This is the review I did for the Sunday Express. It only appeared in hardcopy so I can't link it.
Since it's a national newspaper and many of the readers may never have read a fantasy book, let alone the first four in the ASOIAF series, the review is less about this book and more about the series and the author. I hope to make them the gift of a great reading experience.
My rating for the book is set in the context of the alternative works of fantasy on the shelves rather than in an attempt to rank this volume amongst its predecessors (I would say significantly better than A Feast For Crows - less good than the first three, still excellent)
[Sunday Express review]
By the time you reach the end of George Martin’s A Dance with Dragons you will be nearly two million words into A Song of Ice and Fire, a sprawling epic fantasy series that is for many readers the single most defining work in the genre for a generation. A Dance with Dragons is itself over four hundred thousand words (one thousand printed pages), not that far shy of the whole of The Lord of the Rings or War and Peace - not that literary worth is measured on weighing scales.
Martin’s series, starting with A Game of Thrones, has been a slow-burning phenomenon, dwarfed only by the colossus that is Harry Potter. Right now all the volumes are on the Amazon top twenty list. When A Dance With Dragons was released in hardback last month it immediately became the fastest-selling fiction hardback this year in the UK.
It has probably been the most anticipated (adult) fantasy novel ever published, helped of course by the recent excellent serialisation of the first book by HBO. A significant contribution to the anticipation has been the six-year wait since the last book, a source of controversy and teeth grinding amongst the readership. Internet grumbling about the delay reached such a pitch it prompted Neil Gaiman to blog to fans: ‘George Martin is not your bitch’. Whilst the books may roll out of the printing house on a conveyor belt, the words themselves cannot simply be squeezed out of the author by mounting pressure!
So, has it been worth the wait? There was a five-year wait for book four, A Feast for Crows, and many fans felt the novel didn’t fulfill the promise of the first three, making the critical success of book five the focus of still more intense speculation.
Martin’s success stands on the simple fact that he has brought to the fantasy genre the mature skills of realism, characterisation, and observation more commonly associated with literary fiction, and married them to a vivid and endless imagination. His commercial success derives from the fact that the books are addictively enjoyable.
You don’t need to be a reader of fantasy to enjoy Martin’s work. Martin writes primarily about people. You will have fallen in love with, or at least be fascinated by, his characters long before you see your first dragon. By that point you’ll believe in the dragon because you believe in the people through whose eyes you see it.
A Dance with Dragons advances the story with more purpose and scope than its predecessor, reacquainting us with favourite characters (Tyrion, Jon, Dany, and Bran) we’ve not seen since A Storm of Swords (2000). The story ranges across thousands of miles from icy wastes to dusty desert, expanding the incredible diversity of Martin’s world, showing stories on the small scale (Arya’s training) and the grand (Daenerys’ realpolitik). And although the 1000 pages meander through many lives and situations, there are hints at the ultimate convergence and conflict of disparate story threads, a slow building sense of momentum, and finally a rising tension and pace that drives us breathless to the edge of several cliffs.
One quote that stuck with me is “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” And George Martin offers you a fair portion of those thousand right here.
Turning the final page you can only be disappointed . . . to find it is the last, and you’ll immediately want to reach for the next volume. And there maybe lies the rub.
Edit - and 5 years later it's really starting to rub!
You can go and 'like' my review on goodreads, if you like.
(interestingly, to me anyway, although this book has a Goodreads average of 4.3 and a staggering 49% of its readers gave it a 5*, of the 30 reviews with the most likes - forming the first page of reviews - only 4 give it 5*. Which just goes to show how much we like to bitch and to read bitching!)