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"The last one was a bitch," confesses George R.R. Martin in his acknowledgments. "This one was three bitches and a bastard." I'm hopeful Martin's able to raise the credit limit on his bitch/bastard account now that HBO has brought this seminal series to the attention of the masses. Six years, to state the obvious, is quite a wait between volumes. And giving your vast army of readers that much time to fine-tune their personal lists of everything that will disappoint them bitterly if it doesn't happen in your next book can lead to a real headache, particularly in the Internet age, where feelings of entitlement are the first thing everyone feels entitled to, and hate mail is a matter of a single mouse-click.

A Dance with Dragons, I can faithfully report, reveals that A Song of Ice and Fire has lost none of its power to impress. Whether it has lost its power to awe and astonish will be up to you. Because of its delays and the enormous expectations built thereby, A Feast for Crows left a number of fans of the series quite vocally disappointed. While I thought many of the complaints were all out of proportion to the book's actual merits, and amounted to little more than "It wasn't what I wanted," two criticisms of Feast were, I think, fully justified: that it lacked a great, memorable scene or setpiece — like the Red Wedding from A Storm of Swords, or A Clash of Kings' Battle of Blackwater, or the shocking execution of Eddard Stark in A Game of Thrones — and that it didn't do much to move the series forward.

I'm advising you now: for much of its considerable length — and going by hardcover page counts, Dance is the series' longest entry yet — the fifth volume has much the same unhurried feel as Feast. Dance's narrative overlaps that of Feast for about 600 or so pages. It's the inevitable result of Feast's own incompleteness, and the way its manuscript was culled from that of Dance to begin with.

But readers will appreciate this one a great deal more, I think, because the three fan-favorite characters who were cut from Feast completely — Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen — carry the bulk of the story this time. Both Feast and Dance follow directly from the climax of Storm, and Martin paces himself with great care and deliberation as he follows all the surviving players looking to rebuild their lives and their nations in the aftermath of the War of Five Kings. There will be times you'll get impatient with this book, and wonder again if, in fact, Martin is going anywhere with all of this. But the cumulative effect, once the book is over, is formidable, proving Martin's mastery of epic narrative hasn't deserted him by a long chalk. It takes reading Dance all the way through to fully appreciate how it could easily have taken six years to gestate.

Up north at the Wall, Jon Snow, now serving as 998th Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, has his hands full. The undead menace from beyond the Wall is something the Watch's thin numbers cannot adequately defend against. Almost all the castle keeps that line the Wall from coast to coast are unmanned and decrepit ruins. Thus, Jon decides to allow the defeated Wildlings, ragged and half-savage denizens of the north, through the Wall in their thousands, letting any of them who choose to join the Watch, a decision that displeases many of his own officers. On top of that, Stannis Baratheon, who styles himself the one true king of all Westeros, is being an arrogant nuisance. Indifferent to his own unpopularity, Stannis does have the support of the enigmatic Melisandre, red priestess of the god R'hllor. While she tantalizes Jon with possible visions of his lost sister Arya, Stannis plans a bold assault on the former Stark seat of Winterfell, to take it back from the psychotic Ramsay Bolton and, he hopes, unite the entire north under himself.

Elsewhere, everyone is waiting for Dany Targaryen, who has set herself up as queen of the far eastern city of Meereen in Slaver's Bay, to make her intentions known. All are somewhat bewildered that she is, so far, choosing to stay put, rather than come back to Westeros to claim the Iron Throne. But Dany is determined to do right by the people of Meereen, whom she has liberated from slavery by banning that institution entirely. It is a decision that has essentially wrecked the whole area's economy. Even some freed slaves are unhappy with their new lives, especially those body slaves used to sleeping on silks, who now find themselves begging in gutters. War is in the offing, plague is raging through the countryside, shadowy assassins are picking off her loyal eunuch soldiers one by one, and only her growing trio of dragons are left to intimidate her enemies. But they may be growing to the point she can no longer control them.

Several suitors descend upon Meereen. Some are naive princes from Dorne in southern Westeros, one a wealthy merchant with ties to the city's rich and powerful. But which, if any, should Dany choose? Who can she trust, when she's haunted by prophecies of betrayal? Will war and disease undo everything? Can she really just abandon what she started to return to Westeros, a land by now thoroughly strange to her, and nothing like home?

And finally, there is Tyrion, fleeing for his life after crossbowing his father while the old king sat on the privy. He will find himself in just about the most humiliating and dire circumstances in a life that has seen more than its share of such. But he never loses the cruel wit that has seen him through in the past. And he provides the story with its warmest and most sympathetic moments. Later in the book, when its timeline finally converges with that of Feast, we see a bit more of what transpires in the lives of Arya, Cersei and Jamie Lannister, and others. Underlying everything is the tense expectation of fresh chaos erupting. It's only a question of when and where the first sparks will be struck.

Martin's writing, as expected, never meets anything less than the highest standards of literary craft, with many individual chapters good enough to function on their own as award-worthy short stories. Beyond its prose, what I noted about Dance is that it's nothing less than a model of editing. Thousand-page epic fantasy doorstoppers are plentiful, but you don't often find one that manages to balance multiple plot threads and vast ensemble casts so smoothly that readers never get bewildered, lost, or just plain bored out of their minds. Martin has said in interviews (or at least in one convention interview I sat in on) that, like a filmmaker, he writes chapters out of order, and then sequences them later. Knowing how to knock out that sequencing is key to keeping a book like Dance from collapsing under its own weight, and Martin's work here, together with his editors, is an achievement.

The dramatic payoffs may seem a long time coming in Dance. But the point is that they do come, which is more than can be said for some recent fantasies of equal length and hype I've trudged through (lookin' at you, Mr. Rothfuss). So stick with this one. And if you're wondering if Martin has any shockers in store this time...he does. You'll know when it hits you. And you'll know, without question, that you are back in the Seven Kingdoms, where lives are cheap, words are wind, and winter is coming.

Followed by The Winds of Winter.


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