The dance is done and I've come through the dragon fire unscathed. George R.R. Martin's latest, A Dance with Dragons, was six years in the writing. Six painful years of anticipation. It was worth every moment once I got ahold of it, got comfortable, and blew through all 1,016 pages in entirely too short a time. Go ahead and check that again: 1,016 pages. Better lift some weights before settling in for a read. There WILL be spoilers about previous books in the series behind the break, so if you are still reading prior installments, do NOT click through. Consider yourself warned.
Readers will welcome Martin's return to several fan-favorite characters, including Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Tyrion Lannister. Several characters from the previous installment, A Feast for Crows, also make a return, such as Balon Greyjoy's erstwhile daughter Asha, and Areo Hotah, the taciturn axeman and loyal bodyguard Dorne's prince. The Onion Knight, Davos Seaworth, has a few chapters as well.
True to the book's title, there is a heavy focus on Dany's three dragons and the consequences of keeping fire-breathing wild animals in urban centers. In prior installations, Dany came, Dany saw, and Dany conquered. Dany now rules the fractious lot of former slaves, former slave owners, and mercenaries that is the population of Meereen. Her dragons are prospering as well, growing almost beyond control. However, ruling Meereen may not have been the great prize it originally seemed, for rumblings of war from slave-holding cities threatens to wreak further devastation, and then one day her dragons commit a horrific act with consequences that may well ripple through the rest of the series.
Even Queen Daenerys cannot foresee all the potential upheaval that may soon sweep through Westeros, the Free Cities, Slaver's Bay, and beyond. The Imp, Tyrion Lannister, has found himself in the company of a sellsword and his son thanks to an arrangement brokered by Illyrio Mopatis. Readers will remember Mopatis as the man instrumental in setting Dany on her path to Meereen. He was also the man who made a gift of the dragon eggs that she hatched in fire. However, in Tyrion's company is one who can change the game of thrones entirely. Tyrion has survived his escape from King's Landing and now spends his days in a drunken state of guilt. Not much has changed for him actually, just his surroundings.
Changing surroundings is not a virtue of Jon Snow's position, however. Snow, Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, now must deal with the supremely testy King Stannis Baratheon, a cunning priestess with a penchant for burning royalty, and a horde of the defeated wildlings beyond the Wall. At the Wall, it is always winter, and the threat of the Others lurks as a constant menace even as Jon juggles his sundry duties to the Realm, his brothers of the Watch, and his forbidden wish to avenge his family. When a man says the words of the Watch, his brothers become his own family, but Jon's thoughts return often to Ned Stark's grim fate and the straits of his siblings.
One sibling is alive and well, even though paralyzed from the waist down. Bran Stark, last male heir to Winterfell, flees the destruction of his home with some family friends, his faithful companion Hodor, and a very strange man from beyond the Wall. He is till plagued by visions of the three-eyed crow, even as he embraces his hidden ability to inhabit the forms of animals and even some men. Stark seeks safety and instruction in his skills as he and his company elude pursuit from the Boltons of the Dreadfort and something even more sinister in the forests.
The novel is a hefty exploration of human nature, especially human nature placed under extreme stress. Other characters from previous installments make their appearances here: Cersei, Jaime, and, as previously mentioned, our favorite smuggler, Ser Davos Seaworth. There are also some surprising viewpoints cropping up here and there.
Dance includes the author's trademark brutality and depiction of all the cruelties of human nature, as well as some of its finer traits. There is savagery aplenty to be found here, but also steadfast loyalty and honor to counteract the cutthroat politics on display in the ceaseless game of thrones. Astute readers will note Martin's continued use of food as a motif conveying the themes and symbolism of the series. Nearly every chapter describes in loving, almost obsessive detail, what its characters are feasting on or forcing down parched throats. Lords sup well on delicacies such as lamprey pies (don't ask me) while the less fortunate make do with biscuit, jerky, and fried bread. Even Tyrion's drinks are described well enough to make connoisseurs of readers.
This book is a fantastic read, and fast, too, despite its enormous size. Did I mention it's 1,016 pages long? The reader can tell that things are, at long last, coming to a head in the grand scheme that has swallowed the Seven Kingdoms and the world beyond. Several plot threads are coming together in a colorful tapestry, and the larger picture is becoming more evident. Martin still has plenty of wool to pull over our eyes, though, so be ready for more than a few surprises, pleasant and nasty.
Let the music play. Let the wine flow. And let the dance with dragons begin!