Sometimes there are advantages to being the last one to arrive.  A Dance with Dragons came out five and a half years after George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows.  For most fans, the wait was excruciating.  After years of wishful thinking and inaccurate release dates, the latest installment of A Song of Ice and Fire is finally available on shelves.  Fortunately for me, I only began reading the series a year ago.

A Dance with Dragons is not so much a sequel to A Feast for Crows as it is a companion piece.  Both novels span the same period of time, but they focus on different characters and events.  When Feast came out, it disappointed a lot of casual readers, despite its literary quality. Adored characters like Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen did not appear in the book, instead paving way for new faces, like Victarion Greyjoy and the Martells of the south.  It was a difficult transition, and ultimately not as satisfying as previous books.

So where does that leave A Dance with Dragons?  Like the previous book, it leaves out pivotal locations and characters, but this time, the split is only temporary.  Towards the latter half of the book, the stories merge up again and many characters featured in A Feast for Crows show up to finish their story arcs.  Ultimately, all of Martin’s decisions paid off.  A Dance with Dragons is a fascinating read, filled with all the emotional ups and downs of his previous efforts while setting the stage for some new and interesting conflicts as the series moves forward.

As has always been the case with A Song of Ice and Fire, the characterization in A Dance with Dragons is the strongest highlight.  Atypically for literature, there isn’t a main character or primary protagonist, but rather a host of interesting characters, each working towards and against one another to achieve their own goals.  While this wouldn’t work in a lot of books, it is actually my favorite aspect of A Song of Ice and Fire.  Martin’s lack of reverence for any one character lends realism to the conflict, punctuated by the fact that anyone can face danger, and anyone can die.  As interesting and well-rounded as the characters are, they are not invincible.  Martin’s characters are human in every sense of the word.  While some are more sympathetic than others, even the despised characters are well-rounded with believable motivations.  This is the best cast of characters in fantasy today.

The strength of Martin’s characters comes largely from the moral issues that each of them face throughout the plot.  In A Dance with Dragons, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen return to the forefront, and despite being half a world away from one another, their stories are similar.  Each takes on a role of authority, and each has their strength and character tested by a whirlwind of political upheaval.

Daenerys Targaryen is an especially interesting case as she has settled in the Eastern city of Meereen to begin her rule as queen.  Though the setting is rich and thick with political intrigue, it is not as immediately accessible to the reader as other locations such as Westeros.  Lacking the familiar setting of swords and castles, Meereen is a land of pyramids, slavers, and scoundrels.  Many of the characters in these scenes are new, and their names are difficult to pronounce.  These little deviations from the norm make Dany’s story harder to follow at first, but as the reader becomes acclimated to the new environment, the story picks up and becomes every bit as interesting as the events on Westeros.  Objectively speaking, the sequences in Meereen are the best in the entire book.

And then there’s Reek, my favorite of the point-of-view characters.  Without giving too much away, the Reek chapters hearken back to what makes Martin such a great author.  There are many authors who depict violence and cruelty in their work, but when Martin chooses to do so, he underlines the psychology and the humanity behind every action.  There is social commentary lurking around every crevice, disguised as fiction even as it asks important questions about human nature.

Though I have little negative to say about A Dance with Dragons, it would be dishonest to ignore the shortcomings completely.  A Feast for Crows had a number of meandering travel-based chapters involving the characters Brienne and Samwell.  I was never a fan of these chapters.  This time, the meandering traveller is Tyrion.  In this case, the traveling is more interesting, perhaps because Tyrion is a more interesting character than Brienne or Samwell.  Even so, a lot of his adventures as he journeys from one place to another feel contrived and somewhat arbitrary.

In addition, Martin has always had a tendency to allow his characters to meet up with one another by chance, no matter how unrealistic that might be given the size of the world.  These chance meetings take place in A Dance with Dragons just like they do in the other books.  It’s a form of Deus ex machina, and even though it works to carry the story from one point to another, it is not masterful writing.

That said, there isn’t a book in the world without its shortcomings, and in this case, the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses.  The best chapters of Dragons start about three-quarters into the book when many of the conflicts reach their conclusions or jump to new heights.  It’s difficult to pinpoint everything that makes A Dance with Dragons so special, but the characters and their often overwhelming trials define the exceptional quality of the novel.  A Dance with Dragons is an excellent read and it earns my highest possible recommendation.