I have to agree with a lot of the other reviews here. It's not that the story presented in A Dance with Dragons
is bad per se - it's just the writing becomes damn near intolerable at points. Martin seems to have rediscovered and doubled down on his love of lists and attention to unnecessary details that bog down the narrative and detract from the taut storytelling that was book three of this series. As many others have also pointed out with great irony, Martin's favorite witticism, that "words are wind," seems to rear up to bite him in this tome - that line is repeated no less than two DOZEN times before the conclusion of the novel. I get that Westeros and Essos have a unique set of idioms, and I grant you that some of them are pretty pithy, but it just feels like Martin is too enamored of his own wit to let them go and trust that they will stick in readers' minds because of their own value. It's also odd because said witticisms seem to have evolved - being almost nowhere mentioned in the first three books only to appear in chapter after chapter from book four on. It almost appears a mark of senility. Martin admitted to problems in composing the last two volumes and the length of time between releases leads me to think he's overthought and overrevised these last two. Among the other annoying repetitions are "little and less," "much and more," "as useless as nipples on breastplate," and of course, running maddeningly through Jon Snow's mind (as if Ygritte didn't run the phrase into the ground in book three) "you know nothing." It wouldn't be so bad a stylistic choice if they didn't completely infuriate me and distract me from the otherwise graceful unfolding of an intricate and brilliantly composed plot.
After a volume of stagnation, Daenerys is once again on the move and the confluence of plot lines in Essos was a rewarding advancement of the plot. Jon's political troubles on the wall finally come to a head and Stannis is on the march with major action in the North. Many characters have nice development arcs, continuing the rich tradition of depth and changing circumstances that make the series as a whole rewarding. Grabbing the spotlight this time are the Greyjoys with Daenerys finally making some personal changes toward the last tenth of the book. As usual, the pacing is glacial with most of the action on the back-end, but Martin manages his multitude of plot lines as masterfully as ever and I found myself not playing favorites as much as I had in the past. The first couple of books had me rushing through to the Tyrion chapters, while books four and five made me appreciate all of the cast - even some of the more tangential characters like Victarion.
Ultimately, the book doesn't really live up to what it's title suggests. That being said, there are some quite shocking moments within the narrative - some of which caught me more off-guard than the Red Wedding of book three. Whether or not these developments are feints or the real deal remains to be seen. I think if you view Dance
as a stage-setting novel, much like book two, then it has a lot of value. Upon finishing it, you can definitely see how things have been prepared for a return to massive action all over the world of Ice and Fire in the next novel. The pieces are finally all in place.
If you haven't tackled this one yet, my advice is to save it. It leaves you dangling infuriatingly at the end. Read it when book six is finally available. If I'm right, it'll deliver on the promises of this book.