Oh my good Lord. I tried, folks. I really tried. I’ve wanted so much to love A Song of Ice and Fire as much as everybody else does. And after the fairly soul-crushing experience that was slogging my way through A Feast for Crows, I thought that A Dance with Dragons was off to a fairly decent start. But I wasn’t even halfway through before that old familiar feeling started to settle in, and by the time I was two-thirds of the way through (with more than 300 pages left at that point), I had pretty firmly reached this point:
Will I finish reading the series? I suppose I will, if George RR Martin finishes writing it. But now it’s a certain pig-headedness that’s keeping me going, and not much else. It’s that sense of “Well, I’ve got this far”, and I have the added comforting thought that the sixth book is probably unlikely to appear any time before 2014. So I have a good, long recovery time ahead of me. Maybe reading the entire series in the space of six months or so was just too much, but rather than the wonderful immersive quality I was hoping for, I instead found myself thinking, “GAHHH get me out of here!”
After finishing Dance last week, I went and read some reviews that came out when the book did, and I’m wondering if those folks read a different book. One reviewer promised that with this book you start to see the signs of where GRRM is going with his story; others are enraptured by GRRM’s amazingly poetic prose. I evidently missed the boat on both counts, because I don’t yet see this overarching story that’s taking shape and aside from a few passages, GRRM’s prose does not thrill me nearly as much as, say, Guy Gavriel Kay’s. Aside from a few good moments, and one great one, that were all too few and far between, just about all I got from this book was frustration and, eventually, irritation.
The rest of this will be spoilerish, so I’ll stick it below the fold.
The good stuff? Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Stormborn are back after not being seen at all in Feast. The bad stuff? Just about everything else…and Daenerys’s story is sadly a lot less interesting than it should have been. Every time a Daenerys chapter shows up, we would get another ten or fifteen pages of her being incredibly indecisive in the face of all manner of individuals who want nothing more than to control her and, through her, control the dragons. The story generally went a whole lot of nowhere, until toward the end of the book, when the book’s one indisputable moment of awesome transpired…and then, things became dull again. Drogon’s return and Dany’s long-awaited moment of flying on her dragon progeny’s back was just a wonderful moment, almost well-worth the price of a lot of the other stuff in this book that I didn’t care about. But instead of being a game-changing moment in which Dany uses her dragon destiny to begin to take utter control of all those around her, instead she just…flies away. Most people don’t even think she survived, and when we learn that she did, all she’s done is fly away into the Dothraki lands, where she meets some of them…and then her story ends. That’s it.
I think this is part of what bothers me so much about this series: moments that feel like climaxes are never actual climaxes. They are, instead, just moments of high action that end up not meaning much. And that means that we’re right back into soap opera land.
The book suffers structurally as well, owing to GRRM’s decision as to how to split the larger work into two books. Remember, he told ‘all the story’ for some of the characters in Feast, and then went back in Dance and told ‘all the story’ for the other ones. At first this might not be the worst thing, since we’re back with our favorite characters, but it quickly bogs down again. Worse, when the book reaches about 250 pages to go, the remaining characters from Feast start showing up again. Now, in an author’s note at the beginning of the book, GRRM indicates that this is going to happen, and it indicates that all the various threads have reached the same point in the story, and we’re moving forward. The effect, though, is incredibly disjointed. Out of the blue we get a Jaime Lannister chapter…and only one Jaime Lannister chapter that does almost nothing to advance his story. Cersei shows up again after seven hundred pages of absence. But not everyone returns: Samwell Tarly? Sansa Stark? They are both ‘Sir Not Appearing In This Film’. But then, after being absent for two whole books, Theon Greyjoy returns. But not so Rickon Stark…where the hell is he? Who knows? He’s not ever mentioned, even.
Theon’s story is pretty interesting, actually, and ultimately he’s revealed to be a pretty pathetic individual, a bully wannabe who just doesn’t have the stones for it, even though he’s got some skills. But a bit of resolution here would have helped. Instead, he’s just a cliffhanger. Who knows, maybe he doesn’t even appear in the next one.
And then there are the scads of new characters or returning ones just introduced in the last book. Try as I might I just cannot get emotionally involved in the struggles of Dorne, and I did not care at all about any of it, last book or this one. And yet more players are thrust onto the stage: Ramsay Bolton is apparently now a hugely important figure, after being just a vague “Who’s he? Gotta look him up in the appendix” guy for the last four books. (Bolton may be the most purely malevolent villain in the entire series thus far, which is certainly saying something, but as a character he’s nowhere as interesting as the already-disposed-of Tywin Lannister, or as Lord Peter Baelish, who never appears in this book at all.) Another character, a young boy, is revealed to be another lost Targaryen claimant to the throne of Westeros. Tyrion makes a friend of a dwarf actress, after he gets captured when, in a large city, he just happens to choose to do business at the same brothel where Ser Jorah Mormont has been soothing his savage breast. And that’s another problem I have with these books: the degree to which things just happen to take place.
Ultimately I got this very odd feeling, while reading this book, that GRRM had both lost control of his story but was still trying mightily to force things in a certain direction. What that direction might be, I couldn’t hazard a guess, but things like Tyrion’s chance encounter with Mormont and Daenerys’s unyielding cluelessness until it came time to ride the dragon made me constantly feel the hand of the author, moving his playpieces this way and that. Never did I feel this more than late in the book, the last hundred or so pages, when GRRM started leaving us with one cliffhanger after another. Is Ramsay Bolton’s letter telling the truth, and has he defeated Stannis Baratheon? Will Cersei’s new champion (gee, I wonder who he might be…more properly, I wonder if he’s still got all of his body parts, or if that great helmet of his that he never returns is actually empty) save her from her trial? Is Jon dead after being stabbed repeatedly by his brothers of the Night’s Watch? What the hell is going on with Bran Stark, anyway?And what is Arya trying to accomplish, anyway? Tune in next time!
About the only thing about the ending of the book that I liked was that Varys’s loyalties were finally revealed: he’s been working to reestablish the Targaryens to the throne the entire time. That was deeply effective, and a satisfying revelation. Everything else felt to me like a ratcheting up of the cliffhangers, the way the old soap operas used to do (and again, I end up thinking of these books as fantasy soap operas). Shooting JR Ewing was OK once, but you had to outdo yourself each time, right? So we’d shoot Bobby, too! Have a fire at Southfork with multiple people trapped inside! Or on Dynasty, have an entire wedding party riddled with bullets!
Finally, I know I keep harping on this each time out, but my God, the single facet of these books that I find the most tiresome is GRRM’s writing of sex scenes. Sex in this world is so unpleasant that one wonders how kids ever get born in the first place. Now, there’s not as much of it in this book, and thankfully we’re not subjected to Brienne of Tarth being told constantly how ugly she is and how she really needs to be raped (which did happen in Feast), but GRRM makes up for the scant quantity of the Awful Sexity Sex in Dance with what is, to my mind, the single most disgusting sex scene anywhere in the series to date. It’s so bad that I…well, hell, what’s Fair Use for if I can’t use it once in a while? Here, dear Readers, is Asha Greyjoy getting her groove on. (I’m going to Inviso-text this. This is solidly in NSFW territory, and let me be clear, this is verbatim from the book.)
Qarl followed her [Asha] up to Galbart Glover’s bedchamber. “Get out,” she told him. I want to be alone.”
“What you want is me.” He tried to kiss her.
Asha pushed him away. “Touch me again and I’ll–“
“What?” He drew his dagger. “Undress yourself, girl.”
“Fuck yourself, you beardless boy.”
“I’d sooner fuck you.” One quick slash unlaced her jerkin. Asha reached for her axe, but Qarl dropped his knife and caught her wrist, twisting back her arm until the weapon fell from her fingers. He pushed her back onto Glover’s bed, kissed her hard, and tore off her tunic to let her breasts spill out. When she tried to knee him in the groin, he twisted away and forced her legs apart with his knees. “I’ll have you now.”
“Do it,” she spat, “and I’ll kill you in your sleep.”
She was sopping wet when he entered her. “Damn you,” she said. “Damn you damn you damn you.” He sucked her nipples till she cried out half in pain and half in pleasure. Her cunt became the world. She forgot Moat Cailin and Ramsay Bolton and his little piece of skin, forgot the kingsmoot, forgot her failure, forgot her exile and her enemies and her husband. Only his hands mattered, only his mouth, only his arms around her, his cock inside her. He fucked her till she screamed, and then again until she wept, before he finally spent his seed inside her womb.
“I am a woman wed,” she reminded him, afterward. “You’ve despoiled me, you beardless boy. My lord husband will cut your balls off and put you in a dress.”
Qarl rolled off her. “If he can get out of his chair.”
The room was cold. Asha rose from Galbart Glover’s bed and took off her torn clothes. The jerkin would need fresh laces, but her tunic was ruined. I never liked it anyway. She tossed it on the flames. The rest she left in a puddle by the bed. Her breasts were sore, and Qarl’s seed was trickling down her thigh. She would need to brew some moon tea [a birth control potion] or risk bringing another kraken [the Greyjoy sigil is the kraken] into the world. What does it matter? My father’s dead, my mother’s dying, my brother’s being flayed, and there’s naught that I can do about any of it. And I’m married. Wedded and bedded…though not by the same man.
When she slipped back beneath the furs, Qarl was asleep. “Now your life is mine. Where did I put my dagger?” Asha pressed herself against his back and slid her arms about him…They called at Fair Isle and Lannisport and a score of smaller ports before reaching the Arbor, where the peaches were always huge and sweet. “You see,” she’d said, the first time she’d held one up against Qarl’s cheek. When she made him try a bite, the juice ran down his chin, and she had to kiss it clean.
That night they’d spent devouring peaches and each other, and by the time daylight returned Asha was sated and sticky and as happy as she’d ever been. Was that six years ago, or seven? Summer was a fading memory, and it had been three years since Asha last enjoyed a peach. She still enjoyed Qarl, though. The captains and the kings might not have wanted her, but he did.
Asha had known other lovers; some shared her bed for half a year, some for half a night. Qarl pleased her more than all the rest together. He might shave but once a fortnight, but a shaggy beard does not make a man. She liked the feel of his smooth, soft skin beneath her fingers. She liked the way his long, straight hair brushed against his shoulders. She liked the way he kissed. She liked how he grinned when she brushed her thumbs across his nipples. The hair between his legs was a darker shade of sand than the hair on his head, but fine as down compared to the coarse black bush around her own sex. She liked that too. He had a swimmer’s body, long and lean, with not a scar upon him.
A shy smile, strong arms, clever fingers, and two sure swords. What more could any woman want? She would have married Qarl, and gladly, but she was Lord Balon’s daughter and he was common-born, the grandson of a thrall. Too lowborn for me to wed, but not too low for me to suck his cock. Drunk, smiling, she crawled beneath the furs and took him in her mouth. Qarl stirred in his sleep, and after a moment he began to stiffen. By the time she had him hard again, he was awake and she was wet. Asha draped the furs across her bare shoulders and mounted him, drawing him so deep inside her that she could not tell who had the cock and who the cunt. This time the two of them reached their peak together.
“My sweet lady,” he murmured after, in a voice still thick with sleep. “My sweet queen.”
No, Asha thought, I am no queen, nor shall I ever be.
After I read that I felt like I needed to shower. And scrub myself with a pumice stone. And then put on a hair shirt afterwards. It’s kind of rape, but not really, because after a while she gives in and enjoys it, and then, just to show there’s no hard feelings, she instigates another round of the festivities. All of it described in gory detail. This may be a matter of taste, but scenes like that don’t just push me out of the story. They evict me from it, at gunpoint. I don’t know why exactly GRRM feels the need to make most of his sex scenes read like that, but I can’t worry about other readers; I can only worry about this reader, and scenes like that made me give serious thought to quitting the series right then and there.
Will I read the remaining volumes in the series, assuming they come out at some point? Sure. But I doubt I’ll be buying them; I’ll just get them from the library to see what happens. The reason why is simple: there’s just entirely too much of this saga that I just don’t care about. My hope for this book was that GRRM would start to bring things together a bit, start stitching all these threads of his into an actual tapestry. Unfortunately, he hasn’t done that, nor has he even begun to hint that he might soon start doing that.
Past all the scheming, the fighting, the warring, the whoring, the raping, the japing, the dragonflight, the ocean-going, the gods of old and the gods of new, just where the hell is the story here?
And with that, I’m thankfully done until the next book comes along, which I personally doubt that we’ll see any time before 2014. And I’m fine with that. I need a nice, long break from Westeros and its surrounding environs of unpleasantness.
I think I'm going to stick to watching the TV program (when I can)…seems easier than what you describe.
The TV series has toned down the sex in their second season and I'm absolutely grateful for it. I sat there the whole first season watching Daenerys first with Viserys then with Khal Drogo and thought wow, that man really knows how to write about women in abusive relationships. And what makes it worse is that this isn't his intent.
I still like the series, but there's so much room for improvement there…
I do (vaguely) understand why you keep reading; I've done the same with TV shows I should have abandoned. In fact, I had a lengthy conversation with my friend Fred Hembeck, who has almost NEVER quit a show. Whereas I DID quit 24, when I decided it was too …intense and – is crypto-fascist the term I want? – for me.
Oh, and I loathed the passage as much as you.
Roger: I'm glad you hated it. I was actually a little bit afraid that I was just being a prude, but I don't think so…I'm reading a Christopher Moore novel now, and his approach to Teh Sex is really refreshing after that.
After reading, and being completely shocked, by that exact scene with Asha in Dance, I immediately searched the internet to see if other GRRM fans were as disgusted as I was. Sadly, this is one of these only reviews that even mentions it!! I would have for sure thought that this would have been a big deal to other readers. However, I think the fact that she was raped was "accepted" or "ignored" by most people because "she eventually liked it" and that is just not OK with me. It''s irresponsible of GRRM to portray rape as OK if the girl "likes it eventually". He even shows that Asha is "too weak" to make do on her promise of killing Qarl in his sleep and instead he shows her remorse by giving him a blow job and riding him again. There is no doubt that a lot of GRRM's readers are young men, and to basically show rape as being OK, only goes on to further encourage such disgusting and terrible behavior.
I've got to agree with you entirely on Martin's inability to bring anything to a resolution; it's a continuing morass of shifting relationships and factions. Danerys has regressed into a shadow of her former potential, and Tyrion has been the only character to show any real backbone. I'm caught in the momentum too, and will read until the last book, but I too will not buy any more of them.
I just read this one, sorry for bumping your review up to the top.
I agree, wholeheartedly. I was excited to begin as I assumed that we'd be going forward with the characters that I enjoyed who had been missing from the previous tome. However, there was little to no plot movement in this one, and so many characters I had no clue who they were or why they were now narrating.
Also, I agree, that scene was awful. The treatment of women's sexuality is so abhorrent in this series. Blarg