Last Updated on February 12, 2024
After the uneven A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin is back in peak form with A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in A Song of Ice and Fire. Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, and Tyrion Lannister are all back as main characters after being excluded from the previous volume.
A Dance with Dragons kicks off with a bang as Tyrion Lannister is smuggled across the sea to the neighboring land of Essos, seeking refuge after the harrowing events at the end of the third book, A Storm of Swords. Tyrion discovers much about himself during his time in Essos, especially as he meets the charming Penny, a dwarf woman who initially attacks Tyrion but later befriends him. Tyrion and Penny experience terrible hardships together as they are sold into slavery.
Up at the Wall, Jon Snow struggles in his role as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, being torn between honoring his vows of neutrality and allying with Lord Stannis to rescue Winterfell. Jon has been put in this leadership role before he was truly ready. His story arc in A Dance with Dragons is both extraordinary and tragic. I especially enjoyed the interactions among Jon, Stannis, and Melisandre, one of my favorite side characters who receives her first point of view chapter in A Dance with Dragons, a very welcome addition to the book.
In a novel with many high points, I think Daenerys Targaryen’s storyline was my favorite. I love her growth throughout the book as she fights against slavery while also managing the more nuanced elements of politics. The final chapter from her point of view was absolutely perfect, one of the most beautifully written chapters of the entire series.
While Arya Stark has adopted many different pseudonyms over the course of the series, in A Dance with Dragons there is a new twist as a different girl assumes Arya’s identity. This plot thread also features Theon Greyjoy, similarly disguised under a new persona. Meanwhile, the real Arya is doing her best to survive in a foreign cult. Although she is only given two chapters in A Dance with Dragons, they are both excellent.
Regarding the other Stark children, Bran only has three chapters in A Dance with Dragons, but they contain some of his most interesting scenes since A Game of Thrones. Sansa Stark is missing from the book, but fortunately she already had a great story arc in A Feast for Crows. The perpetually overlooked youngest Stark child, Rickon, is also absent from A Dance with Dragons, but that is nothing new. I expect that he will play a more important role in the next book, The Winds of Winter, when it is finally published.
Cersei Lannister was the star of A Feast for Crows, where we witnessed the dramatic descent of her psychological wellbeing in tandem with her loosening grip on power. George R.R. Martin picks up Cersei’s storyline in the second half of A Dance with Dragons, which is just as captivating as in the previous book. Cersei finally faces justice, suffering the ultimate humiliation as punishment for her many transgressions.
A Dance with Dragons is George R.R. Martin at his finest. With action spread evenly across two continents, A Dance with Dragons has the most expansive worldbuilding yet in the series. Martin somehow maintains a brisk pace across more than 1000 pages, giving the reader many hours of enjoyment (in conjunction with a good arm-strengthening exercise). Despite multiple cliffhanger endings, I found the conclusion of A Dance with Dragons to be highly satisfying as we (patiently) wait for the upcoming sixth volume of the series, The Winds of Winter. Winter is coming; we just don’t know when.