“Disappointing” best summarizes the fourth installment in A Song of Ice and Fire. I was thrilled by the previous book and delighted to see that Martin was finally starting to tighten up the plot lines. He focused his story within the broad boundaries that he’d established and poised the reader for a strident and exciting resolution. The forces of fire and ice were drawn together in what promised to be the burgeoning climax.
Instead, A Feast for Crows is predominantly an unwelcome tangent. New characters are introduced in the prologue, which is Martin’s normal pattern. However, where previous prologues have served to heighten and focus the main story line, this one opens a doorway to a continuously expanding world and endless possibilities.
Martin’s style has never lent itself to a riveting pace. He usually advances his story incrementally and adjusts the pacing to heighten the drama in certain moments. However, this book is flat. Very little advancement occurs along the main plot. He ties up a few loose ends from previous installments, but generally he just plods along, focusing on characters that have been to-date mainly incidental. I assume some of these characters will play bigger roles in future installments, but that’s not enough to satisfy the readers anxious to follow their favorite characters.
Almost in recognition of the shortcomings in this book, Martin’s letter drafted in 2005 indicates the material he drew from to create A Feast for Crows derived from something so sprawling it would have to be delivered in two tomes. He sought some balance that was never achieved. An attempt was made to provide a cohesive structure to the book, but it only goes so far. The symmetry between the beginning and ending of the book provides only the illusion of structure and the wandering nature of the material between only exacerbates the sense that this symmetry was contrived.
Worst of all, the principal characters are left out entirely: Jon Snow, Daenerys, Stannis, Melisandre, Varis, and, yes, even Tyrion. (With the previous installment ending so dramatically, leaving out Tyrion in this story is simply criminal.)
Overall this is a story of Martin’s women: Arya, Alanye (Sansa), Arianne Martell, Brienne, and Cersei Lannister. Samwell is given a fair amount of attention and Martin devotes numerous chapters to the internal fighting for leadership among the Ironborn. This latter story would have likely been better received had it been woven into the context of advancing the main story line.
Alayne Martell, the ambitious princess from Dorne has a compelling story. But much like Martin’s attention to the Ironborn, one can’t help but wonder if her story is yet another tangent. We follow Brienne, who while unique as a character, is never really developed. Brienne’s issues and struggles remain constant. The reader merely follows her on her quest, which is an unsatisfying one at best. Arya Stark is given a good deal of attention, and while Martin continues to develop her character successfully, her story line advances only marginally over the length of this book.
Cersei dominates this story; however, despite all the time invested, she never is developed into a complicated character. Instead she remains a flat, evil queen. Granted, Martin does a great job of portraying her follies and setting her along a course of ruin, but the fact that she remains such a shallow character detracts from any satisfaction we may feel as she gets her just desserts. Jamie Lannister, her brother, plays a much bigger role in this story and he’s really the only saving grace in this otherwise dull installment. Martin finally starts to put some meat and depth into his character. The more I read his story the more conflicted I feel about his cruel actions against young Bran in the original installment.
Still, it’s a shame Martin faltered with this volume after delivering so many pages of solid entertainment in the build up. But hope remains for the next book. In the same 2005 letter, Martin’s indicated much of the second part of this two-part volume was already written. So, why then, would it take six years to deliver the next installment? I can only hope Martin learned from the folly of A Feast for Crows (or a stern developmental editor was brought on board). All the excitement that I carried from the end of A Storm of Swords rots on the vine in this book.
Most readers who have invested the time will likely read this story. So, in a sense this review may serve only as a means to temper the expectations of the loyal fan. I certainly wish mine were tempered. A Dance of Dragons will benefit from my expectations being low, but if the story line doesn’t find better direction, then I fear his readers may start to fade as once did the dragons of Westeros.