Review: A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

Many spoilers after the leap.

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Remember, I told you there’d be spoilers…

The Short Review

For a thousand or so pages almost nothing happens and then we get a bunch of cliffhangers.

The End.

The Long Review

Okay, so that’s not exactly it, but it’s pretty damn close. It is not, as Lev Grossman writes, the best of the five published Fire and Ice books. Both Grossman and Dana Jennings of the New York Times compare Martin favorably to Tolkien, with Jennings going so far as to say that Martin is “much better” than Tolkien.

(This following a gem of a sentence: “Like its predecessors “Dance” has its share of flagons ’n’ dragons, and swords ’n’ sorcerers, but that doesn’t make Mr. Martin the American Tolkien, as some would have it.  He’s much better than that.” There is no quicker way to the heart of a fantasy reader than to turn a phrase like flagons ‘n’ dragons in your opening paragraph, believe me. Ugh.)

Other reviewers evoke Tolkien as well, mainly to point out how much grittier and more morally complex Martin’s work is than his British predecessor. I won’t delve too deeply into that line of argument. I will only note, oh so briefly, that there was nothing morally simplistic about Lord of the Rings and that grittiness and unsavory characters do not a morally complex fable make. Dance has both these things in spades, but I don’t believe it made Martin’s latest any more morally complex than Tolkien’s work. If anything, the fifth book has me wondering if the complexity I believed present in the first three books has survived the fourth and fifth.

The only somewhat mainstream reviewer (other than your humble narrator of course) that I would point you to is Alyssa Rosenberg, who hits the proverbial nail on the head many times over. I agree with essentially everything in her post, which is too bad since I really, really wanted to love this book as much as so many of the early mainstream reviewers apparently did.

From here on I will discuss the good (and there really was some very good stuff in this book) and the bad. We’ll start with the good, heading to…

The North

Pretty much everything that happened in the north of Westeros in Dance with Dragons was excellent. If the book had been entirely at The Wall and at Winterfell, following Theon and Jon Snow and Davos and Stannis, it would have been a truly terrific book.

It also would have been about five hundred pages or so, which would have suited me fine.

Jon Snow’s chapters are almost entirely excellent. As a character, Jon begins to come into his own. He makes hard choices, right from the beginning. The execution of Janos Slynt was surprising and gratifying. It filled me with hope. Right up to the last of Jon’s chapters I was hooked. I will get to the last one in a bit.

Theon Greyjoy’s chapters were also riveting. Sure, Ramsay Bolton is a cartoon villain, but his victims are very real, and Theon (who goes by Reek for most of the book) is a shattered ghost of his former self. For all his treachery, you sympathize deeply with the man, as you do with Jeyne Poole who is wed to Bolton as Arya Stark so that Bolton can claim Winterfell. The torture in the books is truly disturbing, as it should be.

Davos had only two chapters which were among the best in the novel.

Bran Stark is similarly deprived. His brief storyline deepens the mystery of the North, of the Old Gods, and the Stark family, and the mystery is good. I wanted more. I wanted more of the North, more Bran, more Davos. Even if I wasn’t going to get all the answers, I enjoyed the parts of the book that extended old mysteries deeper.

Really, the entire storyline in the North, from Jon Snow remaking the vision of The Wall and the role of the Night’s Watch, to Stannis’s snowy march on Winterfell, was some of Martin’s best work, rivaling anything in Storm of Swords.

But alas, Martin spent most of the book in…

The East

And by the East I mean the far east, Slaver’s Bay and the Free Cities. Quite frankly, to be both blunt and honest, and to speak for, I suspect, many if not most of Martin’s core readers, I don’t give a shit about Meereen.

I don’t give a shit about Meereen.

And why should I? It’s not Westeros, where the true story is unfolding. It’s not really part of the plot we’ve been working toward for several books and several thousand pages.

Daenerys’s chapters…oh there is so much to say about these. That they could have been cut entirely from the book and it would not have made one ounce of difference. That they are meaningless and boring. I hate to say that, but it’s true. Nothing happens. What does happen, nobody cares about. Chapter after agonizing chapter we get Dany wondering what to do about her chaotic rule over the slavers. We have Unsullied murdered in the streets and an inexplicable marriage to a noble slaver. It not only doesn’t make any sense, it doesn’t matter. None of it matters.

Dany’s choices are bizarre and her character suffers badly from them, as does the story itself. Almost everything that happens could have been written as hearsay in other POV characters’ chapters and it would have been far more interesting.

Barristan Selmy’s chapters were better, but still mired in a storyline that the books don’t need, and that actively harms the fifth book in a very troubling way.

Even Tyrion Lannister’s chapters fell flat. Oh how I hate to say it, but there it is. Off he goes toward Meereen, abducted here and there by various unpleasant forces like Jorah Mormont who, oh-so-coincidentally, is frequenting the same whore house as Tyrion and abducts him. The dwarf is tossed from one situation to the next, spending the first half of the chapters bitter and drunk, and the second half tugged along by forces outside his control. For all the things that happen to Tyrion in Dance almost nothing actually important happens. Each time a new disaster struck I groaned, not because I was worried, but because it all seemed like so much filler.

You basically could have cut Tyrion from the book (you know this is going badly when Tyrion and Dany could both be cut!) and it would not have made the tiniest bit of difference except for his encounter with the mummer’s dragon, Aegon Targeryen.

Yes, the son of Rhaegar lives, switched out at birth by the mummer himself, the “Spider” Varys who, we are learning, has played a far more active role in sewing chaos in the Seven Kingdoms to pave the way for the return of the Targeryens.

And yes, it’s pretty late in the game to be introducing a major plotline and a major character, but I can live with it.

Also traveling toward Slaver’s Bay: Quentyn Martell, Prince of Dorne, and Victarion Greyjoy, both on their way to claim Daenerys and her dragons for their own. Which leads us to…

Additional POV Chapters

I think pretty much all of the non-North additional storylines could have been cut (except for the prologue and epilogue). Quentyn had one function: to loose the dragons on Meereen and then burn to death for it. Of course, since keeping the dragons chained and absent from essentially the entire book (a book titled Dance with Dragons!!!) I suppose the whole thing struck me as a sideshow and a waste of time.

I’m still not sure what the point of the Victarion chapters is, or why he needed to be in this book (ever so briefly).

Other sideshows included a Dorne chapter (this one was interesting enough, but it could have been in Feast I imagine); a couple of Cersei chapters that were interesting enough as well, but didn’t really feel at home in this book; a single Jaime chapter in which almost nothing happened; and a brief moment with Arya Stark that also felt deeply out of place and unnecessary.

Perhaps my problem with these one-off POV chapters is that they just feel so hobbled by their brevity. Mostly, though, I think we should be given characters who we’ve been reading about for four books already, not new characters. And if we are given new characters, or old characters like Arya, we should be given more of their perspective, more of their story. I don’t want to read one Arya chapter. Just leave it for the next book. I don’t want to read about Quentyn. Have him show up in Meereen, then have him loose the dragons and tell about it from Selmy’s point of view. If he’s a POV character throughout the book, and then he’s just killed off…well who cares? What a time-suck.

Nothing Happens and then We Get a Bunch of Cliffhangers

Dance with Dragons  could have been a good book, but it would have taken a bold editor with a very red pen to make it great. Perhaps Martin has simply suffered from his own success. The book felt unedited almost. Can he simply disregard the warnings of editors, or have they become little better than yes men?

I just can’t imagine reading a manuscript of this book and thinking “This is good. This is ready for publication.” It’s too long. It’s painfully slow. It oscillates wildly between excellent chapters in the North to some of the most boring moments in any fantasy series I’ve ever read…and these are Tyrion bloody Lannister chapters I’m talking about. Daenerys’s chapters…I have no words. They were awful. They hurt the books. I hope Winds of Winter shatters everything done to this series by Feast and Dance but especially by the time-wasting chapters of Dany Targeryen.

A good edit would have slashed this book by nearly half. With that sort of slashing, you could have combined it with Feast and created one very solid book.

Instead we have a lot of wandering around, waiting, and ultimately…

Cliffhangers.

The first cliffhanger begins about halfway through with Davos Seaworth who is sent off to find Rickon Stark and thereby win the support of the Manderly’s. I waited the rest of the book to see what was going to happen with this really gripping storyline.

And guess what? Nothing happened. We got our first cliffhanger.

Then there’s Jon Snow who is stabbed (to death?) by his sworn brothers, just when he’s decided to march on Winterfell to give Ramsay Bolton a good beating. Is he Azhor Azhai reborn? It sure seems that way. So then why leave us with such a ridiculous cliffhanger? I mean, when it takes five years to come out with another book, and you leave us with a cliffhanger like this one…it’s a slap in the face. Either Jon is ‘resurrected’ as Azhor Azhai and maybe we finally learn that he is Rhaegar and Lyanna’s offspring, or he dies and I burn all the copies of my books.

Because at this point, killing off someone like Jon Snow would be a travesty of narrative fiction. Killing Ned Stark was brutal and brilliant and threw the plot forward. Killing Jon Snow will mean that we’re left with a whole bunch of storylines and characters that we don’t really care about. If I’m right, these books are really about Jon Snow – maybe him and Dany – but I think Jon is the central figure. He is the offspring of Fire (Rhaegar) and Ice (Lyanna) and he is going to be reborn in fire at the Wall. Somehow the dragons will converge at the wall to face the White Walkers, and Jon will be there.

If he’s not, I fail to see the point of any of what happened previously.

Other cliffhangers include what happens in Meereen, what happens with Dany, whether Stannis is truly dead or not (I doubt it) what happened to Theon and Jeyne Poole, Davos of course, Bran sort of.

Too many cliffhangers, and too many years until we find our answers.

My hope, at this point, is that HBO saves the series. I hate to say it, but they may be our last best hope.

Purchase the book: A Dance with Dragons: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book Five’.

P.S.

Nick Baumann is largely of a like mind in his Mother Jones review. He also calls for more editing, but cuts to one very important flaw here:

The first book, A Game of Thrones, was told from eight different viewpoints; the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, had 17; A Dance With Dragons has 18. Those numbers actually understate the problem, though, because much of A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons take place contemporaneously. A series with around 30 point-of-view characters and at least a dozen ongoing storylines is inevitably going to start fraying at the seams.

Indeed.

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36 thoughts on “Review: A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

  1. This matches my thoughts.

    It’s really a shame, given how relatively tight the narrative in Game of Thrones was, that we’ve reached this point. I wish he had stuck to his original plan of introducing no new POVs after the first book. Or at least tried to stick to it.

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  2. I actually hate Quentyn’s chapters less than other people seem to. He is a rather obvious deconstruction of the traditional hero role, but it still seems to work. In other stories, he would be handsome and daring and bold, and he’d show up, sweep the princess of her feet, and slay all the evildoers. Instead, though, we get a guy who isn’t even better looking than his friends, who is basically useless in a fight, who is too late to accomplish anything, and who dies in a terribly non-heroic fashion. Remember, he doesn’t even get the dignity of dying on-screen. Again, it’s a pretty simple/obvious thing, but it’s still pretty effective. It’s hard not to feel horrible for him.

    That, of course, means he elicited more emotion from me than Dany, at the very least.

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    • In another book maybe. But it seems silly to only have him around for one book also. Deconstruct the hero, but do it over a longer period of time. Make his death mean something more than it did. Don’t bury it under the weight of so much…blah.

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  3. I’m glad I read your review. I was starting to think I was the only person who was truly disappointed in ADWD. So disappointed, that I haven’t read anything else for a week, which is very unlike me. I’m kind of in a funk after being so let down from high expectations.

    I totally agree on the Dany chapters: useless, boring, and did little to forward the plot.
    Tyrion: ditto.
    Mereen: burn the mother down!

    Only the North chapters were good.

    How many years will we have to wait for the next installment?

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  4. I actually liked the book considerably more than you did – largely on the strength of the Tyrion chapters, which I found eventful enough, and did the right things by his character even though they may not have advanced the overall plot very much.

    That said, after pondering yours and Rosenberg’s review as well as those of other writers I respect, I think this kind of feedback is what Martin really needs to hear right now (and isn’t, thanks to all the one-note critical praise). The series is becoming dangerously overloaded with characters, settings, and backstory. It reminds me of nothing so much as the titular novel in Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys,” a marvelous but over-padded mess that it’s author cannot bring himself to finish. I hope ASOIAF does not meet a similar fate.

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    • Martin’s said this himself, though (and says that the next book will gather all the disparate threads). And he doesn’t count DwD as the best book in the series (THANK GOD!). he thinks it’s better than CoK, which many will not.

      This is the ending of the slow portion of the symphony. A master will make the last bit exhilirating.

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  5. I enjoyed Dance with Dragons more than you did, for one thing I enjoyed the Tyrion chapters – they were a first foray into linking the action in Westeros to Danaerys, which gave the impression of pushing the story toward resolution. Plus it gave me an opportunity to see Tyrion’s resourcefulness at work in a way we haven’t seen since Clash of Kings – with his title and money gone the only tool he has left is his wits.

    I share your opinion of the Wall – it was good to see Jon get to work. As for the final chapter – I suspect its a fake-out, you’re right that killing Snow would accomplish nothing and make a lot of the story utterly pointless. Snow’s critical mistake of course was to send everyone he trusted away, leaving him surrounded by people who would stab him in the back under the right circumstances.

    As for Mereen – I agree with that it seemed pointless. I don’t know if you read Martin’s “Not a Blog”, but it would seem from his comments there that Mereen is the main reason this book took 5 years to write.

    I think that Martin had to wait for a book to get her plot moving to ensure her return to Westeros happens at the right time. But I think A song of Ice and Fire is her story first and foremost (I believe she is Azor Ahai reborn, not Jon), and Martin didn’t think he could just part the main character of his story for so long without giving her something to do. Either that, or Mereeen is supposed to teach her some kind of lesson. In any case I think we’ll see her leaving Mereen for Asshai under the Shadow in the next book.

    Still the whole Quentin subplot seemed fairly pointless. I can only assume it was originally meant to be important to the story, but Martin’s redrafting of book 5 removed the need for Quentyn, so he had to get rid of him.

    Overall I still like the book, despite the East. But I got the impression we might see some movement in the East next book, so I think thins should get better from here on out.

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    • I’m not sure why so many people are still debating this Azor Ahai business. Martin states all but explicitly in ADWD that Jon is Azor Ahai.

      Melisandre: “Show me Azor Ahai.”
      Fire: “Here, look at Jon Snow.”
      Melisandre: “Why won’t it show me Stannis?! Also, have I mentioned in the last three seconds that, even though I’m sometimes wrong, the fire never is?”

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  6. I just skimmed this, since I have 700-odd pages to go before I can risk spoilers, but I had a similar feeling about A Feast for Crows. The Arya, Sansa, and Iron Isles chapters were excellent, The Sam and Jaime stuff good but overly drawn out, the Dorne stuff nicely exotic but a bit extraneous, and the Brienne chapters a complete waste of time.

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  7. The main theme of this review seems to be: I want more, and Martin isn’t giving it to me. That’s not much of a rebuke, if you ask me. It doesn’t say, ‘Don’t buy this book.’ Some of us are more tolerant of wanting more than others. I too want more, but I also do not want the series to end, as with any really great book. That happens to make me more tolerant of the filler, and of waiting. In any case, I’d rather not have to wait however long, but having to wait for the next book hardly makes this book a bad one.

    This attitude colors some of your specific indictments. I agree that the Jaime, Arya, Cersei, Victarion and Davos chapters are the equivalent of “just the tip,” but if you like getting excited for what are sure to be major plot developments in Winds of Winter, they work, sort of.

    That said, your assessment of the Quentyn chapters is right on, and so is your disappointment with Daenerys. The Queen we left at the end of Storm thundering forth to reconquer her kingdom is not the angsty teen we have to put with in Dance. But even here, she got to fly a freakin’ dragon, so that’s cool. Finally, I’d just echo the P.S., but with a different slant: one reason this is less satisfying is that it requires more work, but in my experience, it also rewards the extra effort demanded.

    And Martin is far, far better than Tolkein. I’ll be happy to defend that if anyone cares.

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  8. While I would agree that the North chapters are definitely the best (in particular I loved the ‘Reek’/Theon chapters and the Jon chapters) and that the whole thing really could have been edited down significantly (to remove a lot of fluff and useless POV characters), I really have to disagree with your assessment of the Tyrion chapters. There is some genuine character development in him that I really enjoyed and much of what he observes is crucial to the plot (e.g. Griff and young Griff). I can’t say I was wholly satisfied with the book but I don’t think my assessment of it was nearly as negative as yours.

    P.S. Why does everyone like Davos? I find his chapters to be very boring.

    P.S.S. I think it’s all but revealed that Jon Snow is Lyanna and Rhaegar’s son by Barristan Selmy in one of his chapters (which I wish there were more of) Here’s a quote from page 961:
    “Rhaegar had chosen Lyanna Stark of Winterfell. […] Sometimes when the queen looked at him, he felt as if he were looking at Ashara [Dayne]’s daughter… But Ashara’s daughter had been stillborn, and his fair lady had thrown herself from a tower soon after, mad with grief for the child she had lost, and perhaps for the man who had dishonored her at Harrenhal as well.”
    The other major candidate for Jon’s parentage is Ned and Ashara Dayne, but this all but discounts that.

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    • Davos is Martin’s most natural/genuine character. He is the only character of any importance in the series who was not born into greatness, but he is arguably the one who deserves greatness the most. He’s also the only parent in the series (aside from perhaps Ned) whose love for his children isn’t pathological. His loyalty to Stannis is absolute but not blind, which I’ve pointed out in another thread is pretty similar to how the loyalty of friendships really works.

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  9. One thing to note is the fact that for much of the book I was quite engrossed. By the end I felt very let down. So many disappointments.

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    • In the last hundred pages or so, I started getting really frustrated because I realized how many things weren’t getting wrapped up until the next book. I remember the same feeling at the end of A Feast For Crows. The first time I read AFFC, I thought Brienne’s wanderings were nothing but annoying distractions. But when I re-read AFFC a few weeks ago, I enjoyed the Brienne chapters much more, and I think this is because I wasn’t as eager for the grand plot to keep moving as I was the first time. So I think the better aspects of these books will stand out when the reader’s not expecting plot motion.

      So on my next read-through, will I be charmed by the fastidious depictions of Mereen? Impressed by the implicit critique of hero-journeys embedded in the Quentyn sections? Entranced by the political-philosophy implications of Dany’s conundrums? Probably not… but it won’t be quite so rough when I’m resigned to the scope of the book.

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  10. I agree with most of what you wrote…. except I love Tyrion so much I was willing to overlook the “nothing” of a lot of his story. Up until “Dance” I loved Dany too.. this book made me like her storyline a bit less.

    I feel like he’s written so many storylines he’s going to have a hard time finishing in 2 books. I honestly wouldn’t mind 3 since I enjoy the world he’s created… I just can’t wait another 6 years between more books.

    I CANT STAND when he constantly rehashes events that have already occured that I have also already read! The fact he had Dany essentially giving us the cliff notes on her early story at the end of “Dance” shows he doesn’t have an editor.

    Lastly, I agree – if Jon is truly dead I am burning the books and the audio CDs I own.

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  11. I don’t really get why you (and others) think that there will be an Azor Ahai reborn. The world presented has many different religions and gods, the Lord of Light being just one among many. Why would Martin single out this religion to be the true one? It’s so Manichean: light and dark, with no grey. Martin’s always subverting or overturning the conventions and cliches of the fantasy genre. Why would he settle for an ultimate light versus dark showdown at the end?

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    • A) There will be because Melisandre’s fire says so. She asked it show Azor Ahai, it showed Jon. Jon is therefore Azor Ahai. It’s pretty explicit.

      B) Is there some connection between the Lord of Light and Azor Ahai that I’m unaware of? If anything, my assumption would be that the religion is built up around the Azor Ahai prophecy rather than the other way around.

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      • Yes, she sees Jon in her fire, but I’m asking why we should trust that. One of the consequences of the shifting POV narration that Martin has adopted is that everything is a bit unreliable. Just because Melisandre believes in R’hllor and that he sends messages in fire doesn’t mean that it’s true.

        I’m just saying that this whole idea of a messiah reborn to fight the darkness is an old trope, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Martin has invoked it only to subvert it, or do something completely different. He likes to play with expectations.

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        • Given what’s happened up until now, I think we have ample reason to trust Melisandre’s fire. We also have ample reason to believe her when she says the fire is always right, even when she sometimes isn’t.

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          • I don’t see how you can separate the two. We the readers don’t get to look into the fire. We only know what Melisandre says she sees in the fire.

            For several books now she thought Stannis was Azor Ahai, but now she thinks it’s Jon. Why would she be right now?

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              • You’re right that I worded that poorly. She doesn’t think it’s Jon yet, but she sees Jon in the fire when she asks to see Azor Ahai. I’m still questioning why we should trust anything she sees in the fire, no matter how she interprets it.

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                • Because everything she sees has come true, even if she misinterpreted what she was seeing. The real question is why you *wouldn’t* trust the fire, Melisandre’s prowess as seer (or lack thereof) notwithstanding.

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                  • I guess for me it’s not so much how right or wrong the fire is (and I can agree with both Ryan and E.D. that images in the fire have come true a number of times), but the bigger picture of religion and how it is tied to the plot as well as the conventions of the genre. Why would Martin privilege a religious point of view that is so Manichean and conventional for his plot? In the “game of thrones” Martin has repeatedly defied expectations and conventions. The players involved in the “game of thrones” have not been standard white hat, black hat characters. Why would this simplistic worldview of light vs. dark be the true vision of the world? It doesn’t sound like Martin to me.

                    E.D., I would also add that while I find your prediction that Jon is the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna compelling (it does seem to fit many of the clues given), it would be utterly conventional if true. The hero who is secretly royalty: how many times has that been done? I’m halfway hoping that Jon’s mother is completely mundane (assuming he is Ned’s bastard).

                    My hope is that Martin surprises us all.

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  12. Ditto. Very disappointed after such a long wait. I hope the next novel is quick to follow and resolves
    Dances short comings and cliff hangers.

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  13. I think it would be alittle harsh to call the book a disappointment. Is it Martin’s best? No. I believe “A Feast For Crows” was his best written work with “A Storm of Swords” being his best book. However the one thing that plagues Feast is the same thing that plagues Dance, too many POVs/introduced characters that we as a reader care nothing about.

    Martin needs someone with experience and someone he can trust to trim the fat or this series will be drawn out way too long. This example happens over an over with writers and Martin (even if he thinks he is) is showing no exeption to this depressing phenomena. I agree that had both Feast and Dance been edited proper and packed together it would have topped “A Storm of Swords” without question.

    With that said “A Dance With Dragons” was still an epic read and deserves all the positive reviews it got. Don’t try to take credit away where it’s due. This book still tops every other fantasy of present. But hopefully Martin does go back to his roots of the first three books (only using the main POVs to tell the story) with the articulate writing of Feast, as I would rather own/read the greatest fantasy saga ever written instead of just having another good fantasy series to pass the time with and save me from my boring life.

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    • Well that’s largely what I was saying. I think the book could have been great…it just needed serious edits. Feast and Dance should not have expanded to so many different POV characters. It bogs the story down. Dance suffers from being bogged down too long outside of Westeros.

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  14. Just read the book and your review, I was very disappointed with the book and agree with your review. I think it is just a way to sell more books if feast and dance were combined it would have been great. Instead we are going to a series that is about three books to long just the wheel of time.

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