Contrary to Jo Walton’s prediction, I didn’t love this book. In fact, I didn’t even like it very much.
Much has been made over the long wait for this latest installment in the Song of Ice and Fire series, building it up to the point where actually reading and reviewing it feels a little like being asked to review a unicorn, to lift a phrase from Chuck Klosterman. Much of the discussion leading up to this had to do with whether fans were unreasonable for complaining about the wait, and talked about whether readers had any right to make demands of authors.
Sort of lost in that was the real reason a lot of people were worried about the series, which wasn’t the delay per se, but the manner of it. Specifically, the fact that the last book wasn’t all that good, and that it failed in ways that suggested Martin was losing control of the story, a la Robert Jordan in the mid-to-late part of the Wheel of Time (Winter’s Heart and Crossroads of Twilight). The vastly-longer-than-promised delay between books, and rumors of complete re-writes, just stoked the fears that the series was going off the rails in much the same way.
So now this has arrived, and, well, it feels an awful lot like Winter’s Heart or Crossroads of Twilight to me. The senstive should be warned that there may be SPOILERS in what follows below the fold.
So, for the first half of the book, basically nothing happens. In a really irritating fashion, for two of the four primary point-of-view characters– when I flipped a page and saw either “Reek” or “Dany” at the top of a page, it took an effort of will to keep reading. Tyrion wasn’t a whole lot better, but he at least got in some good snarky one-liners between the long stretches of passively sitting around feeling sorry for himself.
The Reek sections were particularly grating, as Martin seemed to have written these for the benefit of readers who felt the villainous Cleganes from the first few books were a little too subtle in their villainy. Far too many pages were spent accomplishing nothing but establishing the Boltons as really, really evil. Which, thanks, I got the point after the first ten or so.
In the second half of the book, the cast expanded and the pace picked up, building to… a bunch of really shameless cliffhangers. There wasn’t a single significant plotline that produced any sense of closure whatsoever– they all just stopped.
OK, that’s not quite fair– one plot does seem to have resolved itself. In an epic confrontation that took place… offstage. Maybe. The next book, in 2017, will presumably go back to show us what really happened in the battle that is only alluded to in a letter, because there isn’t anywhere near enough information given to work it out for ourselves.
On top of that, we have one potentially incredibly significant player who makes his first appearance here, with no prior hint of his existence, and at least two groups of major characters from previous books who are in this book just long enough to remind us that they exist and are doing interesting things that we’re not being told about. And another major group who don’t appear at all.
This book was 1100 richly detailed pages that accomplished essentially nothing. There weren’t even any really good setpieces– the big battles that seemed to be coming didn’t, and the few action scenes that did take place were over way too quickly. The set-up was good, but I can’t help thinking that the payoff would’ve been better if it had been written by Steven Erikson. OK, the names would’ve been sillier, but at least Erikson would’ve managed some sort of epic conclusion.
I wasn’t anticipating the release of this with quite the same intensity that I was those disappointing Robert Jordan books, until the recent build-up when it became clear that the book was really done and going to be available. And now I feel kind of like a sucker for letting myself get caught up in that, because this was a huge disappointment. In pretty much exactly the way that I feared from the last book and the long delay.