Review of George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows
The Seven Kingdoms enter a state of uncertainty following the deaths of Tywin Lannister and his grandson Joffrey Baratheon, the king. Cersei steps in to rule as regent for her younger son, Tommen, and schemes to pacify the continuing rebellions in Westeros. Sansa and Arya Stark both adopt new identities in their bid to remain alive after the collapse of their house with the latter seeking refuge Braavos. Brienne of Tarth and Jamie Lannister go on separate missions, each trying in some way to regain their honor by trying to fulfill vows. Meanwhile, in the Iron Islands and in Dorne, there are attempts to shake up the ruling families, and in each case one party has hitched their hopes on the incoming rumors of Daenerys and her Dragons. From the Wall, Sam is sent south to become a maester and taking special persons whom Jon does not want in the hands of Melisandre, the Red Lady, an uncompromising priestess who advises Stannis.
The Way the Crows Fly
The central concern for the whole of the novel is the search for direction and leadership; it colors everything that takes place, from the highest political level to internal, personal developments. For instance, all of Brienne’s chapters revolve around her promise to find and rescue Sansa Stark even though she has no idea where the girl might be. Similarly, Sansa and Arya take on new names and new roles as they try to find a place in the world even as they try to stay true to themselves. In Arya’s Case she refuse to get rid of Needle because it’s more than just a sword. She says, “Needle was Robb and Bran, and Rickon, her mother and her father, even Sansa. Needle was Winterfell’s grey walls, and the laughter of its people. Needle was summer snows Old Nan’s stories, the heart tree with its red leaves and scary face” (320). No matter how much she tries to change, something essentially “Arya” remains and gives her focus.
On the large scale, there is Tywin’s death. Because he was the true power behind Joffrey’s rule his loss means a substantial detriment to the security and leadership of the Seven Kingdoms. His ruthlessness and wealth made Tywin and efficient administrator for the kingdom, and it quickly becomes apparent that Cersei lacks his talents. She, at least, understands what his death means when she thinks, “Now there is a hole in the world where Father stood, and holes want filling . If Tywin Lannister was truly dead, no one was safe” (48). This feeling of upheaval reaches out across the Iron Islands, Dorne, and the Vale, all of which experience similar political turmoil at the loss of significant political figures. Each similar scenario provides a foil to Cersei’s foolhardy attempt to fill her father’s shoes: the Iron Island calls a warriors’ council to find a new king, and Dorne has a coup ended before it gets underway. Only Petyr Baelish in the Vale manages to turn events to his advantage though his wits, the law, and knowing how to play on the desires and fears of everyone around him.
Perhaps the best understanding of the sense of loss and insecurity that pervades the novel comes from a wandering priest named Meribald who explains the difference between bandits and broken men. Outlaws and bandits enjoy the killing and are motivated by greed or bloodlust or hate. Broken men, however, were once just simple people:
Brothers march with brothers, sons with fathers, friends with friends. They’ve heard the songs and stories, so they go off with eager hearts, dreaming of the wonders they will see, of the wealth and glory they will win [....] Brothers watch brothers die, fathers lose their sons, friends see their friends trying to hold their entrails in after they’ve been gutted by an axe [....] If they want new boots or a warmer cloak or maybe a rusted halfhelm, they need to take them from a corpse, and before long they’re stealing from the living too, from the smallfolk whose lands they’re fighting in, men very like the men they used to be. They slaughter their sheep and steal their chickens, and from there it’s just a short step to carrying off their daughters too. And one day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner they hardly recognize. They don’t know where they are or how to get back home [....] And the man breaks [....] All thought of home is gone by then, and kings and lords and gods mean less than a haunch of spoiled meat that will let him live another day [....] The broken man lives from day to day, from meal to meal, more beast than man. (374-5)
The erosion of civil order and humanity caused by the chaos and uncertainty of conflict is evident. Devastation is not limited to the land as seen in the previous novels in the Song of Ice and Fire. The social and human toll comes into clearer focus, and the suggestion that life will gone on this way without effective leadership makes for a bleak future.
Lice in the Feathers
Conversely, while the lack of direction is an interesting theme in theory, it means a lot of running around without going anywhere. In Brienne’s case, she literally has no clue where to begin her search, so a lot of time is spent wandering around trying to pick up Sansa’s trail with a character who—not being a tracker or detective or anything of the sort—fumbles around aimlessly for pages. Sam’s extended time aboard ships and in Braavos has the same feeling since he is reacting to his circumstances more than being an active participant for most of the time. Many of the new narrative points of view also seem to struggle at establishing memorable or dominant characters. A strong narrative voice, like that of Tyrion or Daenerys, is sorely missed.
A continuing and growing undercurrent in the novel is the power and danger of fanaticism. Again, though, while this is a fine theme to build it alienates readers from central characters whose behavior and desires reduce them to being more one-dimensional than many surrounding them. Damphair, for example, should be more sympathetic as a man who has lost most of his brothers and wants a strong authority to step forward on the Iron Islands. He makes it hard to care about him, though, with his uncompromising adherence to a tradition of violence and predation and his reductionist understanding that embracing the Drowned God can solve all problems. The new High Septon is also a fanatic. His Puritanical zeal for labor coupled with a disgust of anything that seems like an extravagance is irritating from the start. When he receives authority to have armed soldiers and courts loyal only to himself and his extreme views of purity it isn’t difficult to see where this will end (422). His devotion to an ethical purity that no one can match will inevitably lead to disaster.
The character whose chapters are the most difficult to endure, though, is Cersei. Her combination of paranoia and arrogance make her fundamentally unlikeable, and where Jamie at least began to make steps toward redemption in Storm of Swords, Cersei goes in the opposite direction. She’s stubbornly unaware of how her own actions are setting the stage for her undoing, and she lacks the character growth seen in her twin. As Jamie points out, “His sister liked to think of herself as Lord Tywin with teats, but she was wrong. Their father had been as relentless and implacable as a glacier, where Cersei was all wildfire [....] She does not lack for wits, but she has no judgment, and no patience ” (234). It is obvious to nearly every other character that Cersei is terrible as a queen and a mother, but she shuts her eyes and plows ahead with haughty stubbornness that taxes a reader’s patience, especially since she seems to have so many chapters from her point of view.
Invitation to the Feast
The writing and pacing are becoming stagnant, and it’s hard to care about several characters that are unlikable or lack the depth displayed by more well rounded compatriots. Martin usually does a good job of making all his plot threads pay off, but the way there is often long and irritating in A Feast for Crows.
Martin, George R. R. A Feast for Crows. New York: Bantam Books, 2011.