Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin, 2005

"We are the ironborn, and once we were conquerors. Our writ ran everywhere the sound of the waves was heard. My brother would have you be content with the cold and dismal north, my niece with even less. . . but I shall give you Lannisport. Highgarden. The Arbor. Oldtown. The riverlands and the Reach, the kingswood and the rainwood, Dorne and the marches, the Mountains of the Moon and the Vale of Arryn, Tarth and the Stepstones. I say we take it all! I say, we take Westeros." He glanced at the priest. "All for the greater glory of the Drowned God, to be sure."

For half a heartbeat even Aeron was swept away by the boldness of his words. The priest had dreamed the same dream, when first he'd seen the red comet in the sky.
We shall sweep over the green lands with fire and sword, root out the seven gods of the septons and the white trees of the northmen. . .

"Crow's Eye," Asha called, "did you leave your wits at Asshai? If we cannot hold the north--and we cannot--how can we win the whole of the Seven Kingdoms?"

"Why, it has been done before. Did Balon teach his girl so little of the ways of war? Victarion, our brother's daughter has never heard of Aegon the Conqueror, it would seem."

"Aegon?" Victarion has crossed his arms against his armored chest. "What has the Conqueror to do with this?"

"I know as much of war as you do, Crow's Eye," Asha said. "Aegon Targaryen conquered Westeros with

"And so shall we," Euron Greyjoy promised. "That horn you heard I found amongst the smoking ruins that were Valyria, where no man has dared to walk but me. You heard its call, and felt its power. It is a dragon horn, bound with bands of red gold and Valyrian steel graven with enchantments. The dragonlords old sounded such horns, before the Doom devoured them. With this horn, ironmen, I can bind
dragons to my will."

Asha laughed aloud. "A horn to bind goats to your will would be of more use, Crow's Eye. There are no more dragons."

"Again, girl, you are wrong. There are three, and I know where to find them. Surely that is worth a driftwood crown."
--- (pages 395-396)

Even before I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire, I knew that the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, was largely seen as a disappointment by fans, inciting frustration and even anger among those who adored Game, Clash and Storm. A few have even described Feast as Martin's "jump the shark" moment. Feast only has half of the usual cast of characters, with such favorites as Jon, Tyrion and Dany relegated to the next installment. As a result, the novel definitely suffers from a much-reduced pace and a notable lack of the kind of direction that the previous books had.

There's no doubt, though, that Feast is, quite literally, a feast for readers. The dynamism of previous installments is missing, but there is world-building and character development galore. Martin reaches into the corners of his world and gives us a more eclectic look at the story, from the perspectives of scheming queens, ironmen, Dornish princesses and wandering knights. Those invested in the tale of the Stark family will be disappointed, but for those who are willing to wade through a certain amount of filler, there's a rich bounty of rewards.

Between the decimation of Stannis's forces on the Blackwater and the (sniff) death of Robb Stark, the war in Westeros seems to be coming to a close. Tommen is king of a scorched and decimated land, overrun with bandits and still struggling to find lasting peace. Westeros is still a powder keg ready to blow, even without outright war.

In this troubled and uncertain new world, Brienne hunts for the Stark girls, Cersei struggles to maintain control of her kingdom (and her sanity), Jaime tries to find a new place for himself, Arya finds a new life in Braavos, Sansa faces constant deception and intrigue in the Eyrie and Samwell leaves the Wall on a clandestine mission, as an explosive power struggle threatens to erupt in Dorne and the ironmen unite to conquer Westeros--and to find a far-off dragon queen.

Feast is an unusual mixture, a bit of a dumping ground for Martin's extraneous characters and plot threads. The three characters who have provided the base for the saga--Jon, Dany and Tyrion--are only referred to or, in Jon's case, seen briefly. It's up to the smaller figures to carry the novel, particularly Cersei and Brienne, who get the most prominent roles.

I was pretty impressed with Cersei's storyline overall (Martin does a great job of making Cersei unbalanced, nasty, childish. . . and just a tiny bit understandable), but it's definitely overlong and a tad galumphing in comparison to the book's other narrative threads. For instance, Arya and Sansa only get a couple of chapters apiece and Samwell, Jaime, the ironmen and the Dornishmen get pretty truncated stories, too.

The pace is slower, no question, the plot less dynamic. What Feast does very well is filling in the missing pieces of the Westeros puzzle, exploring nooks and crannies that we haven't seen in detail before: Braavos, Dorne, Oldtown, the Iron Islands. Martin has a rare gift for creating intricate, interesting cultures, each with its own customs and unique perspective. Feast is like a colorful patchwork quilt of nations, groups, organizations and individuals, each with their own agenda, sometimes obvious, sometimes shadowy. Nobody tells a story like this better than Martin.

There are some truly glorious bits of character development in Feast: Jaime's increasing disillusionment with Cersei, Sam's growing courage and confidence, the contentious relationship between Euron and Victarion Greyjoy, Arys Oakheart's romance with Arianne Martell. Martin's patented mixture of the sweepingly epic with the intimately personal continues to work wonders for him. His writing is, as always, damn good, no matter what he's depicting. It's easy to forget just how good he is because his narrative is so engrossing.

His editor, however, seems to be on break. Martin's struggles with editing the book are practically literary legend by now, and the book definitely shows the labor that went into it. There are too many dropped or inconsequential plotlines and, like A Clash of Kings, way too much name-dropping. It is literally impossible to keep track of everyone's name, house and allegiances without the appendix in the back. I also got a bit weary of Martin's tendency (which is particularly pronounced in Feast) to head off on interludes that seem unconnected to the larger story, such as Brienne's trek to Crackclaw Point or Arianne's long imprisonment in the Sunspear.

George R. R. Martin at his worst is still better than most writers at their best. Feast may be the weakest novel in the series so far, yet it's still terrific, layered with romance and intrigue and war and character growth. It doesn't come close to the dizzying heights of A Storm of Swords, but it's a good book in its own right. Its status as a placeholder in the series definitely contributes to the feeling that it's a prelude to greatness rather than greatness itself.

NEXT UP: Vision in White, by Nora Roberts. Yep, that's right. A romance novel.

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