New York: Bantam Books, 2011, pp 1016.
George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire has been widely admired for its sweep and scale, its vast and engaging cast of characters, the intricacy of its plotting, and the vividness of its world-building, which is not just full of memorable touches (like the "sky cells" of the Vale), but in the complexity of its politics far more like the Medieval world of actual history than we are accustomed to seeing from our epic fantasies. There is, too, its fiercely anti-romantic take on this genre, which can still seem an interesting counterpoint to the dominant fantasy tradition, and which Martin for the most part handles brilliantly. ("Life is not a song," Littlefinger tells Sansa, and Martin proceeds to prove it to her, and everyone else, time and again, in what it is that Sansa really finds when she meets her prince, the triumphal entry into the city after the Battle of the Blackwater, in the sagas of the lords who set forth to claim their "rightful" crowns and find something else instead.)
As far as I was concerned the first three books - A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1998), A Storm of Swords (2000) - simply got better and better, and naturally I was eager to read the fourth when I got through them. As Martin made clear, it ended up being too big to conveniently publish as a single book, and so he ended up splitting it into two volumes, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons. Moreover, he decided to have the events of the fourth and fifth books track different sets of characters through simultaneous events, with the two sets of threads only reconnecting in the latter part of the fifth book, A Dance With Dragons.
It is now apparent that a major reason why this installment got so large was that Martin turned Cersei Lannister and Brienne of Tarth into major viewpoint characters, while starting major threads concerning events in Dorne and the Iron Islands. Reading them I initially welcomed the increased attention to the Lannisters, but with Tyrion gone and Tywin dead, they proved a less interesting bunch, while Brienne's adventure likewise proved a letdown, admittedly widening our view of this world a bit, but not really advancing the larger story, or being interesting enough in itself to make us overlook the fact. The episodes in Dorne and the Iron Islands appeared unnecessary diversions cluttering up the narrative.
Unsurprisingly, the remarkable momentum the story had developed by Storm of Swords (the pace of which was positively giddy at times, as one chapter after another served up shattering twists) does not continue in Feast, the developments described appearing comparatively minor and marginal. Still, while my enthusiasm for the saga had been dimmed somewhat, Martin did end the story with a couple of compelling cliffhangers concerning Cersei and Brienne, and I hoped to see how those threads worked out. I also looked forward to the continuation of the stories of Tyrion, Jon and the rest. Naturally, I went straight to Dragons.
Alas, we only reconnect with the characters whose stories dominated Feast six hundred pages into Dance, and see very little of them in the three hundred pages after that - a disappointment, even considering Martin's advance notice about how this part of the narrative is structured. We do not see either Sansa or Littlefinger, and Jaimie rates just one chapter, while Brienne rates only the smallest slice of one (which reveals nothing of how she escaped the noose at the end of the last story, or where she will be going now). Cersei gets only slightly more treatment, rating a mere two scenes (though they are meatier).
Of course, that leaves the storylines totally left out of Feast. However, just as Cersei is less interesting without having her family around, so is Tyrion less interesting without the rest of the Lannisters (this group definitely more than the sum of its parts), or even Bronn and Shae, both of whom had earlier made their exits from the story's main stream. The picaresque adventures he has after King's Landing have their moments, but simply lack the charge of earlier parts of his story. Jon fares better, his struggles as a newly minted Lord-Commander of the Night's Watch having an intrinsic interest (helped by the secondhand view it offers of Stannis's continuing fight to claim the throne). We also learn something of young Bran's destiny, while Theon Greyjoy reenters the picture, and plays a larger role in the subsequent events than one might expect. Unfortunately, Daenerys' time in Meereen increasingly seems a detour along her path to what now seems her inevitable restoration to the throne - which is also what the plot lines he developed in Dorne and the Iron Islands still feel like.
The result is that Dance, despite some strong bits, is also overcrowded and bloated, and confirmed my suspicion that we already saw the story's climax in the third volume, leaving us with little to look forward to but the falling action winding everything up. The fact that not one but two volumes comparable to the one books four and five were meant to be, and the increasing length of time between the release of one book and the next (books two and three appeared just two years after the preceding volume, while it took another five years for Feast, and another six for Dance to come along) does not make me optimistic. Unless the pace picks up, it may be 2030 or later before we find out how it all ends up - and many devoted readers might not really care anymore by then. Given the stunning first three volumes, that would be a real shame, and naturally I'm hoping that things will go differently, Martin and his editor finding a way to wrap up the heart of the story in one surprisingly good volume (or two short ones released very close together) coming out sooner rather than later, and save the rest of the material for side projects like the tales of Dunk and Egg.