Part 1; Part 2
[Warning: Spoilers Ahead! Stay away, H]
The chapters set in the South fulfill an odd, dual function. They’re there firstly to resolve some of the more egregious cliffhangers from Feast, while at the same time setting the stage for next book, The Winds of Winter. Any character development in here feels very much like an extension of Feast, rather than any sort of arc in its own right.
(Yes, she’s not technically in Westeros, but she hardly has any interaction with any other plots, and it’s even money whether she’s heading east or west next.)
Egregious Feast cliffhanger #1 resolved. There was some humour, some intrigue, some unexpected warging. The scene where she gets a new face is appropriately strange and chilling. And we close with the news that she’s moving on from Bravos. Everyone I could have hoped for. My bet is she heads towards Dany, who has already shown a propensity to befriend lost little girls. But it definitely feels like she’s heading somewhere interesting.
Egregious Feast cliffhanger #2 resolved. Mostly. A funny chapter (in both senses) that seems to exist just for its ending. But we’re left in a much more satisfying place than we were before it. No one’s going to die in the next five minutes, but Jaime and Brienne are going to have to grapple with the directions their lives have gone early in Winds, and however things turn out, we’re once again headed for excitement.
So this one doesn’t really resolve the cliffhanger from Feast. It takes steps towards it, and it provides one of the most harrowing scenes in the book, but it doesn’t actually resolve anything. It apparently confirms the return of Gregor, though it seems pretty implausible that the court accepts the sudden promotion of the mysterious Robert Strong, Kevan’s say so or no.
I really hope, despite indications to the contrary, that Cersei regains her strength in Winds. Between her insanity and incompetence in Feast, and her breakdown in Dance, it’s easy to understand why there’s some uneasiness regarding the series’ portrayal of women in leadership positions (especially when Dany and Catelyn are thrown into the argument).
This chapter seems like a check-in just to establish what the situation is, and a laying out of what to expect from this region in Winds. Hotah is still a very blank character, even more so than Davos and Connington, one who serves his master, provides a pair of eyes for us, and doesn’t have much in the way of his own ambitions. Hopefully we can get some growth going forward. In the meantime, between Aegon’s landing, and the Sand Snakes heading to King’s Landing, it looks like things are finally going to heat up in the South again. It should be exciting.
And as if we didn’t have enough action in King’s Landing to anticipate, Martin goes and blows everything up. And in a bonus, we finally get some insight into Varys (assuming he was being honest). I have to say, between the appearance of the black cat and the focus on Cersei’s rotating anonymous servant girls, I really expected Arya to be in hiding, and be the one who did Kevan in. But the actuality was almost as good. And Maester Pycelle gets done in to boot. Awesome.
I haven’t tried it yet myself, but I strongly suspect that the best way to read Feast and Dance would be to interleave their chapters, rather than read them serially. To provide the right effect, Quentyn’s chapters would probably have to be skipped over until one had reached the end of Arriane’s story in Feast, but other than that, but otherwise, things more or less work out. And I feel like the story becomes much more balanced when it’s read this way. The static tension of Dance would balance out the wandering of Feast. There wouldn’t be the awkward insertion of the Cersei, Jaime and Arya chapters into Dance. The most egregious cliffhangers from Feast would be mitigated. The Ironborn and Dorne plots would progress in a more organic fashion. We’d go along with Tyrion on his journey, instead of feeling like we’re ahead of him and waiting for him to catch up. Jon, Dany and Cersei’s leadership troubles could be seen in parallel. When Tyrion compares the plight of slaves in Essos to that of the smallfolk of Westeros, we’d be right there with Brienne to see the merits of the comparison.
So I think the great divide, the splitting up of the point of view characters into separate books, was a failure. The two books are good, sure. But they’re better together. It leads me to wonder whether the five-year gap, which Martin originally planned to have between Storm and Feast, would have been prefereable to what we got too. I understand the problems – tensions at the wall in the North, and the aftermath of the Gregor-Oberyn duel – but there would have been so many benefits, especially with regards to Dany and the Stark children. And Cersei wouldn’t have to fall so precipitously.
To a certain extent, Storm set up these books for failure. In attempting to bring some sense of closure to first half of the series, and set up the five-year gap, so much crazy stuff happened in such a short span of time and pages. It would have been impossible to maintain that pace for any longer. So things slow down. But we’ve caught our breath now, and it’s entirely reasonable to expect the pace to pick up in Winds, whenever that may arrive.