Posted by: markfender | July 26, 2011

“You Know Nothing” – A Dance with Dragons review

Once a decade, I review a new Song of Ice and Fire book. Today is that day.

To get the first part out of the way, I only read the last four books about two years ago, so the long wait wasn’t all that long for me. I didn’t remember every detail from the previous books, but enough were remembered that only a few bits I had to look up on the internet to recall those characters (the Ramsey Bolton/Reek – constantly shifting identities thing I didn’t remember, even though I remember both of those characters – just not who was which at which particular time). Not everyone has read the books yet and the HBO show has broadened the appeal, so I’ll try to be spoiler-free here. However, that’s kinda impossible when I start to talk about the various characters since they’re in entirely different places than they were at the end of, say, book 1. I’ll try to be vague.

I listened to the audiobook, read by Roy Dotrice (who is good at it. Maybe it’s because of the HBO series, but I just don’t hear Dany as a lilting Irish maid, though). I did this because I listened to all the previous books on audiobook and I had concerns that I might just start skipping pages if I read the physical book – because George R.R. Martin is a really slow storyteller. Almost every chapter has some insight into the character’s place, some background history, and then one new event that occurs or they hear about. A lot of times, I’m not all that interested in the character and am just looking for that new event and would start speed reading until I found it. However, the slow measured pace of the audiobook means I have to listen to every word. And there is a lot of joy in all those words, if you can force yourself to be patient through them. Despite the long gap between books, Martin hasn’t lost his ability to write. Yes, the repeated refrains of the various characters gets a little old (“You know nothing, Jon Snow.” “I am only a young girl.” “…much and more…”) and he over describes food to a ridiculous degree, but he still has all the voices of the characters down. It was about three paragraphs into Tyrion’s first chapter when I remembered how much I liked Tyrion.

This book takes place at the same time as the last one, but focuses on different areas than the previous one. Somewhere in the latter half, it catches up to the time of the previous one and adds some to the stories of those characters. This was distracting at times. For instance, when Jon meets Sam in the hallway at the Wall and my poor brain is saying “but Sam’s miles away…oh, I guess he hasn’t left yet.” Those problems disappear eventually as time catches up.

The problem I have with Martin’s books is also the reason they’re good – every chapter is about a well-realized character who, through their own limited viewpoint, makes terrible mistakes. That’s really good writing to be able to keep a character’s viewpoint, their own internal knowledge seperate from everyone else’s and allow them to make decisions based on their own personality. Unfortunately, as the reader, I can see that those decisions are always the wrong ones. After five books of this, it’s getting a little frustrating. While it’s awesome to see someone honor-bound like Ned make countless terrible decisions in service to his honor, and it’s fun to debate Stannis’s real personality (since he’s only seen through the eyes of the people around him), it’s practically unreadable to see Dany not make a single smart decision. While Dany’s story has always been about a girl learning how to rule and the constant mistakes she makes along the way, she always learned from her mistakes eventually. Not so in this book. There might have been an inkling of her FINALLY learning from her mistake in the last chapter in the book, but it sorta leaves on a cliffhanger so I’m not really sure. In previous books, her learning always seemed to occur a little faster. But this particular chapter of her story was frustrating in that she NEVER learned a lesson. I hope that changes in future books. Is she finally done learning? Dear God, I hope so.

Tyrion’s chapters were also kind of frustrating in that he never actually got anywhere. While I guess he learned stuff and gradually improved his position, it was still kind of annoying to read all of those chapters and never see him advance his own journey (and met yet ANOTHER person with a claim to the Iron Throne). I might say the same thing for the Jon chapters, but I’ve never been a Jon fan so reading about bland action-hero type number 2 has never really interested me. Even though I think Jon was probably one of the few characters who actually made smart decisions and was doing what he could, he’s never really interested me, so those were flat chapters for me. And of course, those three characters get the lion’s share of the book so, this book certainly won’t be going down as one of my favorites in this series.

However, there were good parts. Theon’s chapters were really well done. While I got tired of his constant refrain as well, the last chapter with him had him throwing that refrain back in a way that made it obvious that he was not the same person anymore. Plus, his line to Asha may be the best line in the book (and sets up Asha for her next arc of overthrowing Euron). Theon might be a character I actually like now. I enjoyed the one Areo Hotah chapter and am really looking forward to seeing what the Martells do (as they’re one of my favorite houses, even if Doran Martell’s glacial pace is, yep you guessed it, frustrating). I was excited for the Jaime chapter, if only to remember how much I liked Jaime. And it seemed like Cersei might have, gasp, grown as a person, so that’s something to look forward to.

The character I was most looking forward to reading about was kind of a disappointment, however. Quentyn Martell, being our second Martell viewpoint character ever and me being such a Martell fan, I was excited to see him. He was probably subject to the most annoying habit Martin has had in the last books – “colorful” naming of viewpoint chapters. Every chapter in which he’s the viewpoint character in, he gets a new fancy title instead of just his name. Martin started that in the last book with some of the more minor characters (Areo Hotah, Aerys Oakheart, etc.), but at least he was consistent in that book. In this book, Quentyn’s titles change with every chapter he’s in. A minor irritation, to be sure, but still I’m not getting why Martin feels it necessary to do that, especially after already establishing that it’s first name only in the first three books. The second problem I had with Quentyn was that he sucked. Maybe after being exposed to cool Martell characters like the Red Viper, Doran Martell, and Arianne Martell, I somehow expected Quentyn to upkeep the family legacy for plotting. Nope. Quentyn was just a dumb kid who had never even kissed a girl (even though, according to all other evidence in the books, the Dornish are particularly, uh, “free” with their affections). Imagine the opposite sex of Sansa and you have Quentyn – obsessed with his perfect virtue and knightly ways. While Arianne did what she did in the previous books based on bad information, she was still at least competent at plotting. Quentyn doesn’t plot, doesn’t seem to notice that other people are plotting, and thinks his knightly virtue is enough for him to win the day (even though he doesn’t seem competent at that either).

Well, that all sounded sorta negative. However, I still say its a testament to the strength of Martin’s writing that I cared enough to write about how much I disliked Quentyn. I can hope that now we’re over the hump with this book, that they will come out at a brisker pace and perhaps feature people doing cool things that aren’t mistakes.

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