In "A Dance with Dragons," though - and in "A Feast for Crows," to an extent - that page is notably absent. The Onion Knight, by this point, has gone through more lives than the average cat; while I have great fondness for the character, I almost wish Martin *would* kill him off just so the poor soul could rest. Whenever Arya gets a knife pressed against her throat, it turns out to be a well-meaning rescuer offering her a haircut. Mance dies then reappears good as new, Catelyn died and reappeared (somewhat the worse for wear, in her case), ghosts from the past pop up alive and well and living in the Westerosi equivalent of Paris. At this point, I'm more than half-expecting Khal Drogo to ride up on a skeletal horse and say "Hey Dany babe, I busted out of the nightlands, let's cross the poison water before my afterlife parole officer finds out I'm here." A Song of Ice and Fire has gone from "Nobody is Safe" to "Every Main Character is Totally Safe at this Point," and the suspense is just *gone*.
While some roads lead to circumstantial sacrifice, another takes to the skies as the mother of dragons dawns her title and sees her city of Meereen from a dragon’s point of view. Tonight’s penultimate episode places each front running player into an uneasy position where choices become harder and vengeance is but an eyelash away. The only moments left are the one’s that almost guarantee lives will be lost. Who’s lives will it be this season? Only those who have read A Dance With Dragons know for sure.
In A Dance with Dragons, Martin’s characters appear to have mostly lost what illusions they may have had when the hydra-headed dynastic struggle began. Outbreaks of military violence scud across the land like clouds, while the surviving, scattered Stark children (with darkened eyes and hardened hearts) keep their heads down, and factionalism in the Night’s Watch leaves the whole world under threat.
While the novel as a whole suffers from a lack of cohesion—a likely result of the fact that it was meant to be the second half of one overly long novel (Martin hacked off the first part to make Feast)—bloat is par for the course in the series. Each book is less a stand-alone volume than it is one section in a continuous novel that seems to have the ability to keep spinning itself into multi-strand plotlets forever. What Dragons has going for it is something sorely missing from Feast: Tyrion Lannister. The noble-born but proudly base brother of the proud knight Jaime whose murderous indiscretion kicked off much of the tragedies in Game, Tyrion is a sarcastic dwarf whose quick wits, sharp tongue, and tragic sensibility make him the closest thing the series has to a soul. In Dragons, Tyrion is stuck maneuvering to stay alive on a continent far from Westeros where a parallel drama has been developing. Daenerys Targaryen, long-lost scion of the deposed line of Westeros kings, has risen from being the teen bride of a Mongol-like lord in the first book to a victorious queen intent on reconquering Westeros, with an army of fearless eunuchs and three dragons (a species long thought extinct) at her back.
Each of the drama machines that Martin has set to work in his earlier books keeps humming here with an admirable precision. It’s a thundering good read that sometimes frustrates (focus, George, focus!) but more often than not enthralls as the greatest adventure fiction should. Like most series of this kind—Novik’s tales of dragon squadrons battling over the English Channel, the twenty-odd Aubrey-Maturin adventures, or one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s volumes in the nearly interminable John Carter of Mars serial—one devours it ravenously, a few days or a week, tops, and then the wondering begins anew: what about the next book? And do I have time for it? In this case, absolutely.