A Dance with Dragons, by George R.R. Martin

No one – not even the most sharp-eyed of Martin readers – will be able to guess where this book is going.

A Dance with Dragons By George R.R. Martin Random House 1,040 pp.

A Dance with Dragons may be the newest book in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” fantasy series, but it relies on a series of plot twists familiar to all fans of Martin’s writing. Namely, the characters you thought were crucial will be killed off and characters you thought were dead will miraculously reappear.

The previous (and fourth) book in the series, “A Feast for Crows,” covers the same time span as does “A Dance with Dragons.” However, Martin’s trademark narrative device of choosing a set of point-of-view characters for each book and giving each of them a handful of chapters to narrate left “A Feast for Crows” in the hands of some of the series’ less interesting characters – making the book a less gripping read than most of the rest of the series.

But in “A Dance with Dragons,” Martin focuses on some of the more popular characters not heard from in “A Feast for Crows,” including Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Tyrion Lannister. In the first chapters of the book readers get the half of the story not told in “Feast for Crows.” Then “A Dance for Dragons” takes a classic Martin twist and rejoins the two sets of characters to create some hair-raising cliffhangers for the next book.

As with “A Feast for Crows,” “A Dance with Dragons” begins with the startling realization that the war for the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms may not really be what the series is about. While the contenders for the throne dwindle, threats of unrest spring up from beyond the Wall built to hold out the mysterious and deadly creatures of the night, and Daenerys begins to conquer cities across the narrow sea.

Diehard George R. R. Martin fans will know that his writing style tends to start slow and build to a climax, and “A Dance with Dragons” is no exception. The first few hundred pages of the almost 1,000-page tome are simply setting the stage for the action in the second half of the book. However, you’ll want to pay close attention to the first half of the book. Martin is the kind of writer who needs to be read with an “A Song of Ice and Fire” encyclopedia at hand to catch all the layered, subtle hints and details that he leaves throughout his books. If you pay attention, you will be rewarded and questions will be answered.

The dragons promised in the title do play a prominent role in the book, but they may not be as easily tamed as Daenerys might have hoped. While she attempts to hone her ability to rule and raise an army in Slaver’s Bay, chaos erupts all around her, threatening to take away everything she’s worked for.

Jon Snow struggles to hold the Night’s Watch together, but is being pulled in all directions by the demands of Stannis Baratheon, claimant to the throne; by the wildings, by his ties to his family; and by the ever-present threat of the Others.

Tyrion, ever a Lannister at heart, seeks out Daenerys to win her favor and ally himself with one of the strongest contenders for the Iron Throne, but faces significant stumbling blocks along the way.

“A Dance with Dragons” may well be one of the best books in the five-book series so far. Martin’s prose is concise but pithy, begging to be devoured over and over again. All the fans’ favorite characters make an appearance, unlike in the last book. But what truly sets this book above some of the others in the series is Martin’s ability to keep his readers on their toes and the edges of their seats. No character, no matter how likeable and seemingly important, is ever safe from Martin’s pen (remember Ned Stark?), and on the other hand, no one can ever be truly pronounced dead. What you thought was going to happen after reading Books No. 1, 2, and even 3 and 4, now clearly will not happen, and that’s where Martin’s strength lies.

Fans should and will rush to buy “A Dance with Dragons” because no one, and I mean no one – not even the most sharp-eyed of Martin readers – will be able to guess where this series is going.

And for any reader who is not yet a fan, I advise you to become one immediately. “A Dance with Dragons” is probably not the best place to start. You’ll want the background of the four earlier books to fully enjoy this one. But if you start on “A Game of Thrones” (Book No. 1) now, you should have plenty of time to savor Books 1-5 before you need to start worrying about No. 6.

Megan Wasson is a Monitor contributor.

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