Immersing myself in this world again was odd--it's been so many years since I read the last one. I found I'd forgotten many of the minor and newer characters, and GRRMartin's predilection for epithets and half-wrong rumors left me even more confused. For the first third of the book, I wasn't sure if I was supposed to know what was really going on with characterX or plotX or if it was still supposed to be a mystery.
This book isn't a revelation. It's precisely what I expected, actually, which just makes me more frustrated that it took so long to get into my hands. The narrative is split even further, and even more random people get chapters while favorite characters languish sight unseen. I don't agree with all his choices--for example, we get several chapters with Victarian for no reason (just let us know that his ships are coming--no need to see inside his head), several chapters with random dudes who end up dead at the end of their chapter (again, not really necessary--doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know), chapters with Dany's captain of the guard (who doesn't tell us anything we didn't already see from Dany's perspective, or the Imp's, or the poor Dornish prince), and the prince (who exists for no real reason I could discern).
Meanwhile, Arya (most everyone's favorite character) and her fantastic deconstruction of the expected tomboy!Knight story, get only two measly chapters, and we don't even find out HOW Brienne (my favorite character in the whole wide world) escaped her execution. Tyrion gets a billion trillion chapters to be maudlin and repeat his catch phrases. Jon Snow gets a thousand chapters to make about two decisions in total. (Jon makes the good decision to bring the Wildings in to help defend the Wall, then sells it as badly as possible to the Watch. And as for his choice to go after rumors of Arya--what the fuck was the narrative point of his LAST defection, and chapter upon chapter of "kill the boy to save the man" if he was just going to repeat the same mistake that we spent the last two books dealing with? So tiresome.)
The Reek/Theon chapters are very well written--I hated Theon so so so much, but the chapters actually made me interested (if not sympathetic) in his story. Martin is good at inciting raging hatred--I still want Theon dead, and I want to see the Boltons and Freys burn. The story has moved along, slightly, especially in the North. Asha's chapters at least provide a bit more closure to the Greyjoy plots, and I liked seeing more of the Northerners, who are becoming more and more interesting as winter gets closer. Still, Dany's chapters are the only ones I really cared about, and they remind me of what I like best about Martin's world. There are no perfect choices, only compromises that tear at one's personal honor, and Dany is embroiled in learning this. (And she learns it! And then FLIES A FUCKING DRAGON. IT'S ALL WORTH IT YES YES YES YES!)
More Dany, more Arya, more Brienne, and less random redshirts and Tyrion weeping into his wine, please. Ordinarily I wouldn't really critique where GRRMartin chooses to focus, except that I know it'll be another 5-10 years before I get to read another chapter about Arya or Brienne, and I'm pretty sure I won't care at that point.
My other problem was with the treatment of Cersei. She went from being a scheming manipulator who played the court like the back of her hand to a twit obsessed with sex and drink. It's certainly possible that she could have started breaking down after finally being rid of Robert and having absolute control over herself. But to get so *stupid*? I didn't buy it. She starts regaining her wits in this book, only for Martin to snatch away her courage. I wanted her punished as much as any reader, but instead of punishing her Martin twisted her character into a puling whining wretch. She is a queen and a Lannister. She would not crawl just because some peasants were mean to her. There's no justification, no character-driven reason for it. I'll buy that her beauty and desirability was part of her self-worth--but not that it was *all* of her self-worth. And the way characters think about her feels deeply artificial. Suddenly every single character can't stop thinking about her stretch marks? They're in pseudo-medieval Europe, they *all* have stretch marks, no one cares. There are no supermodels, no air-brushed ads. There's no reason for there to be a cult of child-like taut bellies. Fertility, strength, and blood line are the important things in this world--not how similar someone looks to a 12 year old. Despise her because she has no honor, despise her because she's a murderer--but to despise her because she has stretch marks is not only offensive and stupid, it's not consistent with what we know of the world.
Martin seems to be drawing the characters back together after spending four books tearing them apart, and I'm glad of it. I want our POV characters to interact with each other again! And most of all, I want resolution. I want more characters dead or allied. I'm sick of all these factions continually splitting off from each other, forming tinier and tinier splinters. The other thing I'm sick of is catch-phrases. "Words are wind" is somehow everywhere, in every society, at every class level, an aphorism that everyone knows and repeats, but we have never heard it before. Bad world building! Tyrion's "Where do whores go" gets repeated ad nauseum in ever single chapter he has. When Martin falls back on stock phrases and gimmicks in place of characterization, he falls *hard*.