A Dance with Dragons

So here we are, the last released book in the series. I’ve got to say that I’m ready to get back to 300-page novels, ideally standalones (I cannot describe how much I appreciate Terry Pratchett’s Discworld now that I’ve waded through A Song of Ice and Fire). What should I say about A Dance with Dragons? Most of what I’ve already covered is still true. I could complain about the pacing, how huge portions of the story are sightseeing tours of George R. R. Martin’s world that move the characters around but don’t really do much for the plot, blah blah blah—you’ve heard it all before. Even I’m tired of griping about the same stuff, so let’s focus on something else this time. Besides, tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. I should mostly talk about what makes the series good rather than nitpick it; no one put a gun to my head and made me read this colossal ~5,000-page-monstrocity. Obviously I enjoyed something about A Song of Ice and Fire to stick with it this long.

The main thing I give Martin credit for are his characters; most of them are well-defined with realistic motivations and flaws, so they feel like actual people rather than hand puppets for the narrator. I also like how they’re suspicious and selfish to various degrees. I think that’s a mark of real human nature. Lots of stories have the protagonists willingly cooperate without looking to maximize their personal profit and expecting their allies to do the same at their expense, which is nice and Disney, but when the stakes are as high as in A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s far more likely that most people will look to save themselves and their loved ones by climbing the broken, betrayed bodies of their former “friends.” This ship’s sinking fast and there’s only one lifeboat. Will you be on it?

Tyrion continues to prove my point by suffering most when he’s nice and profiting when he plans to screw over someone else. He spends the beginning of the book all angsty, not that I can blame him. Banished from home, having just murdered his father, strangled his former lover, found out that he stood by while his ex-wife was raped by an entire garrison of soldiers, and betrayed by both siblings (Jamie doesn’t fully deserve his hatred, but you better believe that Cersei does), all he really has left is alcohol and revenge. He stops getting drunk just long enough to help plan the downfall of the whole Westeros court; during that pretty sinister phase, things go quite well for him. Then he starts making friends. A chapter later, he’s a prisoner—a few chapters after that, he’s a slave. He finally buckles down and solves the problem by tricking an entire mercenary company. Most likely he’ll end up ordering most of their murders as soon as he can, because I don’t think he can meet the prices he promised. This idea doesn’t bother him much, which is why it’ll probably succeed. If he felt guilty, he’d be doomed.

On the other side of the world, Theon Greyjoy makes a tragic reappearance, having spent two books being tortured and brainwashed off-screen. Between the physical and mental trauma he’s suffered and his reputation as a traitor and child-killer, I’m betting he’ll live through the end of the series; death might be a mercy at this point, and Martin isn’t known for granting those.

I won’t say he deserves everything that happens to him, but he definitely could’ve avoided it if he hadn’t been an idiot. His sister warned him to come home; there’s a character I like considerably more. Asha’s the brains of the family. Plus, she’s so much fun to watch; I always looked forward to her chapters. She spends most of the book in chains, though, just like Tyrion. Come to think of it, Cersei, Jamie, Brienne, Arya, Tyrion (he spends more of this series in captivity than free, actually), Asha, Theon, Arianne Martell, all the Sand Snakes, Ned Stark, Bran and Rickon, Margaery Tyrell, Davos Seaworth, Mance Rayder, Jon Snow, Pycelle—who hasn’t been a prisoner at some point? It’s like it’s fashionable this season.

Anyway, Dany and her dragons come back, as they had better, given the title of the book. Turns out that giant armored flying lizards with fire for blood don’t make the best pets. Dany makes the mistake of trying to chain them up after they start eating things (and people) rather than devoting much of her day to training them while they’re still relatively young and small (that is, the size of an ox instead of a cargo ship). She wishes she could spend more time with her scaly children, but she’s just so busy with court. Here’s a thought: let the advisors handle politics while you focus on taming the ever-hungry and fast-growing monsters in your basement before they burn your city and everyone in it. Hell, hold court while you train the dragons. Who’s going to argue with your decisions then? “You don’t like my verdict? Complain to my friends.” Naturally, her subplot ends in a general state of misery on the edge of open warfare, further driving home the series’s overall point that ruling is hard.

In addition to Daenerys, Jon Snow and the Wall reappear. They’re still stuck in the same slow-paced holding pattern that defines so much of A Song of Ice and Fire; we don’t see any of the Others or their wrights. It’s all talking and planning. Like Dany, Jon learns that there’s no way to please everyone, or indeed anyone, when you’re in charge of a large number of people. Unlike Dany, his last chapter cuts off with him being stabbed by his friends. He totally deserves it, too. Just how many Starks are going to watch their soul-bonded direwolves going crazy and not think, “Huh. Every time this happens, something really bad is waiting for me just around the corner, usually a betrayal. Maybe I should pay attention.” Nope. Jon locks Ghost in his room and goes about his business as usual. Not only that, but Melisandre “Look at Me Funny and I’ll Light You on Fire” the Red Priestess warned him this would happen. Jon probably ignores her because her other prophecy only came true almost exactly the way she said it would except for a minor misinterpretation. So yeah, he gets no sympathy from me. That said, I think it’s very unlikely that he’s dead because his death isn’t explicitly stated.

A minor side-complaint, while I’m on the subject: Martin has a bad habit of ending chapters implying that someone’s gone sailing to the afterlife, then brings them back later. Is anyone actually surprised by these near-deaths? Tyrion’s done it twice, Brienne at least once, Asha once in this book, Catelyn Stark in A Storm of Swords (she did die, not that it slows her down much), and probably the Mountain. Bran and Rickon were implied dead off-screen, as was Davos the Onion Knight. I’m sure I’ve missed several off the top of my head. I can’t think of a single major character who died without being confirmed dead immediately. I can’t take it seriously anymore. In the last book, when the council in King’s Landing said that Davos was dead for sure because they had witnesses to his severed head and unique hand, I immediately guessed that he was still alive, meaning that his supposed executioner was tricking the Lannisters and planning to turn on them. Guess what happened?

Thus, I highly doubt Jon’s dead. My theory is that his first chapter in The Winds of Winter, when it’s eventually released, will open with him being saved by Melisandre. This book already shows a Red Priest fixing serious injuries, and Melisandre has got to be better at her job than the priest who tags along with Victarion Greyjoy. Jon will suffer for his injuries with pain and disfiguration, but he’ll live. I’m calling it. Stannis too, because he’s too important of a character to die off-screen; I’m a little less sure about him than I am about Jon, but then again, I’m still half-expecting Balon Greyjoy to come rising back out of the sea; we only heard about his death through rumors. He wouldn’t be the first kraken to survive drowning, not even in his immediate family.

But to transition from Jon, let’s talk about his half-sister Arya. I…don’t think her story is going to end happily. She’s playing a very dangerous game. As I mentioned last time, she’s training to become a Faceless Woman, but it turns out that they’re less an assassin guild and more an assassin cult to a death-god (which raises the question of why they charge so much for their services; if they’re in it for religion, what do they do with these vast sums of money?). Arya might plan to join them for real, but she just as likely might intend to take their training and escape; either way, she’s definitely out for vengeance, regardless of whether or not she rejoins the cult once she’s stabbed her way across Westeros. The problem is that the House of Black and White isn’t big on selfishness, or indeed, the self at all. Arya’s mentor tells her that repeatedly. To become a Faceless Woman, she’s supposed to give up everything that makes her who she is. Her training, if it goes properly, will turn her into an empty shell devoted to service, and I’m not sure she can outwit this ancient order of murder. Adding insult to injury, I don’t think she needs their techniques to get what she wants. Sure, the Faceless Men are the best at what they do, but Arya is already disturbingly good at killing people, and Braavos is full of teachers who could make her even better for a less extreme price. She’s selling her very soul and might not get what she paid for in the end. I find it pretty depressing.

I’ve got one more character I want to talk about. I liked him when I first started to see his motivations and nature in the HBO adaption, but now he’s in my top three, along with Tyrion and Arya.

I looked for Varys for the past two books, ever since he vanished with Tyrion. A Dance with Dragons shows his widespread influence early on, but the man himself is absent. And then, right at the end during the epilogue, he reappears. Good Lord, does he reappear. I won’t say what he does or says, because this shouldn’t be spoiled. I don’t mind talking about Jon Snow’s near-death or Tyrion’s travels, but Varys’s plan needs to be experienced first-hand by reading the books.

This man is a genius. He’s also creepy, untrustworthy, and disturbing, largely on purpose; most characters fear him, but not nearly as much as they should, and not for the right reasons. I said near the beginning of this review that I like how almost everyone’s self-interested; Varys is the exception. Everything he does, he does for the good of the whole. Some of his actions are pretty terrible, to be sure. The Spider will kill you even if you don’t deserve it, even if you’re his friend, just so long as your death serves the greater good. He’s ruthless. When I say he plans for the long haul, I mean it; between what we hear about him during Tyrion’s early chapters and what we see in the epilogue, he’s confirmed to have been building this awe-inspiring scheme for well over a decade. I’m guessing he started laying the foundation even earlier, back when he first came to Westeros and met the Mad King. If Cersei is playing checkers and Tyrion plays chess, then Varys is playing eight games of chess at the same time while juggling live bears on a tightrope. Thank Loki he’s technically a good guy (I’m a little ashamed that my first thought was of The Avengers rather than Norse mythology), because if he wasn’t, Westeros would be a smoldering ruin by now. I can best describe him with my reaction after reading the epilogue: “Varys, you magnificent bastard, you’ve redeemed this whole series for me.”

To wrap this up, although the characters are the main highlight of A Song of Ice and Fire for me, the metaplot is a close second. All these different, opposing factions interlock together to form a really nice (if tangled) story. I still think Martin is too ambitious with how many plates he’s trying to spin at once, since the sheer volume forces everything to move so slowly, but I nonetheless give him credit for successfully managing it all. Not many authors could keep up with about a dozen storylines at once, and only Varys can manipulate them all from behind the scenes.

Now I have to wait several years for the next book. In the mean time, let’s all get ready for some turkey.