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Reading: A Feast For Crows feels like a spin-off

A Feast For Crows

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I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been reading through George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy saga, A Song of Ice and Fire. At the time of that last blog post I was just starting Blood and Gold, the second part of the third book (in the UK it had been split into two because of its length), which was excellent. Martin is telling the story of the place rather than of any specific character so he does so from the viewpoints of many characters within each book, which means he can be very brutal when it comes to killing off major characters, even ones that have been central parts of the story right from the start. It creates the impression that nobody is safe and means that the entire drive of the books can suddenly end and change, forever altering the nature of the story. It does also come with a downside which I’m about to get into, so the rest of the post will contain spoilers for the series.

The rest of this post contains spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire:

The main thread of the story for the past several books has been the battle for the throne of Westeros, primarily between the three kings Joffrey Lannister (presented as the legal heir but of questionable heritage), Robb Stark (the Stark family being the ‘good’ side that in the first books make up the majority of the viewpoint characters) and Stannis Baraetheon (uncle to Joffrey who believes himself the rightful heir to the throne). At the same time there are two other slow-burning plotlines: the rise of the undead in the north being held off by the diminishing numbers of the Night’s Watch, and the return to power of Daenerys Targaryen, daughter of the king who was killed by Joffrey’s father Robert and now hiding out far to the south while she builds up an army to help her reclaim her throne.

By the time of A Feast For Crows, the fourth book (or fifth if you count the two parts of A Storm of Swords as separate books),  that’s all gone. Two of the kings die in Blood and Gold (in shocking circumstances) while the other was soundly defeated at the end of A Clash of Kings (the second book) and by the end of Blood and Gold has switched his focus to helping the Night’s Watch. However, the Night’s Watch struggle at the Wall isn’t in A Feast For Crows and nor is any of Daenerys’ story. Lots of viewpoint characters – such as Jon, Catelyn, Tyrion, Daenerys, Davos, Theon and Bran – and secondary characters (important to the story but not viewpoint characters) – such as Robb, Stannis, Joffrey, Sandor, Mormont Varys and Tywin – are either dead, absent on have tiny roles. The story adopts many new viewpoints, either of characters who have been present before – such as Cersei, Brienne, Aeron and Asha – or completely new characters like Victarion, Arienne, Areo and Arys.

With the big battle for the throne currently over most of the big events in the book are new. The returning viewpoint characters – Samwell, Sansa, Arya and Jaime – mostly seem to tread water in this, going through their own minor developments at a slow pace. The many new viewpoint Greyjoy characters, who up to this point have had a very minor role, choose a new king and go to war. Cersei, still reeling from all that happened in the last book, tries to form a loyal council and secure her own power. Brienne sets out to find Sansa, a character the reader already knows the location of. The Martells deal with the death of their prince and consider revenge.

For me it meant that most of the events concerned places I’m not familiar with and characters I’m not as interested or invested in, and with Cersei in particular it turned a fairly mysterious and nasty villain into kind of a bumbling fool, making big decisions that were clearly going to come back to haunt her. There’s a good explanation for why this has happened though as Martin found that the book he had been writing was too large to be one book, and at the end of A Feast For Crows he says that he decided to split it into two books, separated by character and location. This means that the next book, A Dance With Dragons, will take place in the same timeframe as the previous one and focus on the missing characters instead, but it does make A Feast For Crows feel like a spin-off novel set in the same universe rather than a full entry in the series.

That must be particularly difficult for longtime fans of the series (rather than people like me who have only recently started it) as A Feast For Crows came out five years after the previous book and it has now been almost another five years since then, meaning some people have been waiting to hear about the missing characters for almost a decade now (which explains some of the angry fan comments directed at Martin and accusations that he’s lost interest in the series). It personally left me disappointed, particularly at the start, because it really wasn’t the book I thought I was going to be reading. Once I’d settled into the new characters I did enjoy it, just not as much as the other entries, which does make it a fairly low note to leave the series on for so long.

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