The action picks up just after the cataclysm of Swords, but right there you have the problem: There is no action in this book. Chapters plod on past 700 pages, as Martin regales you with what the characters ate for dinner and which horse they rode to what battle. And there's the next problem: Martin leaves out the most compelling characters from the first three books. You'll have to wait until next year for A Dance With Dragons to hear anything at all about Tyrion Lannister, Stannis Baratheon, Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen. That leaves you with the ho-hum trajectories of Petyr Baelish, Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark. Only the chapters on the Lannister twins Jaime (hopelessly jaded) and Cersei (a spectacular bitch) keep the pages turning.
Martin, who used to write for the Beauty and the Beast TV series, is clearly setting the stage for the rest of his epic. But does it take 700 pages to do it? A well-placed hack from Sandor Clegane's broadsword could have cut this beast down to size. Martin's editors, unfortunately, lacked the boldness to question his carefully filigreed prose. He should have learned from his TV days that people want a little payoff at the end of each episode; with one cliffhanger after another, this series has jumped the shark. Oh well, I think I still have all my old Conan the Barbarian books down in the basement somewhere.