I have to admit that it's hard to review a book that comes in the middle of a series. You want to be able to share something substantial with your reader but must be cautious enough not to spoil anyone. Had HBO not produced a TV adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, I probably would have been freer with my thoughts. It has, after all, been years since the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, that any information meant to summarize the previous books for review purposes would not have been deemed too spoiler-y. (Also, who reads reviews of a fifth book when you haven't read the first until the fourth?) But since the TV series has generated new interest in the books, it might be better to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible.
Most of the events in A Dance with Dragons occur simultaneously with the events in AFfC. Mr Martin has always reminded us that AFfC and ADwD were originally meant to be one book but were later separated geographically instead of chronologically. While AFfC focused on King's Landing, the Vale, and Dorne, this fifth volume takes us to the Wall and eastward, to the Free Cities and Slaver's Bay. Mr Martin fleshes out places like Meereen, Astapor, Pentos, and Volantis, among others, so readers have to brace themselves for a new slew of information. I've been pretty geeked out by this series after following it for about fourteen years, so I've always looked forward to exploring more of the Great Eastern Continent but some readers might want to look at this as fair warning.
As with A Feast for Crows, Mr Martin uses A Dance with Dragons to move his characters around like cyvasse pieces. Both the second and third books in this series featured much action amidst the scheming; in this however, there is much more travel involved. Quite understandable: the events that have gripped most of Westeros in A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords have somewhat settled down. Characters in this book are left regrouping and scrambling for position. The Lord Commander of the Night's Watch is faced with making unpopular decisions for the good of the realm. Somewhere, a rebel king's Hand is beggaring for support for his liege. In the east, a queen fights to maintain control of her new kingdom, unaware that powerful men from Westeros are already on their way to win her to their cause. Away from the courts, most of these characters are shown relying on their street smarts and negotiating skills for a means to an end. But though the travel elements in this book are expository, I feel that the gradual pace takes away from some of the high-impact events in the book.
The book features some new (and forgotten) POV characters. I really applaud Mr Martin for Reek's chapters. He is not a character I particularly like but I feel that Mr Martin has turned out a thoughtful and moving character study here. I read his chapters with a combined pity and revulsion, and they certainly didn't want for action either. Same with Jon Snow. Though his chapters may not be as quickly paced as others', they really delve into the man he has become. As readers we really get to see how he thinks and reasons and why he does the things he does. Jon has learned to 'kill the boy' and proves himself a true Stark. The latter half of A Dance with Dragons continues the story of some of the POV characters from the previous book, like Arya, Jaime, and Cersei, signaling that events are finally back on their chronological track. I suppose it was this merge that left me that expecting something big would occur, but in the end, I got more of a 'defining moment' instead of the climax I wanted.
If there's one thing that all these different characters agree on, it is that 'Words are wind.' Prophecies are foretold, promises are made, deals are brokered, but words are worth nothing in the game of thrones. Some of these characters use that to their advantage while others find themselves at the mercy of fate. Whether you're in Westeros or in the East, it is perhaps the only formula for survival. And with that I'll leave you to wonder if your favorite character survives this latest book.