A Dance with Dragons – to be spoilered or not to be spoilered, that is the question

Posted: August 24, 2011 in Book Reviews
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To start I must disclose that this blog entry contains spoilers for all five of George R.R. Martin's currently published A Song of Ice and Fire books. I am also obliged to preface it by the full and frank admission that I am a spoiler junkie. Anywhere I can hunt them down, I will. For those of you who do not know, a slip up by Amazon meant that a handful of copies of A Dance with Dragons (hereafter ADwD) were shipped a week or so early to customers in Germany. The internet being what it is, full and explicit spoilers were therefore readily available well before publication, and I drank them all up like a parched woman who has not had a taste of A Song of Ice and Fire for six long years.

Now, I also know that George R.R. Martin detests spoilers and pleaded with those fans who got early copies not to spoil the book for the rest, and for the rest of us to wait until we had the book (or freshly fed Kindle in my case) in our own two hot, sweaty, little hands. Did this stop my hunting down spoilers? I confess not. Sorry, George.  Did it add a tinge of guilt to my fulfilling my spoiler addiction? Well, yes.

The BBC recently posted an interesting article on spoilers.  The writer of the article expressed the opinion that spoilers do not necessarily ruin the experience; that in many cases the journey is often as fulfulling as the ending.  From my own experience with spoilers and ADwD, I believe that to be the case here.  ADwD, and A Song of Ice and Fire in general, tends to be more character driven than plot driven.  A spoiler stating, say, that in chapter 22 character X does Y to character Z doesn't have as much impact when much of the beauty of A Song of Ice and Fire is learning about the inner thought processes of the characters; what impulses led them to take that action compared to how they might have reacted two books ago.  This insight into the characters is, in my opinion, GRRM's true gift as a writer.  The cast of point of view characters in A Song of Ice and Fire ranges from a pre-teen apprentice assassin to a world-weary embittered former knight of the KIng's Guard.  Each of them is written realistically and consistently within their own frame of reference.

This is not to say that there weren't times during my spoiler hunt that I didn't experience horror and dismay, most notably at the news of Jon Snow's fate.  As more and more spoilers were revealed, I also experienced growing sadness that the plot didn't seem to be moving along, and in the case of Dany's storyline even seemed to take a huge leap backwards.

Two ways in which I believe being spoiled enhanced my enjoyment of the book were to highlight the poignancy of Jon's arc and also to free me to focus on character rather than plot development.  Knowing what awaits Jon at the end of ADwD really throws his attempts to do his best for the Night's Watch under his command and to view the bigger picture into sharp relief.  Knowing that there will be no zombie apocolypse in the next chapter allowed me to simply enjoy spending time with the characters.

So, while it is no longer possible for me to read ADwD with virgin, unspoilered eyes, at this point I find it difficult to imagine that having remained spoiler-free would have added much to my enjoyment of the book.

What I liked:

Spending time with old friends: Not having had A Song of Ice and Fire book for six years, it was a real pleasure to catch up with characters like Tyrion and Jon.  In many aspects, reading ADwD felt like an evening or two spent with close friends I hadn't seen for a while, catching up with all their gossip.   In the same way, I sympathised with their struggles and cheered for their triumphs.

Tyrion: Tyrion was not his usual witty self for much of the book, but that is entirely consistent with what George had put him through.   It was very interesting to see him without the metaphorical armour and weapon of his wit, and to see the usually very self-aware dwarf deny even to himself just how much he cares for Penny.  (Side note to George.  If you ever dare to kill off Penny, I will be most annoyed.)

Like any good friend, though, it's easy to forgive Tyrion his snit, and cheer for him when he finally starts to act more like his old self.  Of course, it certainly doesn't hurt that I can now put the excellent Peter Dinklage's face and voice to Tyrion.  I  can't wait to see where Tyrion goes next.    

Jon Snow:  Jon's arc in ADwD is fantastic.  I really love how the character has grown – he may not be a Stark in name, but he's truly a Stark in character.  This is particularly highlighed again by the recent HBO adapation.  For much of the TV series, Jon was in his whiny "why did I have to be a bastard, why do I never get to play the lord?" phase,  so it's truly wonderful to see how he's stepped up to that role and is one of the few characters to try to look at the bigger picture and beyond his own self interest.  This of course makes his ultimate fate at the end of this book so much more poignant.  

What is a name? This is one of the major themes of ADwD and is played out through several characters' arcs.  First we have Jon's continued rejection of Stannis' offer to legitimise him as Lord Jon Stark in favour of keeping his oath to the Night's Watch.  For him it represents honour and  doing what is right.  In Arya's case, it's about retaining her identity and goodness as a Stark and not losing herself completely as a Faceless Man assassin.  She still hasn't reclaimed her name, but I'm hopeful that her growing contact with her direwolf Nymeria will see her right.  The theme is most overtly expressed in Theon's story arc.  His chapters are first headed by the title 'Reek' the name given to him by his captor Ramsey Bolton who denied him his true name as part of the psychological torture used on him.  As he slowly begins to reclaim his name and identity as Theon and work towards a sorely needed redemption the chapters begin to be marked with his true name, Theon.

What I didn't like:

No zombie apocolypse: Sorry, George, but you've been promising us a white walker zombie apocolypse since the Prologue of book one.  Isn't it about time to fire that Chekov's gun?

Dany's storyline: having just come off a Dany high from the fantastic HBO Game of Thrones series finale, it was very disappointing to see that she spent much of the book treading the same old ground she has been treading for it seems like the last three books.  Clearly, George has had to have her tread water, so to speak, while other characters catch up in their storylines, but it got old, very fast.  The book ended with her in practically the same position – off to seek out a Dothraki khal – as she was in three books ago.  The saddest part of all is that I can't actually see that she has learned very much at all from three books messing around in Meereen.  

The Targaryen-ex-machina: Yes, OK, I understand having a hidden Targaryen heir surface had to occur as part of Dany's House of the Undying prophecy, but was it really necessary?  Maybe it will have a major impact on Dany's future storyline, but at this point these words are wind to me.

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