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Book Review: A Feast for Crows, George R. R. Martin

Compared to the first three books in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, A Feast for Crows took me a long time to finish – I am talking  months. Not because it was slow, ponderous, or a boring read – quite the contrary – it is such an accomplishment. I think I took so much time (reading almost a dozen books concurrently) in order to savour and appreciate the new depths and richness of this ever-expanding tale, it’s cast of characters, and the complexities that Martin introduces.

For this novel elevates the plots and cunning of desperate men and women to a new level. We left the action in book three with King Stannis on the Wall, Sansa Stark disguised as Petyr Baelish’s bastard daughter, Samwell Tarly voyaging to distant lands on a mission from Lord Commander, Jon Snow, and Arya Stark now in the East, about to join a strange cult. Then there was the shocking death of Tywin Lannister and Tyrion’s role in that, and the consequences of Daeneyrs ruthless march across the East to contend with as well – and that’s before we consider what all the others characters such as the Greyjoys, those in Dorne and other places were up to.

This book, instead of concentrating on the entire cast of Song, only deals with half of them. Until I reached the end of the book and saw Martin’s explanation for this, I was feeling cheated! But having now read the first few chapters of Dance With Dragons (which occurs concurrently and then joins the timeline and forges ahead) I understand why. Nonetheless, despite the meatiness of this book, there is a sense of a tale half told – and I am not sure, having set up a different mode of telling and accustoming readers to it, that it worked as well.

But I am being picky. Very picky. And that’s because Martin sets the bar so high for himself and our expectations – and, despite my reservations he does deliver. This novel is both about physical quests and the psychological and emotional toll they exact and the inner growth or lack thereof that they facilitate in those undertaking them, and a study of power and its effects: on the wielder and those upon whom it is exerted.

While Feast explores twelve characters in the saga intensively, I felt, Cerei Lannister was the star, possibly because so many of the central characters are connected to or reliant upon her in some way. Now Queen Regent to her eight year old son, Tommen, we see Cersei in her element, and her determination to seize complete power at any cost. Refusing to listen to advisors and the rift between her and the now handicapped Jamie growing, we witness her slow unravelling. Taking terrible measures to protect her remaining children’s future and her fledgling awareness of her own vulnerability, despite the trappings of authority, Cersei’s story is a tour de force of how absolute power corrupts absolutely. I can only imagine what her downfall and comeuppance will be like, for I’ve no doubt, she will receive them in the way only Martin can deliver and not in due course.

The novel also follows the warrior-maid, Brienne of Tarth, and her quest to find Sansa Stark and we grow to appreciate even more her nobility and loyalty to not only Catelyn, but Jamie Lannister as well. Her sufferings, because of her ethics, gender and sex, and determination to continue are heart-wrenching and her outsider status is both highlighted and sympathetically explored. Along with Tyrion Lannister, I think Brienne of Tarth is a rare and composite character who engages with the reader and who arouses both protective feelings and a sense of wanting them to have the opportunity to prove to the world that they are more than they seem and much  more than anyone gives them credit for.

The story of Sansa Stark is also fascinating. Now styled as the bastard daughter of Lord of the Eyrie, Petyr Baelish, Sansa tries to forget her origins and assert her new identity and care for the simpering child of her Aunt. It is through Sansa’s story that Littlefinger’s strategies and conniving come to the fore. Sansa would be easy to dismiss as one of the more lightweight characters populating an epic where these are scarce, but Martin lets us know in Feast that to do that would be to underestimate this young woman: after all, she is a Stark.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and the magnificent writing, action and dialogue, I confess, I missed Tyrion and Daeny and wanted to know what was happening on The Wall and in the lands beyond. I also felt that the novel again became bogged in details about minor characters and their political and other allegiances. Though I can appreciate the violent, greedy Greyjoys and the sea-culture that formed them, I find that part of the novel less intriguing than the others and look forward to those chapters ending. That said, I also understand and am in awe of Martin’s ability to construct and manage this unbelievably intricate world and even the parts I don’t enjoy as much do add to the whole, giving it a verisimilitude that is likely unparalleled in a great deal of fantasy literature.

Overall, utterly magnificent. My awe for this writer’s imagination and capacity to create just grows with each book.

 

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