He knew what he would face today, and found himself tossing restlessly as he brooded on Maester Aemon's final words. "Allow me to give my lord one last piece of counsel," the old man had said, "the same counsel that I once gave my brother when we parted for the last time. He was three-and-thirty when the Great Council chose him to mount the Iron Throne. A man grown with sons of his own, yet in some ways still a boy. Egg had an innocence to him, a sweetness we all loved. Kill the boy within you, I told him the day I took ship for the Wall. It takes a man to rule. An Aegon, not an Egg. Kill the boy and let the man be born." The old man felt Jon's face. "You are half the age that Egg was, and your own burden is a crueler one, I fear. You will have little joy of your command, but I think you have the strength in you to do the things that must be done. Kill the boy, Jon Snow. Winter is almost upon us. Kill the boy and let the man be born." (p. 103)
If there ever were a common adjective for epic fantasies, particularly American-written works of the past twenty years, that word would be "sprawling." More characters, more plots, more scenes, more political intrigue, more deaths, as well as more plot inertia, according to some. One merely has to glance at various forums devoted to epic fantasy discussions to see readers complaining about the slow "pace" of "middle volumes," or of (in their minds) unnecessary delays in volumes being written to see that this "more" sometimes ends up as being a bit "less" in the eyes of many erstwhile fans. One particular target of these accusations has been George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has "expanded in the telling" from a trilogy to six volumes to (for the moment) seven volumes; some are now fearing eight or even nine volumes will be required for this saga to come to a close.
In order to discuss the fifth volume, A Dance With Dragons (recently nominated for the 2012 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel), these fan concerns have to be noted because they will likely shape how this volume is perceived. Anticipation inflicts cruel stings to both reader and writer alike; the first because they build up expectations for how the story should flow, the latter because the story cannot aspire to be what it is, but must instead contend with the phantoms of past volumes built up by readers to be something other than what the author might imagine. For A Dance With Dragons, the fewer expectations the reader has going into it, the better this book will be for them.
There is much to like about this story-in-progress. Characters not seen since 2000's A Storm of Swords reappear and there are noticeable signs of character growth. The passage I quote above marks a turning point in Jon Snow's nascent career as Commander of the Black Watch. He is leaving behind adolescence and having to contend more directly with the intrigues and betrayals around him. Martin does not radically shift his character as much as he organically develops Jon into being the person who may (or may not, based on late developments) be someone more than just a precocious military commander.
The tone of the various PoV chapters varies considerably, making it easier to read large portions of this 1000 page volume. Tyrion – dwarf, kinslayer, acerbic wit – serves as the cynical, sardonic counter to the weighty solemnal tone of Jon's chapters. His flight to the east leads to a host of new developments, including an introduction to a character who might upset the precarious balance of power in Westeros. It was refreshing to see that there were some surprises still in store, things that I did not recall any fan prognosticators foreseeing on the various fan forums.
But beyond the richness of the characterizations (I could easily spend time on Daenerys, Reek, and a few minor characters), what was striking is the atmosphere looming in places. Martin was a horror writer before he ever wrote an epic fantasy and there have been times in the series where he has utilized those motifs to create memorable scenes. One particular boatride in particular stands out because of the creeping horror that threatens to envelop the people on board. These touches, while not always strictly necessary for the plot, do add considerably to the overall enjoyment.
However, there are some serious structural problems with A Dance With Dragons. Due to the enormity of the plots in motion (succession issues in Westeros and the East and the northern threat of the Others), Martin is faced with tricky timeline issues that have plagued many epic fantasists as they ground on toward the end of their series. With so many characters in motion, it is tricky to move them about and to develop their characters and situations adequately within the space of a single novel. This become very evident in the preceding volume, A Feast for Crows, where the northern and eastern-based characters were left for this volume while the southern characters came to the fore. A Dance With Dragons does cover a little of the southern situation, but it is hard to tell which scenes are congruent with the fourth volume, which are coinciding with even the third volume, A Storm of Swords, and which are occurring months later. Although there is some resolution of these timeline issues toward the end of the novel, Martin still seems to be manipulating the narrative chessboard, trying to place his character pawns in place for a planned attack. There is no resolution to any of the plots here; everything is in a state of suspension, awaiting the sixth volume.
Perhaps it is inevitable that this would occur; after all, there is much left to be done before the series is complete. For some, knowing that there's a wait ahead (some fear the 5-6 years that plagued the publication of the last two volumes) will curb their appreciation for A Dance With Dragons considerably. For myself, however, Martin's prose and his characterizations were very strong here. He continues to develop the theme of what one does in the aftermath of devastation that began in A Feast for Crows. It might not be as "sexy" as wars, battles, betrayals, and so forth, but it does provide a depth to these events that make them more palatable and meaningful. It is not a perfect novel by any stretch, but A Dance With Dragons is a solid addition to a long-running series that I suspect will be more important in the scheme of matters once the series is completed.
Yet "solid addition to a long-running series" is a descriptor that often does not bode well when considering a "middle volume" for an award that often favors initial volumes or self-contained, "stand-alone" works. A Dance With Dragons' lack of narrative resolution puts it at a serious disadvantage to the other four finalists, each of which are complete narratives that do not promise sequels to come. Excellent as several of its individual scenes are (some of which are the equal or superior to the best scenes from the other contenders), the structural problems noted above do hamper the reader's ability to assess it in toto; it is very much a volume of pieces that have yet to merge to create a wider, more vivid tapestry. A Dance With Dragons is not the poorest finalist on the list (at least one other has more serious narrative and prose flaws), but its narrative-in-state-of-suspension does make it inferior to some of the other finalists for Best Novel.