I’m inclined to call this book lengthy, long-drawn-out, rambling, excessive, too much, etc. – in fact it feels painfully longer and more time-consuming than its two prequels combined – but even using these words, I’m afraid, is a demonstration of inadequacy of language to express the often inscrutable extremities of human experience. But George R. R. Martin is a master of language, no doubt about that, and I found it quite amusing that he, the author himself, had said of his experience in writing this book in the most straightforward way possible on the acknowledgments page: “This one was a bitch.”
I’m one of those late readers who discovered George R.R. Martin in the advent of HBO’s hit TV series, Game of Thrones, and thankfully, I bought my copy of A Feast for Crows in a set that includes the other four novels in the saga. Which means that I read the novels slowly, cautiously but at a leisurely pace, and sometimes even in unison with the TV episodes. With that said, I can only imagine the excruciating five years earlier readers of the series and other fans had to endure as Martin wrote, rewrote, scrapped, bitched about, drafted, redrafted, whipped, mashed, pureéd, and otherwise gave birth to this novel kicking and screaming into existence – perhaps only slightly less agonizing than unfortunate souls lingering in Purgatory.
None of that had to happen with me, thank God. And for those of us who read the first three installments with much hearty enjoyment, with such gusto that sometimes bordered on hysteric overzealousness, and didn’t have to wait, expectations were, admittedly, very high. Perhaps impossibly high. And with some of the choices – difficult choices, I surmise – the author had to make to get this one out to the greedy, demanding, and oftentimes insensitive public at all, why, of course: dissatisfaction, displeasure, and discontent are expected.
Though I’m not exactly dissatisfied, and displeased seems to be too harsh a word. In fact, I’m only slightly disappointed, yes. But that doesn’t matter. (In the long run, none of it really matters.) The problem seems to me to be exactly what I was hinting at in my first three reviews: George R.R. Martin’s universe continues to expand that it starts to feel impossible to contain even in a series of novels. Now, there are other fantasy sagas out there with more books in them, with massive story lines even more expansive and lengthier than A Song of Ice and Fire (as it exists today). Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan’s works come to mind. But it seems that with many of these epic fantasy series, size is excess, size is superfluity, a plethora of directionless, scampering stories of the same weary ideas, the same overdone plots and narratives, miles wide and all of an inch deep. Not so with this one. Here, the size, the range, and the scope are necessary throughout. This one was a bitch? You’re talking about the baddest, the biggest bitch in the game here, the Titanic of epic fantasy sagas. And with no fewer than ten story lines running through A Storm of Swords alone throughout over 1,000 pages of a book, I was beginning to idly wonder if Martin could sustain it. How long can he push it? Has he ever heard of the word “ending”? Because, God, taking into consideration the first three books and the next three or four, what a monster. It’s been said that A Song of Ice and Fire didn’t just raise the bar for high fantasy novels, surpassing even the achievements of Tolkien. Arguably, it’s now the bar. And that’s quite a reputation of live up to, even for the best of fantasy writers.
With A Feast for Crows, however, Martin found himself fraught with just too many characters with their respective narratives to weave together that, after half a decade of struggling with this Gordian knot of his own making, he made a crucial decision: to cut it in half. Regardless of this splitting, the result, A Feast for Crows, still was a bitch to get through. I finished it in two weeks, and I often wondered as I read it whether Martin would have fared better if he chose to condense this book and the sequel, A Dance with Dragons, into one volume after all. The argument that the book would have then been much longer doesn’t fly with me since many of the chapters here – far too many – felt like scrap and waste material that you have to dig through to get to the good stuff.
It is in these moments, to be honest, that I felt like this was no longer the series I’d originally signed in for. The first two novels in the series introduced a solid cast of characters – the Starks, for instance – and felt like they would be central to the narrative. Now it seems they’re almost incidental to it. Secondary. In short, when I continued on after A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords, I didn’t know I’d be forced to read over a thousand pages of Brienne and Samwell Tarly.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think that Martin is a great fantasy writer, none of that has changed with me. (I must admit, though, that I’m not reading this saga for its element of fantasy, but for its realism, its grand plots and drama, and for its psychological and philosophical insights on the nature of power, but this is a topic worthy of a separate post). It’s just that this cut made A Feast for Crows feel like it’s below the standard of the previous three in the series. Now, in defense of the delays and postponements, the verbosity and excessive lengths, and the secondary narratives that seem beside the point, I’ve read that Martin is fond of referring to Tolkien by saying that “the story writes itself,” or something to that effect. But this time around he seems to have been unable (perhaps even unwilling) to separate himself from that idiom to undergo the painful process of editing. Now I’m being presumptuous, but the splitting of the book is itself substantially detrimental, and I think there are ways that could have avoided it.
Despite all that, I think it’s my bad that I failed to consider this novel’s place in the series’ context. This is not a novel that demands to be considered as it is, as a singularity, but precisely because it is a component, a part of a whole, the only fruitful way to appreciate it is to look at it in relation to its other parts. Also, I haven’t heard of a novel (or a novelist) that bends to the whims and demands of the reader, and if there is such a thing, this one sure isn’t. This is one that invests some of the capital that the series has achieved so far, compelling you to pay careful attention to the breadcrumbs that Martin lays along the way. If A Feast for Crows is only a transitional volume in this monumental saga, it is still a story told with as much passion, intelligence, creativity, and humanity as the author has brought to any previous volume. And it adds the same amount of detail and texture to an already rich and multifaceted world. The authorial dilemma of what to cut and what to include, which obviously were not easy ones considering the book’s lengthy and frustrating gestation, is really none of my business. But as a reader I believe in my right to whine and complain.
If you’re a reader who has learned patience, or at least one who has managed to suppress unrealistic demands and expectations, I believe you will eventually find A Feast for Crows a plausible and needed pass. In the aftermath of a disastrous war, in the endless, vehement quest for power and even more power, in all that chaos, no matter whose banners are flying there are none who emerge victorious. If you’re hankering for high drama in a fast-paced plot, like I sometimes did, expect to be disappointed. A Feast for Crows is anything but a feast. It is a long, mournful sigh, one that takes place in the dregs of untold violence and carnage with the knowledge that there is only more violence and carnage and chaos to come. Its characters are awfully miserable, almost devoid of hope, yet desperately clinging to life, or what’s left of it, knowing that they must rise if they are to survive the coming winter.