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Review: “A Feast For Crows” by George R.R. Martin

Title: A Feast For Crows
Author: George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song Of Ice And Fire, Volume IV
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Bantam, 2006

Four down, one to go! Until The Winds Of Winter gets published, at any rate. If A Storm Of Swords is hailed as the best entry in the series so far, A Feast For Crows often holds the opposite distinction. I can understand the position, probably wouldn’t argue with it, but would point out that this simply means it’s a four-star entry in a five-star series. Obviously this will contain all sorts of spoilers from the previous books. You’ve been warned!

Chaos reigns across Westeros! King’s Landing mourns the deaths of both its young king Joffrey Baratheon and his Hand Tywin Lannister, both allegedly slain by the imp Tyrion Lannister. In the wake of losing both her son and father, Cersei Lannister grows only more irrational and paranoid, seeing schemes and plots everywhere as she attempts to rule Westeros in the name of her younger son Tommen. This paranoia and stubbornness serves only to alienate her few competent allies, until all that stand with her are cronies and lickspittles. Jaime Lannister has returned to King’s Landing a changed man. Losing his hand to the Bloody Mummers and all the verbal sparring with Brienne seem to have reinvigorated his sense of honor to some degree, enough that he strives to honor the various oaths he’s taken and repay old debts, insofar as possible. He’s sent Brienne off to try and find Sansa Stark and get her to safety, and released his brother Tyrion from the black cells beneath the castle in the dark of the night.  Given the choice, Jaime would stand beside his sister and help mitigate her incompetence, but Cersei has sent him off to try and capture Riverrun. Sansa Stark is clinging to what little safety she can find, having escaped King’s Landing with Littlefinger’s help and now posing as his bastard daughter at the Eyrie. On the Iron Islands the Ironborn meet to choose a new king, one who will likely determine their fate once and for all. In Dorne, the news of Oberyn Martell’s death has excited the region to the brink of war, while dangerous plots surround Myrcella Baratheon and her protector. Across the Narrow sea, Arya Stark has found her way to Braavos and joined the Faceless Men as a novice in their order. On the Wall, Jon Snow has been named Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch due to the machinations of Samwell Tarly, and soon dispatches Sam south to Oldtown to train as a Maester and research the Others in the Citadel’s library.

Reading A Feast For Crows is a study in mixed feelings. On the one hand, I did really enjoy most of it on its own merits. On the other hand, it doesn’t measure up to its predecessors. However, this is completely understandable due to the behind-the-scenes awkwardness of this novel. First off, it was never supposed to exist. Originally, Martin planned to pick up the story five years after the end of A Storm Of Swords in order to give some of the younger characters time to age a bit, filling in the relevant information from the interim with flashbacks. He eventually abandoned that idea, but it’s a good indicator that this particular book is going to be more about laying groundwork for later events than it is major events themselves. You know how Martin likes to leave a character at a semi-cliffhanger, then pick them back up later and fill in what happened with a quick summary? Quite a bit of this book’s plot could have been handled in such a summary. Which isn’t to say that it’s disposable, by any means, as that same material is leveraged brilliantly to add further flesh to the varied cast of characters we’re introduced to, most of whom have been overshadowed in previous books by more prominent characters. This segues into the other awkward element of the book: it’s missing what are commonly accepted to be the three strongest characters in the series. In the writing of what became this and A Dance With Dragons, Martin realized that what he had was too massive to publish as a single book. Instead of chopping his manuscript in half chronologically, he opted to do it geographically. A Feast For Crows is focused on King’s Landing and the Riverlands, with Samwell Tarly and Arya Stark thrown in for good measure, while A Dance With Dragons focuses on events on the Wall with Jon Snow, across the Narrow Sea with Danaerys, and Tyrion on the run. All well and good, but those are the three fan-favorite characters, and they’re entirely absent from this book. Not really too big an issue for me, since I can pick the next book up as soon as I clear out a couple books with pressing deadlines, but for fans that had to wait six years to find out what their favorite characters were up to I can understand that frustration. Bottom line: while this particular book was a slight step backwards in quality, I still recommend the series as a whole, of which this is an integral part.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity, not gratuitous, but not rare either. Rampant, disturbing violence, from hangings and decapitations to occasionally more grotesque fates, including not-infrequent reference to torture. Again, a fair amount of sexual content, including topics such as incest, rape, underage sex, and prostitution. Not really rendered in gratuitous detail, but often frankly and/or crudely discussed. The magical elements of the series are somewhat minimized here, as they are happening mostly far from the beaten track we stay on for this book.

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Review: “A Game Of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin

Title: A Game Of Thrones
Author: George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song Of Ice And Fire, Volume I
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Bantam, 2011

I know, I know. How am I just getting around to this? As usual, I can only point at my groaning TBR shelf and jabber incoherently. I had actually never heard of it until the television show started and I was confronted with the promo image of Sean Bean sitting wearily on a throne made of swords. That got my attention, for obvious reasons. I’ve yet to see the show, given my well-documented position on watching adaptations before reading their original sources, but I’m told its incredible. With stars like Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage, I don’t doubt it…. Martin is of the opinion that anytime a character is placed in danger, you should fear for their safety. Characters die. Minor ones, and major ones. Frequently. Anyway, I’ll do my best to be spoiler-free here. This is one of those series where that matters….

A Song Of Ice And Fire takes us to Westeros, a fantasy realm where the seasons wax and wane unreliably, somehow tied to the ebb and flow of magic within the world. In this land, summer can last a decade…and winter can last a lifetime. The series is written in third-person, with each chapter being from the perspective of one of an enormous cast of characters. Eddard “Ned” Stark is lord of Winterfell and the northern half of Westeros, a sparsely-peopled expanse where it is not uncommon to see a light snow even on a summer morning. He and the king, Robert Baratheon, were raised together, closer than brothers, and together deposed the Mad King Aerys Targaryen fifteen years ago before placing Robert on the throne. Now Ned is summoned south to court to serve as Robert’s right hand. It’s a position he has no desire for, but doesn’t trust anyone else to guard his friend’s back and get to the bottom of some troubling questions. Ned was one of my favorite characters in the book, largely because he was the only truly honorable man in the entire book, though that may change as his children grow older. Oldest son Robb (age fourteen) doesn’t actually get his own POV chapters, but is nevertheless an important character as he tries to fill his father’s absent shoes. Ned’s younger son Bran served as one of the more surprising characters, becoming far more interesting than I had expected a lad of seven to be, but I can’t say why without spoilers. Additionally, Ned’s daughters serve as frequent narrators, both the naive eleven-year-old Sansa and her nine-year-old tomboy sister Arya. I liked Arya a lot, but Sansa’s ill-fated naivete had me ready to throw the book across the room in frustration at times. Future books should see less of that, sadly for her. Ned’s wife Catelyn Stark also serves as a narrator for large portions of the story, initially holding down the fort in Winterfell before setting off on her own journey for reasons that are redacted here. Ned’s illegitimate son Jon Snow* (age fourteen, same as Robb) travels north to the Wall and joins the Night Watch, keeping a lonely vigil against the supposedly-legendary threat of the Others, despite the fact that they’ve not been seen for thousands of years. One of my favorite characters of all was the dwarf Tyrion Lannister  despite the fact that he stands opposed to most of my other favorites for most of the book. The twisted, ugly youngest son of lord Tywin Lannister, Tyrion is under no delusions about his situation in life. His sister, the queen Cersei, hates him. His father blames him for his mother’s death in childbirth. Only Jaime, Cersei’s twin, treats him with any measure of decency. Unable to compete in the field of physical combat due to his stature and deformities, Tyrion has developed his mind as his best weapon, and unleashes it on all he encounters. His are all the best lines, and it is incredibly obvious who Martin’s favorite character is. Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen, thirteen-year-old daughter of the deposed king, will have her own tangentially-related adventures as her brother marries her off to a nomadic horse-lord in an attempt to secure an army with which to reclaim Westeros. Despite the lack of overlap in this branch, Danaerys is set to become another favorite. Her adventures are not yet having any effect on Westeros as a whole, aside from some tension at court as news reaches them, but that will certainly change as the series nears its end….

Wow. What can I say about this? Martin’s prose is incredible, and I fully intend to further explore his bibliography both within and without this series. I love the use of multiple viewpoints, and the unreliable nature of these narrators adds an interesting factor to the narrative. Characters can be mistaken, and there are several scenes that are positively heartbreaking because we the reader know something the character doesn’t yet…and finding out could literally kill them. Plus, the information we’re given is all filtered through their perceptions–while there is little doubt that Aerys Targaryen was a lunatic, there are a couple tantalizing hints that his son Rhaegar was not nearly as vile a man as Robert and Ned believe him to be, and that the “kidnapping” of Ned’s sister that sparked the rebellion wasn’t quite as non-consensual as they believe. Occasionally you want to grab a character and shake them, force them to pay attention to vital information that is being disregarded because they have no idea of its significance, but of course that is impossible. Martin’s characters are also masterfully realized. Every single one that we spend significant time with is a fully-rounded, complex human being, and you sympathize with them. I even felt sorry for Cersei, albeit briefly, and the Hound keeps showing a core of deep humanity and compassion beneath his ruthlessness. If he didn’t work for the snotty little turd Joffrey I could probably come to like him…. The worldbuilding here is stellar, and I absolutely love the sense of history you get from the narrative. Positively Tolkienesque, and that’s a definite compliment. While this is fantasy, it’s not your typical romp. You can usually be assured that the protagonist will not only survive but triumph; not here. “In life, the monsters win.” Most fantasy is defined by the many different species, especially elves and dwarfs, but the only dwarf here is Tyrion, a dwarf in the historical sense–I’m not sure what the politically correct term is these days, I’m pretty sure “midget” is now considered derogatory, but I could be wrong. No elves either, the Children Of The Forrest are said to be long extinct. Of course, so were the Others, the White Walkers, and that turned out to be wishful thinking. Maybe the Children and the Giants still exist north of the Wall, but they don’t make much of an appearance here. There are elements of so-called “High Fantasy,” but the book is primarily a historical fantasy. Magic only slowly seeps in, starting off as largely dismissed by our protagonists and inexorably revealing itself to be alive and well. Dragons. Clairvoyance. Frozen wights that can resurrect the dead and turn them on their friends. As summer ends and magic grows powerful once again, one thing is clear: Winter is coming.

CONTENT:R-rated language, present but not gratuitous. Strong violence, often disturbing, and occasionally directed at animals. There’s a fair amount of sexual content, though its not rendered in unnecessary detail. This does, however, extend to some socially reprehensible acts such as incest and underage sex, along with quite a bit of discussion of prostitution and illegitimate children. There’s some magic, as noted, but I would class it as more fantasy-based than occultic, at least thus far.

*There’s a theory regarding Jon Snow’s true parentage that is widely regarded as the only good explanation for a number of inconsistencies that come up over time, but I’ll not be that guy and spoil the experience. Google it if you need to.

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