I’ll have to agree with the general assertion that this is the weakest novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series. I’ve heard the story that this and DANCE WITH DRAGONS were meant to be a single novel, and that GRRM had to split them into two when he came down with a case of the Wheel of Time syndrome. I’m currently reading DANCE WITH DRAGONS, so I get to find out what happens to the other half of the characters sooner than the rest of you, who had a long agonizing wait between this book and the next book. My heart goes out to you. Every storyline in this novel ends at a cliff.
My brother came up with a good analogy as to what this novel was like. If Game of Thrones was a sluggish ascent followed by a steep drop, and books two and three coasted along at a nice clip, this novel is the flat straightaway, where the pace relies on a weakening inertia. It’s not that any of the characters were wholly uninteresting, it’s just that, if GRRM can’t finish a novel in one novel, maybe it’s time to make some painful cuts. Samwell Tarly is one of my favorite characters, but I really don’t think that his story added that much to the overall novel. I would have preferred a good deal less of the ironborn as well, and I can see that the Dorne storyline was important to the overall plot arc of the series, but any good de-cluttering advisor will tell you that you don’t add new stuff without getting rid of some of the old stuff.
Don’t expect anything to be more cheerful in this novel. Cersei’s bad judgement is a trainwreck of black humor. She acquires an ex-maester who was expelled because he vivisected people. She gets so many enemies that she’s soon tossing people for him to torture like a generous butcher with a fat spoiled dog. At one point she arrests puppeteers and gives them to her pet torturer/vivisector to cut up because they have a puppet show in which a lion gets roasted by a dragon. She makes bad decision after bad decision, and if you are in the mood for a horrific tragedy, grab the popcorn because she will deliver. There’s more than one scene in this novel where I caught myself thinking, “I hope that if HBO does this novel, they don’t depict this scene.” Lots of rape. Lots of torture. Lots of senseless murder. And only three kittens, which doesn’t quite balance it out.
One of the things about this novel that made me tired, added one more block into the “I may stop reading before it’s done” pile, was how many of the characters don’t achieve what they set out to achieve. When Arya spent several novels trying to return to her mother, only to arrive on the day of the red wedding, I felt the same horrific sense of injustice that any reader did. But in this novel, NO ONE achieves what they set out to do. NO ONE. Brienne sets out to find Sansa Stark. She doesn’t find her. Asha wants to become queen of the ironborn, she doesn’t. Cersei wants to get rid of Margaery Tyrell. She doesn’t. Samwell wants to take Aegon and his friend the singer to the Old Town. He doesn’t. Arya wants…well, I’m not sure what Arya wanted, but she certainly didn’t want to end up the way she did at the end of this book, so she got disappointed as well. If you identify with the characters, if you feel like you ARE one of the characters (and let’s face it, good novels do this) you might end up feeling disappointed, as though the endeavor central to your being was doomed to failure.
I’m not saying that everyone has to have a happy ending–obviously the Lannisters and the Starks are not both going to win–but SOMEONE ought to achieve what they set out to do. To read through 1100 pages, desperate to see how my favorite (and least favorite) characters are going to get out of their predicaments and achieve their goals, only to have them muddle through red tape and end up more or less where they started (except older, and more injured) feels like a rip off. I also wish that some of the characters would meet and stick together. Person from storyline A meets person from storyline B. Why not have them meet up and create a new storyline? Not only would it pare down the huge number of simultaneous plots, but it might make us feel a little bit better. Everyone might be doomed to die alone, having failed in each and every one of their goals, but at least they can make some nice friends along the way.
I recommend this for my fellow twitching, hungry, Song of Ice and Fire addicts, and no one else. Then again, maybe I recommend this for people who haven’t read any of the other ones. If you start with this one, you’re going to be lost and disillusioned, and you won’t suffer the pangs of withdrawal that seem to occur at the end of every one of these novels.