by George R. R. Martin
Bantam Spectra, 753 pages
George R. R. Martin came a little late to the shockingly-huge-fantasy-series business with his A Song of Ice and Fire, began with A Game of Thrones in 1996. Also, unlike other entrants in this endeavour, he has written with a slow, careful pace, having published four volumes in nine years, to Robert Jordan's eleven volumes in fifteen years. However, what he loses in speed he gains in quality; he came to the story an experienced science fiction and fantasy author, in contrast to the neophytes Jordan and Goodkind, something that shows in their respective work.
A Feast for Crows is the longest-anticipated of the four volumes published to date, A Storm of Swords, the third book, having been published back in 2000. This delay is in large part due to several changes in the original plan for the series; the initial plan called for a five-year time interval between the end of book 3 and the beginning of book 4. The author soon found that leaving this long a period unexplained was difficult, and then found that the sheer quantity of flashbacks required to fill in the gap would overwhelm the planned fourth book, which had the provisional title A Dance with Dragons. Thus was born A Feast for Crows, which would tell the important stories to be found in this gap, with A Dance with Dragons pushed back to book 5.
For two and a half years fans watched George R.R. Martin's website where he sporadically posted updates on the progress of Feast. It passed A Game of Thrones in length, and then A Clash of Kings, and then A Storm of Swords, in spring of 2005, which is a bit of a problem since Storm was almost too large to publish in one volume. Rather than release Feast as two volumes, GRRM decided that half of the characters' storylines would remain in Feast, with the other storylines becoming the subject of A Dance with Dragons, hopefully to be published a year after Feast.
A Feast for Crows was finally released on November 9, 2005. Now that its here, was the wait worth it?
A Review (no spoilers)
Feast is perhaps the pivotal book of A Song of Ice and Fire. A Storm of Swords ended with a much greater sense of conclusion than the previous two volumes, presumably in preparation for the intended five-year gap. Feast picks up the loose ends from Storm and sends the series' famed intrigue to new and interesting locations: the free city of Braavos, the remote desert province of Dorne, and the harsh Iron Islands (briefly seen in A Clash of Kings). We see inside some new heads as well, that of the woman knight Brienne of Tarth, that of the queen regent Cersei Lannister, and those of several spectators to and participants in the action away from our familiar main characters, lending us their perspective only for a chapter or two before moving back out of the spotlight.
Feast ably continues the intricate tapestry of intrigue and action that has been the hallmark of this series since its debut. The glittering, subtle royal court at King's Landing is contrasted with the rough machinations of the Iron Islanders. The characters contrast as well, with the direct, no nonsense Jaime Lannister seeing the events in King's Landing differently than his calculating, somewhat paranoid sister Cersei. Sometimes the main characters are players, sometimes they are pawns, and, of course, sometimes they think they are players when they are actually pawns or vice versa, in the vast game of thrones that gave the first volume its title.
George R.R. Martin seemingly entered this particular sub-genre to show the newcomers who started it how these things are really done. A Feast for Crows certainly continues this; while Robert Jordan's Winter's Heart and especially Crossroads of Twilight were long books that seemed short from their dearth of substantive plot, Feast is a meaty read. As is his hallmark, GRRM ensures that every chapter makes a meaningful change to the perspective character's situation, and describes things in detail without becoming bogged down in them.
One area that comes to the fore in Feast and distinguishes his work from that of his contemporaries is in the treatment of gender relations. It becomes clear alongside GRRM's unflinching portrayal of the patriarchal social system that the women of this world are not all willing to take this lying down. Cersei Lannister, Asha Greyjoy and Arianne Martell all aspire to authority and power that may or may not be forthcoming no matter how hard they work or what fortune may befall them (though Arianne's Dorne, at least, practices equal primogeniture). Brienne of Tarth is built to be a knight in all ways besides her sex, and she would like nothing more than to be accepted as a fellow warrior by the men who are knights in name as well as skill. This is in addition to the exiled queen Daenerys Targaryen's travails in previous books as she seeks to lead a group of the famously chauvinistic Dothraki. Also, where many other authors rely on cliches and unrealistic situations when their male and female characters interact with each other, GRRM treats them more realistically. Though certain patterns show up often, they seem to reflect the mores of their society rather than ours.
Nevertheless, the book does end on a somewhat unsatisfying note. Several of the characters end up in true cliff-hanger situations when the book ends, and it's unclear whether they will be resolved in the next book, or if they will remain hanging until the book after that, since A Dance with Dragons will run in parallel with Feast. Impressively, though, it does not feel like any elements are missing during the course of the book, and half of the characters' storylines do wrap up quite well in preparation for the long wait. The book only covers about a year of the five-year gap, if that, so it will be interesting to see what time period is covered by Dance. Overall, Feast is a good continuation of a good series that does a good job of whetting the reader's appetite for more.
The Setup (Spoilers for the previous three books but not A Feast for Crows)
Following the death of King Joffrey, Sansa Stark has escaped with Littlefinger to the Eyrie, seat of House Arryn and home of the sickly Lord Robert Arryn and his mother Lysa, originally of house Tully and Sansa's aunt. Littlefinger married Lysa, to strengthen his claim to the riverlands and bring the lords sworn to House Arryn to the side of House Lannister. Sansa, having escaped from King's Landing on the night of Joffrey's death, is in hiding as Littlefinger's bastard daughter Alayne Stone. After Lysa tries to kill Sansa, Littlefinger kills Lysa and assumes the rule of the Vale of Arryn. However, not all of the Vale lords are happy with their new Lord Protector...
After narrowly avoiding death at the Red Wedding, Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane the Hound stopped at an inn where they fought with three of Sandor's brother Gregor's men, where the Hound was mortally wounded. After leaving him to die, Arya boards a ship bound for the free city of Braavos, paying her fare with the iron coin she received from the Faceless Man, Jaqen H'Ghar...
Distraught after the death of her son, Queen Cersei Lannister finds her dwarf brother Tyrion, condemned for Joffrey's murder, missing, and her father dead, seemingly at Tyrion's hand. Meanwhile, her brother (and lover) Jaime arrives back in King's Landing from his captivity a changed man: missing his sword hand and finding a new sense of real duty. While Jaime is haunted by what Tyrion did after he freed him from the dungeon, and what Tyrion told him while leaving, Cersei works to concentrate her power in court, her sense of paranoia heightened by Joffrey and Tywin's murders. ..
Sworn to find Sansa Stark by both the dead Catelyn Stark and the newly-honourable Jaime Lannister, Brienne of Tarth travels north from King's Landing through the war-torn countryside. The Seven Kingdoms are a dangerous place for a woman travelling alone, but Brienne has her strength and the deadly Valyrian steel sword Oathkeeper, given to her by Jaime Lannister as a sign of his trust...
Samwell Tarly, having helped raise his friend Jon Snow to Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, deals with the aftermath of the battle against the wildlings, which resulted in the capture of their leader, Mance Rayder. Meanwhile, the throne of the Iron Islands is empty, and three members of House Greyjoy struggle to claim it: Lord Balon's daughter Asha, his brother Victarion, and his brother Euron Crows-eye, long exiled from Pyke. And in the south, Princess Myrcella is staying in the court of Prince Doran Martell of Dorne, under whose laws the elder Myrcella has claim to the Iron Throne above her younger brother Tommen. Surrounding the court are the eight bastard daughters of slain Prince Oberyn Martell, hungry for revenge and willing to claim it...
The Events of Feast
I'll be getting most of the important spoilers out of the way first. If you wish to remain unspoilt, stay away from the pipelinks! (props to wrinkly's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince writeup for the format)
Thrones and Alliances
Travels and Travails
Deaths and Disappearances
Battlefields and Intrigues
Analysis (Full Spoilers)
The Dealings of House Lannister
Feast was more Lannister-centric than previous books, with the deeds of Queen Cersei and Ser Jaime taking up more space than those of Sansa and Arya Stark. It thus becomes apparent that they are just as interesting, and just as complex, as the Starks who were the nominal heroes in the previous books. This continues a trend begun in A Storm of Swords, where Jaime Lannister's perspective shows that the callous, flat villain he appeared to be during A Game of Thrones and especially A Clash of Kings was not an accurate reflection of his real character.
It remains an exercise in contrast, however, as the situation of the two families is quite directly opposite. Where the Starks in the first three books were a friendly and fairly harmonious family scattered over the Seven Kingdoms by forces beyond their control, the Lannisters are fractious and antagonistic, but thrust together in the same place by these same forces, also for the most part beyond their control. This division continues in Feast, with Jaime breaking off his incestuous relationship with Cersei that they had shared since they first realised such things were possible.
The true nature of Cersei's character is revealed in this book, in a similar way to how Jaime's was revealed in A Storm of Swords, through the addition of her perspective. Unlike Jaime, she does not become sympathetic; where he is shown to grow into a more compassionate and honourable man, Cersei's hubris combines with our knowledge of her intentions to make her an object of pity. In her paranoia over the deaths of her son and her father, both seemingly at the hands of her brother Tyrion, she surrounds herself with sycophantic toadies and dangerous outcasts, and schemes her way into captivity in the hands of the High Septon.
In particular, she becomes increasingly suspicious of the actions of House Tyrell, especially Joffrey's widow and Tommen's bride Margaery Tyrell. In her youth, Cersei received a prophecy from a hedge maegi telling of a younger, more beautiful queen that would eventually supplant her, among other things that have all come true. I suspect that this queen is actually Daenerys Targaryen, but Cersei does not know Dany as we do and sees Margaery right in front of her. When she attempts to set Margaery up to be imprisoned for fornication and adultery by the zealous new High Septon, Cersei's own use of sexual favours in her pursuit of power becomes known and is grounds for the same treatment as Margaery received. Her paranoia and lust for power alienated even Jaime, who ignores her plea for help following her incarceration.
Jaime continues to be humbled by the loss of his hand in Feast; his left-hand training against the mute headsman Ilyn Payne is a source of great frustration and embarassment. Also, he shows some new-found caution in his dealings at Riverrun. Where an earlier Jaime would have been the first to suggest storming the castle, this Jaime spends much of his time convincing his various relatives not to waste their armies upon Riverrun's walls and the Blackfish's implacable defence. Instead, he defies several of them and convinces Edmure Tully to return to the castle and yield, taking it from Ser Brynden without bloodshed, though the Blackfish himself escapes. It seems that losing his sword hand sapped his confidence in the power of swords to solve any dilemma, opening his eyes to alternate solutions.
The Disguises of House Stark
At the same time, Arya Stark struggled with her identity, after arriving in the Free City of Braavos. When she arrived, she travelled to the temple of the God of Many Faces, to study with the Faceless Men who deliver the God of Many Faces's 'gift' of death. Her choice was influenced by her contact with the Faceless Man taking the name Jaqen H'Ghar whom she met while captive in Harrenhal.
While teaching Arya observation and reconnaissance (not to mention domestic skills), the Faceless Men also try to teach her to let go of her former self and allow herself to become mutable, able to blend into any circumstance by being anybody. Arya initially resists, but eventually throws her possesions into the canal one night, or rather, all of them but her sword Needle, which she hides instead. In this way, she clings to her 'true' identity as the fierce, tough Arya Stark. This resurfaces when she hears from Sam Tarly about a deserter from the Night's Watch who was making his living in as a singer in taverns and brothels; she breaks her disguise as 'Cat of the Canals' and kills him as the due punishment for deserting the Watch. The Faceless Men sent her out in this way to learn how to slip away as a different person, and for this infraction they punish her with blindness; whether this is temporary or permanent is left to the reader's imagination until the next book.
In contrast, Sansa seems to settle into her new identity quite well. In her case, it helps that her assumed personality is similar to her true personality; only her family history, name, and appearance are different. Nevertheless, her disguise is complete enough that it justifies GRRM's change of her chapter heading from 'Sansa' to 'Alayne'. Her story, unlike many of the others', reaches a fairly clear conclusion when Littlefinger brokers her marriage to the heir to the Vale of Arryn. Sansa's apparent claim to Winterfell makes this deal all the stronger, while her brother Bran still appears to be dead.
The Disputes of House Greyjoy
The rough dealings on the Iron Islands mainly concern themselves with the struggle between the three Greyjoy heirs. King Balon's oldest brother Euron Crow's Eye returned from exile the day after Balon's death, an occurence that many believe was more than just a coincidence. To compound things, the Crow's Eye has abandoned the ironmen's Drowned God for his own shadowy philosophy, angering the youngest Greyjoy brother Aeron Damphair, who is a priest of the Drowned God.
At the kingsmoot that Aeron calls, Euron competes with his brother Victarion, who is well-liked by the ironmen, and Balon's daughter Asha. Asha claims she has the strongest claim, being Balon's oldest surviving child, but the ironmen refuse the rule of a woman, even one such as Asha who is the captain of her own ship and a fierce warrior in her own right. The traditionalist Victarion appeared to have the upper hand but Euron wins, not through any argument to legitimacy but with wealth and the promise of more wealth through conquest. This is true to the earlier portrayal of the ironmen and their thirst for plunder.
Euron's exile was precipitated by his seduction of Victarion's wife, dishonouring the younger man, so his ascendence troubled Victarion even as he follows him by his right as King and as elder brother. Thus, a key element of Euron's plan involves keeping Victarion as far away as he can; he sends Victarion to the far east to find Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons, and to seek her hand in marriage for Euron. Predictably, Victarion plans to claim Dany and the dragons for himself, though as we all know she is not going to be content just as a pawn of others.
The Desires of House Martell
With Oberyn Martell's death at the hands of his enemy Gregor Clegane during Tyrion Lannister's trial by combat, many of the Dornish people were calling for action against the Lannisters and the Iron Throne. Chief among these were Oberyn's eight bastard daughters, called the Sand Snakes, and their cousin Princess Arianne Martell, heir to Dorne. Oberyn's brother Doran, reigning Prince of Dorne, though, is a cautious man, and wants no conflict, at least not right away.
When Arianne acts with her lover Ser Arys Oakheart of the Kingsguard to claim the Iron Throne through Prince Doran's ward and Prince Trystane's betrothed, Princess Myrcella, Prince Doran sends his loyal guard captain Areo Hotah to stop them. The struggle creates more trouble for Prince Doran as Ser Arys is slain, and Myrcella maimed. In the end, Prince Doran shows himself as having greater plans against the Iron Throne than even the Sand Snakes; he has been conspiring with the remaining Targaryens for years, to bring a Targaryen king, Viserys, back to the Seven Kingdoms with a Martell bride, Arianne. Naturally, this plan had to change when Khal Drogo killed Viserys way back in A Game of Thrones, so now Doran's elder son Quentyn has gone to seek the hand of the last Targaryen, Daenerys.
In previous volumes, Doran Martell was referred to as a patient, cautious, but devious man. His decade-long conspiracy with the remnants of House Targaryen shows this nature in full flight; few in the Seven Kingdoms have the patience to wait over fifteen years for revenge, and Doran acts ruthlessly to halt interference with this plan. His refusal to claim for the Iron Throne with a Baratheon/Lannister claimant (Myrcella) makes much more sense in light of this plan.
Brienne of Tarth spends the entire book searching north of King's Landing for Sansa Stark. While her various exploits in the company of fellow misfits and outcasts are compelling reading, they seem quite disconnected from the rest of the plot, revealing the fate of several minor characters but little else of broad consequence. Her encounter with the reanimated Catelyn Stark at the end of the book is an interesting if maddeninly inconclusive twist. I suspect that, despite GRRM's willingness to kill off virtually any character to suit the needs of the story, Brienne survives her attempted hanging, since in that way her growth as a character during Feast can become important and not just a source of tragically wasted potential.
The account of Sam Tarly's trip down through Braavos to Oldtown centres on two aspects: Sam's relationship with the wildling girl Gilly whom he rescued, and the last thoughts of the ailing Maester Aemon, who finds a dignified death towards the end of the book. Early on, Gilly finds endless sorrow in the switch of her infant son with that of Mance Rayder and Dalla, for the child's protection from the designs of Melisandre and King Stannis. Sam helped her accept this situation, and a bond developed. Eventually Sam, like his friend Jon in A Storm of Swords with Ygritte, breaks his Night's Watch oath and has sex with Gilly. That GRRM places both of these commited men in situations where love conflicts with duty, where they both make the same choice, shows that he has a point to make: duty is important, but passion is not always to be denied. This is the opposite of what Jaime Lannister experiences, where passion is important, but honour cannot always be subservient.
That Sam resists the many temptations of Braavos, while Dareon his travelling companion does not, shows his commitment to the duty that he was initially forced by his father to take on. Dareon came to the Wall no more willingly than Sam had, but Sam stayed willingly where Dareon stayed only because he had no choice.
Like one would expect for book four of a projected seven, many loose ends remain at the end of the novel. Sansa's fate and Samwell's seem to be fairly well established for the near term, but the other main characters are not so well-defined. We do not know if Brienne really died, or if her last minute statements to Catelyn gained her a reprieve. We do not know if Cersei's stay in the jail of the High Septon will be a terminal one, or if someone will help her out after Jaime's refusal. We do not know if Arya is permanently blinded, and how her transgression will affect her training with the Faceless Men. Finally, we just do not know what Jaime intends to do next.
Less burning questions surround the dealings of the ironmen and the Martells. While there is some doubt about their ability to find Daenerys Targaryen, it is likely that this subject will be treated at some length in A Dance with Dragons. The true whereabouts of Tyrion Lannister will also presumably be revealed, as well as whether Davos the onion knight is truly dead. Unlike the earlier questions, these are not subject to cliffhanger-style suspense.
Conclusion (end of spoilers)
George R.R. Martin delivers a solid continuation of his landmark series with A Feast for Crows. This series continues to hold the possibility to change large-scale epic fantasy more than anything else that's come around since Frodo returned from Mount Doom a changed
manhobbit. Nevertheless, it is a somewhat shortened installment that ends with one too many cliffhangers, a flaw that should hopefully wane over time, but for the moment just heighens the anticipation for A Dance with Dragons; the appetite-whetting should make many fans fervently hope that it is delivered on time in fall of 2006.
This writeup is copyright 2005-2006 D.G. Roberge and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/ .