And so book 5 of 'A Song of Ice and Fire' arrives, with 2 more projected at some unspecified time in the future. Since the last two books took 5 and 6 years apiece, no one is holding their breath. Was it worth the wait? The good news is that this is better than ' A Feast For Crows', much better, in fact. Some, at least, of the many sprawling plotlines weave in and out in a much more satisfying way, the most important new characters are introduced in a less contrived manner, and there is both more backstory and more action. It feels like a denser read, for sure, with a lot less fluff and filler.
The bad news (there had to be some, didn't there?) is that there are still many characters and plotlines left adrift from the rest of the story - notably Bran, Arya and Sansa (missing altogether from this book). There are still too many disparate plotlines altogether, and way, way too many characters. Some might see it as adding richness and depth, but I regard it as a pointless distraction to introduce a raft of characters for a chapter or two, only for them to disappear, sometimes for ever. And even if we need to meet yet another minor lord, surely we don't also need to know the names of his entire family, his maester, his knights, his bannermen, his guards, his sword and all the other paraphernalia. It's extraneous bloat.
There is still a great deal of ambling around the countryside, Brienne-style, but it leads to a lot of extra information and anyway, ambling north of the wall or around the free cities is a great deal more interesting than around the small-holdings of Westeros. And ambling anywhere with Tyrion is always fun.
I have never been a great fan of the practice of jumping from one character's point of view to another, chapter by chapter. At its best, in 'Clash of Kings' and at times here, the plot flows seamlessly from one chapter to the next. At its worst, in 'Feast for Crows' and occasionally here, the cuts are abrupt and jarring. And frankly, the technique of ending a chapter on a near-death moment gets tired very quickly. It's a cheap trick, and not even very effective.
Martin's magic has always been a bit of a muddle of dreams, prophecies, blood magic, shadow killers, seers and several kinds of undead, but previously it has been sparing enough that I can just go with the flow. But now it's much more in your face, and it's becoming increasing a plot device, to the point of deus ex machina. The ability of the red priests and priestesses to see the future in the flames is particularly 'convenient' from a plot point of view, and feels like a cheat. And although some of the special effects are clearly non-magical, there is enough magical capability that it feels as if any difficult situation, no matter how dire, could be resolving instantaneously by a wave of Melisandre's hand. However, I'm reserving judgment until I see the final destination.
The characters, as always, are wonderful. Even the new ones, like Quentyn Martell, are finely drawn so that they have our sympathy. And Martin's ability to make us like even the most hated characters is legendary (if annoying). He's already done it with Jaime, now we sympathise with Cersei and even Theon, who seemed entirely beyond redemption. The writing, too, is well up to Martin's usual standard. His prose is clear and straightforward, his descriptions are vivid, and as for his dialogues, no one does it better. But when did he get so repetitive? If I had a gold dragon for every time I read 'much and more' or 'words are wind', I could probably buy out the Lannisters. And the overused archaic terms, like 'leal' and 'mine own', are simply jarring in language that is otherwise straightforwardly modern.
But what about the story? True, it's absorbing, and it flows along pretty well. There are some great moments with the dragons, there are some genuinely moving episodes, especially Bran and Theon, there's a lot of humour and even the slower parts are entertaining (a great improvement on Feast). I wasn't counting, but my impression was that the death and dismemberment count was lower, at least among significant characters (a lot of the unwashed masses died horribly, but that's par for the course).
But then it ends, and virtually nothing is resolved. People move about, things happen and then it just stops in mid-stream, and we get another multi-year wait until the next episode. It may be churlish in book five of seven to grumble that there is no resolution, but a book that's sold as a single entity should at least have a discernable structure in its own right, even if it also aims to advance the larger plot and set the pieces in position for the next stage. Each of the earlier books had a simple theme - book 1 was about the naive Ned Stark at court, book 2 the defence of King's Landing, book 3 the aftermath of war, book 4 - well, book 4 was free-form plot-drift, and it has to be said, this book tends that way as well. Meereen would make a good central focus, if only it came to some kind of conclusion. The theme of the difficulty of ruling pervades the book, but that's tired - we've seen the same idea worked out already with Ned, Tyrion and Robb. More progress is made, but it is simply a few steps along the way towards the ultimate ending, with no coherent story of its own.
It's not that it's bad - it's actually good, entertaining stuff, with very few dull chapters, the new point of view characters are a positive addition, there is a lot of meaty background detail and a fair amount of action. But in the end, my reaction is - that was good, but so what? There was no emotional resolution here at all. And it's so painfully slow, and the vast size of it only underscores that. Feast and Dance together would have made one terrific book, if the author could have brought himself to prune it down to - oh, about a fifth of the size. At this rate, it's hard to see how the overall story can be completed in just two more books. And Westeros is still a depressingly awful place. I would love to give this four stars, but the rather incoherent use of magic, the dangling plot-threads and the sheer bloat drag it down to three. [First written July 2011]