Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Feast for Crows, by George R.R. Martin [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Unlike much formulaic epic fantasy overflowing in bookstores nowadays, many readers of SFF acknowledge George R.R. Martin's (GRRM) A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) series as hip, trendy, and really for adults. Not since JRR Tolkien's THE LORD OF THE RINGS has an author captured so many readers. It brings back the medieval setting in fantasy in a big way, it's politically intriguing, historically rich, it's epic (big index), it's dark, it's unique (each chapter is written from a single character's point-of-view all over GRRM's world), and consists of a large cast of characters.

Unfortunately, it's also incomplete, and although the first 3 installments were completely engrossing, I found the latest installment (A FEAST FOR CROWS, 2005) pretty bad. Read the first 3, but skip this one, and wait until GRRM deigns to finish the upcoming A DANCE WITH DRAGONS in the next decade or so.

So far, in the A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) series:

1. A Game of Thrones, (AGOT), 4/5
2. A Clash of Kings, (ACOK), 3/5
3. A Storm of Swords (ASOS), 5/5
4. A Feast for Crows, (AFFC), 1/5

"Above [the archers of Riverrun] streamed the banners of House Tully, the silver trout defiant on its striped field of red and blue. But the highest tower flew a different flag: a long white standard emblazoned with the direwolf of Stark."

(I always get goosebumps when I read this quote about the Stark flag)

I found A FEAST FOR CROWS such poor quality reading material, I can hardly believe George R.R. Martin's (GRRM) name on the book. Is the prose rich? It sure is, GRRM doesn't disappoint in that department, it's the subject of his prose which fails to move in the least.

It would appear George R.R. Martin can no longer discern the forest from the trees. He tells us the story has grown on its own accord and the pages and chapters we find in this book are somehow "necessary". A story growing on its accord is a sure indication of pumping the reader with pointless, worthless content. The subject material contained within 680 odd pages of this book could be summed up by a few sentences.

This book clearly forces stories where there are none.

The book invites the reader to read 680 or so pages of inane, mindless drivel for something to happen. Nothing ever does. A classic case of epic fantasy syndrome.

You know something is wrong with a book when each word of each sentence of each paragraph of each page of each chapter is read just to move on. And after you've finished the current chapter, you have another scintillating Cersei or Brienne chapter just around the corner; yes, I know, you're about to burst with excitement, contain yourself!

In the end, this book represents filler material, nothing more, nothing less.

This book contains so much additional history and so many additional characters and geneology of this person and that person and so many stories within stories, I find it hard to imagine any reader captured by any of it. I was mesmerized by the telling of the tourney at Harrenhal from 3 different perspectives in ASOS (the crannogmen, Jaime, Ser Barristen Selmy). The histories and stories within stories and the exponentially growing cast of characters contained in this book are so numerous and seemingly extraneous, I found myself reading just to arrive at an end, ANY end.

The pages and chapters comprising the 2 new perspectives - Cersei & Brienne - are by far the most numerous. Unfortunately, they are also a cure for insomniacs, boring, uneventful and dull, at least until the very end. Cersei's chapters doesn't inspire (anything) in the least, driving both Cersei and the reader to insanity from the mindless drivel contained therein.


Cersei's chapters: she discovers Tywin has been murdered, goes to her father's funeral (so for 2 Cersei chapters we're still tying loose ends from the previous book), oh joy we get another meeting of the King's Council, more proceedings at court (as if all those meetings in AGOT and ACOK weren't enough, we had to have one from Cersei's perspective, so much better, right?), Cersei convincing a catspaw to kill Bronn, Cersei re-arming the Septons in exchange for a debt forgiven and a blessing, etc., etc.

Brienne's chapters: oh the beautiful contryside, the grass, the trees, the hedges, the burnt fields, traveling to Maidenpool, heading out from Maidenpool, oh back to Maidenpool, oh nevermind, heading out from Maidenpool again, etc., etc. And yes we know the common, small folk are in bad shape. Arya's chapters in ACOK & ASOS already shed light on that common element. We don't need Brienne's chapters showing us the same thing... yet again. GRRM sprinkles in a little sword fighting to spice things up as Brienne kills some Bloody Mummers she meets on the way to her hanging.

I’m still at a loss to explain Brienne’s presence in this novel, other than of course take up space and inflate a poor novel with more drivel. In Brienne’s last chapter we meet for the second time the thing that used to be Catelyn Stark (we met her first in aSOS) who "lives" (if you can call it that) for one purpose and one purpose alone: vengeance. After mindless traveling and some killing for good measure, Brienne ends her travels in aFFC in the hands of outlaws, and hangs at the Thing’s command along with an innocent Podrick Payne. Even though it was Brienne who actually saved the children at the inn? How come her sacrifice at the inn to save the children didn’t come up at her "judgement?" How come none of the children spoke for her? Yes, I’m still at a loss.

The goal of Brienne's traveling - Sansa Stark - dwells at the Eyrie as Alayne Stone, Petyr Baelish's natural daughter. At the end of ASOS, the reader received a preview of the training and tutelage Sansa will receive from the master of A Game of Thrones, Littlefinger. After a couple Alayne chapters, our suspicions are confirmed as Sansa sheds a little more of her innocent ignorance and learns more and more from Littlefinger. Sansa understands for herself that Littlefinger actually payed off Corbray to oppose him. As we could have guessed from ASOS, Littlefinger has the lords of the Vale dangling as puppets on his strings. In the final Alayne chapter, we receive a rather lengthy Arryn genealogy history as Littlefinger pulls some strings to set up Alayne Stone with sickly Lord Robert’s heir, "Harry the Heir." I wonder as to her reaction: a giddy schoolgirl when she was matched with Joffrey and Willas later on?

The chapters in the Iron Islands do not fare much better in the something-happening department. We knew from ASOS that Balon Greyjoy had died and that Euron Greyjoy sits the Seastone Chair. After 3 perspectives and 3 chapters from that area, nothing has changed. Wait though, you meet one thousand new characters from the region! Joy! Oh and we have yet another horn that commands dragons.

The first 3 Samwell Tarly chapters can be summed up by: Jon Snow sends Samwell Tarly, Gilly, Daeron (the singer), Aemon, and Gilly's babe (we learn different later on) by ship for Oldtown. Samwell is to become a Maester. They make a stop at Braavos, and -shock- Sam runs into Jon's sister Arya, unbeknowest to Sam. Oh but wait, nothing really comes of any of it.

After 400 pages, Arya has 2 chapters and again, nothing much happens. She's traveling to Braavos, and working as a servant in the temple of the many-faced God, training to become a Faceless Man it would seem.

I was struck by the second Arya chapter however. In the second Arya chapter, the "kindly man" at the temple forces Arya to abandon her possessions if she wishes to continue her training because she must truly give and give up everything she is to the Many-Faced God. An inner struggle ensues and she finds it very hard to abandon all her possessions. In the end, she throws away everything she's brought with her save one: Needle. She cannot bring herself to abandon Needle, since to her, it represents something more than just a blade. For Arya, Needle is Winterfell, Needle is the Old Gods, her father's Gods, Needle is her family, even Sansa, and Needle is Jon Snow. And despite having to give up everything you are to train as a Faceless Man, Arya can never truly abandon Arya Stark, daughter of Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell. "Who are you?" asks the kindly man. "No one," lies Arya. That was a wonderful piece of writing that I couldn't help reading again and again. The final Arya chapter leaves us in a cliffhanger very much akin to the style of the first 3 books. We’ll have to wait until next book to find out what happens to Arya.

We started with the Starks in Winterfell, and we’ve since seen a metaphoric winter claim them. We’ve seen an 8 year-old boy (Bran) crippled, we’ve read of Ned Stark’s beheading, Sansa beaten and whipped, Arya running, constantly running, Winterfell torched and decimated, Robb & Catelyn murdered and Robb’s host destroyed within a blink of an eye. Death and destruction seems to be a common theme with the Starks, with the Starks implanted on the receiving end.

Jaime starts out in King's Landing but then he's sent away by Cersei to bring the King's peace to the Riverlands, and particularly Riverrun which the Blackfish still holds, ever-defiant. Catelyn Stark released Jaime from Riverrun on the condition he will release her daughters and not raise a sword to a Stark or Tully. And now he returns to Riverrun for that very purpose. Jaime does make a stop at Harrenhal to release Wylis Manderly.

I found Jaime’s chapters very hard to read because of all the people and places we see, constant reminders of the Red Wedding: Riverrun, remarkably still flying the Stark banner, the Freys, Edmure Tully and the Blackfish, defiant to the last.

There sure is a lot training in this novel, isn't there? Everyone is either practicing or training, for something later it would seem. We hear of Jon Snow relentlessly practicing at swords, Jaime sparring with Ilyn Payne, Arya practicing with Needle and training to become a Faceless Man, Sansa training to become a player in the Game of Thrones, etc. A sure sign of a filler book through and through.

Finally, we also receive a more refreshing and eventful storyline, and one in which I didn’t mind the exponentially growing cast of characters: that from Dorne. Out of all of the storylines contained in this book, I found the Dorne storyline the most interesting and enjoyable. Something is actually happening in every chapter: the first, we find the Prince to be a very cautious man, completely the polar opposite of the Viper. The reader meets 3 of his Viper's daughters, one after another, all of whom desire revenge for their father's death. At the end of the first chapter, in an unprecedented and shocking move, the Prince orders Hotah (his Master of Arms, guard) to imprison all of the Viper's daughters including the toddlers. The fear of Tywin Lannister stretches all the way to Dorne it would seem, as the Prince hopes Tywin hears of Dorne's support for King's Landing by imprisoning the Sand Snakes.

In the second Dorne chapter, we read about a plot by the Princess Arianne to abduct Myrcella, crown Myrcella and raise her banners to free the Sand Snakes from her father and rebel against King's Landing. The Princess has completely seduced Myrcella's protector Arys Oakheart of the Kingsguard to do her bidding.

In the third Dorne chapter, someone close leaks Arianne's plans and Oakheart of the Kingsguard is slain and Arianne taken captive by her own father. The Prince is nothing if not resolute to keep Dorne out of a conflict which causes more bloodshed.

The fourth and final Dorne chapter hints of Prince Doran's plans, cautious yet not entirely idle. When his daughter inquires as to the nature of his plans, he places an onyx dragon game piece in his daugher's palm and replies, "Vengeance... justice... blood and fire."

Despite some interesting and enjoyable happenings in Dorne, I didn't care for any of the characters there in a character-driven series such as A Song of Ice and Fire.

A Feast for Crows firmly establishes Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons’ looming shadow upon Seven Kingdoms. Her dragons are coming, GRRM tells us in so many words, whether you’re ready or not. In the prologue and one of Cersei’s early chapters, we learn that sailors from Slaver’s Bay are bringing back stories of dragons. In the final Ironmen chapter, Victarion Greyjoy consents to travel to Slaver’s Bay and seemingly pluck Dany out for his wife. Aemon Targaryen dies drunk on Dany and her dragons, convinced down to his last breath that Dany and her dragons are their last hope against the Others and the terror that awaits the Seven Kingdoms beyond the Wall. "Dany is the one," he says. Prophecies of a younger, more beautiful queen robbing Cersei of everything she holds dear haunts Cersei’s dreams. Cersei believes Margaery Tyrell this "younger, more beautiful queen," and schemes to eliminate the young queen with whatever means necessary while completely ignoring sailors’ reports of a younger queen with dragons beyond the narrow sea. Victarion Greyjoy isn’t the only one on his way to meet Dany; Prince Doran apparently sent his oldest son Quentyn with some other lords to Dany.

Elements are on the move to Dany and this book sets the stage for A Dance with Dragons. Again, filler material.

Compared to Dany, Jon Snow’s humble place in the story as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch remains small, dull and seemingly insignificant. We’re spared of any of his chapters with a promise to change that.

So you have elements on the move and elements practicing and training.

All in all, filler material and the first sign of an anecdotal epic fantasy disease in a series bereft of it thus far: inflated books that continue to no end but to fill the space in the pages. A Song of Ice and Fire hasn’t grown on its accord; it’s grown because GRRM sees the profit in stretching it out mercilessly.

A concluding thought about the finale, with ending chapters from Cersei, Jaime, Brienne, Alayne and Samwell. I haven’t read a more unsatisfying ending in the series. It isn’t that bad stuff happens, it’s that in general nothing happens which inspires in the least. aGOT ended with the North lords declaring Robb as the "King of the North!" and Dany hatching 3 dragons, aCOK ended with the Battle at Blackwater and Jon Snow sparring with the Halfhand, aSOS ended with... well, let’s just say a lot. What appeared the punch line of aFFC - the events at Riverrun from Jaime’s perspective - fizzled out very quickly. One moment the reader is anxious about what Edmure, Jaime and the Blackfish will do and the next moment Edmure is bringing down the Stark flag and Riverrun has yielded. The reader is left guessing what occurred between Edmure and the Blackfish and how the Blackfish ending up fleeing. GRRM does that a lot: he’ll end a character’s chapter in a cliffhanger and the very next time we see that character’s chapter, the ensuing events of the cliffhanger have already happened off-screen. Are we supposed to cheer when Jaime orders Cersei’s plea for help thrown in the fire? Are we supposed to care one way or the other?

Let’s not forget Cersei’s final chapter. Her attempts to oust roses from King’s Landing and secure the throne for herself and her son backfire when the High Septon imprisons her as well as Margaery. Are we supposed to cheer for this poor excuse of an ending to this horrible novel? I could care less one way or the other and endless Cersei chapters didn’t really make me hate her any more than I already had.

Zero build-up with zero payoffs, and nothing really happening. Another sure sign of a filler book.

GRRM tells us that despite his novels fitting into a larger series, he likes to have each novel with an independent beginning, middle and end such that they stand on their own. This book can’t stand anywhere, much less on its own.

We waited 5 years for... this? Here's to hoping the next book is nothing like this one. I say it will take over 2 years to release (2-to-1 odds on it). I’ll give you 100-to-1 odds if you pick under 2 years!


Anonymous said...

I'm currently reading A Storm of Swords right now. Martin is by far the best fantasy author I've read, in my opinion. It's tough to read other fantasy authors after reading his stuff. I've heard mixed reviews about A Feast for Crows. Some people really liked it, while others, like yourself, thought it was pretty bad. I think the overall opinion of it was fairly lukewarm.

Caine said...

I envy your reading of A STORM OF SWORDS (ASOS). => I swear, GRRM reached a pinnacle with ASOS, it's chock-full of so, so, so much stuff happening.

I've since re-read ASOS 6 times.

I've never actually formally reviewed ASOS, but I may have to down the line.