Amazon Rating: 3.20 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.99 / 5.00
This is the fourth book in Mr Martin’s highly acclaimed ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series. I have previously reviewed Book 1: A Game of Thrones, Book 2: A Clash of Kings & Book 3: A Storm of Swords.
Warning: this review contains numerous spoilers for the previous three titles: if you have not read them, then I would suggest that you avoid the rest of my review.
Note: Mr Martin decided that in order to reduce the number of plot lines being followed in each of the next two titles, whilst also introducing new POV characters, he would concentrate on the stories in Southern Westeros in A Feast for Crows and elsewhere in A Dance with Dragons. This means that the two books run almost parallel to one another within the overall timeline but that we do not have any at all chapters from the POV of Bran, Daenerys, Davos, Jon or Tyrion.
Of the five kings that we saw in A Clash of Kings, only two remain: Stannis Baratheon and King Tommen. Robb Stark and his mother were both victims of the treacherous Freys and Boltons at the Red Wedding, while Balon Greyjoy had an ‘accident’ and slipped from a walkway during a storm. The Riverlands are now ravaged by marauding bands of outlaws, although some of them are determined to uphold Robert’s Law and are actually protecting the small folk against the depredations of deserters and other mercenaries. In the Iron Isles, the Seastone Chair is vacant and the banished Euron Greyjoy has returned to claim the leadership of the ironmen.
A second wedding also proved fatal, but this time only for the revolting man-child that was King Joffrey. Blamed for Joffrey’s death, Tyrion was imprisoned in the dungeons, only to be released by the Spider and Jaime, who felt indebted to Tyrion for deceiving him about his first wife, Tysha. In retaliation for this deception, Tyrion confronts his father and shoots Lord Tywin with a crossbow whilst he is on the privy. Cersei, now acting as Queen Regent, is determined to recapture Tyrion and exact revenge for all the wrongs that she imagines that he has done to her and her family.
In Dorne, House Martell mourns the Red Viper and his daughters, the Sand Snakes, look to Prince Doran to seek revenge for his brother’s death. Princess Arianne also plots to exact her own revenge against the Lannisters by declaring Myrcella as Queen and then leading the realm into civil war, whilst her father has plots and plans of his own. In the Vale of Arryn, Sansa is settling into her role as Littlefinger’s daughter and young Robert’s caregiver now that Lysa Arryn is dead. She is even starting to show some talent for the ‘game of thrones’.
Sam is sent south with Gilly and her boy and Maester Aemon. He spends a great deal of time being seasick, but eventually they reach Braavos where they seek a ship to carry them the rest of the way to Oldtown. Although he is concerned about what his father will think, Sam has agreed to train to become the Night’s watch’s new maester to replace Aemon, who has earned a comfortable retirement. Unbeknown to Sam, he encounters Arya at the docks in her disguise as a shellfish seller, Cat of the Canals.
The new POVs follow a different pattern in this title, as we no longer follow a single character to narrate the two new story lines. We follow the action in the Iron Isles through three new POVs: Aeron, Victarion and Asha Greyjoy, which gives us a wider perspective on the action and the responses to it. It also allows us to understand the motivations of more of the main actors, much as we did with the multiple Stark narrators in King’s Landing in A Game of Thrones. We have an even more diverse viewpoint for the Dornish story line as we follow Arianne Martell, Arys Oakheart and Areo Hotah. Ser Arys is the Kingsguard sent to guard Myrcella, and so it is interesting to follow his thoughts as he struggles to come to terms with his actions and their implications for his vows. We are also shown the effects of characters acting without the information known by others, so that we can understand why they do things that ultimately work against their own best interests.
However, the other two new POV characters have been well established in the earlier books. Now that Jaime has taken up his position as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, Brienne gets her own voice as she rides through the country with Podrick Payne in pursuit of Sansa. Her travels give us a very depressing view of the state of the country, although we also find hope and people rebuilding their lives. This is in stark contrast to the most prolific narrator in this title: Cersei Lannister. Reading the Cersei chapters was rather unpleasant because she is so infuriatingly ignorant and displays such monumentally poor judgment. Unlike Jaime, we see no redemption of her character in her chapters; if anything they reinforce what a truly appalling person she is and how totally unsuitable she is as the Queen Regent. I feel very sorry for poor little Tommen, who just wants to play with his kittens.
As we have seen in the earlier books, the most interesting and important characters are introduced through the eyes of others. In this title, Prince Doran of Dorne appears to be a frail and almost totally useless ruler as we see his disability from gout and how it dominates his life. However, he is a man who came to terms with his strengths and weaknesses long ago, and at the end of the book he is revealed as one of the strongest characters that we meet in the entire series. His self-control and patience is beyond impressive and I would love to see he and Tyrion matching wits against each other. In stark contrast, Euron ‘Crow’s – Eye’ Greyjoy is a man of great action and charisma. In many ways he reminds me of the Red Viper, although he seems to have a wide vicious streak: there is some evidence that had some involvement in Balon’s ‘accident’. It also seems that he abused Aeron when they were younger, although we do not know what form the abuse took, and the youngest brother is terrified of Euron and very unsettled by his reappearance in the Iron Isles.
This is the least popular, and most criticized title in the series, although I am not quite sure why that is. Perhaps readers were disappointed by the more political and contemplative feel of the plots that we follow here. However, this makes a great deal of sense now that three of the contenders for the Throne are dead and Stannis has withdrawn to rally his forces and rethink his strategy. Personally, I like the fact that we are not presented with ‘more of the same’, and I found the exploration of the politics of Dorne and the Iron Isles interesting. They also showed that Cersei’s disregard for the other forces massing on her borders was amazingly shortsighted. The switch in perspective made the world seem bigger and more complex, something that we also saw in some of Cersei’s chapters when the Iron Bank of Braavos stepped in to ask for the repayment of the Throne’s debts. I also appreciated the opportunity to see Sam in a totally different context and well outside his comfort zone. After all the danger that he faced in the last book, it was nice to see him dealing with more homely problems, like sex and seasickness.
Although I missed some my favorite POV characters, I certainly understood Mr Martin’s reasons for excluding them from this title. However, I can also appreciate the distress of fans who were desperate to know what had happened to those characters whilst waiting for A Dance with Dragons to be published. Knowing that I had that title sitting on my bookshelf was quite a different experience to their anguish, especially as Mr Martin is such a very slow writer. At some point I may attempt to read the chapters in this title and A Dance with Dragons in chronological order to see if it does make the plot lines seem more fragmented . . .
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