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At his recent book-signing at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, Martin mentioned that along with being accused of gratuitous sex and gratuitous violence, he’s often accused of gratuitous feasting. It’s true that he often describes, in great detail, what people are eating. These details usually include the mention of juice dripping down someone’s chin, and something or other being covered in honey.

Martin contended that he doesn’t find such details gratuitous, because his intention is to immerse a reader in the world he’s created. As much as I sometimes roll my eyes when I read about someone getting pig grease in his beard, or the four thousandth rendition of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” I can’t argue with Martin’s talent for completely enveloping a reader. I am impressed again and again by his power to so clearly evoke a scene. At the book-signing, another reader asked him how he keeps all the details straight, and though Martin disclosed that he does have assistants who point out small mistakes, he mostly keeps all the details in his head. Reading his books, I have no trouble believing this. I believe he knows exactly what every character looks like, and what every battle sounds and feels like (The Battle of the Blackwater, anyone?), and if dropped into the streets of one of his fictional cities, Martin would know exactly how to find his way around.

At this point in the series, The Seven Kingdoms and the characters with ties to them are experiencing identity crises. Tommen Baratheon, current king of the Seven Kingdoms, is only a young boy, beset on all sides by adults vying for control of his rule– and two of these contenders are his wife and his mother. Jon and Daenerys have lost their way. They find themselves invested with power they’re not sure they can wield, and surrounded by people they’re not sure they can trust. Tyrion and Theon are, within separate and unrelated plotlines, taken captive and forced to deal with humiliation in its various forms. Davos, Arya, Jaime, and Bran find themselves at the beginnings of new roads, with new quests ahead of them. More than in the first four books, characters assume different identities for reasons of intrigue or safety. Even death is ambiguous. In the first few books, Winter is Coming, but in A Dance with Dragons, Winter is Here, and the driving snow seems to obscure everyone’s vision.

Like the other installments in the series, ADWD has the power to make me gesture wildly at the book, gasp “Oh my God,” at shocking moments, and laugh aloud at Tyrion’s snarkiness or Strong Belwas’ every utterance. More than with any of the other books, I often flinched in sympathetic physical pain as I read. While I don’t find the violence gratuitous, I find the type of violence in the book to be of just such a sort that I can imagine it especially well, and wish I couldn’t.

It is an apparent weakness of the series that some characters are just not as interesting as others. (Does anyone care about Victarion Greyjoy? And I’m still trying to work out a reason for the Quentyn Martell plotline.) The chapters for these characters feel like toll booths in an otherwise unimpeded freeway. I can only hope Martin will continue to justify the faith I have in his plan by showing us, in later books, just why it’s important to pay attention even to people who don’t seem like major forces. On a slightly related note: Patchface! I know there’s a plan for this guy, and I can’t wait to see what role he’ll play.

A Dance With Dragons would seem, at this point, to be the pivot on which the series will turn. The multitude of forces jockeying for position in the first four books has been winnowed down to either clear contenders or easily defeatable minor hopefuls, preparing the reader for the final books, which will presumably focus on who will ultimately take control of Westeros, and whether contenders for power will be able to unite to battle the supernatural forces gathering steam on the other side of the Wall. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this book become many readers’ favorite in the series so far.

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