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A Feast for Crows by George R. R. MartinUK edition3.5 stars

[All of my reviews of the books in this series appear here as originally written for the site, upon my first readings of each book, without any reference to or influence from the subsequent HBO series.]

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsTo call this book “long-awaited” would be to display the inadequacy of language to convey the often inexpressible extremes of human experience. But George R. R. Martin, a master of language, puts it in its simplest terms on his acknowledgments page: “This one was a bitch.” The five-year wait fans had to endure as Martin wrote, rewrote, cut, pasted, whipped, mashed, pureéd, and otherwise dragged this novel kicking and screaming into existence might be described by some as slightly less excruciating than the Bataan Death March. But few gave up hope, even if, as Martin threw himself into his gargantuan epic, most of them climbed the walls like ADHD-afflicted Peter Parkers deprived of their Ritalin.

Now the wait has ended, with Martin finding himself not at all out of the woods by a long chalk. With such a wait — especially for such a series — expectations are going to be high. Perhaps impossibly high. Let’s say, stratospheric. Or perhaps, out by one of the Lagrange points. And with some of the decisions Martin had to make simply to get this story out to the public at all, there is likely to be a vocal backlash from some. More on that in a moment.

Unused coverThe problem proved to be exactly what I was predicting in my review of A Storm of Swords: the series got too goddamn big. Certainly, there are numerous fantasy series out there with more books in them. Robert Jordan swore he would give the trees of the world a break after his twelfth volume (though it ended up at fourteen all told), and writers like Piers Anthony and L. E. Modesitt seem never to have heard the word “ending” in their lives. But with many epic fantasy series, the size is mere bloat, their ongoing stories merely directionless retreads of the same tired ideas, miles wide and all of an inch deep. With A Song of Ice and Fire, the size, the scope is the real thing throughout. You want width and depth? You’re looking at the Pacific Ocean of fantasy sagas here. And with no fewer than ten story threads running through Storm throughout an over-1000 page length, I was not the only reader (judging by some conversations I’ve had and e-mails I’ve gotten) concerned over whether Martin could keep it up. After all, A Song of Ice and Fire didn’t just raise fantasy’s literary bar. It became the bar. And that’s a big reputation to live up to, even for the strongest of writers. 

With A Feast for Crows, Martin found himself faced with so many characters and so many stories to tie together that, after half a decade of struggling with this Gordian knot of his own making, he made a crucial decision: to cut it. The unfinished storylines and their characters were simply held until the next volume, A Dance with DragonsFeast’s length is closer to that of A Game of Thrones than Storm, which might seem disappointing after such a long wait. Many fans, I’m sure, were expecting something about the size of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. But I think it was a better choice for the story — or, to put it more aptly, this installment of the metastory. Considering that the Feast we’ve finally gotten is the redacted text of what was meant to be a much larger book, its most impressive quality may well be how smoothly it flows and how concise its narrative is.

If A Song of Ice and Fire can be boiled down to a single theme, it’s a monumental study of power, with each novel exploring that coveted prize from a different perspective. Feast’s principal theme can be reflected in the old adage “Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown.” In this novel, power, something we’ve seen so many men and women fight and die to obtain, is the most fragile thing one can possess. No one in this story who rules does so from a position of security. You can never know whom to trust. There is always an ambitious and treacherous someone smiling to your face and scheming once your back is turned. And in the end, a crow will feast upon kings and beggars alike. 

The book opens with a flurry of new characters introduced (a necessary device, as most of the leads from the first three novels are now dead), some old minor characters increased in prominence, and several chapters of relative calm across the land following nonstop war and calamity. Some new points of view help Martin efficiently recap key plot points that may have slipped many readers’ minds over half a decade. 

As the story opens, word has not had time to reach the outlying kingdoms of Westeros that Lord Tywin Lannister has been ignominiously slain on his privy. Cersei Lannister, on the verge of losing it completely after Joffrey’s murder, has pulled herself together and is determined to rule King’s Landing as Queen Regent until her youngest son Tommen comes of age. And she intends to rule with an iron fist that would do Lord Tywin proud. But even from the presumed safety of the Red Keep, she must deal with the unsubtle machinations of the ambitious Tyrells. And she’s obsessed with finding her fugitive brother, Tyrion, who did kill Tywin and is accused of killing Joffrey.

So the rest of Westeros is concerned with how to deal with King’s Landing. Stannis Baratheon has installed himself at the Wall in the far north, and considers himself king of all Westeros. Jon Snow, now Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, is petitioning lords in the north to see who will ally with him and Stannis against the Lannisters, and he isn’t meeting with much success. Off on the bleak and craggy Iron Islands, the fanatical Greyjoys are deciding upon their new king, and desire nothing less than to renew their rebellion and conquer Westeros. Far to the south in Dorne, the ailing Prince Doran Martell finds himself alone in his allegiance to Tywin, while the rest of his family and subjects demand war in revenge for the death of their beloved Prince Oberyn. Other familiar characters are shown undertaking personal quests. Brienne, the rough-hewn warrior woman from Tarth who joined the late Catelyn Stark’s service after being falsely accused of murdering Renly Baratheon, searches far and wide for Catelyn’s missing daughter Sansa. Sansa herself is still holed up at the Eyrie, in disguise. And Sansa’s lone wolf sister, Arya (who believes all her family is dead but for Jon Snow), has sailed across the sea to the exotic city of Braavos, where a new life and uncertain destiny awaits. 

Some readers might be disappointed that we don’t see much of the bloody and violent action of previous volumes in Feast. There’s a lot of exposition, as Martin has to bring us up to speed not only on the characters we remember, but on the new ones he’s introducing. Martin’s skill at combining expert world building with compelling storytelling remains virtually unchallenged in all fantasy, but it does mean that we get quite a few lengthy passages in which characters exchange history-lessonish dialogue to convey the complexity of the political realities they face. I’ve seen this sort of thing done in fully-automatic Bore You to Death Mode, and I’m happy to report Martin is still too on-the-ball to fall into that common trap. Still, it must be said, Feast has its dry stretches. The explosive and bravura setpieces from previous novels — the Battle of Blackwater, the Red Wedding, just about everything that took place north of the Wall in Storm — have been set aside in favor of straightforward dramatic scenes which, for the most part, eschew shocking violence for more subtle human interplay. 

But readers dismayed that we have a less visceral epic here will be failing to see the forest for the trees. Martin is consistent to a fault. Remember where we are in the story: the war, except for isolated skirmishes, is over, and now everyone is trying to pick up pieces and determine their most favorable alliances. The dramatic interplay here is as engrossing as anything Martin has written before. You’ll be delighted to see Cersei is in cast-iron bitch mode from almost the instant she appears. (Do I have to mention she gets all the best scenes?) And the addition of new characters onto Martin’s already crowded stage has given the saga a healthy shot in the arm. Among these new faces, the most interesting is perhaps Asha Greyjoy, the self-styled Kraken’s Daughter. Asha considers herself the rightful heir to the Iron Islands, and yet no woman has ever ruled House Greyjoy. In her single-minded determination and courage in flaunting traditions and expectations, Asha is almost as strong a heroine as Daenerys Targaryen. Would that we saw more of her.

And yet, speaking of Daenerys, we now come to the other thing about Feast likely to cause wailing and tooth-gnashing among some fans. Which is that the saga’s two most compelling and extraordinary characters, Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister, aren’t in this book. Theirs were among the story threads Martin had yet to finish, and thus held back until book five (and a preview chapter from the next book, which appears at the end, is a Dany-viewpoint chapter). Even some other favorites, like Jon Snow, are hardly seen at all. But what is interesting is the way in which Martin makes both Daenerys’ and Tyrion’s presense felt all throughout the narrative. Rumors of the queen with three dragons have made their way to Westeros via hundreds of chatty sailors. And there’s hardly a soul in the story who isn’t after Tyrion, for whose head Cersei has promised a lordship. Knowing how upset some readers are going to be over fan-faves going AWOL, Martin tosses in an explanatory afterword, perhaps in an effort to forestall histrionic e-mails.

If A Feast for Crows is only a transitional volume in this gigantic saga, it is still a story told with as much passion and humanity as Martin has brought to any previous volume. And it adds much detail and texture to an already rich and layered world. The choices of what to cut and what to hold back obviously were not easy ones, considering the book’s long and frustrating gestation. But readers who have managed to avoid building up unrealistic expectations will find that Martin has brought his story to a necessary, believable, and appropriate pass. In the aftermath of catastrophic war, in the endless, vain and violent quest for power and more power, no matter whose banners are flying at the end of the day, there are no real winners. Except the crows. 

Followed by A Dance with Dragons.