I must say I found the violence in that book somewhat more difficult to stomach (Asha Greyjoy. Brienne.). It didn't feel gratuitous exactly, but since the nature of it has changed (has it? or am I just now noticing it?) it's natural that my relationship with it has changed too. In addition to genuine concern for character outcomes, I'm driven along now also by sick curiosity.
Anyway, the final couple hundred pages of book 4 made it all worthwhile (Arya — I love that kid! Cersei — I hate that bitch!). Every now and again I bemoan that these books are ssooo llooonng, but it's been great to have something so escapist to turn to over the last week as I've spent time in several waiting rooms and was otherwise housebound (torn meniscus), and for the coming week as well, since all childcare plans for the final days of summer have gone to pot.
I'm still a bit puzzled by the labels this series of books is associated with: epic fantasy, high fantasy, magic. To my mind, the books read like historical romance, with a bit of other stuff thrown in.
The fantastic creatures that "people" the books are not the kind humans rub shoulders with at the village fair. The creatures are outsiders to the established social world. That nudges the books toward horror. The elements of magic — isolated incidents — are looked upon with great scepticism. The creatures, the magic, the shamanism, the supernaturalism, they are not viewed as the normal state of the world. This is nothing like the Piers Anthony or Michael Moorcock I read in my youth. In many ways, this world feels more real, more like our own.
I'm betting that the page count covering all those traditionally fantastic elements is paltry relative to the thousands of pages of "history" being related.
So it comes as a surprise (even a treat) that the prologue to book 5 should look more closely at one of those fantastic/horrific aspects.
Dogs were the easiest beasts to bond with; they lived so close to men that they were almost human. Slipping into a dog's skin was like putting on an old boot, its leather softened by wear. As a boot was shaped to accept a foot, a dog was shaped to accept a collar, even a collar no human could see. Wolves were harder. A man might befriend a wolf, even break a wolf, but no man could truly tame a wolf. "Wolves and women wed for life," Haggon often said. "You take one, that's a marriage. The wolf is part of you from that day on, and you're part of him. Both of you will change."
Other beasts were best left alone, the hunter had declared. Cats were vain and cruel, always ready to turn on you. Elk and deer were prey; wear their skins too long, and even the bravest man became a coward. Bears, boars, badgers,. weasels . . . Haggon did not hold with such. "Some skins you never want to wear, boy. You won't like what you'd become. "Birds were the worst, to hear him tell it. "Men were not meant to leave the earth. Spend too much time in the clouds and you never want to come back down again. I know skinchangers who've tried hawks, owls, ravens. Even in their own skins, they sit moony, staring up at the bloody blue."