Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Feast for Crows

Of all the 4 released books of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire none is more hotly debated amongst fans than the 4th instalment. The first 3 seem to be universally acknowledged as a quality product. Opinion is widely varied on the merits of A Feast for Crows. To fully understand this and even my own view of the book a history lesson is required.

A Game of Thrones came out in 1996, A Clash of Kings in 1998 and A Storm of Swords in 2000. A Feast for Crows in 2005. Why the long break between books 3 and 4? Even this is argued. As I understand it the author had initially intended that there be a 5 year gap between the end of A Storm of Swords and the start of A Feast for Crows (which at the time was still called A Dance with Dragons), Martin had never been totally comfortable with the relative youth of some of his principals and he now acknowledges that he made them too young to begin with, however hindsight is a wonderful thing, and Martin’s preferred style of working with a rough outline lends itself to this type of problem. To solve the problem he introduced the now infamous 5 year gap, he was going to fill in the blanks with ‘flashbacks. Around 18 months into the process he realised it wasn’t working, scrapped what he’d done and went back to the drawing board. This approach was not without it’s own set of problems and seriously altered how the author viewed his own work.

4 years after the release of A Storm of Swords the natives were getting restless, and Martin decided that half a book was better than no book at all and released A Feast for Crows. Not necessarily a bad idea and may have worked, except that he decided to leave out Jon Snow, Dany and Tyrion, 3 of the series most popular characters. (Note: Jon does appear in the book. It’s briefly early on and it isn’t in his own PoV chapter). To make up for their absence he introduced 2 new PoV (Point of View) characters; Brienne and Cersei. There were also a whole bunch of ‘one-shot’ PoV’s.

Feast isn’t actually a bad book, well not in my opinion. However compared to the 3 that came before it, it doesn’t stack up that well. There’s far too much filler. Did we really need Brienne’s travelogue? It’s been said this was to illustrate the state of the country and the small folk from the wars that had been raging. I seem to remember much of Arya’s storyline in A Clash of Kings doing this. I personally like Brienne, but a lot of other readers don’t seem to, and giving her a PoV may have been stretching the friendship a bit too far. It didn’t help that the readers were aware that she was on a fool’s errand. Readers knew that Sansa was in the Eyrie, masquerading as Littlefinger’s ‘natural’ daughter; Alayne, and that Arya was in Braavos training as a Faceless Man. The Cersei chapters didn’t really work either. Readers knew that she was a poor ruler and had been crazy and paranoid ever since Joffrey’s death, the loss of her father was only going to make her leadership worse and make her loonier. It didn’t need to be spelled out and seeing her lurch from one mistake to the next became rather tedious.

The one-shot PoV’s were odd, filled with unlikeable characters about whom readers didn’t really seem to care. They could have easily been condensed into two chapters; one for Dorne and the other for the Iron Islands. They reeked off filler to me. Feast was definitely in need of a ruthless editor, it reads like it was author edited.

It does have good points and it’s better on a reread. By this stage you know it’s not the full story, you can skip over Brienne asking about a maiden of 3 and 10 every time she encounters a new person, you can gloss over Cersei’s nuttiness.
I also liked two of the returning PoV’s. One was Arya. George has sometimes said that he has difficulty writing the juvenile PoV’s. I believe this mostly refers to Bran, but as Arya is only 11 years old at the end of A Feast for Crows it must also apply to her. Bran’s chapters sometimes lag, but Arya’s never do. Her chapters always hit me hardest and this is no exception. One of them in this book has made me cry every single time I’ve read it. Arya also has the advantage of operating in Braavos and this lets the author introduce a fascinating new Venicesque city to his readers, something he does brilliantly.

Then there’s Sansa (I can hear the groans from here). I like Sansa, I’ve never understood the dislike to hatred for her. I enjoy her chapters in A Feast for Crows, as she slowly starts to learn the ‘game’ from Littlefinger and her love hate relationship with young Robert 'Sweetrobin' Arryn. Many people say that the Sansa chapters are deadly boring (in fact I’ve seen someone refer to them as ‘Sansa’s Adventures in Babysitting), I’ve never seen them that way. The Vale is like a country all on it’s own and I find it interesting to explore that society, plus I loved Lady Myranda (call me ‘Randa) and hope that readers get to see more of her in The Winds of Winter, when Sansa will return (her chapters were moved from A Dance with Dragons for reasons of length and the fact that she didn’t have any real cliffhanger endings to resolve).

In conclusion A Feast for Crows is definitely a flawed entry, but it’s not as bad as many make it out to be. I’d suggest reading it as part of the ongoing series to see the stories through, but reread it when you have time in order to fully appreciate it and it’s place in the series as a whole.

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