Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

This is book 4 of a long series – I’m not going to withhold any spoilers for previous books, so be warned.

In the fantastic opening of Patton, the indomitable George C. Scott gives a gung-ho speech which concludes that no matter how bad the fighting is, when the soldiers are asked by their grandchildren what they did during the great World War 2, they’ll be able to say they served in Patton’s Third Army instead of having to admit that they were simply a guy who spent the whole time shoveling shit in Louisiana.  I guess Martin thought that this was unfair because here we have the story of that shit-shoveling man, in great detail.

Okay, maybe that’s a low blow.  After reading A Storm of Swords I finally understood what the admirers of this series saw in it, after reading this one I understand all the detractors.  This book came out in 2005, nearly four years after the third book in the series, and was something of a kludge to begin with.  Apparently the writing of the fourth book was spinning out of control and his editor suggested that he spin off some of the chapters into this fourth volume and save some of the other characters for the fifth novel.  At the time he said that he’d probably have the fifth one finished in a year or so – which subsequently dragged out until July 2011.  So if I didn’t have that fifth book already waiting on my bookshelf this one would have probably made me upset.

There are really two main overarching plotlines in this series:

1)    Who (if anyone) will successfully claim and hold the Iron Throne and rule the continent of Westeros (if anything is left of it); and

2)    What exactly is the threat posed by the Others beyond the Wall, can they be stopped, and will anyone actually do it.

A Feast for Crows doesn’t really advance either of these plots.  Instead we focus on some secondary characters doing minor arcs.  Samwell Tarly is ordered to go to the Citadel and get trained up because the Night’s Watch needs more maesters.  He has some minor difficulty getting there but manages to start his training.  Brienne of Tarth is trying to recover Sansa Stark and Arya Stark as her last sworn duty to their mother, but she doesn’t know where they are and has no idea where to take them if she does find them.  Consequently she doesn’t have a lot of luck.  Arya Stark is actually in the east and enters an order of assassins, who train her.  Sansa Stark is living in her late aunt’s castle and taking lessons in statecraft from Petyr Baelish, who is something of a weird creep but isn’t actively hurting her.  Also, there is some intrigue from the Viking-like Ironmen and the desert kingdom of Dorne, who hatch various plots and counter plots that don’t really accomplish a whole lot but may throw spanners in the future.

There’s a lot of focus on the Lannister twins in this one.  This is the first time that we see into Cersei’s head, and it’s about as screwed-up as you might imagine from her previous behavior.  She’s Queen Regent on behalf of her youngest son Tommen and is now ready to rule the kingdom, but unfortunately she’s terrible at it.  Cersei might be the poster child for the Dunning-Krueger Effect; she’s been watching the use of power for so long that she thinks it is easy.  She confuses personal loyalty to her with competence and is consequently surrounded by a bunch of yes-men and grifters.  Cersei manages to lose the advice and affections of most of her close allies.  She doesn’t consider the long term effects of her actions, and she makes a lot of unnecessary enemies by insulting and belittling people for no reason because she assumes that she’s more powerful than they are and they can’t (or won’t) do anything about it.  In addition she’s also become very paranoid following the deaths of her father and oldest son and makes a bunch of questionable moral choices.  I wouldn’t say that she’s lost her mind exactly but she’s definitely unstable, and it’s pretty clear that she doesn’t have enough personal power to get away with this behavior for long.  I thought that Martin did a pretty excellent job of portraying her mindset but at the same time it was pretty unpleasant and you just want to have her committed and bleach your brain.

Jaime Lannister was the standout character in this one, in my opinion.  He’s always been presented as a pretty morally dubious individual but his perspective on things is pretty interesting.  Jaime is a fighter, possibly one of the best there’s ever been, and his whole character is tied up in that identity.  Pretty much everyone considers him unscrupulous for killing the king he was supposed to guard, but as it turns out he had a pretty good reason for what he did and he doesn’t feel like he owes an explanation for it.  At the same time he’s definitely done a bunch of horrible things and his occasional good deeds don’t really make up for it.  He’s suffering from a strange sort of meta-guilt at this point; he doesn’t really feel bad about his son dying or any of his bad deeds in particular, but he feels like he should probably feel bad about it.  I guess that’s a first step.  Now that he’s lost his sword hand he is trying to get back in some fighting shape and having to introspect a little, probably for the first time in his life.  So he’s trying to figure out what a good person might do in his situation and do something approximately like that.  He’s not really all that relatable but he is very entertaining.

I felt that this may very well have been the strongest written of the novels so far.  However, there are a couple of annoying things adding up over time.  Due to the POV style, there’s often a situation in which a character will learn that someone else has died or has been killed.  This is almost always untrue unless this person is actually seen to die by the POV character, and even then it’s questionable.  Fine, unreliable narrator, I get it, but it’s used way too often for my taste that someone previously reported dead will waltz back in stage right.  For that matter the books have an almost nihilistic streak to them – you know something bad is going to happen to anyone whenever something starts to go well for them, and the really bad people seem to have plot armor protecting them.  For that matter, there’s been a lot of attrition among the cast and some of their replacements either don’t measure up or are slightly silly.  Qyburn, for instance, is an affable enough torturer and vivisectionist but his mad scientist skills would really seem to fit in better in a different novel.  I guess that it mostly fits in with the gradually accelerating supernaturalism of the series, which may or may not be related to the advance of the Others and the rebirth of the dragons.  We’re not really told.

There were a lot of threads left hanging at the end of the third book, and they are all left exactly where they were.  I don’t think that Martin “owes” his readers anything in the sense that there’s any basis to complain if he’s not writing fast enough, but at the same time I want to have a satisfying experience by whatever criteria I choose when I read something.  I’m pretty sure that if I’d read this book in 2005 that I would have been pretty annoyed that this was where it ended up, but as it is I can have the hope that it does make half of an excellent story.

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