A Dance With Dragons was published exactly 10 years ago. Let’s look back at this massive, ambitious, messy, wonderful novel.
A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, came out way back on August 1, 1996. After that, A Clash of Kings followed on November 16, 1998; A Storm of Swords on August 8, 2000; A Feast for Crows on October 17, 2005; and finally A Dance with Dragons on July 12, 2011, exactly 10 years ago today.
It’s hard to bring this up without stating the obvious: it’s been a really long time since Dance. It’s been so long that HBO’s Game of Thrones began, gained a following, turned into a phenomenon, aired a hugely divisive series finale and is now preparing to birth a spinoff show. The question of whether Martin is any closer to finishing the next book in his series, The Winds of Winter, has been so thoroughly debated that just mentioning it gives me a stress headache, so we’ll say for now that he’s seemed optimistic lately and move on.
Instead, let’s take a quick back at some of the high and low points of Dance on its tenth birthday. Where does it rank among the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire saga?
A Dance with Greatness
There are certainly a lot of memorable sequences from A Dance with Dragons, some of which were adapted for TV and some of which weren’t. There’s Jon Snow beheading Janos Slynt in the courtyard at Castle Black, and the gruff Stannis Baratheon giving him the smallest of approving nods. There’s Daenerys Targaryen mounting Drogon for the first time in Daznak’s Pit. There’s Cersei Lannister’s harrowing walk of shame, and there’s the Night’s Watch pulling a Julius Caesar on Jon Snow, ending the book in as spectacular a fashion as possible.
Although the show did a great job with these moments, the book definitely feels more robust. For instance, we get a fuller accounting of Jon’s mistakes (or things that could be interpreted as mistakes) and understand better why his lieutenants turn on him. Tyrion, Arya, Jaime and Theon have quieter journeys, but Martin draws their experiences with a lot of specificity and artistry, with Theon (or Reek, if you prefer) in particular having some haunting experiences in the ruin of Winterfell.
Martin clearly loves to put together a paragraph. We get some great prose and dialog in this book. Doran Martell, a middling afterthought on the HBO series, gets a spine-tingling speech about Dorne revenging itself on the Lannisters, and Wyman Manderly — a character cut from the show but for an anonymous cameo appearance in season 6 — gets a great fist-pumping moment when he tells Davos Seaworth of his plans to take down the Freys and Boltons for what they did at the Red Wedding:
"My son Wendel came to the Twins a guest. He ate Lord Walder’s bread and salt, and hung his sword upon the wall to feast with friends. And they murdered him. Murdered, I say, and may the Freys choke upon their fables. I drink with Jared, jape with Symond, promise Rhaegar the hand of my own beloved granddaughter … but never think that means I have forgotten. The north remembers, Lord Davos. The north remembers, and the mummer’s farce is almost done. My son is home."
All that and we get fun surprises like the first-ever chapter from Melisandre’s perspective, where we learn a lot about her how and why she does what she does. There’s plenty here to enthrall any Song of Ice and Fire fan, or any reader in general.
In fact, there might be too much. The big problem with both Dance and A Feast for Crows before it is that while there are plenty of exciting events to keep you turning the pages, they come at a much slower clip than they used to. The characters and worldbuiding are as strong as ever, but the pace flags, which can be a drag in a book as long as this — at 420,000 words, it’s the second longest in the series behind A Storm of Swords.
For instance, while Davos’ scenes with Wyman Manderly are dynamite, we don’t get much out of his prior two, which feature Davos smuggling himself into White Harbor. Or what about the chapters starring Doran Martell’s son Quentyn? While these stretches are written as carefully as anything else in the series, I don’t think we needed to spend this much time with Quentyn given his (admittedly hilarious) fate. I’m not Martin’s editor, but if I were, I’d want to talk about some cuts.
Martin seemed so enamored of these details that he never gets around to closing a lot of the loops he opened. And I’m not talking about Jon Snow’s death — that is a cliffhanger of the highest order, and perfect the way it is. I’m thinking about Stannis Baratheon, who we leave on the edge of a battle with House Bolton…but we don’t see it. The same is true of Barristan Selmy and Victarion Greyjoy and anyone else awaiting a looming battle in Meereen. Ending before what looks like the climaxes of these stories isn’t very satisfying.
Overall, I think I’d rank A Dance With Dragons as the fourth best book in the series, ahead of the somewhat sleepy A Feast for Crows but behind the first three entries. It’s still absolutely wonderful reading, but the competition is stiff.
What do you think of A Dance with Dragons 10 years on?