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A Dance with Dragons: A Song of Ice and Fire #5    by George R. R. Martin order for
Dance with Dragons
by George R. R. Martin
Order:  USA  Can
Bantam, 2011 (2011)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

It's been a long wait for this fifth episode in one of the best fantasy series ever. Though George R. R. Martin has been dubbed the American Tolkien, that title doesn't do justice to his work. Like other modern fantasy masters, Martin has gone beyond Tolkien's quest to defeat an ultimate evil to present a world at odds in subtle shades of grey, the lines between good and bad guys well blurred. What makes Martin unique is how hard he is on those who populate the brutal medieval reality he has created. The reader has no clue as to which beloved characters will survive and who will (all too often) perish in unspeakable ways.

This saga of the Starks of Winterfell and of the Night's Watch (dedicated to holding the Wall against Wildlings and Others) began with Game of Thrones. Eddard Stark's bastard son, Jon Snow, was sent north to join the Watch, while his sisters and father headed south to be entangled in plots and dire peril. In A Clash of Kings, the King fell to treachery and his realm of Westeros to civil war, while overseas exiled queen Daenerys Targaryen used dragons to win back a crown. Next, in A Storm of Swords, some Lannisters got what they deserved (and other villains were rehabilitated), while Jon Snow and Arya Stark pursued individual adventures. Then came A Feast for Crows, which runs in tandem with this new episode and focused mainly on King's Landing.

Now A Dance With Dragons (eagerly awaited by fans since 2006) presents events along the Wall and across the sea. We follow action surrounding Jon Snow (Lord Commander of the Night's Watch) who garners enemies by recruiting Wildlings as desperately needed reinforcements for the Wall. Stannis Baratheon, who has declared himself king and smashed the King-Beyond-the-Wall's host, heads south from Castle Black to face an army. Dwarf Tyrion Lannister, who killed his own father and is suspected in the death of his nephew, suffers repeated captures and escapes as he seeks to join Daenerys Targaryen. Young Dany struggles to rule wisely and to manage both her growing dragons and the conquered city of Meereen, and ultimately flies black Drogon.

It was a pleasure to follow the downfall of Cersei Lannister, who makes Lady Macbeth seem like a sweetheart, and to watch young Arya Stark continue to survive - and learn to be no-one - in the House of Black and White in Braavos. And fans will continue to cheer for crippled Bran Stark, a skinchanger who journeys with strange companions to meet the greenseer. The latter tells Bran, 'You will never walk again ... but you will fly.' Other key characters whose stories move forward (or end) in this episode include Ironborn Asha Greyjoy and her tortured brother Theon, Prince Quentyn Martell of Sunspear, Onion Knight Ser Davos Seaworth, Prince Aegon Targaryen (Dany's nephew), Jorah Mormont, and Kevan Lannister.

I'm most anxious to see what impact Dany and her dragons make on Westeros, and find out what happens to the few surviving Starks and their companion direwolves. Along with countless other fans of A Song of Ice and Fire, I hope it will be a shorter wait for number six, The Winds of Winter!

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