I took 20 days to finish A Dance With Dragons, 10 days less than The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. I swear, I am done with books over 700 pages for the next several months because my reading list is backed up worse than the tunnel at Castle Black when a giant tried to scootch his way through that one time in A Feast For Crows.
I won't divulge any major spoilers for this review, so if you want to talk details, feel free to drop me a line. However, there will be some spoilers - I can't really avoid them if I want to give a decent review. Stuff happens, and stuff - stop reading now if you want your ADWD reading experience to be virginal like Margaery Tyrell.
In a previous post, I brought up a number of issues that long time fans hoped George R.R. Martin would get to in ADWD. Some of these issues were resolved - as much as they could be, but others are still being drawn out and still others have cropped up in this newest installment of A Song of Ice and Fire. We got a few precious Bran chapters in this volume, but his story is far from over. Bran has reached his "three eyed crow," but we never find out who Coldhands was and how he managed to retain a sense of humanity after becoming zombified. We also get the slightest hint of what happened to Rickon and Osha. Davos is conscripted to find them in order to restore the Stark to Winterfell. When told where he is going, he thinks he might rather go to hell. Us readers are never informed of Rickon's wherabouts, but context clues from Davos' passages lead me to believe he's off to Skaggos - home of cannibals and other horrors.
Theon's storyline is addressed fairly early on. GRRM has the wonderful gift of making readers hate and pity the same character within a single storyline. Theon has never had a proper identity - he's never been quite a wolf or a kraken, but somewhere in between, too violent to be wholly embraced by the Starks and too soft for the Greyjoys unpon his return to the Iron Islands. All Theon has ever wanted was respect, but he's gone about getting it in the most horrid ways possible. I've always felt a little sorry for Theon. Even if he had been the sweetest of children, he was a hostage and as Theon grew up he had to know that Ned would kill him at any sense of rebellion from Balon Greyjoy. Theon came to adulthood under the shadow of Ned's greatsword, Ice. Even when Theon took Winterfell in A Clash of Kings, his desperation and confusion were piteous. I hated him for the murder and sacking of towns that had embraced him as a child. I hated his fake murder of Bran and Rickon. Theon Turncloak. Theon Kinkiller. He had broken some of the most basic rules of life and hospitality, and yet his desperation was palpable. He didn't do any of these things out of hate - only desperation for a place of his own. And so, when we meet up with Theon again in ADWD, the pity wins over. Even though Theon's identity is revealed early on, it's like a punch to the gut. His chapters are the most difficult to read, and GRRM has crafted Theon Geyjoy as one of the most intricate, relatable characters of the entire series.
ADWD gives us many chapters at The Wall - enough to make up for their absence in AFFC and then some. I've never felt an affinity for Jon's chapters, and I think I'm the only one who feels bored by him as a character. The Wall itself hasn't ever interested me very much. The concept is wonderful - a band of once noble brothers defending Westeros against the Wildlings of the north. However, I've just never felt a connection to Jon Snow, not even when he was undercover with the Wildlings. Much like Ned, Jon's character sings one note: honor and duty at all costs. Jon's chapters are still fairly static in ADWD. However, GRRM gives us a treat with one lonely Melisandre chapter (Stannis leaves her with Jon as he travels West), which gives some much needed perspective to the Red Witch and reader frustration with Jon for dismissing her so easily.
Tyrion's story picks up again in ADWD and as much as I still love his character, I found I was bored with many of Tyrion's chapters. Our Imp is still more than a little crazy after murdering his father and finding out that Tysha wasn't really a whore after all. Tyrion goes from one unfortunate circumstance to another but is never really in serious peril. Tyrion's arc isn't very dynamic in this volume and I wonder if his only purpose was to be the only character smart enough to figure out a significant secret identity, causing most readers to crap their pants at the unexpected reveal. I get the sense that Tyrion will make it through the series and if he dies, it will be at the tail end. Then again, we all though this about Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones.
I asked in my previous post about Dany and how she was spending her time in Meereen. At the end of A Storm of Swords, Dany has decided to settle in Meereen with her Unsullied and dragons. The main reason it took GRRM six years to publish this book is what he himself refers to as "The Meereenese Knot." Boy, howdy. Just reading Dany's chapters was exhausting. I can't imagine writing them. After finishing ADWD I understand GRRM's troubles. Dany's chapters were hard to read in an entirely different way than Theon's. It was obvious to me that GRRM struggled with them. Plots within plots, multiple free companies turning cloaks again and again, or were they really on the right side from the beginning? Free Cities aligning with or turning against Dany depending on numerous devious characters within Meereen itself. And multiple suitors chasing after the Dragon Queen, some of whom felt like dead plot from the beginning. Speaking of dragons, what about the dragons? Their presence is unavoidable in every Dany chapter, but she makes some horrifying decisions in regard to these most special of her children. Dany's chapters were too busy. GRRM has gotten this character into a bind with too many variables in terms of secondary characters and plots for any sort of resolution that won't seem forced. I really hope I'm wrong about this. I hope I never have to use the term deus ex machina in a review of GRRM's work. You hear that, dragons?
Lastly, GRRM has teased us yet again with hints that Ned Stark was not Jon Snow's father. Bran sees visions of the Winterfell Godswood of the past, and we get Barristan Selmy's and Jon Connington's memories of happier times before Robert's Rebellion. Even if Ned was Jon's true father, I think we've gotten to a point where we know that Rhaegar was not the kidnapping, raping madman Robert would have had us believe in AGOT. He loved Lyanna Stark and the evidence accumulates with every book that she also loved him. GRRM never writes without a purpose. The mystery of Rhaegar and Lyanna will out by the end of the series.
Ultimately, ADWD was well worth the wait. Dany's situation wasn't going to get any easier and again, I hope I'm very wrong about the nature of her narrative. ADWD didn't have the impact of ASOS or the slow burn of AFFC, but this volume is integral to the works as a whole. I felt that ADWD spent a lot of time getting characters in place for the further books without a lot of forward movement within itself. There were a number of characters I missed in this volume, most especially Littlefinger (he's sick but I love him - don't you judge me!). Despite the absences, I had a wonderful time getting to know characters that had been around for a while like Melisandre, and Barristan Selmy. Especially Barristan Selmy. He's the only POV character who has adult knowledge of life under Areys Targaryan's rule. I'm hoping now that the Meereenese Knot has been untangled (maybe?) GRRM will have an easier time finishing up the series. But yeah, after reading ADWD, if I was ever pissy over him taking too much time, I take it all back.