A Dance With Dragons 1: The North

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead! Stay away, H]
I read the book right when it came out, and I’m still not completely sure what I think about it. The page by page writing is very good. There are certainly some quirks to it, like “Much and more” and the sudden prevalence of neeps in everyone’s diets, but on the whole, the prose is as good as ever (unlike this prose here).

There are big dramatic moments on par with the best in the series, especially towards the end. But there are long stretches where it felt like things slow to a crawl. The Essos chapters are obviously the worst offenders in this regard. This is such a big book that I want to break it down by region and character. Today, the North.

A great introduction back into the world. Like most of the prologues, its hard to evaluate to what extent its content is important and to what extent it’s just setting the mood. I’m inclined to believe that the “secret” reason for the prologue is to emphasize the rules of warging and second lives, and that this is going to be especially relevant to Jon’s future.

He continues to be a character who exists primarily to provide eyes on the actions of others, in this case Manderly. In light of the report of his execution in Feast, the scene in Manderly’s throne room was masterful, especially with the inclusion of the Freys and the outspoken Manderly daughter. It was nice to see Davos’ smuggling expertise put to good use here, and his upcoming search for Rickon could be an interesting and important part of the puzzle going forward into The Winds of Winter.

There’s obviously the cool moment early on where Jon unwittingly gets revenge on one of the men who fatally betrayed Eddard. After that, there’s a lot of Jon trying to make peace with the wildlings. I think this is one of the best instances of manipulating the reader using the biases and limited information of the Point of View structure. The reader is invited to see Jon through his own eyes, as a pragmatic, effective leader who is making all the right decisions necessary to ensure the safety of the realm. But with a little thought, it’s easy to see how Jon goes wrong. He sends away his closest friends. He doesn’t have any understanding of just how radical his peace-making efforts with the wildlings seem to his subordinates. The rangers have dealt with the wildlings, but there aren’t that many of them who survived the events of the third book. To everyone else in the Watch, wildlings are the enemy. They haven’t seen the Others, they don’t know. What they have seen is a wildling horde that tried to breach the Wall.

Obviously, Jon’s final chapter will be a point of contention until the next book comes out. There are just so many questions left unanswered. Is Jon dead? Did he just satisfy the conditions of the Azor Ahai reborn prophecy? And just what is going on with Stannis and Bolton?

My guess is that Jon is really dead, and that he’ll spend some time in Ghost living his second life. It’s conceivable that he, maybe with Bran’s help, will be able to reclaim his body. There was an awful lot of emphasis on preserving dead bodies in the ice cells beneath the Wall. I also have a suspicion that assassinating one’s Lord Commander qualifies as the watch failing to “remain true”, which, beyond the Horn of Joramund, further suggests that the Wall is in jeopardy in the next book. It’s not hard to imagine a disastrous melee erupting between the wildlings and the Watch in the wake of the assassination, devastating both forces, perhaps in such a way that allows the Others to breach the Wall.

As for Stannis and Bolton, I really don’t know. The fact that Ramsey is writing the letter suggests that something has happened to Roose. It’s reasonable to expect that the Bolton’s have captured Mance. But what purpose does the letter serve if the rest of it is a lie? While Jon’s decision to march on Winterfell seems to have been made based on emotion, it can also be rationalized quite well (unlike the earlier decision to mount a land-based rescue at Hardhome. The Wall can’t be defended from the south. If the Bolton’s marched in for on the Wall, that would be the end of the Watch. It’s hard for Jon to claim that the Watch is not interfering in the politics of the realm when he’s leading a force of wildlings to attack Winterfell, but it’s better than the alternative, and if he’s successful, Jon can retroactively claim that he has resigned from the watch and accepted Stannis’s (and Robb’s) offer to be lord of Winterfell. Of course, the tragedy of it all is that no matter how successful Jon’s military campaign is, or what he gives up to try to save her, he was never going to find Arya at the end of this journey.

To me, the most interesting part of her chapter is the confirmation of just how much of her power is maintained via appearances and cheap tricks. It further confirms that no one in this world has a good handle on what’s going on, and that reliance on vague prophecies is not merely futile, but counterproductive.

He only got three chapters, but they cast a huge shadow on the rest of the book. To some extent I have to take back what I said about no one having a handle on what’s going on, since Bloodraven(!) certainly seems to. I love the suggestion that a lot of what seemed like intervention by the Old Gods in earlier books – the direwolves, Jaime’s dream upon the weirwood stump, Mormont’s raven – were actually orchestrated by Bloodraven. A thousand eyes and one, indeed. And, like I said, it casts a shadow upon the remainder of the book. Mormont’s raven’s unusual behaviour in Jon’s last chapter. The whispering Theon hears at a crucial moment in Winterfell.

I do suspect that this is, sadly, the end of Bran. He’s never leaving the cave. Meera and Jojen won’t survive the next book, either. And I really do have to wonder what the eventual consequences of Bran’s continued warging into Hodor will be. Again, the prologue set this up as such a major violation that it’s hard to believe there won’t be dire and tragic consequences as a result, even (or especially) since we as readers have been invited to see it as necessary and beneficial for the most part, with the creepiness only appearing later and at the edges, when Bran contemplates interacting with Meera while inside Hodor.

The Theon arc in Clash of Kings was one of the strongest bits of writing in the series up to this point. It’s a classic tragedy. A man aims for greatness and is undone by his own personal failings in judgement and ability. It works even better because Theon so firmly believed that he was the hero of his own story, and we were in his head an knew better. And the tragedy is all the greater because we see its consequences: it undermines Robb’s power-base at a critical time. It throws the North into chaos and ultimately hands it to the Boltons.

It was so easy to wish vengeance upon Theon, and his arc in Dance brilliantly undermines this desire. He is degraded in such a grotesque fashion, at the hands of such a monster of a human being (I didn’t catch initially that one of the dogs was named Beth, and what that implied) that it’s impossible for me not to sympathize with him. So it’s a huge relief when he slowly, falteringly starts to take steps along the road to redemption.

And in the meantime, we get eyes watching the Boltons for the first time since book two. We get to see just how twisted both the son and father are in their unique ways. It’s important that the villains in the story aren’t all alike, and aren’t all supernatural, incomprehensible evils. And the Boltons are the best kind of villains: monstrous, chilling, intelligent, but very human.

Not a lot to say here. Her sex scene is not terribly out of place in the world of the book, but it was off-putting nonetheless. It’s an unfortunate decision on Martin’s part to have one of his otherwise strongest female characters be in to that sort of thing. Beyond that, she has a fun fight scene, and mostly exists to be our eyes on Stannis once he’s left the wall. Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the Napoleonic death-march chapters. We needed a graphic example of just how bad winter was going to get, given that it’s been this vague, omnipresent threat since the beginning, and this was certainly a good start on that. Whether Stannis or any of his forces will survive is, of course, an open question.

I think almost all of the book’s strongest moments take place in the North. Leaving the Stannis-Bolton conflict up in the air seems like a bad choice, but maybe it’ll provide a chance to start the next book off with a bang. And it’s certainly more forgivable than leaving the conflict in the East unresolved. But the East is a topic for another time.

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