A Dance with Dragons runs chronologically parallel to A Feast for Crows, eventually meeting up with the characters of the series’ fourth book and continuing on for several hundred more pages. Some major storylines and popular characters who were omitted in the fourth book return. Most importantly Jon Snow at the Wall, Bran Stark beyond the Wall, Daenerys Targaryen and Barristan Selmy ruling in Meereen, and Tyrion Lannister on the run from King’s Landing. Theon Greyjoy (omitted from the A Storm of Swords as well) in Bolton captivity and Davos Seaworth in White Harbor return after being assumed dead. We find new characters Quentyn Martell and Griff both on separate quests to Meereen. Finally Arya Stark, Asha Greyjoy, Cersei and Jaime Lannister, and Victarion Greyjoy, whose storylines were running parallel in A Feast for Crows, signaling a syncing of the chronology.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think we the readers were always meant to be partial to the North. The Starks, if not always the most prepared to play the game of thrones, were always the most moral actors. I was pleased to see some of the oft mentioned Northmen play a larger role in the storytelling. The beheading of Davos Seaworth in part four never made sense given the losses White Harbor suffered at the Red Wedding so the few chapters with Wyman Manderly clear a lot up. He and Robett Glover of Deepwood Motte pledge their loyalty to Stannis and scheme their revenge on the Boltons. Manderly especially is portrayed as quite cunning in contrast to the his outward appearance as “Lord Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse”. The anger he secretly harbors towards those who murdered his family members reminds me of Doran Martell’s simmering rage from the previous book. The mountain clans - the Flints of the mountains, the Wulls, Norreys, and Liddles - show their loyalty to House Stark by allying with Stannis as well. They prove the better winter marchers on Stannis’ ill-advise trek to Winterfell. The Umbers, whom I always wanted to see more of because I enjoyed the Greatjon, split their allegiance with the Boltons and Stannis, but state that they will refuse to fight each other, leaving open the possibility that they are actually on the same side. The struggle for power at Karhold after the execution of Rickard Karstark comes into play as well. Alysane Mormont pledges Bear Island’s support to Stannis as well. Even what we learn about the now hated Boltons, a ruthlessly cruel house, is welcome.
The different houses and alliances of the Known World are one of the more nerdy aspects of the series that I enjoy. A Dance with Dragons is great in this respect because it dives deep into the politics at and beyond the Wall, across the Narrow Sea, and in Slaver’s Bay.
At the Wall Jon Snow makes the bold decision to integrate the recently defeated Wildling army south of the Wall and even into the Night’s Watch. Tormund Giantsbane works with Snow to bring thousands of Wildlings from different clans south of the Wall. Mance Rayder is used by Melisandre. Signor, the new Magnar of Thenn, is married to Alys Karstark to sure up the Thenn’s alliance to the Watch. Others like the Weeper, Rattleshirt, Varamyr Sixskins, Wun Wun the giant, and dozens of other characters are mentioned, adding to the richness and detail of Martin’s Known World. On top of that characters like Tormund, Val, and Mance are given important parts, adding some depth and likability to the mostly villainized Wildings. Throughout the series Martin is at his best when a previously hated character is given depth.
As with each previous installment we learn more about the history and politics of the Known World. Across the Narrow Sea on Tyrion’s journey we more of Pentos, Volantis, and other Free Cities. Beyond the Wall we are introduced to the oft mentioned Children of the Forrest. In Barristan Selmy’s much deserved point of view chapters we learn more about the events preceding Robert’s Rebellion.
Another interesting plot device is the use of sellswords. Talked about often in the earlier books, which mostly took place in Westeros, they now serve as important actors in the warring in Slaver’s Bay.
It looks as if the much respected Golden Company is on its way to Meereen. However, on the advice of Tyrion Lannister it changes course to Westeros. Here “Griff” - actually the long-thought dead Jon Connington - begins a quest to win the Iron Throne for “Young Griff” - actually Aegon the long-thought dead son of Rhaegar Targaryen. This is probably the biggest of all of the surprises in this fifth book.
In Meereen different companies are allied against each other in the siege of the city. On the queen’s side are Barristan Selmy with his knights-in-training; freedmen companies such as Symon Stripeback’s Free Brothers, Marselen’s Mother's Men, and the Stalwart Shields; Skahaz mo Kandaq’s Brazen Beasts serving as the city watch; the remains of Dany’s Dothraki warriors; the Stormcrow mercenaries lead by Dany’s love interest, Daario Naharis; the Unsullied lead by Grey Worm; and, of course, 3 dragons.
Against the queen are the masters of Yunkai and their slave army; the Long Lances sellsword company; a Quarthian fleet; the Tattered Prince’s Windblown company; Bloodbeard’s Company of the Cat; Ben Plumm’s Second Sons; and slingers from the city of Tolos. Plumm and the Second Sons, having once betrayed their employer to Daenerys, betray her to Yunkai. Quarthian Xaro Xhoan Daxos was once Daenerys’ suitor but is angered at her insistence at stopping the slave trade. The Tattered Prince decides to put himself in a position to easily switch sides if the war turns. Against both sides is a mounting plague.
It’s dizzying to try to keep track of the names, groups, and alliances. Martin could have been forgiven for putting less effort into the world outside of Westeros. But he refuses to skimp on characters, politics, and geography at any point. It’s probably the reason his planned trilogy will stretch to at least seven books.
-power hard to hold
By the end of the novel a main theme we witness is that of characters in over their heads. Quentyn Martell has come too late and with too little support and charisma to win the hand of Daenerys Targaryen. His response is to try to mount one of the queen’s two remaining captive dragons.
Roose Bolton, having just ascended to Warden of the North, realizes he has enemies all around him. Almost every house in the North lost men at the Red Wedding and none of them believe the lies the Boltons and Freys are using to justify the massacre.
Despite Stannis’ victory at the Wall and in Deepwood Motte, his momentum is slowed by a blizzard on the way to Winterfell.
The young command of Jon Snow is fraught with peril as he tries to integrate the long-time enemies of the Watch into its ranks. Many of his brothers make their reservations known while others openly defy his leadership. Stannis’ presence at the Wall tests the Watch’s neutrality. Snow haggles with the king at every turn, careful to tow the line between fighting for the Watch and defying a king. Lady Melisandre seems threatening but more often than not she tries to warn Snow of danger. All the while, as men bicker, an invasion from the Others looms.
As the story returns to Asha Greyjoy she is barely holding on to the iron born foothold in the North.
Maybe even Daenerys Targaryen has overestimated her ability to rule. The Sons of Harpy insurgency is cutting down her forces within her city walls. Her idealistic stand against slavery runs up against cold economics and the status quo. Trade, not human rights, are what the merchants of Quarth, Tolos, Volantis, and Yunkai value. She relies heavily on sellswords, traditionally unloyal allies.
The story reminds us that taking power is not the same as keeping it. Gaining power eliminates some problems but creates others. In fact the amount of peril you’re in and the number of enemies you have seems directly proportional to the amount of power you have. Jon Snow was always in danger as a soldier of the Night’s Watch - from Wildlings, and Others to Watch leaders like Aliser Thorne. In general though he was unimportant and forgettable. When he became Lord Commander his decisions can anger the entire Watch and the self-styled King of Westeros. Asha’s power play on the Pyke in the previous book put her in her brother Euron’s crosshairs when she could have easily become his loyal soldier. Now she languishes in her newly acquired forrest castle, surrounded by enemies with no support. The treachery of the Boltons bought them the North, but didn’t buy them lasting allies to hold it. Stannis is able to quickly win parts of the North, but in order to maintain his standing he must build on it quickly, leaving him on a disastrous winter march. And Dany, of course, is seemingly on the brink of disaster after having just conquered three great cities. Martin never gives the reader a minute to relax. There is no such thing as victory in the long run.