A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin

Reviewed by Lisa Goldstein, Locus, November 2005

If this review is late, it's because I first had to prise the galleys away from the esteemed editor of Locus, where this review first appeared. It was an epic struggle, there in his living room — Egyptian masks and Hugo statuettes and Talbot Mundy first editions all went flying — but in the end I emerged triumphant. This is a hell of a way, I thought, to treat the person who introduced you to the series in the first place.

(Charles remembers this differently — that he was the one who recommended these books to me. He is wrong.)

The question is, then, was it worth it? Well, A Feast for Crows is as good as any of the previous novels (with a couple of exceptions, which I'll go into later), which means that it's very good indeed. But I can't talk about it in isolation; it needs to be seen in the context of the entire series.

That, of course, presents its own problems. If you're one of the few people who have not heard of these books in the past decade, I'm afraid that the story, at this point, is nearly impossible to summarize. It begins when King Robert Baratheon is murdered, and a great number of people move to claim his crown: Robert's brothers, his wife, the descendant of an earlier king. A delicate balance is upset; alliances form and dissolve and are treacherously broken; wars tear apart entire kingdoms. Meanwhile, Something is awakening in the far north.

So far so generic. But there are a number of things that lift this series far above all those other fat fantasies on the shelf. For one, the world is extraordinarily detailed, filled with its own history and clothing and ballads and coins and proverbs and government and religion, not just for one country but for something like a dozen. You get the feeling that if you stuck a pin in any part of the map Martin could tell you not only who lives there and what they do, but also the family's history going back three hundred years. It must be a hell of a thing to have to keep straight.

The characters are wonderful, vibrant and alive, with their own loves and hatreds and desires. The story is loosely connected by the Stark family, which includes Jon, a bastard who begins to wonder what his place is in the world; Sansa, who wants to be a lady and marry a knight; Arya, who desperately wants not to be a lady; and Brandon, who has been crippled by a fall and can't quite remember something he has seen, something very important. There's also King Robert's wife, Queen Cersei, who is sleeping with her brother Jaime, and Cersei's other brother, a despised dwarf whose attempts to survive his treacherous family cause him to set his own plots in motion. And literally hundreds more; the appendix has grown to over 50 pages. There is no simple good versus evil here, though. The Starks sometimes behave badly, and, even better, the people who at first seemed to be villains begin to inspire sympathy, and even concern.

In fact Martin confounds our expectations — and those of the fantasy genre — at nearly every turn. The person who in any other fantasy would take the crown and restore the kingdom is killed early on. Bad things turn out to have been done for good reasons, and vice versa.

I could go on: to talk about how Martin really knows his stuff, knows what greaves are, and what a gorget is, and that you don't fire an arrow but shoot or loose it. Or how so many of his heroes are people who don't even appear in most fantasies, cripples and dwarfs (a short person, not a mythological character) and terrified fat kids. Or that Martin shows what war is really like, and what happens to the common people who have to live through it, how very different it is from the sagas and songs. But I should really summarize A Feast for Crows at this point — though you can probably see by now why the very idea, not to mention the fear of spoilers, makes me throw up my hands in despair.

Briefly then: Queen Cercei begins to rule in her son's name, and does so badly. Arya comes safely to Braavos, and starts an apprenticeship. Samwell is sent to the Citadel to learn to be a maester. Brianne searches for Sansa, and Sansa, trapped as a pawn in a marriage game, tries frantically to hide her real identity. Dorne is shaken by dynastic struggles, as are the Iron Islands. If this sounds like a TV Guide summary, well, I'm sorry for it, but it's really the best I can do.

Unfortunately several characters are missing entirely. Because of the exigencies of publishing schedules this is only half a book; the other half, which takes place along the Wall and across the sea, will come out later. The story resembles nothing so much as a picture cut out of a rich, vast tapestry, with no beginning and no end. This is one of the caveats I mentioned earlier; the ending is so abrupt you feel as if you'd been in conversation with someone who simply turned away in mid-sentence.

The other problem is that the action seems to have slowed somewhat; some things are explained and discussed and described for a bit too long. Perhaps this is simply mid-series-itis, and the action will pick up again as we head toward the end.

But by now I hope you can see why I was so eager to read the galleys. Martin's world is a real place, filled with vivid complexity, a true journey into another realm. A place you can almost feel you're visiting, at least for the duration of the novel. We're about halfway through the series now, far enough to see what a breathtaking achievement it all is, what a grand canvas Martin is working on. We're lucky enough to be at the birth of a classic, something that will be read and reread for years to come.

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First published in Locus Magazine, November 2005

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Updated Monday December 05 2005 by webspinner