Well, here we are with book 4 of 7 (at least) and suddenly we have an acute case of mid-series sag. Martin had originally planned to skip 5 years at this point to have his younger characters grow into their roles, but decided instead that he just had to describe the intervening years in detail to avoid flashbacks, and then further decided that there was too much for just one book. So this part of the story has been divided into two, this being the first half, and 'A Dance With Dragons' will be the second.
The unfortunate effect of this is that some of the most interesting characters (Jon, Bran, Tyrion, Daenerys) are not in this book at all. We get Arya, Sansa, Samwell and Jaime, plus new POV characters Cersei and Brienne, and a whole raft of walk-on parts for minor characters - the prophet, the kraken's daughter, the drowned man and so on. We also lose the whole of northern Westeros and most of Essos, and instead focus on the Iron Islands and Dorne, as well as King's Landing, with a little action in the central riverlands.
It is not that these places or the new characters are without interest. The problem is that we are already emotionally invested in the people and places we have been introduced to before, and have no need for any more. Much as I like the idea of Arianne and her sand snake cousins, for instance, I don't feel they have any relevance at this point in the series. The whole plot line involving Myrcella could have been summarised in a single chapter (well, a single paragraph, actually), seen perhaps from Cersei's POV, and would have spared us another twenty or more meaningless characters. Samwell's plotline seems to involve a lot of seasickness and a minute amount of revelation. In the Iron Islands, Theon was the only marginally interesting character, his plot relevance was limited to destroying Winterfell, and beyond that - well, who cares? And much as I like Brienne, she seems to have taken on Arya's role of ambling round and about, going nowhere in particular very slowly.
The only two characters whose chapters are interesting are Jaime and Cersei, and even here we have a whole new raft of minor (and probably irrelevant) characters to deal with. But the political fallout from the removal of both Tywin and Tyrion, and the unexpected quarrel between Jaime and Cersei, leaving Cersei in undisputed control, is fascinating. After a Samwell chapter which had so little meat it could be summarised in a handful of words, we get a Cersei chapter stuffed so full that it's hard to take it all in.
Apart from this, we get a lot of nothing very much, liberally sprinkled with references to events and people that may (or may not) have cropped up before, with minimal explanation. Sometimes I looked them up, sometimes I just couldn't be bothered, sometimes these cryptic references turn out to have spawned a vast array of theories (which are quite fun). The book itself is less fun, however. It seemed quite incredible how often we bumped into remnants of the Brave Companions or the Brotherhood Without Banners, and inevitably there are deaths and maimings - even poor Myrcella isn't spared. It's a wonder anyone is left alive in Westeros. It's a wonder anyone cares.
It is not just that nothing very much (or very exciting, anyway) happens, but the tone of this book is troublingly different from its predecessors. The absence of many well-loved characters and the introduction of numerous people we know little to nothing about removes much of the emotional pull from even quite powerful episodes. This is compounded in the Dorne and Greyjoy stories by the use of multiple POV characters. And there is noticeable inertia throughout the book. Sansa has always been a passive character, but now she is required to sublimate her whole personality. Arya, who was always proactive and downright feisty, is here forced into a submissive, obedient role. In the Dorne episodes, we are introduced to two wonderfully active characters, Obara and Nymeria Sands, only to have them promptly locked away. Doran Martell is literally immobile, and Areo Hotah is defined by his own immobility. Arianne spends almost an entire chapter locked into a single room. Other characters who are actually moving around (Jaime, Brienne and Samwell, for instance) do so at a very slow pace, with little action. The one battle that sounded interesting (Dragonstone) is only reported second hand. Even the chapters are longer than in previous books (15 pages against 10-12). All of this combines to make the book feel incredibly slow.
Pacing isn't the only problem here. Given that we are now half way through the series (we hope!), it's reasonable to ask what the story is actually about. In brief, there are three major problems on the horizon: the coming winter, the threat of the Others in the north, and the likely invasion of Daenerys and her dragons from the east. All of these were set out right from book 1. However, books 2-4 have been absorbed by the bloody civil war in Westeros, and it's hard to see any (plot) purpose other than to weaken the continent. What is worse, not one of the three main storylines has been addressed at all in this book, which focuses solely on the (hopefully) final throes of the war. So it's easy to feel that very little is accomplished here, although Westeros finally learns of the dragons, and towards the end of the book we see the beginnings of movements in support of Daenerys, thus laying the groundwork for the next book.
Martin's writing is as wonderful as ever, and his major characters are just as fascinating, but it's time to cut to the chase. The original idea of skipping 5 years, and showing the necessary events in between in flashback was a good one, and should have been pursued. Perhaps then we would have been spared a great deal of what feels suspiciously like filler (and brilliantly written filler is still filler).[First written March 2011]