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A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, #5)A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ah, Westeros: where the only birds are crows and ravens (who croak weighty and significant words at dramatic moments, natch), and where no man is capable of drawing a comparison without reference to the sexual organs of a virgin or a prostitute.

This is a pity four stars. A ‘yeah the orgasms were really good a few years ago, but honey. Get some new moves,” four stars.

It wasn’t bad. Definitely not. It was just really, really long, and I could make a list of Things That Happened, but I’m still left with the sense that, uh, nothing happened. It never left me gasping and trying to keep up. And the early twist actually made me roll my eyes and grumble about how we’re throwing another ball up into the air at this point? Really?

Thematically, it’s a book about leadership and identity. Dani and Jon, most centrally, are struggling to inhabit the day-to-day of their roles, to live through the slow disaster instead of the immediate battle. And almost everyone else in this book is struggling with identity, with either becoming or unbecoming something. People lose their titles, their definitions. Two people are taught to forget their names. It’s interesting to watch the chapter headings transition from character names to character roles – “The Lost Lord,” etc.

But. Well. Martin said somewhere or other that he sweated the book – got something like 80 pages out of it just working on a prose level, tightening sentences, that sort of thing. I . . . I really would not like to see that manuscript before the sweating process, because God knows after it could still have lost about 30,000 words and been the better for it.

Martin has never been a gifted writer on a craft level. He is repetitive, he has a dozen preferred rhetorical crutches he leans on too heavily, he can sometimes hit atmosphere so hard it bleeds (see also: talking portentous ravens). But the thing that saved this book is that thing he does, that bitter, twisty character work. And I don’t know how he does it. I mean, I know how – he uses psychological memes to define each person and make them distinct – “you know nothing, Jon Snow,” “My name is Reek,” “where do whores go?” etc. But it shouldn’t work as well as it does, given his other writerly weaknesses, which believe you me become more and more apparent in these long, long books.

But it does work. Tyrion is in excellent form here. There’s a particular chunk of the book where he spends time with another dwarf, and there’s some deeply bitter and fucked up reflections on their different ways of being in the world – different ways of being disabled in the world. It’s like what I’ve gotten out of previous volumes with women, giving us Sirsei and Cat and Sansa and Arya and their different ways of navigating the confined place they have in the world, and their different modes of using the power they have. Interesting stuff, and it still works.

But ultimately . . . eh. Pity four stars. Get some new moves.

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