A Feast for Crows

This week we have A Feast for Crows, fourth in the series A Song of Ice and Fire and also a rare fantasy novel to grab the top spot on The New York Times best seller list. Despite all that, the book annoyed me. I liked it (mostly), but some important factors still got on my nerves. I’ll go ahead and get the main one out of the way.

I’ve complained a lot about the pacing and how I think many chapters only serve to tell us about the setting without actually advancing the plot in any meaningful way. That’s still going on in A Feast for Crows, but this time there’s also a variant on the theme: the slow pacing is no longer just a matter of George R. R. Martin’s writing style and the epic scope he’s aiming for. He’s reached the point where it happens on its own. He already had a huge list of characters in the first book; you’d think that as fast as he kills people off, it’d slim down, but no. We now have more people to follow than ever, and worse, they’re all spread out. Earlier in the series, the action was concentrated in the south at King’s Landing, in the north at the Wall/Winterfell, and in the east wherever Dany happened to be at any given day. The characters played off of one another, letting us see the same events through different eyes. This arrangement also saved time and pages by not having to describe a new setting and culture for every character. Now? Not so much. I admit that it adds to the sense of isolation and loneliness that many characters experience, which is good, but the cost is an unavoidably slow and bloated plot.

Sansa’s at the Eyrie. Arya is at Braavos. Sam briefly meets her but mostly spends his chapters on a ship and then in Oldtown. Jamie starts out in King’s Landing before being sent off to the Riverlands; Brienne is drifting around in that area too, although they never overlap. Cersei is about the only major character left at King’s Landing with chapters of her own. The most interaction we have between main people happens at the Iron Islands with various Greyjoys and at Dorne between the Martells (they’re pretty new to the stage, in case you don’t recognize them). This doesn’t even count the host of new minor characters and all the people we hear about through rumors. The appendix at the back of the book now totals seventy-seven pages worth of names.

With that in mind, I was surprised when many important people weren’t mentioned at all. Where’s Tyrion, or Stannis, or Jon Snow? Dany doesn’t show her face at all. Where’s Bran? We haven’t seen Theon Greyjoy for two books now (I’ll believe he’s dead when I see the body). They’re just not in the book (well, Jon pops on-screen for two of Sam’s early chapters). Here’s what Martin says about that at the end of the novel:

“I did not forget to write about the other characters. Far from it. I wrote lots about them…I was still writing when it dawned on me that the book had become too big to publish in a single volume…To tell all of the story that I wanted to tell, I was going to have to cut the book in two.” And then, explaining how he divided it up: “I felt that the readers would be better served by a book that told all the story for half the characters, rather than half the story for all the characters.”

That plan didn’t work out so well, since I don’t think he told a full story for anyone except possibly Cersei, but I’ll get back to that in a minute.

If I had to sum up A Feast for Crows, it’d be with this: if you can only address half your characters in nearly a thousand pages, then you probably have too many characters. Martin is essentially writing a World War book. I understand the epic story he’s going for; that’s well and good. But he’s spread everything so thin. Even if you have a great memory so no one falls through the cracks, the series has still gotten horribly overstuffed. Barring a mass extinction for two-thirds of the cast, the rest of this story is going to crawl, especially since Martin’s writing style is slowly paced to begin with.

In addition to the new problem of trying to focus on too many things at once, we have the old issue of poorly managing the time Martin does devote to most characters. The book shuffles them around but barely advances the plot in any meaningful way. Some characters develop, yes; that’s its primary saving grace. But the plot? Sadly not. The only truly important thing that happens (in my opinion; this review is as subjective as ever) is the crumbling of the Lannister-Tyrell alliance in King’s Landing (at least, I assume it’s at an end. It’d take a lot of duct tape and wishful thinking to keep those two families together after what’s happened). You could argue that Jamie’s work in the Riverlands is vital to end the war, but from a literary standpoint, it could’ve easily happened off-screen with minor characters, similar to how Martin wrote the siege of Dragonstone. Jamie’s subplot only matters to me because of how he develops; he could’ve gone through the same process pretty much anywhere else without the plot suffering. Similarly, Brienne spends the first half of her story following a dead end. The only thing she gets out of it is a little personal vengeance, which I don’t think justifies the number of pages she essentially wasted. Sure, it’s realistic, but also a terrible use of the book’s limited space.

With the exception of the Lannister-Tyrell disaster, A Feast for Crows just sets up future plot progress. Brienne is in a position to actually do something worthwhile rather than wander around the Riverlands murdering minor characters. Arya might be a little closer to becoming a Faceless Woman. The Iron Islanders are prepared to cause real havoc. Everyone in Dorne is set to…do whatever they’re planning. We know what might happen with Sansa in the upcoming books, barring unexpected changes (which’ll surely be the case; she’s far more likely to end up in a completely different scenario than she is to follow through with Littlefinger’s scheme. If the series so far has proved anything, it’s that very little ever unfolds the way the characters expect).

It’s almost a thousand pages of people walking back and forth with some character evolution sprinkled in.

Speaking briefly of the characters who got left out in the cold: I’m actually glad that Tyrion was absent, believe it or not. Much as I like him, by vanishing he helps reinforce Cersei’s paranoia. Is he still lurking around in King’s Landing, ready to pop through a secret door and shoot her like he did their father? Is he ten thousand miles away? No one knows.

Unfortunately, that good decision is balanced by the horrible choice to barely show the Wall at all. We only see it at the beginning when Sam is leaving. Here’s the problem: for the first three books, Martin kept hammering at the idea that the white walkers in the far north were going to swoop down and kill everybody. The War of Five Kings was pointless because they’d all freeze no matter who sat on the Iron Throne. Winter is coming, winter is coming, winter is coming—I can’t remember how many times I read that phrase. And now a thousand-page book goes by without any mention of that icy apocalypse. Jamie and Sansa both see snow, but neither is freaked out by it. That previous sense of incoming doom has forgotten where it lives and wandered off down the street to someone else’s house. Sure, maybe it’ll find its way back during the next book, but this was a huge mood-killer for me. And the way Martin keeps bringing in new factions halfway through the series, like the Dornish and Ironborn (to be fair, the second group was around before, but they’re getting a lot more screen time now), makes the story feel increasingly cluttered and takes my mind off the past threats.

Despite all the structural flaws I think the book has, I’m still glad I read it, mainly because of the characters. A few of them had some nice development, as I’ve mentioned. Even the ones who didn’t are often fun to watch even if they aren’t accomplishing much. Arya is still entertaining, and the Dornish Sand Snakes are cool. I’d say A Feast for Crows is primarily about Cersei and Jamie, though. They evolve the most and have more interaction while hundreds or thousands of miles apart than any other pair of major characters does face-to-face, so let’s focus on them.

In brief, the queen is going crazy. I can’t really blame her, given that she’s watching her family fall to pieces around her. A dead father, a dead son, a daughter shipped off, a murderous brother, a twin/lover who has changed and no longer understands her—that’s all tough to deal with even without having to rule seven different kingdoms during wartime (well, six, I guess; she’s decided to let the north fend for itself). She finally grabs the power she’s always wanted, yet she’s only slightly better at managing it than Joffrey was. Rampant paranoia is her main problem. The other is that she thinks her court is full of idiots, which isn’t true. She’s so arrogant and underestimates everyone so badly that she can only successfully scheme against people who’re fork-in-an-electrical-outlet stupid, and that character’s been dead for three books now.

Her brother Jamie starts to realize all that, to his benefit and both their tragedy, as the revelation pulls them further apart. While Cersei is in a downward spiral, he’s started to improve. I really like his characterization; he spent his adult life being hated for a genuinely good decision, which molded him into an outwardly flippant but inwardly bitter man who now wants to change his reputation by becoming a strong, fair leader. His father and sister pushed him into most of his past choices, but now one is dead and the other is just a bad day away from burning King’s Landing to the ground. For perhaps the first time in his life, Jamie not only can, but has, to decide what he wants and how he’s going to get it. This results in him moving from a villain to a hero. Unless he dies (that should be the catchphrase for the entire series), he’ll probably be a key figure in the final confrontations and the rebuilding of the world afterwards.

I still wish he’d undergone this transformation while better advancing the plot, but I’ll take what I can get.

So, only one more book and then I’ll have to wait for Martin to release new novels. I found an interview where he said he’s afraid that the HBO series will catch up with him before he finishes book six and seven, and that tells me pretty much all I need to know about the release date. The TV adaption has three completed books left to cover, presumably at a season per book and one season per year. Don’t expect to see the last two novels anytime soon.

Next week will be A Dance with Dragons, the other half of what A Feast for Crows couldn’t cover. I can’t say I’m all that optimistic. Still, it’ll be good to see Tyrion, Varys, and the others again. I just don’t think they’ll accomplish all that much.