I am, I admit, new to A Song of Ice and Fire. I watched the fantastic series made by HBO and, as soon as the pilot ended, I picked up the books and fell in love. The first three volumes of this series, as any reader will know, are a tour de force of fantasy. A wonderfully realised world populated by fantastic characters that are loved and loathed to a high degree. An entanglement of plots is lightly touched by an unnerving thread of dark magic that lingers in the background to remind us that 'winter is coming'. I read the series, including the slower, less satisfactory 'A Feast for Crows' three times whilst waiting those couple of months for 'Dance'. Then this doorstop was in my hands and I read it eagerly, expecting a return to 'A Storm of Swords' quality.
I, like so many others, was vastly disappointed. This novel sees the return of the 'protagonists' of the epic: Jon Snow (who still knows nothing), Daenerys Targaryen (who has looked back and is now facing the wrong direction) and everyone's favourite sarcastic dwarf Tyrion Lannister. However, these three fan favourites accomplish precisely one act of significance between them, and that is a vastly annoying cliffhanger-a now overused hallmark of Martin's writing.
Jon Snow, stuck on the wall, is struggling to hold several factions together in the face of the approaching war with the Others in the long winter (which is supposedly still on its way, despite no evidence of it in this book). There are interesting parallels with Daenerys, who is trying to rule a city of people and customs that are not her own and who would gladly see her dead. Both of these young leaders struggle in their tasks. Jon grows into his position as a leader with satisfying, if not entirely realistic, maturity. His story arc is arguably the best of the three, but it ends in the most disgusting, hackneyed 'plot twist' I have ever seen. It WILL annoy the seven hells out of you.
Daenerys actually DEVOLVES as a character. The strong-minded young woman from 'A Storm of Swords' has lost her fire and dithers around doing nothing for the entire book. The effect is, of course, to show that the dragon queen has much to learn about ruling (though this does not dent her huge entitlement complex). However, this could have been shown in less than half of her chapters, with the rest devoted to some progression-whether meeting more of the legions of people sailing her way, or getting to Asshai, or reuniting with the Dothraki or...or...SOMETHING. Instead, she remains ineffectual throughout the whole book, proving to be the young (and hormonal) girl that she claims to be, despite previously being a competent leader in control of her own emotions. This 180 degree turn is exceptionally annoying, but this is not the biggest disservice done by Martin to his characters.
Tyrion Lannister, once the favourite of 90% of the fanbase, is reduced to wandering around asking where whores go, turtle-watching and playing chess. He is one of the many characters on his way to meet Daenerys, and this journey takes the entire book. And he still doesn't get there. His chapters, once full of intrigue, character development and humour, are a vapid travelogue-and not even a good one. Whilst he does develop (his interaction with Penny the dwarf is touching and exposes how good he did have it in Casterly Rock), he loses much of his charm and all of his humour. Bitterness is understandable in his position, but something about the way this bitterness is conveyed is unconvincing and unpalatable.
What about everyone else? Arya's scenes are entertaining as always, Bran's are interesting if sparse. Davos' chapters are among the most enjoyable due to his meeting one of the best characters yet introduced-Wyman Manderley (why are Martin's side characters always more interesting than his main ones?), Theon's are haunting and disturbing, and 'disturbing' is cranked up to eleven in this book. If rape, mutilation, bestiality, cannibalism, torture, voyeuristic humiliation, intense diarrhea and even more intense stupidity offends you, give this a miss. New point of view, Ser Barristan Selmy, is fantastic, and the only well-done viewpoint in Essos. Everyone else is largely dull and uninspired, and most people do nothing but travel around. One 'huge' reveal of a character that was supposed to be dead is flat and poorly executed. It produces a 'oh.' rather than a 'WOAH :O'
Which leads me to my actual point:
This is a book with several plot arcs building up to several promising climaxes. None of these climaxes arrive. We miss out on two major battles, we see Brienne (who ended 'Feast' in a cliffhanger) for a couple of pages which answer no questions before she whisks off Jaime Lannister into ANOTHER cliffhanger, several people are STILL travelling to meet Daenerys having accomplished nothing, and several people may or may not be dead. It is as if Martin bought himself two prize racehorses, Cliffhanger and Playing Around With Character Deaths, shot both of them and proceeded to beat them with a typewriter. A long, largely dull mess of travelogues leads to no climax, no katharsis, nothing of anything. It was a vast disappointment with a few high points, and I didn't have to wait for six years for it. I feel sorry for those souls who had a long wait filled with bad PR and timewasting on the part of the author. I fell in and out of love with this series in remarkably quick time, and I will be recommending this book to no one. Is winter coming? It is not known.