George R.R. Martin’s “A Feast for Crows” — Good, but not Great

George R. R. Martin’s fourth book in his Song of Ice and Fire series is A FEAST FOR CROWS, which is about what’s going on in Westeros now that the “War of the Five Kings” is over.  (As always, if you haven’t read the reviews for the previous three books, A GAME OF THRONES, A CLASH OF KINGS, and A STORM OF SWORDS, you’re going to be completely lost; this is epic fantasy with a vengeance, and it’s nearly impossible to pick up midstream.)

At the end of A STORM OF SWORDS, several of the warring kings were dead, including Robb Stark (killed at his uncle’s wedding), Joffrey Baratheon (killed at his own wedding by poison), and Balon Greyjoy.  (Renly Baratheon was killed earlier, so he’s also a non-factor.)  This has left a void in Westeros, one that’s been made worse by the murder of Tywin Lannister by his own son, Tyrion, as Tywin Lannister was probably the only person who could’ve held Westeros together.

Now, the young Tommen Baratheon is on the Iron Throne.  But like Joffrey before him, Tommen is actually the son of siblings Jaime and Cersei Lannister and has no Baratheon blood at all, so he’s not a legitimate ruler and many know it.  Even were he legitimate, King Tommen is only eight and the odds would be against him living to adulthood.  Worse yet, he has few strong advisors, so many people are taking whatever advantage they can, including Tommen’s own mother, Queen Cersei, who has been officially named the Queen Regent.

Most of A FEAST FOR CROWS revolves around Cersei Lannister and the bad decisions she keeps making to try to keep her son safely on the throne.  One of the decisions that comes back to haunt her is that of Tommen marrying Margaery Tyrell, who’d been previously married to both Renly Baratheon and Joffrey Baratheon though neither of the previous marriages were able to be consummated.  Margaery has been thrice wed and twice-widowed, and though she’s adjudged a beauty by most and comes from a powerful family, the Tyrells of Highgarden, marrying her was more to keep the Tyrells from outright revolt than anything else as Tommen’s at least four years too young to even attempt the marital bed.

But that’s not all Cersei does.  Cersei re-arms the Church militant, something no one else had wished to do in a few hundred years because they’ve been so difficult and fractious to rule in the past, in order to give herself some very minor temporal (and temporary) power.  She also, to be blunt, has a whole lot of sex with anyone she pleases — male, female, it makes no never-mind, because apparently Cersei is an insatiable vortex.

All of this, of course, would be forgivable if Cersei had any ruling skills at all, but she doesn’t; this keeps things profoundly unstable and prone to change at any notice.  But she’s too blind to see it, as she’s apparently lost in her own navel-gazing now that she’s obtained the post of Queen Regent.

As if that’s not enough, Princess Myrcella is in Dorne, the one area of Westeros that has no aversion to females who rule in their own right.  Myrcella has a powerful benefactress in the Heir to Dorne, Arianne Martell, who wants Myrcella to rule in her own right; however, Myrcella is still young (perhaps as young as ten) and has no idea of all the intrigue going on all around her, nor does she wish to raise her standard in rebellion against her own brother.  (And, like her brothers Joffrey and Tommen, she, too, is not legitimately the daughter of King Robert Baratheon, so she truthfully has no claim to the throne.)

So there’s unrest in Dorne; there’s unrest in King’s Landing as Cersei is unable to rule effectively; there’s unrest in the North as the Starks are all scattered (more on them in a bit), and the only really stable area is, oddly enough, the Wall as King Stannis Baratheon has removed to there in an effort to shore up the rest of the kingdom.  This is an important plot point that’s given short shrift as Martin ended up having to roughly “divide” his original conception of A FEAST FOR CROWS, and most of Stannis’s story ended up in the fifth (and most recent) book, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS rather than here where it really would’ve helped balance the narrative.

At any rate, other than the Wall itself, the North is in uproar due to Robb Stark’s death and there are many lords and lordlings attempting to take advantage.  But once again, this is merely hinted at in A FEAST FOR CROWS; the meat of the story ended up in A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, which overall weakened the over-arching structure of the whole Song of Ice and Fire series.

As for the Starks, we only really follow two of them this time around, Sansa and Arya.  Arya is now in Braavos over the sea, and has been taken in by a bunch of religious assassins in what’s called “the House of Black and White.”  She’s a competent fighter already, so what the people in Braavos mostly are teaching her is how to judge men even though when it comes right down to it, the House of Black and White will kill whomever they’re told to kill regardless of whether a person is good or bad as “death is a blessing to all, regardless of how it comes.”  (This is my best paraphrase of the House of Black and White’s attitude toward death and assassination.)  But can Arya trust these people?  And if she does, what will happen to her?

Then, there’s Sansa, who’s been spirited away from King’s Landing by Petyr Baelish.  Baelish is a complicated man who’s closer to a villain than not, and he’s been the same way since the very first book, A GAME OF THRONES.  We know that Baelish was in love with Sansa’s mother, Catelyn (or “Cat,” as Baelish calls her), and Sansa looks very much like Catelyn did.  So perhaps it’s not surprising that Baelish is attracted to Sansa and, if he felt the need, would ravish her in a heartbeat.

However, Baelish does feel some loyalty, or at least good manners, toward Catelyn’s memory (as she’s presumed dead by now), which is why he got Sansa away from King’s Landing and brought her to the Vale of the Arryn’s.  Sansa is now called “Alayne Storm” as she’s presumed to be Baelish’s natural (bastard) daughter, so she’s more or less hiding in plain sight.  Baelish’s overall plans are to restore Sansa to her heritage (as he doesn’t know that her younger brothers Bran and Rickon are still alive, he believes Sansa is the rightful Heir to Winterfell) but at a time and place of his choosing — most likely when it’ll cause the most unrest as Baelish seems to relish that.  Baelish is untrustworthy and he definitely has “lust in his heart” when it comes to Sansa, so her situation is not all that stable.

As for the Lannisters, Tyrion is not present in this book, as he’s presumably on the run and out of Westeros.  (His story picks back up in book five, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS.  All I’ll say now is that I completely sympathized with Tyrion’s decision to kill his father, Tywin, in A STORM OF SWORDS.)  As previously stated, Queen Cersei is royally screwing things up (sometimes quite literally) in King’s Landing.  Which leaves Jaime Lannister’s story — the most complex and fascinating one in A FEAST FOR CROWS — for last.

Jaime’s story almost makes up for all of the stuff that’s missing in A FEAST FOR CROWS (including the complete absence of Daenerys Targaryen’s story, which also picks up in book five, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS) because it’s now time for Jaime to redeem himself.   He’s been told by his Aunt Gemma Lannister that Tyrion is the dangerous one no matter what it looks like — and Jaime, deep in his heart, knows that’s the truth as Tyrion has to be one of the smartest people around.  Jaime is extremely upset with Cersei over all of Cersei’s whoring and bad rulership, but Jaime doesn’t have too many people to lean on as mostly, his best friend is his brother, Tyrion.  So he starts a rigorous bout of self-examination — for a fighting man, this is as introspective as he’s ever likely to get — as he continues to learn how to fight left-handed (his right was cut off in A STORM OF SWORDS) and take up his duties with the Kingsguard.

Jaime’s friendship with the female fighter, Brienne, is once again in evidence, but as Brienne is far from him, she can’t factor into anything Jaime does.  Still, the fact that Jaime has been able to form a stable friendship with a woman — a female fighter, no less — is a source of consolation to him, along with the fact that now that he’s forced to become more scholarly, he has found he actually seems to have a gift in that area.

So in this one way — getting down to the bottom of Jaime Lannister’s story — A FEAST FOR CROWS succeeded on every level.  But in every other respect, this novel feels incomplete, or worse, unbalanced; it definitely does not stand up to the standard Martin himself set with the previous three books.

Because of that, the best grade I can give A FEAST FOR CROWS is a B-minus, even though I wanted to give it a tad more due to how well I felt Jaime Lannister’s story was told.  And I’d definitely buy this one in paperback, for some of the same reasons I gave for the last book, A STORM OF SWORDS — there’s a lot of violence here, some of it gory and deeply disturbing — and if you buy it in paperback, you won’t feel bad after you throw it across the room.

Grade: B-minus

— reviewed by Barb

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  1. Just Reviewed Martin’s “A Feast for Crows” for SBR « Barb Caffrey's Blog
  2. George R.R. Martin’s “A Dance With Dragons” — Back on His Game « Shiny Book Review

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