I probably should have re-read all the books back then, before reading the new one. Instead, I've only undertaken reading all the books back-to-back in the last few months.
(Once again, I'll warn people who only know this story from watching HBO's Game of Thrones: I'll be talking spoilers of things that haven't happened yet on the series. Turn away if you so choose.)
While a refreshed memory of the story certainly helps improve A Dance With Dragons, the book is still a marked step down from the high quality of the first three in the series. I said the same of A Feast for Crows, criticizing the way it ignored fans' most favorite characters. A Dance With Dragons brings all those characters back into the mix, but is thin on another important "character" in the series: Westeros.
Four books leading up to A Dance With Dragons taught us that the struggle for the Iron Throne is what this tale is all about. Even Daenerys, whose story takes place across the Narrow Sea on the continent of Essos, has had the long term goal of coming to Westeros. This book finally gives us the characters we most want to read about... but none of them are anywhere near the center of the action, the Iron Throne.
Tyrion is running in the wrong direction. He has crossed the Narrow Sea to Essos, and has virtually no agency over his own story at any point in the book. He gets carted around by Illyrio, then Griff, then Ser Jorah, then a slave owner... all the while repetitively asking "where do whores go?" in every. Freaking. Chapter. This is not the Tyrion readers came to love. And while it seems likely to be one of Martin's rare nods to traditional story formulas -- the hero being laid low for a time before rising to even higher greatness -- it makes for less than entertaining read.
Jon Snow, at least, is on the right continent. But being up at the Wall and explicitly sworn not to take any interest in the struggle for the Iron Throne, it's equally hard to see how his chapters will make a long term impact on where things are ultimately going. His story is also quite repetitive, each chapter a restatement of the same elements: Stannis' wife Selyse is a rigid pain; everyone is deeply prejudiced against Wildlings. Mercifully, the formula varies more than Tyrion's chapters, but Jon's story still feels like its taking 13 chapters to tell what could have been told in no more than five.
But most disappointing by far are the chapters surrounding Daenerys. She has indefinitely postponed her mission to return to Westeros, and spends the entire book struggling to rule a conquered city in Essos. Rubbing salt in the wound is that fact that these chapters are the reason George R.R. Martin took so long writing this book -- a series of narrative complications he dubbed "the Meereenese knot." He reportedly rewrote these sections of the book time and time again, trying to get all the characters and plot elements to land at the right place and time.
It would be easier to forgive the time this took if the final results were more effective. Four chapters are devoted to the perspective of Quentyn Martell, a character teased in A Feast for Crows who never even appeared in the narrative before now. And he never really coalesces as a character; instead, he seems a plot device -- a way of releasing Dany's dragons from captivity at the end of the book. Certainly, there doesn't seem a point in following any of his story before he arrives in Meereen.
Once he does arrive in Meereen, it feels like his story could have been told from the perspective of another new POV character in the book: Ser Barristan. Barristan has been a significant secondary character in the story from the very beginning, but here in A Dance With Dragons he became the only way for Martin to cut through his Meereenese knot. When Dany is abruptly removed from the Meereen storyline 20 chapters before the end of the book, Martin is stripped of the only character he'd been using to tell the "eastern" story until this point. Barristan becomes the focal character to remedy that. His thoughts and motivations are interesting to read about... and yet, if Martin had planned this ahead, it seems like he would have made Barristan a POV character before now.
But then, it's abundantly clear that elements of A Dance With Dragons weren't planned ahead. Or at least, they weren't planned to be in this book. Back in 2005, Martin thought he was splitting his characters into two groups and two books. But in 2011, Martin peppered the last third of book five with characters from book four -- a few chapters each for Cersei, Jaime, Arya, Asha, and Victarion. Surely a plan fully formed in advance would have put these chapters in A Feast for Crows, right? As it stands, it's unclear why these character's stories merit advancement (but only incrementally) when others like Samwell, Sansa, and Arianne Martell don't.
Still, what the book really bungles in structure, it does largely make up for in other areas. For one thing, it finally makes good on the Stark family motto, "Winter Is Coming." Winter arrives at long last in these books, and it's as harsh as promised. Martin delivers evocative writing about the snows at the Wall, Winterfell, and around Stannis' beleaguered army. This is something the series has promised seemingly since page one, book one... and it lives up to the hype.
And though some of the characters disappoint in this book, one character's storyline is outstanding: that of Theon Greyjoy, rechristened Reek. Martin does a brilliant job of depicting Stockholm Syndrome from the perspective of its brutalized victim. Theon's story is not only profoundly uncomfortable to read, but his long journey back to reclaiming his sense of self is the thread of greatest character development and momentum in the book.
Also intriguing is the chapter from the POV of Melisandre. Though it is a bit peculiar to have just one chapter from her perspective, I believe here Martin is getting right what he got wrong with Barristan -- he's introducing her viewpoint ahead of the moment where it will be needed (in The Winds of Winter). Though it does demystify Melisandre a bit to get inside her head (until now, we could only guess whether her faith was genuine or a sham), it adds a missing texture to the story. Though Martin crafted multiple religions for his epic, he has rarely let us into the mind of a zealot. (The painful Aeron Greyjoy chapters of A Feast for Crows being the only other example I recall.)
But ultimately, though I found A Feast for Crows to be better than I remembered when I read it a second time, I found A Dance With Dragons to be worse. Indeed, some of the things I found endearing the first time (happiness just to see Tyrion and Jon Snow again) lost their luster this time. Most of the characters seem to be lacking forward momentum in their stories, which is the last thing a book 6 to 11 years in the making (depending on your reckoning) needs. I give it a B-.