This post contains spoilers, they're not that terrible, I tried to keep them brief, but talking about a book like this, it's tough to be completely spoiler-free. Sorry in advance, but I've given you a 2-sentence warning. If you're reading the post from this point on, don't say I didn't give you full disclosure ahead of time.
I'll start off by saying this. My review is one short of five mainly because I'm angry. I'm angry at the things that happened, I'm angry about the characters that are still wandering around Westeros with nary a mention of them, and I'm angry that I have to wait for the next installment. I am indeed in a foul mood. That being said, the sheer fact that I care enough to be that angry, that I'm invested enough in characters to commence crying, is a testament to Martin's storytelling. It's also going to be a great struggle to walk the fine line of illustrating the high points of the book without giving too much away because this one, even more than others, despite the separate nature of the 4th and 5th books, sees worlds coming together and partnerships being made that, honestly, I don't think anyone saw coming. The fun is realizing those for yourself.
Before I continue, let me say, if you haven't read the previous 4 books, or if you're not really familiar with the source material, nothing you read beyond this point will make any sense to you. I'll be speaking of sigils, The Seven, names like Targaryen and Mormont, so if none of these mean anything to you, it's best to bail out now.
A Dance With Dragons, picks up essentially where the third book, A Storm of Swords leaves us, covering some of the same time period as Feast For Crows, but starting off on the opposite end of the character spectrum. Where Feast For Crows revolved around the Greyjoys, Dorne, Brienne and Sansa, Jaime, Cersei and Sam (mostly) this one focuses much and more (sorry I've just been dying to use that phrase) on Jon, Dany, what's going on at Winterfell, and everyone's favorite half-man, Tyrion.
Here's the quick recap: Dany is in Meereen, Tyrion is fleeing across the narrow sea after having just given his father the worst case of indigestion ever (Pepto-Bismal does NOT list arrow quivers alongside the vomiting and diarrhea it claims to soothe) and Jon is Lord Commander at The Wall, a job that is only slightly more difficult than being Michelle Bachman's campaign PR manager. The kingdoms are askew, with nothing tying them together besides marriage pacts and promises of land and lordships, an environment that only benefits schemers and sellswords, who, in most cases, are one in the same. To use the term "mercurial" seems to be an understatement. The phrase most often thrown around in A Dance With Dragons are the words of House Targaryen, "fire and blood". Winter is no longer coming, it's here and it's pissed.
In Meereen, Dany must deal with several armies who want to see her dead, infighting amongst her own, and of course, growing dragons, all the problems a world leader would normally have to face. For the most part, I found her storyline blander than in the previous books. She's so politically-focused this time around, and let's face facts, Dany is no Cersei. She's too just and too inexperienced, at least by political standards, and from the outset the audience can see that this is going nowhere good in a hurry. It's a painful, drawn out process of, often aloud, wondering "WHY?!".
Jon faces similar inexperience issues at The Wall. Having been maneuvered into the Lord Commander position by Sam, he falls back on his Winterfell training and his Stark standards of honor and duty. We all recall how well those served Definitely Headless Ned. Having seen Sam's journey in the previous book, we know that Jon sends Sam away early on, with Gilly and Aemon, essentially forcing the brains of the operation to set sail. Not to say that Jon isn't intelligent, he is, and he's thoughtful, but he's not necessarily savvy. More than once he returns to Ygritte's mantra, and as a reader you begin to agree with the red-headed wildingling that, in fact, "You Know Nothing Jon Snow".
And finally Tyrion. Wonderful, stubborn, witty Tyrion. He's the character we all know Martin pours the most of himself into. He's always the best part of every book, and a major part of the reason I had such a tough time with Feast For Crows. Tyrion is simply trying to survive. He acknowledges he's on the run and can no longer be considered a Lord of Casterly Rock, but that certainly won't stop him from being Tyrion. Survival mode brings out the best in Tyrion, who, despite his wishes, doesn't seem to be made to be complacent. His journey is by far the most intriguing, with the most interesting pairings and most high-voltage revelations. I would feel too terrible if I gave away more than that.
Beyond these three major characters, there are the introductions of several additional characters, who hopefully will be sticking around for quite a while (I kind of quickly grew attached to a tag-along dwarf named Penny), but as any of the fans of the series know, pinning your hopes on a character's long-term situation is an emotionally unsatisfying action. If Tyrion really wanted to make his gold back, he should have become a bookie in Vegas taking odds on Martin character survivals.
As a reader of the series from about three and a half years ago, later than many, earlier than some, I had been anticipating this installment with the rest of the rabid fanbase, and (foolishly) expected more satisfaction than I received. I am fully aware that there are still two more books in the works, but I hoped some of the previous stories might have had those loose ends ties, instead of still fraying in the wind. It was not to be for this fifth book in the series. What we get instead are players that are more defined, a chess board that finally seems to be set, and a looming ending which could still go either way. As someone who appreciates a nice bow to wrap up my gifts, this uncertainty is unsatisfying, despite the fact that I recognize its necessity.
A Dance With Dragons does define itself in the series though, not just from sheer density but also as the one in which two themes seemed to be emerging simultaneously. The first theme, and Martin almost beats you over the head with it in this book, is identity. All of our characters now, well, at least all of our main, point of view characters, are finally past struggling to define themselves and have clearly chosen the path they will travel down. It's almost as if this is the book where the evolution ends and the only thing left to do is figure out who is fit to survive, which is always easier said than done when Martin is the judge, jury and executioner of the characters.
The second theme, one that's always been around but which I found exceedingly prominent in this book, is the notion of religion. All of the readers know that each different area of Westeros has its deities. The North and Beyond the Wall have The Old Gods and their Weirwoods, King's Landing has its 7 and its Septs, the Iron Islands have their Drowned God and the Red Priests have R'hllor, but I feel like the emphasis was stronger in this book. While the first 3 novels of the series focused heavily on the physical act of war, it looks like these later books will have to deal the war for men's (and women's) beliefs. [book:A Storm of Swords|62291][book:A Feast for Crows|13497]
The writing style itself is not altered dramatically from previous books, although I do feel like the descriptive nature was enhanced. There were moments where I just wanted the plot to move ahead at a quicker pace, but honestly, what would ASOIAF be without knowing exactly what kind of rodents on sticks they sold in the fighting pits? If you've stuck with it this long, you'll continue to stick with it. Enough surprises, of all kinds, happened in this book, that, despite a fleeting notion that I wanted to give up, I know I can't. I find Martin's storytelling to be addictive, and I can only go so long before needing a fix. Overall, better than Feast For Crows, but still lacking the pounding momentum of Clash of Kings.