I've finished A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series and, as expected, I was engrossed, entertained, surprised, befuddled, and, perhaps most importantly, transported once again into Westeros and across the Narrow Sea. I tasted the dishes of the many feasts in Mereen; I smelled the piss and sweat of Old Volantis; I shivered in the snows outside Winterfell and along the Wall; my teeth chipped; my flesh was burned from dragon fire.
Yeah. I pretty much loved it.
Each book in the series opens with a viewpoint from a minor character who inevitably meets his death by prologue's end, but ADWD's prologue has stuck with me - I was fortunate to hear Martin read it at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego during Clarion - and, even now, after finally reading it in print, I still think it to be the best prologue he's written in the series thus far. The viewpoint is from Varamyr Sixskins - a skinchanger, a warg, a wildling. He is dark and sadistic and vengeful and must confront his own mortality and the dangers and madness skinchanging brings. The prologue is made all the more relevant as several of my favorite characters - Jon Snow, Arya Stark, and especially Bran Stark (all of which have viewpoints in the book) - have the potential to become skinchangers and face the same dangers as Varamyr.
Along with the aforementioned viewpoints, a lot of fans were also happy to see the return of Danaerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister. I was too, though to be fair, I didn't miss them all that much in the previous volume, A Feast for Crows. Without going off on a tangent and detailing the history of the previous books, let me just say that in the third volume a lot happened and some characters went off to do other things and, Martin realized writing the fourth volume, to encompass all of the storylines into one book would make for a tome the size of which would be encyclopedic; intsead, he cut the books in half - not by character arc, but by geography, so as to tell most of some of the character's stories in the fourth book and the rest in the fifth. Dance is the second half of that split (although the final third of the book moves past the events in Feast). Many readers were frustrated by the numerous minor character viewpoints that filled the brunt of the fourth volume; I, however, was fascinated by these characters - particularly the ironborn and the Dornishmen - and find AFFC to be an underrated affair.
It was quite enjoyable to catch up with Tyrion and Bran and Jon Snow and Dany, to be sure, but again I found myself rooting for and, just as much, against the various minor viewpoint characters in Dance. I have grown quite fond of Asha Greyjoy and still despise her brother, Theon, no matter how much sympathy Martin writes him with. Melisandre remains a mystery to me; I want to believe she is good, but even having read from her point-of-view, I'm still as confused as to her allegiance as I was before. Other viewpoint characters - Quentyn Martell and Ser Barristan Selmy, for instance - served to move the plot along in Mereen after Dany's disappearance and I suspect helped in untangling the "Mereenese knot" Martin had been stressing over.
Yet, perhaps the most surprisng and head-scratching part of Dance was the appearance of once-thought-dead Aegon Targaryen. According to Westerosi history, Aegeon - still a babe - was killed along with his sister and parents in the sack of King's Landing. In Dance, however, we learn that another child - a peasant babe - replaced Aegon and Aegon himself escaped in the care of Lord Jon Connington, former Hand of the King, and with the help of Varys, and has grown up across the Narrow Sea, taught about the Seven and other various Westerosi customs. Obviously, with Dany also vying for the Iron Throne (and taking her time about it, too, learning to rule in far away Mereen), Aegon complicates things heavily.
Already interwebbers are speculating that Aegon is a fake, a pretender to the thrown - a "mummer's dragon" - and that this is but a distraction, and though I too have my doubts as to Aegon's bloodline, I do wonder. To me, it doesn't seem very GeoRRge-like to throw up a fraudulant Targaryen at the last moment because it feels kind of "plot-y" and, if anything, "plot" in its typical sense is not central to A Song of Ice and Fire. Yet, Varys tells Ser Kevan Lannister in the epilogue that Aegon's arrival in Westeros couldn't be more perfectly timed - the unrest in the Seven Kingdoms was settling down and this is the very thing that will keep it alive - a Targaryen in the flesh, come to retake the Throne. As far as I'm concerned, however, the Aegon has Targaryan blood and that this one of Varys's plots - to have both Aegon and Dany take the Iron Throne. Targaryens did wed sister and brother, after all, and though a marriage between Dany and Aegon would be niece to nephew, they are near the same age. I'm probably wrong.
Many fans are also speculating on the fate of Jon Snow, Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. In his final chapter he was betrayed by his own men and stabbed, presumably, to death with daggers. There is talk that Jon Snow is actually Azhor Azhai returned and not Stannis Baratheon, but I wonder about this too.
First of all, I think it likely Martin has killed off yet another main character. I don't want to believe that, but so many good people have died in this series, it's hard not to. If Snow is really dead, this also creates chaos at the Wall - just when order is needed most. Jon was, of course, settling the Gift with wildlings and manning many of the vacant castles along the Wall with them too to fight against the coming battle with the Others. With his death, the black brothers will fall into disorder and infighting. This will undoubtedly make it harder for Dany, once she arrives in Westeros with her dragons, to fight the Others.
Secondly, however, Jon Snow's death fits Martin's MO: that is, honor alone will not save you; you know, nobody likes do-gooders. The interwebbers have a good point though: there is still the mystery of Jon's mother and, though some if it was discussed in Dance, it's still as much a mystery as ever; and that Melisandre may bring him back through a sacrifice to the Lord of Light. There are also similarities between the end of Jon Snow's chapter and Arya's chapter in A Storm of Swords wherein "the axe took her in the back of head." No matter how it pans out, I was stunned when I read Jon Snow's final chapter, much how I felt when I read the Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords. I looked up and said, "No. No. No. What. No."
It seems, too, that Dany is finally going to make her way to Westeros. After having disappeared from Mereen riding her dragon Drogon, Dany, lost and hallucinating in the desert, comes across a khalasar led by Khal Jhago. Again, I can't say what will happen with this scenario with any certainty, but it seems as though Dany will lead this khalasar to Mereen, crush the Yunkai'i, and set forth for Westeros. Martin is a master at defying expectations, however, so we shall see. Regardless of where she goes, I found Dany's chapters to be some of the best in the book. She learns as much from her mistakes as her successes and though she confesses many times to her council that she is "but a young girl," she is far from it, the sarcasm of those words nearly spitting from her mouth. There is a part of me, however, that no longer even cares if she invades Westeros - to me, the story has always been more about the characters than any sort of over-arching end-of-the-world plot. I don't really care about the big fight between good and evil; I care about the little everyday fights within ourselves.
Which brings me to my concluding points about A Dance With Dragons. There has been some frustration from readers that "nothing happens" in this book. Well...they're right and they're wrong. If you want a big sea battle or a fight with the Others and Cersei to set King's Landing on fire, you'll be disappointed. Those things don't happen. What does happen, though, is all around character growth. Cersei is humiliated, Arya must put aside her past, Bran learns what he is and what he can be, and so on. The characters move through the world and the world is made richer. Not everything in this book advances the plot and, in some cases, even seems to stall it. As George himself said though, "My philosophy is that plot advancement is not what the experience of reading fiction is about. If all we care about is advancing the plot, why read novels? We can just read Cliff Notes."