Matt's Reviews > A Feast for Crows

A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin
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Mar 30, 11

Read from February 22 to March 30, 2011 — I own a copy

In the fourth installment of his A Song of Ice and Fire series, George R. R. Martin veers from his juggernaut of a fantastic story, slowing down to pick up the pieces left over from A Storm of Swords. Here, with only a select cast of his trademark and ever-expanding (and sometimes murderously contracting) pageant of rich point-of-view characters, Martin crafts a novel-length transition piece. While it disappoints in comparison to the previous three outstanding novels, which are among the finest, most entertaining fantasy novels written in decades, the novel maintains Martin’s excellent writing, captivating characters, and fascinating situations. The book offers some insight on how A Song of Ice and Fire can capture the crown of the best fantasy epic of the modern day.

While most fans know the history of A Feast for Crows’ publication and the long wait for fifth book, A Dance With Dragons, here’s a quick summary. In 2006, Martin published A Feast for Crows with a note indicating that it was only part of text meant to be a huge fourth novel. So, he split the text in two, placing some of his point-of-view characters in this book, and the remainder in a fifth book. Fans have spent years since in sometimes impatient furor demanding the “other half” of the tome (it arrives this summer, July 12, 2011), replete with fan favorite (mine included) characters Tyrion and Jon Snow, among others.

This split structure reveals itself in the novel’s story. Unlike the previous novels, here the multi-character story is flatter, the build up less climactic and epic. A Feast for Crows opens with Westeros a ruin in the thralls of war. The landscape is apocalyptic. Winter is coming. The lands are muddy wastes, decorated with hanged soldiers. Packs of wolves and outlaws haunt the land, and the common folk suffer terribly.

That theme is more present than ever. Martin’s previous books squeezed tension between the nobles of the game of thrones and the commoners. Here, we see devastation, dismemberment, horrible cruelty, rape, torture and worse inflicted on those poor bastards not lucky enough to be born in a noble house. And, yet, every single point-of-view character has some kind of noble lineage or direct link to high nobility. True, some – like Arya – are thrust into commoner roles, seeing through their own eyes the sometimes ugly, sometimes profound, and nearly always suffering lot of commoners. Martin manages to draw out our egalitarian sense of pity for these folk, while still stoking our root-for-the-underdog sense of heroism for the noble-born good guys – like Brienne or Samwell Tarly (notably, both “slum it” with hapless commoner companions).

At the center of the book are those lascivious, leonine Lannister twins, Cersei and Jaime. Both feature prominently in the book, particularly Cersei, whose chapters outnumber those of all other point-of-view characters in the book. She serves ably, maddeningly as antagonist.

The focus on those twins, who spend the half the novel in the same locale, dampen Martin’s ability to reveal a fantastically realized world in Westeros and the lands across the sea. While their events ultimately prove interesting, the build is slow. What’s more compelling is Martin’s strength as a character transformer. He’s at his best showing detail by detail how Cersei spirals out of control and Jaime distancing himself from her and gaining back some of his own self.

Through them, we see key events, like the siege of Dragonstone, but Martin reveals these from afar, after-the-fact. Unlike, say, the battle at King’s Landing or the Red Wedding in previous books, we don’t even a point-of-view character present for their own part in the action. The “off-stage” effect feels less powerful than those tense scenes of pinpoint action in previous books that Martin then follows with subsequent chapters and perspective. The mix is genius drama in A Storm of Swords. Here, it’s quieter.

Tales of the Iron Men, who finally unite and throw their own hat in the ring for the game of thrones by invading the mainland, seem to dwindle as the book progresses. Point-of-view chapters from varying Greyjoy family members wander and ultimately fizzle, leaving this reader uncertain why Martin bothered. It seems as though he’s experimenting, then gives up the game there.

The star of the book is Brienne, the ugly lady warrior knight. In her search for Sansa Stark, she faces the toughest struggles and the book’s only real exciting action. With a motley crew of unwanted companions wandering the apocalyptic landscape, she’s heroic, driven, and at her best when Martin whispers, and sometimes reveals her vulnerabilities. In Brienne, fans of the series find a noble hero worth cheering for opposite the cynical villainy of Cersei and her cohorts.

The beloved Starks aren’t wholly absent. Sansa and Arya prolong their separate lives as refugees with hidden identities. Their chapters, too, are too flat, feeling more of the same from their chapters in previous books. And, we get a glimpse of Jon Snow through Samwell Tarly, who then ventures out on his own for a wandering, slightly confused trek to the south.

All told, the chapters do indeed build to a compelling ending, though some are whopping cliff hangers. Martin’s writing is solid, though I will say his affectation of describing clothing and medieval foodstuffs reveals one hell of a Renaissance fair complex! That’s my good-natured rubbing, as the novel held up surprisingly well for me given all the flak it received from personal friends and online commentary. It was enough to confirm that Martin will continue writing fantasy I’m thrilled to read.

*First posted at my blog, Riverwords.net.*
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