N.B.: As always, this review does not contain spoilers for this book, but there are significant spoilers for previous books in the series.
All right, I am going to swim against the tide here and come out in unabashed admiration for A Feast for Crows. This book has had to bear an incredible burden: not only has it been "the most recent book" in the Song of Ice and Fire series for six years, but it is infamously "half a book" in the sense that it only follows roughly half of the series' main characters. Plus, with Martin's prediction that there will probably be seven or so books in the series, we're starting to get into the territory where some people level charges of "middle book syndrome". These factors combined, along with some probably justified criticism over certain stylistic elements of the book, mean that A Feast of Crows has largely gotten a bad rap. Undeservedly so, I say!
Increasingly I feel like my reviews of this series are becoming, in part at least, responses to other reviews and reactions, both from fellow Goodreads members and from fans and critics at large. And this feels quite appropriate for a series that has garnered such appeal, both from die-hard fans of fantasy and now, thanks to the acclaimed HBO series, mainstream readers as well. It's appropriate that we are having conversations about these books and analyzing them—if some universities have Beatles studies and Buffy studies and Harry Potter studies, then I totally support a curriculum based on studying A Song of Ice and Fire. Also, I just can't think of any other way to review these books, because I feel like I could blather on about the exact same topics I've discussed in my previous reviews of the books in this series. So I'm going to spare you from that and instead argue why A Feast for Crows is not the best book in the series but also far from the worst.
I'm not going to touch this whole "Martin is taking too long to write the books!" issue with a three-metre ninja/pirate-proof pole. No, sir. No way. Neil Gaiman and, more recently, John Scalzi have eloquently explained why we should not expect Martin to "write faster" or believe that Martin is somehow deviously twisting his moustache and milking the series for as much money as possible. Of course, you are welcome to the natural anticipation and impatience that accompanies any series while waiting for the next forthcoming book. (I, for example, am drooling an embarrassing amount over the new Dresden Files book, and going through withdrawal because I have been trained to show up at Chapters in April for them.)
Only slightly less notorious than the lengthy delay in the release of A Dance with Dragons is the afterword to A Feast for Crows, "Meanwhile, back on the wall…". It's in this afterword that Martin informs his readers why we don't see Daenerys, Jon, Tyrion, et al in A Feast for Crows and, worse still, expresses his devout hope that those characters will return in the next volume next year. OK, so one year became six, and here we are. Old fans and newcomers alike seem to target the structure of A Feast for Crows as a major reason that it is, apparently, "the weakest book of the series":
Most of Crows’ problems stem from Martin’s decision to divide the story by geography, and focus mainly on the action in Westeros that takes place south of the Wall. That means that the dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, Martin’s greatest creation, is missing. So are Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. Not only are you losing fantastic, multidimensional characters with whom we’ve traveled for hundreds and thousands of pages, you lose the heart of the story. As far as I can tell (and I’m sure I’ll be wrong), Martin’s endgame seems to point towards two events: the struggle at the Wall against the onslaught of the walking dead (the song of Ice); and Daenerys’ struggle to reclaim the Iron Throne with the help of her dragons (the song of Fire). Neither of those crucial points get any play in Crows. Instead, it’s 700 pages of B-side.
This is a very interesting and cogent observation from Matt's review. For the most part, I agree with his basic analysis—although, I'd like to add that the "song of fire" can also refer to Stannis and Melisandre's Lord of Light, and the battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light that we see developing on the Wall. However, I disagree that Martin's choice of POVs to include in A Feast for Crows loses "the heart of the story" and results in "700 pages of B-side".
It's undeniable that certain characters have become fan favourites, particularly Tyrion, Daenerys, and Jon. I myself have expressed my love for these three characters; as I said in my review of A Storm of Swords, I'm on Team Daenerys, unless Jon and Sam join forces to take over Westeros. (And here's a tantalizing hint: it's possible to interpret some elements of A Feast for Crows as foreshadowing that Daenerys ultimately accedes to the Iron Throne, or what's left of it.) Even Martin, who created all of these people, calls Tyrion his favourite. But Martin's ensemble cast is an element I've pointed out and praised in previous reviews: there is no main character, or no set of main characters. Our elevation of certain characters to stardom is a creation of our own minds, for Martin has forsaken such discrimination and embraced Shakespeare's adage that "all the world's a stage", turning his characters into the players that populate and motivate a much wider, richer drama.
At least, that's how I interpret it. I suppose it's a little insulting to suggest that if you are dissatisfied with A Feast for Crows you are reading it wrong. And there are plenty of other reasons to find the book disappointing—for example, unlike the previous two books, there is much less overt bloodshed and there are fewer battles; once again, we have returned to the dialogue-heavy, intrigue-centred world we saw in A Game of Thrones. Nevertheless, I suggest that if you can adapt to Martin's subversion of our conventional way of thinking about main characters, then it is possible to interpret this book as something other than a B-story episode. Instead, Martin focuses on the fallout from A Storm of Swords, and particularly how it affects Southern Westeros, which is the home of six of the seven kingdoms.
George R.R. Martin is scary good at a lot of things, and choosing the titles of his books is one such talent. A Feast for Crows, like all of the Song of Ice and Fire novels, is exactly what the title implies: since the Battle of the Blackwater concluded, the civil war has been conducted at a large remove from King's Landing. Thanks to the pact between the Lannisters and the Freys, Robb's rebellion has been prematurely terminated, and aside from Riverrun, the river lands are once again in the hands of the Iron Throne. The North, while not exactly quelled, is not an immediate problem. King Stannis has removed himself to the Wall, and although he poses a threat, he is once again quite distant from King's Landing. But with Tywin Lannister dead, Tyrion missing, and Jaime down a hand, we are treated to families divided and loyalties torn asunder.
At the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire, the Lannisters and the Starks were each unified in their hatred of each other. Lannisters fought against Starks and vice versa. Now the Lannisters begin to turn on each other: Tywin treated all three of his children like shit in A Storm of Swords, and now Jaime and Cersei bicker even as the latter proves desperate to find and kill Tyrion. Although nominally still the most powerful family in Westeros, and the power behind the Iron Throne, the Lannisters' position is precarious. The Tyrells are the new Lannisters in town: unified in their quest for more power, with their own brother-sister pairing of beautiful young queen and shining knight of the Kingsguard. The Lannister sun might actually be setting, and it's very interesting to observe Cersei's actions in this book.
Cersei utters that famous line in the first book: "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die." And it's ironic, because with each book I'm more and more convinced that Cersei really sucks at the game of thrones. She's by no means as bad at it as Ned Stark (who shouldn't have trusted Littlefinger), but Tyrion and then her father both ran circles around her. Now, in A Feast for Crows, she makes a series of increasingly-poor decisions, and their result is almost the opposite of what she had intended. Cersei's missteps don't come from a lack of cunning or guile so much as what I perceive as inattentiveness and negligence on her part. The demise of Joffrey and Tywin in quick succession, and Tyrion's roles in those deaths, have hit Cersei hard. Her manic concern for the wellbeing of Tommen is palpable. With her network of trust shattered, she is casting wildly about for people she can make into her creatures, and this causes her to reject some of those who are closest to her, such as Jaime and Kevan. Perhaps the most telling sign of her negligence comes from Cersei's hasty deal with the new, zealous High Septon. Thus far, the new High Septon has refused to endorse Tommen as King, a ceremonial yet important gesture. He craftily agrees to do so in exchange for Tommen reversing an ancient decree that disbands the Faith's own militant order. Cersei, with her Tommen-centric blinders on, agrees readily and thinks she has solved multiple problems with a single conversation. Unfortunately for her, it is all too easy to predict how this decision is going to come back to bite her, and it does.
The Lannisters are the most prominent, and probably the most interesting, example of the eponymous, metaphorical feast for crows, but there are so many more. The Greyjoys fight over their Seastone Chair even as they begin raiding Westeros in earnest. Jon does appear briefly in this book, in a scene with Sam, whom he sends with Maester Aemon to Oldtown and the Citadel. Sam is going to train to be become a maester. His adventures during the journey to Oldtown via Braavos, however, demonstrate the extent to which Jon's elevation to Lord Commander is straining their relationship. Jon dispatches Sam and Aemon as part of a calculated, reasoned decision that is far from the passionate bastard we first met on the Wall. And finally, there is a whole new subplot in Dorne around Prince Doran, his vast family, and the Princess Myrcella.
In the first three books, Martin chronicled the downfall of the Seven Kingdoms through the machinations, misjudgements, and malfeasance of the powerful Houses. With A Feast for Crows, he focuses on the infection that has now set into the gaping wound left behind by civil war. He shows us that not only are the powerful families fighting amongst each other, they are actually turning on their own. Moreover, he is eager to demonstrate that this corruption and decay is widespread throughout Westeros and endemic to a system devastated by war. And that's why this fan does not view the Brienne chapters as a waste of time. Brienne's story is pivotal to this theme of corruption and decay, because she is our eyes into the effects of war on the peasantry and common folk. As she travels through the outlaw-ridden riverlands in search of Sansa, we see the chaos and destruction left behind by armies on the move. Brienne also falls in with a wandering septon, and he delivers a passionate anti-war speech about how battle breaks men and condemning the fact that the majority of an army never understands why they are fighting; it fights only because it is commanded to fight by its lord.
This commoner's perspective is something that has largely been absent from the series so far, and I think it's very important. It emphasizes the folly of a hereditary power structure and belies the idea that any family has a "right" to rule. The common people don't fight because they care who is king; they fight because their lord chooses a side—and the lord chooses, more often than not, out of avarice and opportunity rather than loyalty and honour. While battle claims lords and knights as well as common folk, notice that those lords who survive, such as Edmure Tully, become well-treated hostages. The common people who survive are sent home—or worse, just left wherever the army happens to be where it disbands, which could be nowhere near home—and told to get on with their miserable existence. So allow me to amend Cersei's famous saying: "In the game of thrones, nobility wins, dies, or becomes a hostage; the common folk always lose."
A Feast of Crows suffers from a combination of poor timing and what is admittedly a significant departure from the established structure of the narrative. Yet these qualities alone are not sufficient to earn it the label of "weakest book of the series". If you want my opinion (and this is my review, so I don't really know whose opinion you'd expect except mine), A Clash of Kings was the weakest book. In particular I found the sheer number of characters and POVs daunting and messy. Maybe that's why I found A Feast for Crows so refreshing. Although it is somewhat heavy on dialogue—and no, I don't know what a groat is either—I enjoyed the opportunity to get inside each character's head for longer periods of time. For me, the structure of A Feast for Crows was unusual, but it was also a boon. This book certainly has its share of weaknesses, as well as a myriad of strengths I did not have a chance to extol in this review. Overall, however, I think it continues in the tradition Martin has established, one of rich detail and a canny complexity, that makes A Song of Ice and Fire so compelling and beloved.