A Dance With Dragons: It’s good.
Martin’s strength, more than anything else, lies in creating believable characters and putting us inside their heads. Even the most treacherous bastards in the world – Jaime, Cersei, Theon, Melisandre – earn an ounce of sympathy when we see the world as they see it. You may still hate these characters or think they’re ignorant, but you won’t find them hollow.
It’s that strength that keeps us following those characters, even as Martin leads them down some very winding paths. Most of the action takes place in the Free Cities and the East, with several different threads converging on Daenerys Targaryen, now ruler of Meereen. These threads take a lot of frustrating turns before they get there – those that get there at all – which would derail a lesser story. But, unlike other fantasy epics I might name, these stories do converge. Our protagonists are not scattering to the far corners of the planet. Any new characters introduced – and there are a few – slot right into the existing story.
Daenerys has the most interesting storyline. She still lacks the cruel command of a Targaryen, which both helps and hurts her in the ruling of Meereen. Her relationship with Daario reminds us of just how much of a girl she is. But the return of Drogon in the arena pit – and that’s a hell of a literary spectacle – kicks the Meereen plot into high gear. It also highlights just how much the city relied on her presence as a ruler, since her disappearance plunges things back into chaos.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Martin introduced “Young Griff,” a/k/a Aegon Targaryen in exile, as a way of putting to rest the R+L=J rumors that have cropped up over the last ten years. This certainly feels tacked on: taking a character who’s only appeared in some throwaway references in A Storm of Swords, fleshing him out a little more in A Feast for Crows, and then making him one of the prime movers in A Dance with Dragons. If the point was to introduce a plot twist that absolutely no one could have guessed, well, a baby switch and a background character certainly count! But it means we get a Targaryen returning to Westeros and making some waves, so I can’t complain too much.
And while R+L=J could still be true – Aegon is Rhaegar and Elia’s son, after all – the death of Jon Snow makes it irrelevant. When called on it, Martin has played coy (“Oh, you think he’s dead, do you?”). But his job, as not just an author but as a marketer of his own material, is to play coy. Jon gets stabbed at least four times by hardened soldiers of the Night’s Watch, men who are unlikely to leave a job half finished. Ambiguous deaths in the past (Arya’s, etc), Martin tends to resolve within the same book. I’m not holding my breath for Jon to still be alive, simply because that would be a rather clumsy plot twist if it were true. So why hope for something crass?
EDIT: that said, there are at least three means within less than a mile of Jon’s bleeding body to bring a man back to life, all of which would be interesting in a viewpoint character.
(I haven’t even looked yet, but I’ll wager there are fora full of comments castigating Dany for being “stupid” in her rulership of Meereen. Chaining up her dragons, marrying Hizdahr, allowing the sick Astapori to camp near her gates, etc. I can only hope those same people are laying into Jon just as hard, since there’s nothing Dany does that Jon doesn’t do in kind. Because criticizing a teenage girl for making the same mistakes [if they are "mistakes"] that a teenage boy makes is, well …)
While the Asha and Theon chapters weren’t poorly written, I don’t know if they were the best use of Martin’s budget of pages or plot. They’re both inconsequential in the grand scope. Jeyne could have escaped Winterfell with Mance just as easily as with “Reek.” But they’re another set of eyes in the North, so I can’t object if that’s where the story takes us.
I don’t know how comfortable I was with the Tyrion-as-dwarf-jouster storyline. It plays to none of the character’s strengths. He’s reminded more than once that these are the same dwarfs who jousted for Joffrey on the day he died. If he had donned the dwarf’s armor and jousted as Joffrey wished (Tyrion speculates), Joffrey might still be alive and Tyrion might still be in King’s Landing. It’s a drawn out means of hammering in the theme that sacrificing one’s dignity in order to stay close to the seat of power can keep you alive (e.g., Varys). But it feels like the rook is trapped on the wrong side of the chessboard.
And the Varys of the epilogue sounded a little too blunt. Now that I’ve shot you, let me reveal my master plan, and so forth. But if we’re past the halfway point of the story, it’s nice to know that at least somebody has an end in sight.