Book Four of A Song of Ice and Fire
Bantam fantasy hardcover - Copyright 2005
Book reviewed January 2006
Rating: 6/10 (Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
(Note: Here are links to my reviews of the first three books in the series: 1-Game of Thrones, 2-A Clash of Kings, 3-A Storm of Swords. The reviews include detailed synopses of what has been transpiring in the series so far, for any of you who haven't yet read the earlier books and don't mind spoilers.)
A Song of Ice and Fire is an engrossing series sure to entertain any reader of high fantasy, but with a feel of gritty realism that appeals to many who usually don't care for long fantasy series. Thanks to this broad appeal and word-of-mouth from Martin's many devoted fans, sales of A Song of Ice and Fire have increased with every volume, culminating with A Feast for Crows recently opening at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
George R.R. Martin richly deserves this breakthrough success. Since the mid-1970's he has been writing beautifully crafted stories, beginning with science fiction like his excellent debut novel Dying of the Light, and branching out into fantasy, horror, and mainstream fiction, sometimes blending genres together - his novella "Sandkings", for instance, gets my vote as the best example of science fictional horror ever written. His work won multiple awards but for years did not find the audience it merited. Congratulations to George R.R. Martin for his long overdue success.
As much as Martin has earned his place on the bestseller list, however, it is a bit ironic that he finally hit #1 with A Feast for Crows, for it is the weakest entry so far in his A Song of Ice and Fire series.
But then any George R.R. Martin book is well worth reading, even a relatively weak one. A Feast for Crows has plenty of the wonderful dialogue and imagery that Martin's fans have come to expect. Particularly notable here are the descriptions of the war-torn landscape of Westeros. Having given us three volumes of banners waving as knights in shining armor dashed into battle, Martin now shows the harsh consequences of those battles for the common folk of the kingdom, something too often overlooked in epic fantasy. The people of the Seven Kingdoms are left to rebuild and deal with famine, disease, and outlaws (many of them former soldiers), and matters will only get worse, as they now lack the provisions to face the years-long Westeros winter that is surely coming. Yet even through such dreary circumstances, Martin consistently manages to entertain. A few lines where different characters tell off the villainous Cersei Lannister are especially delicious.
Nevertheless, in the end I find A Feast for Crows unsatisfying. The problem is that Martin seems to have lost control of his own story. When he started writing A Feast for Crows, he intended it to begin several years after the end of the third book, A Storm of Swords, to allow the children of Eddard Stark time to age, as well as Daenerys, the last heir of the former rulers of the Seven Kingdoms, and her three dragons, as yet too young to really wreak havoc. This decision prompted Martin to tie up several sub-plots and loose ends in A Storm of Swords, making it the best book of the series so far. Unfortunately, Martin's characters adamantly refused to wait around for several years, and Martin relented. So A Feast for Crows takes us through the period just after the end of A Storm of Swords, a period when, by design, nothing important is happening.
Even though A Feast for Crows occurs during a lull in the action, Martin was unable to control the length of the book. He rambled on until it became too long to publish in one volume. Rather than split the book down the middle, Martin elected to divide it by character. A Feast for Crows follows characters in the main portion of Westeros, where the tug-of-war for control of the Iron Throne continues. Reserved for the next volume, A Dance with Dragons, are the characters involved in the series' other two major story lines: the ragged soldiers on the Wall awaiting the next assault of the wildlings and the supernatural Others from the north, and Daenerys gathering strength to invade Westeros and reclaim her family's throne.
This was a logical way for Martin to divide the books, but like the battles for control of the Iron Throne, it carries unfortunate consequences. In A Feast for Crows, not only are two of the three major story lines of A Song of Ice and Fire almost entirely neglected, but most of the best characters are offstage. Absent is Tyrion Lannister, probably the most popular character of the series and, Martin has confessed, the author's own personal favorite. Jon Snow, perhaps the most heroic character remaining, is not here (save for a very brief cameo early on). No Daenerys, no Brandon, no Davos, etc. Incredibly, because of this division of volumes, combined with Martin's remarkable tendency to kill off important characters, of the ten viewpoint characters from the first two books in the series, only two appear in A Feast for Crows.
A Song of Ice and Fire started out as the story of the Stark Family: Eddard, Catelyn, their children, and their struggle to survive a period of great turmoil. To his credit, Martin got us to truly care about these people, but now he leaves us dangling. A Feast for Crows is 684 pages long, but fewer than 100 pages follow any of the Starks. These consist of three chapters about Sansa, a mere bystander to Petyr Baelish's efforts to maintain power in the Eyrie and Vale of Arryn even though the natives understandably despise him, and three chapters of Arya, just waiting for something to happen to her. Arya seems destined for a run-in with Daenerys, so perhaps she will be a crossover character, with viewpoint chapters in both A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons.
In lieu of the Starks, Martin devotes well over a third of A Feast for Crows to Jaime and Cersei Lannister. Martin continues to reform Jaime into a more likable character, but he makes no effort to make Cersei sympathetic. Instead, he shows her becoming increasingly paranoid, almost delusional, largely because of a disturbing prophecy she received as a girl, which she has probably misinterpreted.
The next largest portion of the book is given over to Brienne's search for Sansa - a rather pointless search, since the reader knows Brienne is following clues leading her in the wrong direction. A smaller section tracks Samwell Tarly's efforts to perform an errand for Jon Stark, and we see Sam continuing to grow and mature, even if he does not realize it.
Finally, Martin shows us developments among the warlike denizens of the Iron Islands and of Dorne, the southernmost of the Seven Kingdoms. Breaking with his usual pattern, Martin does not pick a particular character to follow events in Dorne and the Iron Islands, but instead jumps between multiple characters, each of whose point of view we see for only one or two chapters. These new characters may become important, because they all bristle at the Lannisters' rule and thus are potential allies of Daenerys.
A Feast for Crows is entertaining, but it has the feel of mere preliminaries to what is yet to come, and not very essential preliminaries at that. I strongly suspect that when (if) Martin finishes A Song of Ice and Fire, we will look back on A Feast for Crows as the volume a reader of the series could skip over without missing much.Then again, it is a testament to Martin's skills that none of his readers would willingly do that. I know I would not have missed it, nor could you keep me away from the forthcoming A Dance with Dragons with a club. My disappointment with A Feast for Crows largely reflects that Martin has set the bar very high for himself; indeed, I thought A Storm of Swords should have won the Hugo Award for best novel. So go ahead and enjoy A Feast for Crows, but let us hope that we have even better reading in store when Tyrion, Jon, and Daenerys return in A Dance with Dragons.
What do you think? Comments are welcome!
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