A Feast for Crows
By George R.R. Martin
Bantam Spectra, 2005
George R.R. Martin has seduced readers worldwide with his best-selling Song of Fire and Ice series, which explores a medieval world's magical reawakening and a kingdom torn asunder by war.
But when it comes to literary seduction, Martin is more of a sadistic lover than a gentle courtier with pretty prose. He hurts you and you love him for it. He breaks your heart when you fall in love with his heroes, and steals your innocence when you fall in love with his villains. He teases, taunts, and even tortures you before delivering that earth-shattering climax.
His latest installment, A Feast for Crows, picks up where the series ended five years ago. The War of the Five Kings has been whittled down to a struggle of three. A boy-king, Tommen, sits the Iron Throne with Queen Cersei as Regent, and her brother commanding the Kingsguard. The Lannisters look like the probable winners of the contest set up in the first book of the series, A Game of Thrones. This was not, of course, how the reader would have itóLannister treachery should never pay off in a world that is fair. But each of Martin's tomes demands complete submission to the rules of his world: Life is unfair, choices have real consequences, and there are no sacred cows.
Because of this, some readers might draw the mistaken conclusion that Martin simply enjoys killing his darlings. But Martin kills to teach important and painful lessons. While his characters become embroiled in petty politics, family quarrels, and the struggle for a throne that no one even really wants to sit on, old forces of nature are moving against them. And no one, not even the reader, wants to pay attention. Buried beneath the medieval heraldry is a reflection of our own society's ambivalent political response to climate change and other global forces. One cannot help but observe how frequently Martin flogs us with the refrain, Winter Is Coming.
Unfortunately, in A Feast for Crows, Martin may have finally crossed the line from discipline to outright abuse. The difficulties that delayed the novel's publication are still evident in the manuscript, and some fans will undoubtedly feel let down.
After making readers wait five years after the seismic events of A Storm of Swords, he makes the unconscionable choice to further delay reader gratification. Up until now, the main focus of the series has been the Starks and the tragedies that befell them. But A Feast for Crows introduces new threads covering peripheral plotlines that in no way satisfy reader blood-lust.
True, after the now infamous Red Wedding, some readers would not be satisfied unless a Frey was murdered every other chapter. But Martin barely gives a cursory nod to the vengeance that readers have a right to expect.
And the problem is not that "the best" characters are missing. Jaime Lannister is complex enough to carry an entire book by himself. Nor is the problem, as many critics have claimed, that A Feast for Crows was once a larger book that Martin split so as to cover the complete storylines of half the main characters. The problem is that the book doesn't complete or significantly advance the storyline of almost any character. Instead, Martin resets his already overcrowded stage with a panoply of new people and locales.
One oft-explored theme of his series is excess. The Mountain is too large. The Imp is too small. Ned and Robb Stark suffer from excess honor, Jaime Lannister from excess familial attachment, Theon Greyjoy from excess pride.
A Feast for Crows falls victim to an excess of world-building. Martin slows the thunderous pace of the series and expands the scope of his work well beyond the comfort level of any reader without a photographic memory. (It's telling that the appendix is now sixty-four pages, more than three times as long as the appendix in the first book, when the world was new.)
Reportedly, Martin originally intended to skip several years ahead in the story so as to age his protagonist Stark children to a point where they would be able to more fully influence the world. If it is true that his fans talked him out of it, Martin would have been better served by following his own instincts, because A Feast for Crows sometimes reads as if it were merely marking time.
To be fair, the book suffers under the weight of nearly crippling expectations after its show-stopping predecessors. And there may be a method to this world-building madness. Viewed from a meta-angle, perhaps A Feast for Crows asks us to remember that our collective story, the story of our world, is greater than the story of our individual struggles. We ignore that at our peril.
And in spite of its flaws, A Feast for Crows, is still vintage Martin, with complex characterization, gritty realism, and rich historical detail. Few scenes in any book are as satisfying as the twisted comeuppance of Queen Cercei, and the novel continues to weave stories of human frailty and betrayal into the rich tapestry that is the Song of Ice and Fire.
At worst, this novel is only the weakest link of one of the finest epic fantasies ever written. And since, with Martin, there is never pleasure without pain, his next installment will give him a chance to prove he still knows best.
After all, he is still the master.