A 5 star rating is good. The sample size is not too large in relation to previous books, but I think we can conclude that this is more in keeping with the perception of relative mediocrity of book 4, than the epic virtuosity of the first three in the series. I have also now read A Dance with Dragons, and here are my impressions (no specific spoilers, though I’m going to talk about the general tenor)….
I think the low score for A Dance with Dragons even compared to A Feast for Crows has less to do with the content and style of the book in relation to its predecessor than the reality that the readers of this series are even more hungry for some movement of the plot arcs. This makes sense. Many of the people who started with A Game of Thrones as virgins now have families! These are people with less time, and they want some bang for their buck. But that’s not what they’ve been getting, at least since A Storm of Swords was published in 2000.
Unfortunately for us this may all be part of the plan. A Dance with Dragons and A Feast for Crows are really two halves of the same book, with the narrative interleaved across them in terms of chronology. If you follow George R. R. Martin’s explanations of how the series got out of hand in the early 2000s you know that this wasn’t in the cards at inception. Rather, these books were planned as a bridge between two very different periods of the overall narrative, which was originally going to be more distinct because of a chronological gap between the earlier books and the later ones (this would allow some of the younger characters to mature at least into adolescence). But what was once a trilogy is now projected to have seven books in all, and many are placing bets that it will go beyond that. To some extent the story has gotten away from the author and these two books are attempts to pause, take stock, and reload.
And because they are so instrumental in their role in the whole series they don’t live and breath as ends unto themselves. It’s clear when you’re reading the earlier books that they’re pieces of a broader puzzle, but even if you don’t finish the puzzle, the Byzantine machinations of A Game of Thrones and the pathos of A Storm of Swords leave you with something which stands apart from the overall series. There is nothing like the “Red Wedding” in A Dance with Dragons or A Feast for Crows. You plod through them because you hope you’re setting the foundations for the “good stuff.” But this act is expending the capital of goodwill built up from the previous books. They just don’t stand up on their own legs.
Don’t get me wrong. George R. R. Martin is not my bitch! This is fictional series. But it was a damn good one. In fact, I still think it’s a damn good one. But if the author continues to construct the launching pad in book 6 I suspect he’ll lose a lot of people. The proliferation of plot points and viewpoint characters boggles the mind, and in interviews Martin has indicated that sometimes he feels overwhelmed. With his zest for killing off characters he shouldn’t have a problem making this issue go away, and there is a high likelihood that the canvas across which he’s painting his plot will constrain the possibilities of his creativity soon enough. I’m hoping this is the calm before the storm (in a good way!).
Addendum: To my surprise Robert Jordan’s series didn’t really flatten in the distribution of ratings until book 8.