A Feast for Crows

by George R.R. Martin

Cover image

Series: Ice and Fire #4
Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: November 2005
ISBN: 0-553-80150-3
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 753

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A Feast for Crows is the fourth book of Martin's epic A Song of Ice and Fire and is not very readable as an independent work. The whole series feels like a single enormous novel with tight continuation of plotline and not much repetition of backstory (thankfully, although there is so much going on that it can be hard to remember the details).

Unfortunately, this entry is somewhat broken structurally and even more broken thematically, due in part to the publishing problems of a series involving this tonnage of words. Briefly, A Feast for Crows and the coming sequel A Dance with Dragons were originally a single book. That book grew beyond any possibility of publishing it as a single novel. Either the book would be published in two parts, with the first part breaking halfway through the action, or somehow two books would have to be untangled from it. (Personally, I would have picked a third option, namely writing fewer words about the events of this book, but more on that in a moment.)

Martin took the second approach, separated the book by viewpoint character, and told the stories of half of the characters in this book. The stories of the other half will appear in A Dance with Dragons. Specifically, A Feast for Crows centers on King's Landing, the Iron Islands, and the south (particularly Dorne). It omits Tyrion, Dani, and the dragons entirely and Jon Snow almost entirely, says nothing about events beyond the Wall, and leaves Bron's story hanging. The primary viewpoint characters for this volume are Cersei and Jamie, Sansa, Brienne, Sam, and (here's where problems start) a rather substantial collection of entirely new viewpoint characters from the Iron Islands and from Dorne. Thankfully, Arya does put in a few (brief) appearances.

Some problems with this may be immediately apparent. If your first reaction is "wait, where are all the characters I actually like?" then, well, you're not alone. There are a grand total of three Arya scenes in the first half of this book (the whole is substantially more than 1,000 pages in paperback). They are sparks of much-anticipated interest in a sea of undistinguished words. None of my other favorite characters in the series appear at all. Martin's writing is as competent and substantial as always, but his world is not so amazing that it keeps me reading solely for the background. I need characters I care about, and throughout this volume, Martin had me very close to saying the eight deadly words ("I don't care what happens to these people").

The next thing you'll discover, after looking a bit deeper, is that much of the book is written either about the villains or from the perspective of people stuck with the villains. Substantial parts of the first half of the book are written from Cersei's perspective, and Cersei is a paranoid narcissist who notably does not undergo the sympathetic perspective shift that Martin pulled off with Jamie. (The book improves noticably when Cersei's perspective starts trading off with Jamie's more in the second half of the book.) Sansa continues her role as the helpless, manipulated pawn. The pile of new Iron Islands characters feel like villainous Viking stereotypes, at least so far, and are also remarkably uninteresting. I suppose this is setup for future volumes, but I could have done without substantial sections of this book and really wonder why Martin is introducing major new courts and heaps of characters in the fourth book of a series that's supposed to be closing down. And even the characters who are likeable spend the book in essentially pointless ways: Brienne has taken over from Arya as the character wandering aimlessly about the center of the map and being constantly set upon by people, Sam spends most of the book whining, and both the Dorne and Arya scenes, while interesting, are little other than slow scene-setting for future stories.

I do like fantasy series to turn dark upon occasion. If there isn't real risk, the story often feels less real, and strong emotions can pull me into the book. I would, however, like to have some counterpoint brightness and not spend an entire volume watching unlikeable characters self-destruct. In previous volumes, Martin used Dani's bright coming-of-age story and Tyrion's sarcasm and cynical bravery as an effective counterpoint. Without them, the edifice skews and crumbles under its own weight. Jamie offers some of the same sarcasm, but he can't quite fill that role. If Arya had been a centerpiece character, she could have helped considerably, but with only five brief scenes plus a guest appearance, it wasn't enough.

Enough complaints, though. While I found this a sub-par entry in the series, that's primarily in comparison with the prior books and what I felt could have been. If you're willing to deal with the villain focus, Martin provides tightly observed, character-driven political struggles and kingdoms torn apart by the realistic failings of their leaders. The contrast between Cersei and Jamie (and, from the echos of the last book, Tyrion) is remarkable; not only does one get an inside look at an incompetent ruler, but Martin provides a believable analysis of just why they're incompetent and why they're blind to it. Sansa's chapters provide another contrast, as she's an observer to another political struggle that's being handled far more adroitly. And I must admit that Sansa no longer irritates me the way that she did; I'm not eagerly awaiting her scenes, but she's now holding her own.

Arya was excellent, as always. I do hope that, by the end of the series, she and Dani have the opportunity to get together and kick some serious ass.

I felt quite frustrated by the number of new viewpoints Martin introduced into the series at this late date, and through most of the book the Dorne sections were annoying in their constant off-hand reference to characters and power struggles that I found inadequately explained. However, here at least Martin pulls off an effective reversal of expectations in an excellent final scene. I am very much looking forward to seeing how Dorne's linkage into broader affairs will play out (although any anticipation fed by this book suffers from the knowledge that we will likely have to wait two books for the continuation).

Another nice touch is the way the aftermath of the chaos of battle is handled. Martin shows war as a losing proposition for all sides, and chaos as a morale-sapping, corrosive force. The war leaders are mostly dead, and the survivors in most cases lack the acumen or vision to create a peace. The common folk feel betrayed and turn from the old ruling families to other supporters, and as a result A Feast for Crows is realistically filled with the growth of religion. The Iron Islands are a center of one fundamentalist religion, we know another is growing beyond the Wall (and turns up in other places as well), fundamentalist preachers are everywhere, and Cersei unleashes a new religious genie that will be difficult to put back into the bottle. I found it intriguing that this section of the story, which is mostly devoid of magical elements, is the strongest yet in religion and belief structures; I think that's quite perceptive of Martin.

However, this is, I fear, mostly a book that one reads so that one can continue to read the series. It has some good points, but it would surprise me a great deal if this were anyone's favorite of the series. I think it suffered badly from its separation from its other half, not just due to lack of emotional counterbalancing, but also because I think it outgrew its own skeleton. There was quite a bit here that I not only didn't care about but that I would have rather seen left out of the story. Martin is a sufficiently good descriptive writer that even his padding feels like scene-setting and immersion, but I came away feeling like the story elements could have been disposed of in half as many pages and with at most two new viewpoint characters.

At least I have the consolation that, given what went into this half of the book, A Dance with Dragons seems likely to be loaded with the characters and situations I enjoy the most.

Followed by A Dance with Dragons.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-09-12

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