George R. R. Martin: A Feast for Crows

Elizabeth Vail wrote this review.

So far, with the previous three novels in George R. R. Martin’s gargantuan A Song of Ice and Fire series, the author has deftly managed to maintain a semblance of organization over the sprawling, multilayered saga of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. However, in A Feast for Crows, there is a troubling sense that the wheels on this fantastically complex machine are beginning to loosen.

First of all, half of the main characters from the other novels are not present. George R. R. Martin’s original manuscript for the novel to follow A Storm of Swords was so long that he decided to split the differing points of view into two books. A Feast for Crows holds the adventures of Arya and Sansa Stark, Samwell Tarly, Jaime Lannister, and for the first time, Cersei Lannister. Jon, Daenerys, Tyrion, Stannis, Melisandre, and Davos will have their say in the next novel, A Dance of Dragons. Both books are to take place over the same time period, but with different characters narrating the events.

In A Feast for Crows, however, there are new points of view from formerly minor characters. While at the head of each chapter in the first novels, the names were straightforward — Sansa, Ned, Jaime, etc, in this novel, the chapter labels become more cryptic as the characters don aliases or new titles. Now some chapters are headed Queenmaker, The Prophet, The Drowned Man, Cat of the Canals, The Soiled Knight, and so on. While it becomes clear by reading the few first paragraphs which character is leading the chapter, it seems needlessly confusing.

Interestingly enough, in this novel Cersei is more or less the focal character. In the previous books, Cersei was the villainous and incestuous Queen who orchestrated the death of King Robert Baratheon to place her son Joffrey (the product of a union between her and her twin brother Jaime) on the throne. However, in A Feast for Crows, Cersei is unmanned by the murder by poison of her precious firstborn. This hinders her attempts to gain power as Queen Regent to her younger son Tommen, as she is gradually devoured by paranoia and suspicion. Her instability is only heightened by the disappearance of both her brother Tyrion (whom she believes is Joffrey’s murderer) and her informer Varys, and hires shady maester Qyburn to replace Varys, in return for allowing him to conduct mysterious experiments on human subjects in the dungeons.

Meanwhile, Sansa has become accustomed to her new identity as Alayne, bastard daughter of Petyr Baelish, and finds herself an accomplice to his plans to gain control of the Vale. Arya, using the iron coin and the words “valar morghulis” given to her by assassin Jaqen H’ghar, makes her way to Braavos. Once there, she becomes a novice in the Temple of the God of Many Faces, to learn how to deal in death. Brienne, the lady warrior who swore to find Lady Catelyn’s daughters, sets out at Jaime’s command to locate Sansa (who, being married to Tyrion, is considered an accomplice in Joffrey’s death) and protect her from those who seek to turn her in for the Queen’s reward. Back at King’s Landing, Jaime has to come to grips with the loss of his sword-hand and the fact that his sister Cersei is no longer the sister he fell in love with. Samwell Tarly is also ordered by Jon to go to Oldtown with Gilly and her infant child to become a Maester to replace the dying Aemon.

Of course, other dangers are surfacing as well. Giant packs of wolves, lead by a monstrous female direwolf — who may or may not be Arya’s lost pet Nymeria — terrify the common folk. Outlaws, led by Beric Dondarrion and a mysterious woman known as Stoneheart, are abducting and hanging Frey and Lannister soldiers. Rebels in Dorne seek to declare royal hostage Mycella Queen to gain power over Westeros. Soldiers from the Iron Islands begin a quest to conquer the mainland. And “sparrows”, impoverished monks and nuns tired of war, begin to make their presence known in inconvenient ways.

A Feast for Crows is still entertaining, and George R. R. Martin’s smooth prose never fails to excite. However, new subplots, characters and ideas continue to be introduced to the narrative when so many other threads remain frustratingly unfinished. The narrative is beginning to become bloated, with layer after layer of political intrigue and mystery becoming hopelessly tangled. One needed a healthy memory to understand the events in the previous three novels, but with A Feast for Crows, the amount of detail threatens to exceed the average reader’s ability to keep track of the goings-on. The novel ends with sharp cliff-hangers, but offers little or no closure, revelation or satisfaction that would allow such a novel to stand by itself. This, combined with the knowledge that the forthcoming A Dance of Dragons will only repeat the same timeline through the eyes of different characters, instead of forwarding the narrative, left this reader feeling rather disappointed.

This reader’s advice would be to hold off on reading A Feast for Crows until A Dance of Dragons comes out next year, to read them both back-to-back. Perhaps reading the entire story will be enough to sate the hunger for the next complete A Song of Ice and Fire novel.

(Bantam Spectra, 2005)

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