Series: A Song of Ice and Fire #4
Published by Random House on 17th October 2005
Genres: Adult, High Fantasy
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It seems too good to be true. After centuries of bitter strife and fatal treachery, the seven powers dividing the land have decimated one another into an uneasy truce. Or so it appears. With the death of the monstrous King Joffrey, Cersei is ruling as regent in King’s Landing, Robb Stark’s demise has broken the back of the northern rebels, and his siblings are scattered throughout the kingdom like seeds on barren soil. Few legitimate claims to the once desperately sought Iron Throne still exist – or they are in held in hands too weak or too distant to wield them effectively. The war, which raged out of control for so long, has burned itself out.
But as in the aftermath of any climactic struggle, it is not long before the survivors, outlaws, renegades, and carrion eaters start to gather, picking over the bones of the dead and fighting for the spoils of the soon-to-be dead. Now in the Seven Kingdoms, as the human crows assemble over a banquet of ashes, daring new plots and dangerous new alliances are formed, while surprising faces – some familiar, others only just appearing – are seen emerging from an ominous twilight of past struggles and chaos to take up the challenges ahead.
It is a time when the wise and the ambitious, the deceitful and the strong will acquire the skills, the power, and the magic to survive the stark and terrible times that lie before them. It is a time for nobles and commoners, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and sages to come together and stake their fortunes…and their lives. For at a feast for crows, many are the guests – but only a few are the survivors.
Warning: Do not read the above summary if you have not read A Storm of Swords, and do not wish to have several major plot developments from that installment spoiled for you. (And they are BIG ones, I assure you.)
Actually, you might not want to read this review, either. I talk frankly about some events from this installment as well, though I can assure you that they are relatively small.
Read at your own risk, in any case!
The teasers that they attach to these books are certainly dangerous to those who are behind in the story, aren’t they? One slip and you’ll have some monumental plot points ruined.
Anyway, let’s talk about George R. R. Martin’s fourth lovely piece of soul-scarring, emotionally-unbalancing fiction.
A Feast for Crows is the unlikeable black sheep in Martin’s series thus far, and for understandable reasons. Released an agonizing five years after A Storm of Swords, it’s notable for the absence of several key (and fan-favorite) characters, including Jon, Daenerys, and (perhaps most unforgivably) Tyrion. After being forced to wait so very long for their latest fix, it’s understandable why many readers were angry and disappointed with this installment, especially since the truncated cast is coupled with a decidedly slower and less action-oriented plot.
Thanks to my coming to the Westeros party late, however, I had the ability to jump from one book to the next right away, and that lucky happenstance meant that the change in pace and approach really didn’t bother me. In fact, I appreciated the retooling after all of the excitement of book three, and the shift in focus to new characters proved a nice shakeup after the similar approach used previously in the series.
A Feast for Crows is strange because it, unlike the first three volumes, is only half of a story, left incomplete by the absence of so many points of view and filled in by A Dance with Dragons, which mostly takes place concurrently with this book. The split works, for the most part, but does create some odd problems in the overall narrative. Without all of the players present, it’s awkward having them only being mentioned offhand by others, leading to quite a few major plot developments (including some notable deaths) happening purely through secondary accounts. It helps to know that these gaps will be filled in and expounded upon in the sequel, certainly. Having not read it yet, however, means that I can only view this one as an incomplete, standalone piece of work, rather than a whole body in two parts. And it just feels strange.
Still, Martin manages to craft a great story that keeps you hooked, so long as you don’t mind the change in focus from war and nonstop intensity to politics and creeping plotlines. There’s a lot to enjoy, particularly thanks to the book’s emphasis on the females of the Seven Kingdoms.
My favorite moments are those belonging to four such ladies:
Cersei proves a fascinating new point of view, with her chapters finally giving us a peek into the manipulative and cruel queen regent whom we all love to hate. (Admit it. You like her particular brand of crazy.) Here we are given insight into her obsessions and fears, all of which prove a rather unsettling cesspool of sharp wit and borderline insanity that turns downright horrifying near the end (that Qyburn fellow is part of the problem, to be sure). Her characterization comes across as a bit one-note, but I think that’s the point: As Cersei works so desperately to rise above the limitations imposed upon her by her sex, her single-mindedness reaches frightening new levels of intensity, driven by her ceaseless inability to keep her grip upon the Iron Throne. The inevitable crash that comes at the end of the book is, while not entirely unexpected, painful to witness. She is so certain of her superiority and potential to rule that she is unable to see the damage that she inflicts upon the Seven Kingdoms and its citizens, and her downfall proves an uncomfortable (yet entertaining) one to watch come about, especially since it occurs just as she stands on the brink of achieving the power that she has always craved.
Where Cersei is left by the end of A Feast for Crows is downright maddening, thanks to the fact that the abrupt change in her situation not only leaves her future exposed to a whole host of frightening new possibilities, but also calls into question much of what occurred previously throughout the novel. Right now, it’s impossible to know just how much of Cersei’s point of view can be believed, given how small her perception of the world actually proves to be. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if future installments reveal that much of what she (and the reader) came to know here turned out to be entirely false. Those Tyrells are a cunning bunch, I suspect.
Ayra and Sansa, meanwhile, are given only a few chapters each, but use their limited space to great effect. I’ve really come to love the Stark girls and their stories, primarily because of just how extensive and unpredictable their journeys have been. These are not the sisters that we first came to know in Winterfell and King’s Landing. They have been through so very much, and have become such different individuals. Admittedly, I find Ayra the more interesting of the pair, but her elder sibling has by no means been overshadowed. Though their destinies may not have the kingdom-shaping importance that others have had (not yet, anyway), I’m more than eager to see where Martin decides to take them from here.
Brienne gets a lot of flak from readers, it seems, and I can understand why. While her quest may not be the most interesting, however, it nonetheless provides a good deal of backstory and helps round out her character. She’s like to try one’s patience, but her loyalty, ability with the sword, and relationship with Jamie still manage to charm. (Is there anyone who doesn’t love her with the Kingslayer?) And, like Cersei, her adventure here ends with such a cliffhanger that I hyperventilate every time I think of it. Martin certainly knows how to finish things with a flourish, and I despise him for it.
(By the way, have you heard? Brienne is looking for a maid of three-and-ten, with a fair face and auburn hair.)
That little joke actually proves the perfect introduction to the one problem that I do have with A Feast for Crows: the repetition. Now, Martin has always had this problem, but it’s usually been very easy to shrug off. Here, however, the writing slips from his usual high standard, and it’s because of how terribly monotonous it manages to get at times. It’s most obvious in two regards:
1. Characters, now more than ever before, mull over the same thoughts again and again, unable to go a page or two without mentioning what has apparently become their personal mantra. This isn’t too enormous of an issue, as I think that it works as a sign of these individuals’ various obsessions. Still, it gets tiresome having to listen to Brienne repeat her inquiry concerning Sansa and speak of her duty, or witness Jamie mull over Tyrion’s assertion regarding Cersei’s sexual exploits, again and again. And again. And again.
2. It seems as though Martin suffered from bursts of amnesia during the writing of the first half or so of this installment, because there are many times throughout the beginning chapters in which he feels the need to assert certain facts multiple times. I’m not talking about purposeful repetition done for the sake of significance or to remind the reader of various plot points. I’m talking about completely unnecessary restatements of things that occurred only a page or two previously, and presented in such a way that it seems as though the author believed that he was doing so for the first time.
As an example, consider this passage from a one-off chapter focused on Arys Oakheart, in which he discusses a plan concerning him and the princess Myrcella:
“I love Myrcella as a daughter.” He could never have a daughter of his own, no more than he could have a wife. He had a fine white cloak instead. “We are going to the Water Gardens.”
“Eventually,” she agreed, “though with my father, everything takes four times as long as it should.”
All very well and good. However, two pages later:
“You do know that when my father returns to the Water Gardens he plans to take Myrcella with him?”
Um. Yes, Arys does know. Do you know how I know this? Because he just brought it up a few paragraphs ago.
Perhaps the line was included purposefully for the sake of sarcasm and emphasis, but it’s hard to tell when there are no queues signaling this. While it may not be a book-breaking problem (Martin thankfully gets his act together during the second half of the novel), this constant redundancy is still an unfortunate inclusion that dominates the story for several hundred pages, and makes the narration uncharacteristically clunky and awkward.
And though it certainly isn’t worth crying over, I cannot help but notice some odd inconsistencies throughout. While some may be intentional (Martin himself has confirmed that this is the case), the fact that we cannot know at present makes such instances frustrating to those who find them. For instance:
–Sansa, in her first chapter, states that Tyrion has been beheaded by Cersei, despite this being completely untrue. Later, she acknowledges that he is in fact still alive, but never provides any explanation for her initial assertion.
-Cersei is informed that Dragonstone has been seized long before Riverrun finally falls to Jamie’s forces. In fact, she never actually learns of the latter’s fate before she is (*ahem*) indisposed. Near the end of the book, however, Sansa is told by an acquaintance that Riverrun has fallen, yet Dragonstone still stands for Stannis.
This last one, I feel, may have been one of these purposeful discrepancies on Martin’s part, done to hint that much of Cersei’s (and the reader’s) knowledge is false. Still, it’s an error that will probably nag at me until it’s eventually explained, if ever.
I feel a bit guilty for being so critical about the details, but Martin’s work thus far has placed this series on a very high pedestal and in a special place on my shelves, so I can’t help but have lofty expectations. And considering how long it took for this book to finally be written and released, the fact that this installment is the least well-written so far is an aggravating thing.
A Feast for Crows is an odd sort of book when considered against its beloved predecessor, and suffers from issues that – for me, at least – have not been present in the series until now. As a result, it’s probably my least favorite installment thus far.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that Martin’s less-than-best still proves for entertaining and emotionally tumultuous reading, and stands as another worthy installment in one of literature’s most complex (and traumatizing) epics.