After the blistering action that permeated A Storm of Swords, that the next book would be comparatively sleepy is not at all shocking. Certainly friends of mine who are fans of George RR Martin’s series warned that this book was the most worthless of the saga – if you were going to get a thumbs down, it would be here. Is A Feast for Crows the least of the four books? It is tempting to say so – but in another sense it is kind of unfair. That said, it is rather odd to have the fourth book in a series sort of stop and deal with exposition and set-up. Martin, in his narrative choice to split the books by the arena – has introduced some disruption into the narrative. I’m not sure if it will pay off necessarily, but the end result is a book which is partly an extension of the series to date, as well as planting the embers of different players – sort of like Book 4 of one series with Book One of other plot threads working at the same time.
As mentioned above, the action after the events of the previous book split into two venues, the stuff above the Wall, and the stuff in the South, covered here. When we left off here of course, Tyrion Lannister had given his father an unsavory sendoff – throwing the kingdom into even more chaos, and has since made his escape somewhere at large. Needless to say, Cersei is distraught, but also terribly unwilling to cede control (or anything else) with the kingdom to anybody – least of all the Tyrell’s, the family of Margaery, King Tommen’s bride. Her moves here (to be discussed after the spoiler warning) supply much of the court intrigue in in the book. As a main throughline, this is totally absorbing and very much in line with the work Martin has done in the first three books. As is the pattern before, Martin is very much concerned with justice – not so much justice as in moral rightness, but that the folks who avoid stupidity have just results. Indeed, Cersei’s actions seem to point to the sort of things that would not go well – indeed breaking a particular tradition comes back to bite her.
The quirk of the book though is that while this thread is there, and we get to follow some of the folks we had followed previously (Jaime, Brienne, Arya, Sansa) – at the same time, Martin offers closeups into newer factions – so many that the book, unlike A Storm of Swords, is not at all free standing – and sort of incomplete. You definitely have to be knee deep into the saga to get any sort of orientation. Fortunately, that does describe yours truly. Of course, here is where the obligatory spoiler warning comes and we go to bullets to describe plot points:
- Cersei is a piece of work. If you did not read the books, you might think she’s crazy. Personally, she is very very angry – and acting in a way like the woman without release. I have seen the comparison with Betty Draper in Mad Men as particularly apt. Cersei has been promised to people before, she has not had many rights of her own. Indeed, when she tried to be in charge and get her uncle’s help, her uncle was downright insolent to her – where is the respect? Of course, throwing out all qualified advisors and surrounding herself with yes men and feeding her paranoias are all not a good way of handling it. But Martin does a good job of highlighting the axe she has to grind.
- Meanwhile Jaime’s reaction to Tywin’s death is peculiarly more subdued. He is sad, but he also sort of let Tyrion escape. Indeed he seems less involved with the gig and further detached from his old role and relationships. Sometimes, it seems like his time with Brienne, with her real earnest belief in the Knight’s code, affected him – especially as it contrasts with the scheming of him and his folks. When Jaime is assigned the role of trying to lift the seige on Riverrun, he seems to see it as a chance to reclaim his own glory and rebuild his knightiness. With Ilyn Payne as an aide, he tries to regain his swordsmanship. He frees Harrenhal at the same time while taking a side trip to Darry. But in Riverrun, while he gets the job done, he lets Brynden escape as he spared Hoster Tully. Indeed, it is a small miracle that Tully has not been killed by anybody, whether it be Jaime here or the Freys previously.
- It is hard not to sympathize with Sansa. Her life path had not given her many survival skills, and men have been feeding her various lines of bullshit for a long time. So what happens? She is now tied to Baelish, one of the more scheming schemers out there – certainly foolhardy to be expecting much truth here. That said, Sansa at least knows where here survival is – so she is a good caretaker to Robert Arryn, and tries to do the right thing. But then when Baelish offers his scheme – is that a claim for Sansa? Baelish’s claim to the North makes sense in theory – but when seeing what happened to Winterfell and beyond, one is skeptical that this plan would actually go anywhere.
- Arya fortunately has a story that is consistent – but at this point I have no idea exactly how Martin expects to tie this back. Her adventures in Braavos are pretty cool – and the work with the Faceless Ones have a whiff of the classic martial arts origin story, like in Kill Bill 2. But what of the wolf dreams? We know Bran and Jon have them – and Arya clearly has them too, but she doesn’t seem to have any recognition. The Faceless Ones are trying to get rid of people’s past – start them as blank slates – can Arya really do this? It does not seem that the ability to free her mind is remotely possible.
- The rest of the threads are interesting in and of themselves, but after so many players have been introduced – I am not sure whether the Iron Islanders or the Dornes have plans that work? Doran Martell’s idea in particular is far fetched – especially as we know Viserys’ fate. It is a little distracting to start in detail with this without payoff – I just don’t know the path that Martin has that does not seem wildly confusing.
- Euron has seen dragons though, so maybe he is a more effective possibility to win the throne than anyone else in the Kingsmoot, but who knows. By the way, it was funny how the Kingsmoot was so built up as this special ceremony and God speaking. Frankly it seemed to be like a beachside version of the 1968 Democratic Convention or something – just pandemonium resulting in something or other. I got a giggle from that.
- Brienne’s journey is the hardest to see in terms of connection. Did Martin just want to offer travelogue? Brienne’s oafish sense of virtue is admirable – but I’m not sure what it means plotwise, if anything. Maybe it was just to show us Lady Stoneheart – who is pretty darn angry herself. Of course, you get your throat slit, it makes sense. Of course, Stoneheart is Thoros of Myr re-animated Catelyn. Her last memory was the Red Wedding of course, and retribution is all she seems focused on – alas Brienne wrong place, wrong time.
- Maybe the only reason for the Brienne sequence is to see the Red Magic at work. The book is notably “occult” free – seems like with Stannis going to the Wall, the next book will be where all that comes to a head. But with the central mystery of the book being the magic threads along with the dragons and their relation with an otherwise typical story of geopolitical intrigue, it is interesting. It almost feels that much of the action here could be subsumed by larger, truly cosmic events beyond anyone’s control. We have seen the Old Gods act, and we know Red Magic has pop. The Drowned God is a little less certain, and the Sept just seem like a basic religion without any actual magic juice. Are these different forces, or are they part of a piece. Is there a real way to control things? All of that might destroy all of these petty concerns the kings have – but without knowing this book offers little insight.
- And then there is the matter of dragons. We remember the third book, and hear whispers of what a game changing force dragons are – like imagine some of the sentiment early on with the Heat after they landed LeBron James. In the fourth book, while we get almost no magic, we get a lot of word of dragons. In Sam’s voyage, where we get some hints at Red Magic (in why Jon switched babies), we also hear of dragons – and we see one of the more renegade Maesters in OldTown listening intently. (we also get a dude named Pate, who is clearly a faceless one in hiding – but why is he there?) And of course Euron Greyjoy talks of dragons during the Kingsmoot in the Iron Islands. Are the dragons earthly? (just rare) Or is there a connection with the divine forces?