For the first-timers who missed the controversy, George R. R. Martin hit a patch of let's call it writer's block while writing A Feast For Crows, and when it dragged on to 5 years of writing and rewriting with no end in sight, he decided he needed to release what he had finished. So he split the book into two, roughly by geography rather than time, and released A Feast For Crows as the full story of those characters he had already finished writing about. Then he spent five more years finishing the chapters with the rest of the characters and released it as A Dance With Dragons.
The result is a pair of books that are not bad, they're just paced badly. After the climax of A Storm of Swords, there's a whole book which advances the stories of half the characters, while barely mentioning other plot threads at all (except for occasionally dropping tantalizing hints of what might be happening on the other side of the world). Then in A Dance With Dragons, we finally jump back in time to return to the other characters, but now it's been a whole book since we've seen them and so their situation doesn't seem so immediate. When I first started reading it, I had to go back and re-read the last few chapters of A Storm of Swords to remember what was going on.
Well, if you have both A Feast For Crows and A Dance of Dragons in your hands, you can avoid all that! Through diligent research, I've sliced up the chapters of both books and rearranged them in roughly chronological order to make a single satisfying timeline, paced similarly to the first three books of the series. (Although it makes a monstrously long book...) In fact I'm pretty sure that for a lot of chapters, this ended up in pretty much the order Martin originally intended before he decided to split the books up. I've found one chapter in Crows which relates some backstory in an unobtrusive aside, which then pays off five years later in a chapter of Dragons - I'm almost certain these chapters were written before the split and were intended to sit next to each other.
On the other hand, I haven't been able to avoid spoilers completely. Some chapters of Dragons assume the reader has knowledge revealed in Crows (obviously some of the chapters involved were written after the split). But this is amazingly uncommon. There's only one moment which is potentially "ruined" through spoilers1, but to balance that the rest of the books flow much more smoothly and a lot of dialog in Crows that makes little sense at the time becomes a lot more meaningful.2.
To make this list I ordered the chapters with the following goals:
- Don't flip between books more often than is necessary.
- Don't read too far in one book before flipping to the other (ideally, read until a viewpoint character repeats and then flip to the other book).
- Avoid spoilers.
- Put chapters that flow well next to each other.
That list isn't any order of precedence: I've had to make a lot of tradeoffs. But I think I've managed to hit the above goals pretty well, with only a handful of chapters shuffled around. Mostly, it just involves knowing when to switch between books.
So to get the version of the story which, I contend, is a lot closer to Martin's original intent, and which I think flows a lot better, flip between the two books in the following order. All page numbers are from the hardcover edition; hopefully with a paperback the chapter names are enough to follow along.
Dragons 1-15 (Prologue) 3
Crows 1-70 (Prologue, The Prophet, The Captain of Guards, Cersei, Brienne)
Dragons 16-82 (Tyrion, Daenerys, Jon, Bran, Tyrion)
Skip a chapter.
Dragons 95-111 (Jon) 4
Crows 71-171 (Samwell, Arya, Cersei, Jaime, Brienne, Sansa, The Kraken's Daughter)
Dragons 112-178 (Tyrion, Davos, Jon, Daenerys, Reek, Bran)
Skip a chapter.
Dragons 192-202 (Davos)
Crows 172-311 (Cersei, The Soiled Knight, Brienne, Samwell, Jaime, Cersei, The Iron Captain, The Drowned Man, The Queenmaker)
Go back to the chapters we skipped.
Dragons 83-94 (The Merchant's Man)
Dragons 179-191 (Tyrion)
Dragons 203-231 (Daenerys, Jon)
Skip a chapter.
Dragons 243-252 (Davos)
Crows 312-409 (Arya, Alayne, Cersei, Brienne, Samwell, Jaime)
Go back to the chapter we skipped.
Dragons 232-242 (Tyrion)
Dragons 253-275 (Reek, Jon)
Crows 410-528 (Cersei, The Reaver, Jaime, Brienne, Cersei, Jaime, Cat of the Canals, Samwell)
Dragons 276-350 (Tyrion, Daenerys, The Lost Lord, The Windblown, The Wayward Bride)
Crows 529-573 (Cersei, Brienne, Jaime)
Dragons 351-433 (Tyrion, Jon, Davos, Daenerys, Melisandre, Reek)
Crows 574-627 (Cersei, The Princess in the Tower, Alayne)
Dragons 434-499 (Tyrion, Bran, Jon, Daenerys, The Prince of Winterfell)
Crows 628-end (Brienne, etc)
Dragons 500-end (The Watcher, etc)
I'd love to hear from anyone reading it this way the first time to know if it's satisfying!
1: Near the end of Crows, one character finally reveals their hidden motivation in a dramatic announcement, which is admittedly a very striking moment. But in chapters of Dragons that can't possibly be delayed until after this, characters not appearing in Crows discuss this motivation freely. It's not a huge spoiler because it only affects the mood of the reveal; knowing the motivation ahead of time actually gives a lot of scenes in Crows more depth.
2: One common thing that happens in Crows is for characters to hear reports or rumours of events that happen in Dragons. In the original split, this gives an air of anticipation - are these reports of what happened to a favourite character true? - or mystery - what is the significance of this mysterious organization, never mentioned before, whose movements the characters are treating with such portent? - which are resolved in the second book. In the reorganized version, we instead get either dramatic irony or a deeper appreciation of the significance of events as they are introduced in chapters of one book and then shortly after expanded on in chapters from the other. This is very similar to the way the Small Council discussed Daenerys in A Game of Thrones, so I suspect Martin originally intended the events to be read this way, and later tweaked them to work with the split. Both atmospheres work fairly well, in my opinion. In the reorganized version a few of the reports and rumours become redundant - but they're short and easily skimmed over - but in the original split some of the resolutions were not very satisfying because of the huge amounts of mystery or anticipation that had built up.
3: I put both prologues first because the prologues have a very different feel from internal chapters, and it's jarring to have them mixed in with the regular chapters. The Dragons prologue is first so that when it's over, you can switch to Crows, start with the prologue, and then keep going, and I wanted the first chapters of Crows to come before the first chapters of Dragons. If you prefer not to switch after a single chapter, you could just start with Crows (up to p70, the end of the first Brienne chapter) and then switch to Dragons starting with the prologue.
4: Here I made the opposite choice: the Jon chapter and the Samwell chapter show the same conversation from two points of view (the only time this ever happens), and I think it works slightly better to have Sam's version first. But that would require flipping to Crows, reading a chapter, flipping back to Dragons for a chapter, and then back to Crows again to continue, and I thought that was too fiddly. If you don't mind going to all that trouble, read Dragons up to p82 (the Tyrion chapter, just before the skipped chapter), then Crows pp71-86 (Samwell), then Dragons pp95-111 (Jon), then back to Crows starting at p87 (Arya).