After publishing the third novel in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, Martin ran into some serious trouble. His tale grew in the telling and he struggled with the fourth volume for five years before publishing the part of it that is A Feast for Crows. Working though the rest of the problem and releasing A Dance with Dragons cost him an additional six years. Had it been one book as Martin once intended it would have weighed in at some 1700 pages. Unworkable for the publisher so the book was cut. I first read A Feast for Crows in 2005, shortly after it had been released. I wasn't too pleased with the way the book had been cut but back then Martin predicted he'd have the second half of the novel out within a year, so it didn't bother me too much. In hindsight and after having read A Dance with Dragons I think he did well enough with this part of the story but it definitely goes at the expense of the fifth book.
After the large scale hostilities in A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords things have become messy in the Seven Kingdoms. With King Robb removed from the field and Stannis soundly defeated, the Lannisters appear to be in control of the Iron Throne, but the death of both King Joffey and the formidable Tywin Lannister has dealt them a blow but the twins Cersei and Jaime are still in a position to plant Joffrey's younger brother Tommen on the throne and bring the rest of the kingdoms to heel. Chaos still rules in many parts of the Kingdom though. The Lannisters should be in control but the ambitious Cersei finds ruling Seven Kingdoms much harder than anticipated. There are challenges from the Iron Islands, Dorne, until now uncommitted, is stirring and he Riverlands are not secure yet. At court there is more than a bit of resistance too. The Lannisters have to depend on the strength of house Tyrel to support their rule and they have their own ideas on how the realm should be ruled. The war for the Iron Throne is far from over.
The way Martin decided to cut the book was by location, rather than keep the story more or less chronological. A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons overlap for the most part. Not until the last quarter of A Dance with Dragons does to story move beyond what we get to see in A Feast for Crows. The fourth novel focuses on events in Dorne, King’s Landing, the Iron Islands, the Riverlands the Eyrie and the city of Braavos. That means that characters like Daenerys, Tyrion and, for the most part, Jon Snow do not appear in the novel. With de demise of Robb Stark and his band and those three characters missing, the book has lost a lot of characters that were named as favorites by many readers. It turned out to be an unpopular choice but, again in hindsight, I do think it resulted in a book that works structurally. At some points rumors of events in other parts of the world show up in the book but the idea of isolation and the fog of war is very believable.
You could say that most of the novel revolves around what goes on in King’s Landing. Cersei’s attempt to show that she is as good a ruler as any son Tywin Lannister might have produced are what holds the book together. It is a bit like watching a train wreck. Cersei is prone to shortsighted ad-hoc decision-making and appointing people who are firmly under her influence but otherwise useless to important positions on the council. Tywin is no doubt turning in his grave. Jaime’s role in this turn of events is interesting too. The trauma of losing his sword hand, the part of him he feels defines his life, has changed him to such an extent it drives a wedge between him and his sweet sister. Jaime might have been the most clear cut villain in A Game of Thrones but by now he is starting to show distinct shades of grey. Development of the characters is one of the strong points of this series. It has a lot of unlikable ones but once you get into their heads, it is very hard to sympathize with them a little.
One of the reasons why the story expanded beyond what was possible to cover in one volume is Martin’s insistence on expanding the Iron Islands and Dorne story lines. Personally I wasn’t too interested in what is going on in Dorne. We get to see what happens to Cersei’s third child Mycella, sent to Dorne by Tyrion in the previous book. She becomes the focal point for a plot of one of Prince Doran Martell daughters to get him moving. Martell is seen as passive throughout the series, which suits him fine as we’ll see. Personally I don’t think this part of the story was worth the number of pages Martin spends on it. I more or less had the same feeling for the Iron Island chapters. Asha Greyjoy and two of her uncles clash with each other over the succession of Balon Greyjoy. Martin creates new points of view for the two Greyjoy men which don’t seem to add much other than show the backwardness of the Iron Islands. Asha’s attempt to seize the throne is interesting but not enough to really make me enjoy this part of the story. The Iron Islanders long for a way of life that is lost to them forever and they all know it. I have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen to these people in the long run.
Brienne is mostly responsible for showing us the ravages of war. After leaving Jaime in King’s Landing she sets off on a quest to find the missing Sansa Stark, whom we know to be pretending to be Littlefinger’s bastard daughter in the Eyrie. This fact is unknown to Brienne and the Lannisters however, another clever use by Martin on the multiple points of view and taking into account what each character in each location can know about events elsewhere. That being said, the road trip doesn’t seem to progress the story much. The same goes for Samwell’s chapters which are also mostly spent travelling. Samwelll has the benefit of mostly being on the high seas or in Braavos so we are spared the genealogies, coats of arms and other heraldic details Brienne suffers through though. I must admit as several points in the book I felt Martin was being a bit too detailed.
I guess the most interesting of these outlying stories is that of Arya who has arrived in the city of Braavos using the coin she received from Jaquen H’ghar. Under the tutelage of the priests of the faceless god her thirst for revenge becomes a bit structured. Arya is one of the most interesting characters in the series. She is something of a chameleon, adapting seamlessly to each new situation she is exposed to. Martin makes sure Arya doesn’t forget her true motivations though. It is hard to see where Martin is taking this story line but it is definitely my favorite in this novel. I’ve always liked her better than the hopelessly naïve Sansa, although I must say Sansa is starting to grow on me in this book too.
Cersei, Brienne, Asha and Arianne Martel share one interesting trait and that is that they all try to overcome the limitations their sex imposes on them in their male dominated societies. Martin mixes in a lot of sexism and sexual violence into the novels, something all female characters are exposed to some extent, but that doesn’t stop them from trying in their own way. Brienne is still convinced she can be just as good a knight as any of her male counterparts, Asha is aiming to succeed her father and Arianne and her conspirators feel the Dornish law regarding the status of women as heirs should extend to the other Kingdoms. Something Cersei would no doubt approve of. Martin’s treatment of women can be very harsh at times but he does manage to balance it with a number of strong and determined women trying to overcome the obstacles put in their path. In true A Song of Ice and Fire style, not all of them succeed.
A Feast of Crows is probably not a fan favorite but after this reread I must admit I have developed a new appreciation for it. Martin managed to craft a novel out of the huge stack of chapters that made up the manuscript of a partly completed fourth novel. Structurally it is a decent book. It doesn’t drive the story forward as the relentless pace of the first three novels and lacks a number of interesting characters though. Fans had been waiting for it for five years by the time it was published, half a novel, even a 750 page one, was a disappointment. That being said, Martin produced a novel that was still manageable, with the well-developed characters we’ve come to expect. His choice to split the book according to location might have worked if he’d managed to deliver a decent fifth book as well. The real disappointment in my opinion is how A Dance with Dragons turned out. A Feast of Crows may not please all fans or have quite the impact of A Storm of Swords but I think it is a fine book as it is. It might even be a bit underappreciated. I didn’t think that would end up being my opinion when I started this reread. Let’s hope a reread of A Dance with Dragons will make that one grow on me too.
Title: A Feast for Crows
Author: George R.R. Martin
First published: 2005