I suppose the people were right when they suggested I’d seen nothin’ yet if I thought GRRM’s penchant for waffling was excessive in the previous book. This was easily the series’ most padded work. Many times I found myself retreading ground, or having stuff explained that’d been explained in either another book in the series or in another chapter of this book.
That’s understandable, I suppose – there’s hundreds of cast and dozens of locations in the world Martin’s created – but it certainly is very obvious when you’re reading the series (as it stands) end to end. As you start to build up your own storehouse of lore and family trees, the constant hand-holding can really weary.
There’s the distinct feeling of the unedited cop-out about some of this, and it’s something Martin kind of admits to at the book’s end: this is really half the story of this installment, and the next half will cover all those people we didn’t get to, honest. The book doesn’t really end at a cliff-hanger moment as per previous entries, and so I suspect the next volume will have a hum-dinger – one that should’ve come here, but nobody could stand telling GRRM to cut it down a notch and put some shape in there, so what we have is what we have.
(It’s good to have some of the other characters out of the picture for a while; it gives you a chance to miss them. It’s just a shame the newer ones often seem a bit so-so, and certainly not quite as iconic as the first crew.)
So why the four stars, if it’s so padded and full of repetition and oh-yeah-here-we-go-again moments? Probably because the characters are so bloody compelling, despite the fussing of their creator. I can’t help but follow the travails of someone like Jaime, Brienne or Sam because they’re sketched so clearly – and because they’re not Prince Valiant figures. They’re flawed, universally self-loathing and aren’t cut out for either their goals or their deeds. That sort of tension keeps interest up, even when retelling histories drags its heels.
If the characters weren’t as interesting, or just-enough constructed – you have to admit, they’re often more type than actual person (especially Cersei, who though she’s the centre of the thing should probably be chaining girls to railway tracks and fiendishly twirling her moustache) – then the verbiage would drown you. Not because it’s complex, but because there’s so much feh thrown in for good measure.
The characters pull the story along, despite itself. And there are themes running through, outside the regular courtly stuff – the idea of journeying, of travelling, of pilgrimage is the core to this volume, and though I did feel a bit gypped by the half-a-book excuse at the end, I’ll keep reading to see what happens.
Let’s face it, anyone who’s four books and about as many thousand pages is probably pretty likely to do the same.