Readers of this review will fall into one of two groups: those who have seen or heard of the recent HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones and are wondering why this classic scabbards-and-skulduggery fantasy has gone mainstream (and whether they should be a part of it), and those who have read all of the previous novels in the cycle and are bursting to know if the latest instalment lives up to expectation. After all, A Dance with Dragons comes in at well over 1,000 pages and costs £25 – for either group it's not a commitment to be taken lightly.
Set in a fantasy world reminiscent of a medieval Eurasia combined with a fiendish computer game and a Timotei advert, George R R Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice novels have been collecting awards and taking up residence in the bestseller lists ever since the publication of the first, A Game of Thrones, in 1996. But this year, the combination of the TV adaptation and the mainstream success of the Kindle has meant that everyone – even those who were once too scared to read a Terry Pratchett on the Tube – is now surrendering to their urges. George R R Martin is huge.
A Dance with Dragons was originally supposed to be the second novel of a trilogy, but the situation has now spiralled to the point where it is the fifth of a planned seven novels, the third of which was split into two physical books on account of its sheer weight. Running concurrently with the events of the previous novel, A Dance With Dragons focuses on two of the most interesting characters from earlier books: the aristocratic but rebellious dwarf Tyrion Lannister, and the headstrong yet perceptive queen Daenerys Targaryen.
Tyrion is in hiding since killing his father and being suspected of killing his own brother, while Daenerys is queen of a city and the proud owner of some completely out of control dragons who are marauding across kingdoms and causing her seemingly limitless grief. (The powerful eggs of book one are now one of her biggest problems.)
While the dialogue is as snappy and the sense of place as powerfully evocative as in the other books, there is alarmingly little actual action here. Worse than that, it becomes increasingly hard to keep up with the cast of characters, the landscape of the kingdoms and the references to previous novels. Read alone, this is a story that would make very little sense indeed, and even those committed to the Seven Kingdoms have quite an admin job on their hands if they want to stay abreast of the ever-shifting perspectives and characters. This may be fun if you read the novels as a kind of project, to indulge in alongside the board games and the chatrooms. But as far as old-fashioned storytelling goes, it is not a success.
It seems that the problem lies in the editing: as with J K Rowling, the past decade's other break-out fantasy writer, editors must have been increasingly torn between treasuring every scene and insight that a much-loved author has delivered, and hacking into years worth of work to create an accessible, readable narrative which the curious might enjoy. Given that this manuscript was only delivered in April, the pressure must have been particularly intense. While there is much for the most robust of fans to wallow in here, A Dance With Dragons is perhaps a book that tries to please all kingdoms yet doesn't quite please any.