Prolific Song of Ice and Fire pundit Brynden Blackfish posed a question to the public. Did George RR Martin drop the ball on the last two books, A Feast for Crows (AFFC) and A Dance with Dragons (ADWD)? In a fictional series with this many pages and characters that is a big big question. I would interpret this question as, are AFFC and ADWD the weakest of the five entries in this series?
First, I think you’d find it helpful to get my perspective on the series. Despite enjoying reading, I mostly listen to the audiobooks. I usually have them on a continuous loop while I work. They don’t feel like different books to me. It feels like one long playlist and each character is a different album. Each book is a new arc for the characters but from my perspective, the books don’t feel substantially different from one another despite being about different parts of these characters’ lives.
AFFC does change things by introducing a number of new POV characters and with them come many new secondary characters. Dorne, The Iron Islands, a closer look at parts of Essos. And yet it still feels very much like A Song of Ice and Fire. That’s why I don’t feel like GRRM dropped the ball on these two. There are character arcs in this series that I do not like. There are character arcs in specific books that I do not like but I like those characters in other books just fine. For example, I like Arya’s adventures in Braavos. The exploration, the colorful side characters, I dig these chapters. Having said that, I really dislike Arya’s chapters in the 2nd and especially the 3rd book. I was bored as fuck. My point is that there were things I did not like in the last two but no more than things I did not like in the first three. They’re Song of Ice & Fire problems, not Feast or Dance problems.
Why do I like these books so much and more to this question, why do I still like Feast and Dance despite these charges that they are too different? For me it is because the core part of this series that I love most are when interesting characters talk to each other. That is a big big tent to offer up as reason for praise. Surely other works have conversations but I don’t love them like I do Song of Ice & Fire. What’s different about Song of Ice and Fire is how relatable these characters are. Or maybe understandable is the better word. I feel like I know these characters relative to their place in the world. I feel like I understand why they are the way they are and I want to continue to watch them move towards the inevitable conclusion or their stories.
Interesting conversations between characters can elevate something for me that others scorn. For a non-ASOI&F example, I really like the movie Death Proof. I like listening to the people in the movie talk even if other people are asking themselves “why does this conversation matter?” I think my favorite chapter in ADWD is when the Free Folk pass through the wall. Jon and Tormund spend the chapter talking. Close behind that would have to be anything from Davos in that book. I want to see the characters I like interact.
This also leads into the chapters I like less in these two books. I like listening to Doran Martell and Arianne talk, but seven save me from Arys Oakheart and Gerold Dayne. Tyrion was a more interesting character when he had the characters of King’s Landing to play off of. And Meereen. Chapter after Chapter of conversations that are about 95% shit to 5% silver. I like Barristan Selmy. I fucking hate Shavepate, Quentyn Martell, and the Ghiscari. And yet, I’m reluctant to name ADWD my least favorite book. I love chapters featuring Victarion, Davos, Cersei, and Jon Connington. There is no such thing as a least favorite book. Least favorite arcs? Hell yeah. Every book has an arc I dislike. Sansa and Bran. Arya and Bran. Arya and Bran again. Brienne and her noble quest to walk through the woods and not accomplish anything. And Dany most of all.
Yet the new books still have many things I like. Dorne is ok, mostly I dislike it. But it’s more than made up for by the Iron Islands which I maintain has the best supporting cast in the series. Brienne wanders through the woods and doesn’t accomplish anything but she still manages to meet the Elder Brother and Septon Maribald. Jaime’s chapters start a bit slow and introspective in Feast but quickly become some of my favorite in the book. Feast and Dance also have my personal favorite epilogue chapters. And I am hopeful that Winds of Winter will only get better. Maybe Dany will stay bad but she can only get closer to Westeros right? Tyrion’s climbing his way back to the top. Sansa getting embroiled in Vale politics? Hell yeah. The boring Dornish character is dead, the interesting Dornish character is getting closer to Jon Connington. And should my faith start to waver I need only pull up The Forsaken.