A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin

<em class="BookTitle">A Feast for Crows</em>, George R.R. Martin

Bantam Spectra, 2011 reprint of 2005 original, 1104 pages, $C10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-553-58202-4

One of fiction’s most fundamental narrative engines is the balance between tension and release.  Typical fiction-writing advice is to send your characters up a tree and then throw rocks at them.  The more rocks you throw, the sweeter their success once they climb down the tree.  Authors spend most of their time setting up dramatic payoffs –the fun is in releasing all the tension the closer we are to the end of the story.

This ties in A Feast for Crows insofar as this novel is almost entirely pure buildup.  As fans of the A Song of Ice and Fire series know, Martin first planned on a trilogy.  Then the trilogy grew to a planned six books: two linked trilogies separated by a gap for five years in the internal chronology.  But life seldom goes according to plan, and that’s how Martin found himself with a fourth volume so big that it couldn’t fit between the covers of a single book.  Unusually, he split the book in two halves, following a different set of characters separated by geography.  (It helps when you’re writing about an imagined world so big that characters can go entire novels without meeting each other.)  A Feast for Crows is the first half, A Dance With Dragons following (six years later!) to complete the experiment.

The first discovery of A Feast for Crows is the realization that it’s meant to re-start the series with a chunk of new characters.  (This isn’t surprising given how many died in the third book.)  Alas, the first hundred pages of the novel is laborious, as the usual fatal prologue is followed by two chapters going off to the Iron Island and Dorne in order to open up new plotting avenues.  There’s a definite break in structural form as Martin titles chapters using mysterious titles rather than the names readers were used to see.  The three leading characters by number of chapters aren’t even from the Stark family: Cersei, Jaime and Brienne have much of the book to themselves, although that usually translates into interminable treks in a devastated post-War Westeros.

The title of the book hints at the gloominess of the setting (which turns into autumn as the foretold winter is coming), as the continent of Westeros wakes up from the ravages left by the War of the Five Kings.  Brienne and Jamie, in particular, each do their tour of the land, meeting ancillary characters while smelling the carrion.  Brienne remains herself, while Jamie continues his unlikely narrative redemption as one of the sanest characters left alive.  Meanwhile, the ten chapters given to his sister Cersei’s viewpoint do nothing to make her more likable: If Jamie got more likable as we got inside his head, Cersei gets progressively more despicable even as we understand her particular brand of madness.  Her inner monologue is that of a paranoid sociopath, and reading her chapters are like being stuck in a very unpleasant mind that keeps plotting (not very well) against a plethora of enemies both real and imagined.  Additionally, we do get a handful of interesting chapters from the perspective of the two Stark daughters, another not-so-interesting handful of chapters from Dorne and the Iron Island, engaging episodes of Samwell Tarly’s fearless journey to Oldtown and a few more new characters that, frankly, don’t do much to earn the reader’s affection.

The problem with A Feast for Crows, however, isn’t as much with the characters as with the fact that little actually happens.  As the opening of this review suggests, Martin is setting up a new tetralogy’s worth of narrative threads, and with a series of this bulk, it takes time to put everything into place –so much time, in fact, that we can expect A Dance with Dragons to be more of the same.  (Late in this book, Petyr Baelish has a few lines about “wishing he had four or five more years” to set up his plans that hilariously reflect Martin’s own experience with the series.)

This translates into a curious reading experience: While the main attraction of the series has been its deep immersive nature alongside a cast of thousands (no, really), it’s not designed for fast reading.  A Feast for Crows is even slower than any of the previous three books, and the conscious absence of half the characters only reinforces that this book feels like imposed exercise before getting to the good stuff.

Not that there aren’t any rewards in here.  In addition to the numerous chapters of palace intrigue in King’s Landing there are plenty of rewards in-between the cracks of the novel: Alert readers will notice a short homage to “Archmaester Rigney”’s Wheel of Time series; and those who, ahem, go look up online concordances will find a lot of fascinating back-stories, some of them even acting as possible epilogues to striking characters from earlier books.  Martin appears to continue his heartless dismissal of beloved characters with a few minor deaths and what looks like a big cliff-hanger.

Still, A Feast for Crows isn’t nearly as satisfying as the previous books in the series.  The events on the Iron Islands are dull (the ironmen are not sympathetic characters to begin with, and nothing that happens in this novel makes them look any better), while the Dorne chapters don’t seem to amount to much.  Much of the novel is spent setting up new elements, or looking at the wreckage left by the previous books and saying “well, that happened.”  Meanwhile, nothing (much) is happening, even though some of the latter chapters hold some promise.

Fans of the series will read the novel anyway: it’s an essential bridge between A Storm of Swords and whatever form the continuation of the series will take.  It keeps up A Song of Fire and Ice’s immersive sense of detail, but it may also present a lesson of sorts to writers embarking on very long series –it’s not hard to feel as if Martin’s control over the story has slipped away from him, and that the book is a lengthy attempt to start wrestling it back.  Ultimately, we will have to wait for the entire series to be completed before passing final judgment on its installments.

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