Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

The Seven Kingdoms lie bleeding and battered. The War of the Five Kings has ravaged the countryside, many tens of thousands are dead, and a years-long winter is finally descending on the continent of Westeros with unmitigated fury. The war is petering out, with the Tyrell-Lannister alliance apparently victorious, but in far-off Dorne, on the remote Iron Islands and in the isolated Vale of Arryn plans are being laid that may mean the current peace will be short-lived indeed. In King's Landing, Cersei Lannister rules as Queen Regent, but without the moderating influence of good counsellors, she is ill-equipped to handle the Tyrells' jockeying for power. Her brother Jaime has his own battles to fight, whilst Brienne, the Maid of Tarth, embarks on an impossible quest into the heart of the warzone to find a single lost girl. From the Wall comes Samwell Tarly, bearing an urgent message to the Archmaesters of the Citadel, whilst beyond the Narrow Sea in Braavos, Arya Stark must learn to survive amidst a mysterious organisation with ancient secrets to protect.


A Feast for Crows is the fourth volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, and at the time of publication was the most troubled book in the series to write. George R.R. Martin had planned to have a five-year narrative gap between the events of A Storm of Swords and the following book, A Dance with Dragons, with the readership rejoining the action after the various characters had had a chance to regroup and learn new skills and get a bit older. In the event, this plan proved unworkable, with Martin unable to come up with a reason why the Others would wait five years before making their next move or why events in the Iron Islands or Dorne would not play out for another half-decade. There were also issues about major factions (such as the Faith Militant) appearing out of nowhere. With the writing not cooperating and the book being weighed down by flashbacks, Martin scrapped eighteen months' work on the fourth volume and decided to write A Feast for Crows instead to fill in the gaps in the story.

Of course, as is now widely known, this also proved tricky, and the published novel eventually only contained the stories of a number of the series' major characters, such as Sansa and Arya Stark, Sam Tarly, Brienne of Tarth, and Cersei and Jaime Lannister. A number of the series' other POVs, including the arguably central trinity of Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, were shunted into A Dance with Dragons (now the fifth volume), and it appears a whole host of new timeline problems were introduced (which ADWD will hopefully resolve). The result is a book that is somewhat problematic and has a number of issues, although in general terms it is as well-written (possibly even moreso) as the rest of the series.

On the plus side, Martin's skills with character, description and worldbuilding remain strong and indeed growing. A Feast for Crows introduces a number of new POVs, either 'proper' ones like Cersei and Brienne or 'temporary' POVs like Arianne Martell or various members of the Greyjoy family, and Martin gets us into these characters' heads and worldviews as ably as ever. His skills with political intrigue remain strong, with Littlefinger's machinations in the Vale, the complex political situation in Dorne (impressively depicted, as we only get a few chapters to convey this part of the story) and the jockeying for the crown in the Iron Islands all handled well. A Feast for Crows is also the most thematically tight novel in the sequence. This book is about the aftermath of the grand conflict in the first three books, and shows how the game of thrones has left tens of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands homeless and millions at the mercy of the coming winter. For a series often criticised for only showing the nobles' point-of-view, A Feast for Crows redresses the balance by showing the impact on the common folk and how they respond (turning to, as historically was and remains often the case, religion to help them).


However, whilst writing what is almost a side-novel to the main series showing the impact of characters' apparently minor decisions in previous books on the masses or the aftermath of events is certainly a valid thing to do (as with what Erikson did with Toll the Hounds, for example), it is fair to say that doing so in a series where the books take many years to be written and published does lead to a fair degree of frustration, particularly for those readers who came off A Storm of Swords expecting the next book to be as incident-packed and furious-paced as the previous ones, and instead found a much more sedately-paced novel focusing on 'quieter' events. At the same time, it is hard to say there is much in A Feast for Crows that is unnecessary. An enormous amount of pipe-laying is going on here, characters are being maneuvered into position, whilst schemes and intrigues are being set in motion that are designed to either re-ignite the war, or ensure Daenerys returns to Westeros as soon as possible, or to shatter the alliance between the Tyrells and Lannisters once and for all.

The only story that feels like it could have been told in less detail was Brienne's grand tour of the shattered riverlands, which, despite providing some interesting alternate perspectives on events and hinting at the fate of a major character from the previous book, feels a little overdone and if the end of the sequence is as it first appears (as unlikely as that is with a Martin novel), even a little pointless. I suspect that the relevance of Brienne's wanderings will become clearer in The Winds of Winter, if not sooner. The only other complaint I had was that the rationale for Cersei's character - yet another prophecy in a series whose first volume I once lauded for not having any hard-and-fast prophecies - felt somewhat unconvincing on a first read. On the series re-read I was surprised to see some elements in A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords setting up the revelation involving Cersei's childhood, but overall given the existing reasons for Cersei to loathe Tyrion, it seemed a bit over-the-top to include supernatural reasons as well, although some sort of additional reasoning for Cersei's hatred of Margaery Tyrell - a major driving force of this book's storyline - was indeed required.

A Feast for Crows (****) is well-written and engaging, but also slower-paced and more thoughtful and reflective than the previous three books in the series, something that has divided a lot of readers. It is available now in the UK and USA.

11 comments:

Renasko said...

I've always wondered what all the fuss was concerning AFFC's, which I enjoyed greatly. Glad to see you had no such problems with the book.

About Yea High said...

Great review, Wert. Par for course.

While A Feast For Crows may certainly be Martin's slowest-paced and oft-criticized book, I remain to this day convinced it is his strongest with regard to the actual writing. Chapters like the Copperfieldesque Cat of the Canals, as well as the ones set in Dorne paint a more vivid, visual, visceral picture of these far-off places than he'd been able to show us before. As with Brienne's wanderings throughout the Riverlands, I feel as though I can feel them more. I can only reflect I am glad I am not actually there. It's a deliberate pace, and to me it is akin to enjoying the experience of experience.

And perhaps that is why he took the time. Martin has, to me, removed himself far past the engaging A Game of Thrones and set the bar higher for himself as a wordsmith. His prose is better, his dialogue more believable, parred down rather than comic-y (as was some of the AGoT dialogue).

The Cersei chapters are especially fascinating, simply because of the delusions we're set to ride along with. Double standards have never been so much fun. Rare is the book that will allow a PoV to contradict itself completely within the span of two paragraphs, and rarer still is the PoV we the readers actively hope to see brought to its knees.

I feel as though Feast (and probably its soon-to-come sister, Dance) is a slow, deliberate intake of breath--the sort that comes before some monstrous exhalation that ends up crisping our brains and setting our nerves afire (please see the movie DRAGONSLAYER if you're confused by what I mean).

Martin certainly hasn't forgotten how to leave us with frayed nerve endings, as he did in the brilliant A Storm of Swords.

I just think he's setting up an endgame that will be one for the ages.

I can't wait.

Even though I will have to.

Mike Johnstone said...

I fall firmly in the camp of those who enjoyed, appreciated, and very much liked AFFC.

I saw the first three books as a single movement, so to speak, and AFFC as the transition book, setting up the final movement of the complete story. I like About Yea High's description: AFFC as a purposeful "intake of breath" -- perhaps like the calm before the coming of the next storm. I mean, after the events of ASOS, we all needed to breathe a little to be ready for more punishment and heartache and wonder.

I loved how AFFC gave us different POV characters and took us to different parts and cultures of the Seven Kingdoms. I think its role in the series as a whole will only be fully understood once the series is completed.

In fact, AFFC left me thinking that ADWD will be one stunner of a novel. So, like About Yea High, again, I'm eager for ADWD ... and I'm willing to wait for it.

Oh, and fine review/recap, Adam. :-)

WiredRetina said...

Great review as always. And as always a great choice of what to review.

Most definitely one of those books that is infuriating for not being 10000 pages long covering every story and mystery. I came rather late to the series, and did not have to wait the long years that some did, but I can understand where some frustration came from.

However, although the content may not have been the earth shattering plot development a reader might have hoped for, I don't believe I could find fault in the author's choice. Every book seems to expand on the world building perfectly and while it may not solve some of the endless forum debate about some of the mysteries, it will only make those revelations ever more traumatic when they do finally come.

I have a feeling the wait is not yet over with the time line constraints on the next book. I fear it will have to be a similarly paced story if it runs parallel with AFFC but no doubt it will have as many shocks and questions as we have come to expect.

That said, I truly hope that the next books come easier to GRRM. Five or so years to find out the conclusions to the AFFC characters is just too much! I literally have a good chance of dying before I find the answers and that scares me almost as much as dying itself!

Anonymous said...

The question is, how will A DANCE WITH DRAGONS be entwined into FEAST`?

I really like the fact that they are actually two sides of the same coin, so to speak. Two halves of the same (middle pillar) book.

Adam Whitehead said...

From what we know so far, the first part of ADWD (which may be three-quarters of the book, maybe less, maybe more) will run concurrently alongside events in AFFC. Then the rest of the book extends past AFFC's timeline by several months. It's in this section that two AFFC characters - Arya Stark and Asha Greyjoy - have additional chapters.

The problem with this, having ADWD finish at a point several months after AFFC, is that it makes reconciling the timelines in THE WINDS OF WINTER more difficult, as the book starts with the AFFC characters still in their predicaments from the end of that book, whilst the ADWD characters are several months further down the road. Hence the hope that GRRM has also found time to put in some 'catch-up' chapters with the other AFFC characters at the end of ADWD. If not, then the start of TWoW will be interesting, to say the least.

Juhan said...

I might be a minority, but I for one sincerely hope that there WON'T be any "catch-up" chapters, since that would render the whole geographical/thematic splitting of the POVs totally pointless. GRRM might as well given us the half the story for all the characters. The whole point now is that we have two more or less equal books that depend on each other for coherence... Their characters are scattered and (now) totally isolated.

However, I am aware of the potential frustration that waiting for some cliffhangers from FEAST to resolve might bring. But remember, news does travel. So maybe, in DANCE we can initially 'hear' about their fates and then, in WINDS go ahead from there, while occasionally looking back at what really happened via flashback.

True, GRRM tried to do something similar with the five-year gap as well and eventually scrapped the idea, but a few months is much easier then 5 years, methinks...

And remember he has toyed with chronology before, with STORM starting before the end of CLASH.

Nee said...

Juhan

I believe that parts of Feast also preceded the end of Swords. Dorne and the Iron Islands specifically

vacuouswastrel said...

AYH: I'm very surprised that anyone thought AFFC was better written than the earlier books. I think that the prose is often far worse than before - although there are exceptions, as with the Cat sections.

My overall impression was, taking the line from a nearby review on this blog, of a book written after something had died in the soul of the author. Much of AFFC felt less like an author inspired, and more like an author writing through because he has to. Whether he's lost interest in the series, or whether he simply wanted to get back on track to the bits he's interested in, I guess we'll see in later books, but I certainly felt that he was disinterested, even at time apathetical, in AFFC.

A good example of this is the prophecy. What a tired old transparant device - "I can't think why this would happen, so I'll introduce a really obvious Macbethian prophecy that hasn't been foreshadowed at all, using unnecessary made-up words not used before, that will make the characters act in the necessary way". It's like the author's hand sticking down into the story to point Cersei in the right direction.

Other examples include multiple minor characters that felt simply cut out of moulds rather than real individuals - Darkstar being the most obvious and prominent, but there were many others.

My greatest complaint, however, was Cersei. For three novels, she's been villainous but understandable, believable, sometimes even sympathetic. She loves her children, she loves Jaime, she's trapped against her will in a horrible situation, she lashes out against her tormenters; she's no genius, but she's reasonably smart, and she's got a likeable, intelligent streak of humour. [One of my favourite lines in the series is her droll about-to-be-killed drunkenness in ACOK: "There's such a dearth of good raping songs".] I thought that seeing from her eyes would deepen her, as it did with a certain other character in the previous book, but no! No, in AFFC she's a braindead lunatic, unable to see through the most obvious deceptions (even when they've been stolen from a cliche Handbook of Obvious Deceptions), unable to show even the slightest prudence or self-knowledge, and alternating between twirling her giant french moustache and screaming "off with her head!". How was this woman able to survive at court for so long at all, even without the deadly secret she has to keep at all costs?

It's just hard to see this as Cersei - it feels like a stock "villain's paranoia gets the better of her" story imported from another book.

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There are good parts of AFFC - Jaime's sections are very good, I think. Yet as a whole it felt tired and derivative.

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Oh, and another annoyance: the language, through a full re-read of all four, didn't feel consistent to me at all, with the writing, particularly the dialogue, in AFFC feeling a lot more cheap-faux-medieval than in the first three books. The most obvious example of this is the way that every page has at least five "nuncles" on it now.

Anonymous said...

I think "A Feast for Crows" only flaw was that it was the sequel to Storm of Swords. Once Dance finally comes out this will be an easier book to appreciate.

Galacticlooloo said...

Was totally smitten when I saw the TV series and have not stopped reading the books. Am now on 'A Feast for Crows'. Not disappointed exactly, but find the introduction of so many new character when so many of the major characters don't appear, a little frustrating...