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On ‘A Dance With Dragons’

There are massive spoilers for all five of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, including the recently-published A Dance With Dragons, in this post. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I’ve long been a defender of the idea that George R.R. Martin will definitely finish A Song of Ice and Fire, less on the grounds that I have faith in the man himself, and more on the rationale that capitalism is powerful, and HBO doesn’t mess around. But while I though certain parts of A Dance With Dragons were profoundly moving and very effectively structured, the novel as a whole left me with grave concerns that Martin has a coherent master plan to bring the story to a manageable conclusion. I’d expected that this would be the point in the series when events — if not Martin’s world as a whole — would start to contract and gain momentum as the story moves towards a central conflict.

I was wrong. Instead of focusing, the story adds points of view and conflicts. Now, instead of one surviving Targaryen, we’ve got two — Aegon, Rheager’s son, is apparently alive and well and bumming around with Rheager’s childhood best friend, Jon Connington. Davos Seaworth is off on a mad quest to find Rickon Stark, one of the most invisible characters in the entire series. Mance Rayder is alive and well and living, if not in Paris, at least in Westeros. The Horn of Winter is apparently still out there, maybe on Victarion’s ship, maybe in Sam’s cache of dragonglass. We’re tangled up in a comparative anthropology of sellsword companies. It’s exhausting. And I think the only way to continue reading the novels is to focus your emotional energies on a couple of key storylines and characters. So while these thoughts are by no means complete, they’re the things that grabbed me most strongly on a first read of A Dance With Dragons.

I. The Nation-Builders

George R.R. Martin’s always been a cynic about the possibility of ruling justly in Westeros or across the narrow sea, but there’s still something agonizing about watching Jon and Dany, who take diverging approaches to governing, meeting with bitter failures. They’re faced with different dilemmas at the beginning of a novel. Dany’s in possession of a state that it’s impossible for her to hold. She may have freed Slaver’s Bay, but she’s wrecked the region’s economy, hurting herself most of all because Mereen, her royal seat, doesn’t have anything worth trading other than slaves. Jon, by contrast, is struggling to main the neutrality of the Night’s Watch at a time when their mission statement’s gone from a neutral and universally recognized principal to an issue that’s more strongly supported by one of the claimants to the throne of Westeros than others. And those constraints drive them in different directions. Dany’s inability to provide anything for her people — bread, peace, health — leads her to close the gates against people who are wracked by disease to save at least some of her followers, and to lose herself in an affair. Jon responds by becoming a nation-builder, redefining “the realms of men” to include the Wildlings, integrating them into Westeros’s society with intermarriages, land, rebuilt castles, and alliances. In that decision, Jon does more to reconceptualize what Westeros should be than any of the five kings he’s stayed neutral from.

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It’s an astonishing act of political and moral vision. And his brothers murder him for it. Even more so than Ned’s execution, Jon’s death feels to me like the most fully-realized tragedy in the novel. Where his father was a decent man of limited vision who was killed by an insane person, Jon learned Ned’s lessons, but he also showed a moral and political flexibility his father lacked, and was murdered by a shattered institution he was trying to force into a future where it would be able to survive. Even though I think Jon is likely not permanently dead, merely released from his vows by death and resurrected and sent on to other things by Melisandre, it’s still a sickening outcome.

And what makes it feel even worse is Dany’s storyline. She may not have her father or her brother’s taint, but as it turns out, Dany isn’t a particularly good ruler, and she’s not nearly as moral as she wants to be. She may go out and care for the diseased, but she outsources the task of restoring order to her city to the man likely responsible for causing it; she has absolutely no foresight about the corner she’s backed herself into economically or militarily; she can’t resist a stupid affair with Daario. And honestly, there’s something distasteful about her whole stance of using Slaver’s Bay as the place where she learns to be a good queen, letting the people there suffer and die for her mistakes, so that when she gets home to Westeros everything will be peachy. No matter what she tells herself about her responsibility to the people who call her Mother, that’s what she’s doing. And like a princess in a fairytale, she gets rescued by a magical creature, and leaves her self-created problems behind to fulfill a prophecy — and to fulfill it in a way that essentially lets her abandon the people she freed but failed to build a state for on the grounds that she’s heading off to meet her destiny.

Jon may fail the Wall, he may fail the wildlings, he may fail Westeros. But at least he acted towards a comprehensive vision of a new world. His death may not be forever, but was definitely not in vain.

II. The Lost Boys

While Dany and Jon struggle with the powers and obligations of state, some of the most compelling moments in A Dance With Dragons are about people who have next to no power at all. As the three main characters in the novel who have to forget their names and learn new ones, Theon exchanges his sense of self for survival, Arya learns to wear many names and many faces as a means to preserve, and in trading his true name for a false one, Tyrion Lannister begins an extended meditation on who he truly is.

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I’ve never particularly loved Theon as a character, but his chapters in A Dance With Dragons are genuinely horrifying. Ramsay Snow’s a cartoon psychopath, but a genuinely effective one for all of that because we see him from the perspective of someone he’s systematically broken down and built up into a new creation. The constant punning on Reek, the name Ramsay gives Theon, can be irritating, but it’s also an illustration of how difficult it is to brainwash yourself into being another person, how constant that reinforcement must have to be. And that Theon manages to find his way back to a limited version of his old self (I assume, from a number of references in the novel, that Ramsay gelded him in addition to flaying him) speaks to a depth of spirit Theon doesn’t demonstrate in earlier novels. It takes a concentrated attack on his humanity for him to remember who he really is, a spiritual Stark even if he’s a Kraken by blood.

Unlike Theon, who repeats one name, Arya’s still chanting her savage rosary as she continues her training as an assassin in Braavos. In a different way than Theon, asking Arya to give up her old identity actually helps her to move closer to her truer self. It’s always been clear that Arya was never particularly well-suited to life as a high-born lady. Her training in the Guildhouse of the Faceless Men requires her to slough off the things that were never valuable to her. The question is how much the person she wants to become is the same as the person the Faceless Men need her to become, and how much space between those two ideas of Arya they’ll tolerate.

And then there’s Tyrion, who spends most of the novel in an extended meditation on his father’s death. In killing Tywin, Tyrion effectively killed the things that let him distance himself from his dwarfism: his wealth and his name. A lot of the folks I’ve talked to don’t like Penny as a character, but she’s essentially the first person in the entire series other than Jon Snow who likes Tyrion purely for himself, who sees his stature as an asset rather than something to be overcome. For all his self-deprecation, I’m not sure Tyrion has ever really come to terms with himself, and it’s striking to see him in a position where Jon Connington values him for his skill as a historian, Penny values him as someone who understands her vulnerability, Ben Plumm values him for his skills as cyvasse opponent. Genuine affection is something you can lose. Tyrion may have let himself forget that Shae was bought, but in a sense, her betrayal confirmed everything he’s always thought about the world. Penny’s trust and others’ respect directly challenge Tyrion’s assumptions about himself.

III. The Wood and the Flame

I don’t think anyone who’s read this far in A Song of Ice and Fire believes that Melisandre’s predictions about Stannis’s role in her cosmic showdown are correct. What I thought was fascinating is the revelation that her interpretive powers are generally fairly weak. And similarly, I think it’s fascinating that the magic Bran, Hodor, Jojen and Meera discover is both much stranger, and much less immediately transformative, than any of them expect. Dragons may be trainable and tractable to the right masters, and while I was initially furious about the plot decision to just have the dragons get away, I think it actually makes a lot of sense that the three heads of the dragon will have to win over the dragons on their own merits, rather than being three people who click with Dany, who has fairly demonstrably awful taste in humans if not in large, scaly pets. The humans in these novels like to think that they can master magic, but A Dance With Dragons suggests the scale of the forces at work here. The Lord of Light may triumph in a clash between fire and ice. But that doesn’t mean humanity will win out when the battle is over.