A Dance with Dragons. This book focusses on the stories of Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen, with a smattering of other characters' storylines woven in towards the end. Jon Snow is busy mustering forces to defend the Wall against the white walkers. He's forced to balance the interests of the Night's Watch with those of Stannis Baratheon and the wildlings. Tyrion is in exile, caught up in mingled grief, guilt, and pleasure over the death of his father. He makes strange allies on his journey towards Daenarys Targaryen. She, meanwhile, is fighting to keep the peace in Meereen, as the Sons of the Harpy terrorize her freedmen. She's also faced with containing the growing strength and ferocity of her dragons.
It's been quite a while since I read the first four books in this series, and I made the mistake of picking this book up before re-reading the earlier ones. I was completely lost for the first 100 pages or so, while I tried to remember what had transpired in past books, and what the circumstances of each character were when I had left them last. However, once the book progressed to the point where the storyline started building upon itself and not the events of past books, I found the need to re-read the earlier books receded.
I enjoyed this book to a point, as I did the rest of the series, but one thing has to be said about it: it's dark. Especially toward the end. George R. R. Martin has the uncanny ability to take our expectations as readers--expectations we've built over decades of reading formulaic novels and liking them--and dashing them just as we think they're coming to fruition. Unless you love dark novels, you have to be a bit of a masochist to enjoy the Song of Ice and Fire series. Be prepared to despise your favourite characters and sympathize with those you once hated. Be prepared to see the heroes fail and the villains triumph. In other words, be prepared for everything and everyone to transform into something you never expected.
By reading these words you may think that I don't like this book or this series, but I do. I can appreciate the skill and strength of will it takes to so thoroughly pervert what could have been a nuanced saga full of the usual loss and redemption. Make no mistake, Martin is twisting his story quite mindfully; he wants his readers to realize that the average fantasy is just that--fantasy. If these great wars that are often painted so miraculously across the pages of fantasy novels really took place, they would probably resemble his story much more closely than, say, the Lord of the Rings. It's true, unfortunately; some battles can't be won with valour; instead they must be won with blood and fire.
P.S. This series has been adapted quite skilfully into a TV series on HBO, and named after the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones. I'm quite enjoying it, and if you like this sort of book, you probably will too.
Copy source: personal library
View my suggested books by George R. R. Martin