A Dance With Dragons 1: Dreams and Dust by George RR Martin (2011)

The night was rank with the smell of man.

The warg stopped beneath a tree and sniffed, his grey-brown fur dappled by shadow. A sigh of piney wind brought the man-scent to him, over fainter smells that spoke of fox and hare, seal and stag, even wolf. Those were man-smells too, the warg knew; the stink of old skins, dead and sour, near drowned beneath the stronger scents of smoke and blood and rot. Only man stripped the skins from the other beasts and wore their hides and hair. (page 1)

This, the fifth volume of George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, starts with a wonderful prologue, a vivid description of a warg, a man who can enter the bodies and experience the keen sensations of animals, who is both lying shivering in a snow-covered shelter in the far North of Westeros, but also inhabiting the body of a wolf hunting with his pack, hunting fleeing, ailing humans. I’ve never read anything describing this situation and rarely read anything so vivid and powerful and cold and tangy. Chapters of writing this good are one of the reasons GRRM fans adore him.

‘Dreams and Dust’ – as GRRM explains in the preface – doesn’t exactly follow the ‘previous’ novel, ‘A Feast for Crows’. It runs in parallel with it. The series is now so complex and unwieldy, he has so many plotlines unravelling in all directions, that one volume simply can’t contain them all, so he needed two running in tandem.

So – ‘A Feast for Crows’ covered the ongoing adventures in the kingdom of Dorne (Lord Doran Martell), on the Ice Wall (Jon Snow and King Stannis Baratheon), among the Ironborn Vikings (Asha, Victarion and Euron Greyjoy), in the Riverlands (Jaime Lannister raises the siege of Riverrun), in the Vale of Arryn (Petyr Littlefinger strengthens his grip and cultivates the runaway Sansa Stark), with Samwell Tarly (accompanying the aged maester Aemon on the long sea route to the Citadel) and in King’s Landing (where Cersei Lannister’s paranoid incompetence brings disaster).

Whereas ‘Dreams and Dust’ covers the same period of time, but follows a different set of characters:

  • The ironical dwarf Tyrion Lannister, on the run from murdering his father Lord Tywin, is in Essos where the same magister Illyrion who sent Daenerys on her adventures, despatches him on a boat with a mystery crew down the vast river Rhoyne, introducing a whole new landscape, new peoples and languages and perils. The strange abandoned cities their boat passes silently in the fog are wonderfully evocative…
Charles Dance as the masterful Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Charles Dance as the masterful Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Daenerys Targaryen, supposedly progressing west along the coast of Essos with her three dragons and aiming to reclaim the Iron Throne lost when her father was murdered by the Lannisters. But she has become embroiled and delayed. After liberating the slaves in two of the great cities around Slavers Bay – Astapor and Yunkai – only to see them descend into anarchy, the kindhearted Daenerys has not only liberated the slaves of Meereen but is determined to rule them and their city peacefully and justly. This turns out to be harder than she thought as an insurgency of resentful former rulers takes to murdering the men and women she’s freed, as gruesomely as possible. Meanwhile her dragons have now grown so large that they are killing sheep and cattle and Daenerys is having to compensate angry farmers and, eventually, is forced to chain them in a dungeon…
  • Once upon a time the idea that Daenerys was reborn in Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre along with real live dragons was mysterious and strange; her travels across the desert and the growing dragons threatened she’d bring a revolution to Westeros. but by the end of Dreams and Dust this storyline has fizzled out, losing all its energy; Daenerys confronting yet another roomful of angry citizens is as fantastical as watching Boris Johnson on TV. I speedread her last few chapters just to see if anything happened. And nothing did…
Photo of Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen arguing with her loyal servant Ser Jorah Mormont (Ian Glen) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen arguing with her loyal servant Ser Jorah Mormont (Ian Glen) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Crippled 11 year old Bran Stark, carried by the gentle giant retard Hodor, continues his quest north of the Ice Wall, along with the two crannogchildren, Meera and Jojeen. They are guided by an improbably friendly Other, Coldhands, further and further into the snow in quest of the owner of the third eye, a prophet, one of the last surviving children of the forest, the almost exterminated aboriginal inhabitants of Westeros. I found it increasingly hard to remember why these children persisted in driving deeper into the freezing north at risk of their lives, though the intensity of their suffering is certainly harrowing and vivid…
Photo of Kristian Nairn as the giant simpleton Hodor, tasked with carrying the crippled boy Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Kristian Nairn as the giant simpleton Hodor, tasked with carrying the crippled boy Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • The Merchant’s Man turns out to be Quentin, the son of Lord Martell of Dorne, who has been despatched to the Free Cities to meet Daenerys and recruit her dragons for the cause of Dorne. Which is ironic because we know the mystery crew of Tyrion’s ship down the Rhoyne turn out to be  escorting the supposedly dead Prince Aegon Targaryen on his mission to raise sellswords and form an alliance with Daenerys to reclaim his rightful throne in Westeros. Everyone is after Daenerys’s dragons, except Daenerys who is frightened to use them.
  • Meanwhile, a thousand miles north, gorgeous pouting Jon Snow takes to his duties as Lord Commander of the Night Watch, pitifully undermanned as they seek to guard and protect the 700 foot-high Ice Wall from the next wave of attackers who will either be wildlings – free humans – or the terrifying Others, blue-eyed black-skinned zombies. He has to cope with mutterings among the older Watchmen on the one hand and on the other manage King Stannis Baratheon and his prophetess Lady Melisandre, who came North with his army to destroy the first wildling invasion. This threatened invasion, led by the renegade Watchan Mance Rayder, created an atmosphere of brooding menace throughout the 2nd, 3rd and 4th books, giving a real sense that the invasion of these supernatural forces would sweep away the vicious scheming factions let loose by the War of Five Kings. However, their sudden and absolute defeat by Stannis’s army evaporated that threat and, in my opinion, has taken some of the pleasure out of the books… Martin tries to revive the sense of brooding threat over the Wall but, having seen how the first attack was swiftly crushed, it is gone, there is no threat, the tension has vanished…
Photo of Kit Harington as the bastard Jon Snow, raised to power as Lord of the Night's Watch, in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Kit Harington as the bastard Jon Snow, raised to power as Lord of the Night’s Watch, in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Davos Seaworth, long-suffering servant of King Stannis, is despatched by sea to win over the harsh lords of the eastern islands, namely Lord Wyman Manderly of White Harbour. There he suffers bitter failure, discovering Lord Manderly’s castle full of Freys, the vast extended family who own the Twin Towers castle in the Riverlands and who killed the self-proclaimed king of the North, Rob Stark, and massacred his army during the so-called Red Wedding. And so Manderley, afraid for the life of his son, held hostage by the Lannisters in King’s Landing. rejects Davos’s offer of alliance with King Stannis and it is difficult, again, to see where this storyline is heading…
  • Reek is the dungeon name of the raddled wreckage of Theon Greyjoy who we first met happily playing with the Stark children in Winterfell in volume one. In teenage competition with his clever sister Asha, he led a small troop to capture Winterfell, left almost empty by Robb Stark as he went campaigning in the North. But in his naivety, Theon was taken prisoner by the psychotic Ramsay Bolton who stormed into Winterfell, murdered everyone, burned the castle to the ground, dragged Theon back to his fortress of Dreadfort. Here Ramsay throws Theon into prison, flays him, tortures him, and reduces him to a shattered wreck of a stammering, shaking, filthy grey-haired dog. This is a particularly disturbing narrative thread, and goes a long way to justify accusations that, as Martin has run out of plot, he has resorted to ever more disgusting sadism. The scene where the terrified Reek is ordered to deflower the terrified young girl given to Ramsay in marriage, is particularly repellent; it describes the systematic humiliation of a naked 15 year old girl by a psychotic killer.
Photo of Alfie Allen as the very ill-fated Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Alfie Allen as the very ill-fated Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

The chapters are named after: Tyrion (9 chapters), Jon 8, Daenerys 7, Davos 4, Reek 3, Bran 2, The Lost Lord 2, The Merchant’s Man, The Windblown, The Wayward Bride, Melisandre, The Prince of Winterfell, The Watcher.

Martin continues to write blistering scenes, to vividly depict fights, feasts, treacheries and betrayals, moments of fear and panic or quiet, soulful moments, in a crisp clear style:

Jon stepped out into the night. The sky was full of stars, and the wind was gusting along the wall. Even the moon looked cold; there were goosebumps all across its face. Then the first gust caught him, slicing through his layers of wool and leather to set his teeth to chattering. He stalked across the yard, into the teeth of that wind. His cloak flapped loudly from his shoulders. Ghost came after. Where am I going? What am I doing? Castle Black was still and silent, its halls and towers dark. My seat, Jon reflected. My hall, my home, my command. A ruin. (page 442)

He can write the mysterious, incantatory chapter where Bran finally meets the lost prophet and begins his spiritual journey:

The moon was a crescent, thin and sharp as the blade of a knife. The pale sun rose and set and rose again. Red leaves whispered in the wind. Dark clouds filled the skies and turned to storms. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, and dead men with black hands and bright blue eyes shuffled shuffled round a cleft in the hillside but could not enter. Under the hill, the broken boy sat upon a weirwood throne, listening to whispers in the dark as ravens walked up and down  his arms. (page 521)

Hundreds of pages show his writing at its immersive, imaginative and compelling best. But I enjoyed this least of the six books I’ve read. My son said the last two are the worst. The woman I’ve been swapping notes with at work about the series just wants to hurry up and finish. For me the mystery, the suspense and the threat which made the earlier books so thrilling has evaporated to be replaced by an increasing and depressing reliance on foulmouthed brutality:

“”I would sell my mother for a bit of breeze,” said Gerris, as they rolled through the dockside throngs. “It’s as moist as the Maiden’s cunt, and still shy of noon. I hate this city.” (page 101)

“We’re the Windblown and we fuck the goddess Slaughter up the arse.” (page 107)

“Does your dwarf ride as well as he pisses?” (page 131)

“Can Salladhor Saan eat the king’s word? Can he quench his thirst with parchment and waxy seals? Can he tumble promises into a feather bed and fuck them till they squeal?” (page 144)

The dwarf watched Lemore slip into the water. The sight always made him hard. There was something wonderfully wicked about the thought of peeling the septa out of those chaste white robes and spreading her legs. (page 210)

As the drums reached a crescendo, three of the girls leapt above the flames, spinning in the air. The male dancers caught them about the waists and slid them down onto their members. Dany watched as the women arched their backs and coiled their legs around their partners while the flutes wept and the men thrust in time to the music. (page 237)

The wine was strong and sour and required no translation. “I suppose I shall have to settle for your cunt.”… “Cut off my head and take it to King’s Landing,” Tyrion urged her… She did not understand that either, so he shoved her legs apart, crawled between them, and took her once more. That much she could comprehend, at least. (page 338)

“Before you came Meereen was dying. Our rulers were old men with withered cocks  and crones whose puckered cunts were dry as dust.” (page 347)

“You look awful, even for a man’s been dead a dozen years. Blue hair, is it? When harry said you’d be turning up, I almost shit myself. And Haldon, you icy cunt, good to see you too. Still have that stick up your arse?” (page 361)

Too heavy even to stand unassisted, he could not hold his water, so he always smelled of piss… But he was said to be the richest man in Yunkai, and he had a passion for grotesques: his slaves included a boy with the legs and hooves of a goat, a bearded woman, a two-headed monster from Mantarys, and a hermaphrodite who warmed his bed at night. “Cock and cunny both,” Dick Straw told them. “The Whale used to own a giant too, liked to watch him fuck his slave girls…” (page 336)

He pushed her back onto Glover’s bed, kissed her hard, and tore off her tunic to let her breasts spill out. When she tried to knee him in the groin, he twisted away and forced her legs apart with his knees. “I’ll have you now.”… She was sopping wet when he entered her. “Damn you,” she said. “Damn you damn you damn you.” He sucked her nipples till she cried out half in pain and half in pleasure. Her cunt became the world. (page 390)

Her last foe was a northman with an axe, a big man bald and bearded, clad in a byrnie of patched and rusted mail that could only mean he was a chief or champion. He was not pleased to find himself fighting a woman. “Cunt!” he roared each time he struck at her, his spittle dampening her cheeks. “Cunt! Cunt!” (page 406)

Behind them some sailor was bellowing loudly. “”They call this ale? Fuck. A monkey could piss better ale.” “And you would drink it,” another voice replied. (page 428)

“I said we could not abandon her in Volantis. That does not mean I want to fuck her.” (page 509)

The dwarf lingered in the galley after supper, celebrating his survival by sharing a few tots of black tar rum with the ship’s cook, a great greasy loutish Volantene who spoke only one word of the Common Tongue (fuck)… (page 515)

“Lady Arya. Get on the bed. Yes, against the pillows, that’s a good wife. Now spread your legs. Let us see your cunt.” The girl obeyed wordless. Theon took a step back against the door. Lord Ramsay say beside his bride, slid his finger along her inner thigh, then jammed two fingers up inside her. The girl let out a gasp of pain. “You’re dry as an old bone.” Ramsay pulled his hand free and slapped her face. (page 582)

These books have a vast wealth of compelling writing and gripping storylines, a whole convincingly imagined alternative worldful. But I, too, feel like I’ve been slapped in the face, and just a few too many times.

—————————————————————————————————————————————-

Check out George RR Martin’s blog and his website.

Westeros.org links through to scores of other GoT websites, as well as hosting hundreds of FAQs about the series.

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and was released on dvd in March. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

All quotes copyright George RR Martin.

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