This is the third book in the sequence, and most other epic fantasies would be winding up at this point. Martin, however, is just getting into his stride. The story picks up exactly where the second book ('A Clash of Kings') left off, with the battle for Kings Landing over, but skirmishes and settling of scores going on up and down the Seven Kingdoms. The Stark children are separated and scattered about, and the Dragon Queen across the sea is still looking for her army to help her recover her realm.
Having greatly enjoyed both the first two, it was rather a surprise to find myself reluctant to start this one. As with the first book, the Prologue is vastly uninteresting, being focused on a character we've never seen before and are very likely not going to see again, and being stuffed full of meaningless names. The author would do much better with a 'less is more' approach - unless a character has some plot relevance, or at least a few lines of dialogue, don't bother with the name.
This book is less successful at reminding the reader of events in the previous books. I read them both carefully, and looked up numerous references online as I read, but I still struggled to understand parts of the first few chapters. Considering the size of the books, surely a few words could be spared to remind us why the Martells might want vengeance against Gregor Clegane, for instance. A single line about Elia and her children would be enough. To be fair, we are given the whole backstory later, but it is still frustrating to have to interpret these cryptic references.
But within a few chapters, the author has got into his stride and the story begins to roll along quite merrily. There are plenty of exciting things happening to all the characters, with loads of dramatic tension and, as before, it's exceptionally well written. And yet... somehow I feel as if very little progress is being made. The characters all seem to be floundering along much as they did in the previous book. Arya is still trying to get home, Sansa is still waiting for something to happen to her, Robb is still bogged down in the war, Daenerys is still trying to raise an army... Even when they have a clear focus, they don't seem to be getting anywhere. Perhaps there are just too many characters following too many disparate plotlines.
And Martin introduces new point of view characters in this book, such as Jaime Lannister and Samwell Tarly. Jaime's chapters, to my astonishment, manage to turn him from an out and out villain into something resembling a sympathetic character, which I would have thought impossible. I had to keep reminded myself of some of his more extreme actions in the first book. He has a sharp sense of humour, too, not unlike Tyrion. Samwell's chapters, on the other hand, read more like necessity at first - the author needed to show some essential action and all his previous characters were tied up elsewhere. Later, he does get some action of his own.
There is an interesting twist to the plotlines developing in the war zone (essentially the middle part of Westeros). In the aftermath of the major battles, several groups have actually switched allegiance, leading to some interesting meetings where characters surrender themselves with relief to a familiar face, only to find themselves captive. While this makes for great drama, it does make it even more difficult for the reader to work out who is who, and what side they are on.
Westeros is still a brutal and unforgiving place, where people do terrible things without (apparent) retribution, but in this book there are glimmerings of more charitable acts too, and a few of the more evil characters do get what was coming to them (hurray!). There are moments of altruistic kindness and sheer heroism and even of a sense of honour, something sadly lacking in much of the first two books. Nevertheless, there are very few truly good or totally bad characters.
The magic becomes increasingly overt, and we are even treated to a deus ex machina - a situation seemingly impossible to escape from, where a previously unknown (character? thing?) arrives out of the blue to rescue our hapless victims. Martin's use of magic is more grounded than in many books (no schools of sorcery or wizards drawing down thunderbolts - yet), but it still fulfils the conventional role in a fantasy book: it is either a plot device to get a character from A to B or convey information (via prophecy, or dreams, or 'I saw it in the flames', or some such), or as a get-out-of-jail-free card to miraculously rescue characters from tricky situations. Neither is very satisfying.
The direwolves and dragons, and whatever magical properties they possess, are fairly acceptable, since they were flagged up almost from the first line of the first book, and therefore seem to be an integral and organic part of the story world. But Melisandre's shadows seem just too convenient, and now we have Coldhands, and a strange dwarf woman, and Jojen's green dreams as well. Bleh.
We are beginning to get some of the backstory now, especially about the Robert/Rhaegar/Lyanna triangle and Jon's parentage and why Jaime killed mad king Aerys. There is also more about the three religions in Westeros, and we see more of Essos as well, which is in many ways a more interesting continent. But the book is somehow less focused than either of the previous two. Yes, there are four weddings and more funerals than you can shake a spear at, and plenty of dramatic action, but it feels like a long-drawn-out tidying up exercise. Book 1 had a clear story arc in the rise and fall of Eddard Stark, but books 2 and 3 feel like they are telling the same story - the settling of the succession after king Robert's death - but painfully slowly. It would have been an improvement, I think, to cut away two thirds of the lesser characters and simplify the war into one cohesive book.
Nevertheless, the writing is still stunning, and the characters leap off the page in fully three-dimensional and vivid life. A little larger than life, admittedly, but then the story is about kingdoms and wars and not the daily grind, so perhaps that's understandable. My only real complaints are the depressingly miserable Westeros life, the overly conventional use of magic and (most of all) the vast unstoppable sprawl. The fairly tight story of 'A Game of Thrones' has burst its banks and spilled out in all directions, and it is no wonder that the next two books took 5 and 6 years respectively. 'A Feast of Crows' was less well regarded than the first three books, and 'A Dance With Dragons' will determine once and for all whether Martin has got things under control or whether the plot has got away from him. Four stars. [First written in March 2011]