A Feast For Crows, by George R. R. Martin

One line review of A Feast For Crows by George R.R. Martin: “I give up.”

I say that with great regret. In my view there’s only one contemporary fantasy author who bears comparison with J.R.R. Tolkien in any meaningful way, and that’s Martin. No other author in the field today comes close to him in combining fully realized worldbuilding with skillful prose and insightful character development. There’s no other contender in that weight category.

Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is loosely based on (or perhaps “suggested by” would be a better combination) the English Wars of the Roses. But Martin’s wars are bigger affairs. Britain has become Westeros, a full-fledged continent, home to a dozen kingdoms, as culturally diverse as the European Scandinavia-to-the-Mediterranean range. All are under the overlordship of the Iron Throne, but the death of the king in the first volume set off a rash of dynastic wars. The wars are big. The passions are big. The treachery would put the Borgias to shame. The crimes are appalling, the heroism…

Well, no. There isn’t any real heroism in these books, which is a major part of my problem with them. People who aspire to chivalry in these books generally get cut off pretty promptly, and those who survive mostly do so by lies, murder and betrayal. The only fighters Martin seems to admire much are the female ones, of which I counted about four (it’s hard to remember) in this book.

“It’s hard to remember” is something you’ll hear a lot from Martin’s readers. His method is not to put a few sympathetic characters on stage and follow them over time and geography, in Tolkien’s manner. Martin sets out dozens of characters (all of them admirably fleshed out) in hundreds of locations, and leaves it to the reader to keep them straight (with the help of character indexes in back, without which reading these books would be impossible for anyone not blessed with a photographic memory).

And that’s only the half of it. Martin explains in a note at the end of this volume that he’s left out half the characters and action in this section of the plot, and that he’ll provide those in the next volume. Just be patient. And keep your notes at hand.

And that’s the other part of my problem with Martin. He seems to have allowed his grand scheme to run away with him. His desire to populate his books with a cast of thousands is admirable in its way, but it’s taxing for the reader. I could probably hang on to the end (whenever that comes—Martin is coy on the projected length of the series) if I thought the payoff would be one I’d appreciate.

But Martin doesn’t appear to be preparing us for any Tolkienesque “eucatastrophe.” His message, judging from what we’ve seen so far, would seem to be the old, tired (and false) one that goes, “War never solves anything.” To drive that message home, he employs the device of regularly killing off characters we’ve started to root for, and in the most unpleasant ways he can think of.

So sorry, George. I’m not going to invest the effort you demand of me just so I can watch you kill off the rest of your viewpoint characters and hear you sing, “Give peace a chance.”

It’s been a good effort. But I have other things to do with my life.

6 thoughts on “A Feast For Crows, by George R. R. Martin”

  1. Thanks for the tip-off, as I have other things to do with my life, too. And the thing I find so inspiring about Tolkien is that the most powerful weapon of his heroes is Goodness with a capital G.

  2. My affection for GRRM’s books was severely battered when I stumbled across a usenet-type thread where some naive but inoffensive hausfrau asked, in a not-too-simpery way, if he dealt more with religion and nobility of spirit than he had so far (it sounded like she was maybe halfway through the first book). A whole flock of angrily and self-importantly secular fans (either British, or self-consciously affecting Britishisms in their webprose) swooped down on her and started scolding like fishwives. Between that, his Bush Tourette’s syndrome, and the very long delay between books, and I’d pretty much put him out of my mind by the time Feast of Crows finally came out, and on hearing that he wasn’t following up on Richard Crookback’s-uh, whatever his name really is-cliffhangery fate from the previous book, I pretty much gave up on the cycle.

  3. I wonder if the scale of what he’s attempting isn’t just too huge for the human mind to handle in print form. In a movie, there’d be visual shorthands (like the five billion coats of arms he’s created) to help; in some kind of electronic hypertext form, you could jump back and forth between the references and the the storyline more easily, or search the text by your favorite characters. The old, rambling Victorian novels tended to be reasonably united by a single narrative thread (often the life-problems of a rather boring young man or woman, who attracts all the weirdos and villains), or by a setting. Fiction is by definition elitist, you cannot tell absolutely everyone’s stories in the same way, you have to pick *some* favorites (or unfavorites) of fortune and stick with them, and GRRM seems to have trouble doing this.

  4. I suspect the unelitist approach is a sign of what Martin is trying to do with the series (which is an admirable thing in many ways–reminding us that a lot of powerless people suffer greatly in war through no fault of their own. Though Martin does appear to be lingering rather lovingly on the atrocities). Maybe the books are waiting for a new technology to deliver them more efficiently. And that might not be far off.

  5. For anyone who’s interested, Martin gave an interview in a recent edition of Locus magazine. He describes writing himself into a corner as it were… and how someone had to rescue him. I’ve only read a few shorter things by him, and he doesn’t appeal to me. (What I’ve read was extremely perverse.)I’ve never seen anything to equal Tolkien; but ‘novels’ I found enjoyable would include; Empire of the East, by Fred Saberhagen, and Knight (and Wizard) by Gene Wolfe.

    p.s. Saberhagen has a recent series about ancient heroes (including one that deals with Norse mythology.)

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