Thursday, 14 June 2007

George R. R. Martin: A Feast for Crows (2005)

Published: HarperCollins 2006

The fourth volume in Martin's acclaimed A Song of Ice and Fire appeared after a lengthy hiatus, and the afterword acknowledges that he found it difficult to write. Not as long as the third volume (which had to be split in two when published as a paperback), it could have been much more so: much material originally intended to be part of A Feast for Crows will now make up the next instalment.

These structural matters aside, A Feast for Crows is basically the diffuse continuation of the many faceted narrative of the earlier novels in the series. Not only would it be incomprehensible to anyone who had not read these earlier novels, but I found it hard to get into because it is so long since I read its precursors. The principal strand tells of the high point in the career of the dowager Queen Cersei, whose ambition for her children, not in fact sired by the dead king but through incestuous adultery with her brother, proved one of the major causes of the terrible civil war. She starts A Feast for Crows as regent for her youngest son King Tommen and is determined to hang on to as much power as possible, despite the misgivings about her competency from man of those who have been her allies so far. Her character is basically an unpleasant combination of Lady Macbeth and Isabella (from 'Tis Pity She's a Whore), and the plotting at her court in King's Landing is very similar to the scenarios of Jacobean revenge tragedies.

Unpleasant as her machinations are, the real theme of A Feast for Crows is the horrific effect of the war on the lower classes. Most descriptions of medieval warfare, particularly as they are filtered through to the fantasy genre, concentrate on the leaders, the gallantry and the spectacle. Some semblance of reality has crept into the genre relatively recently, but few fantasy writers allow themselves to be as bleak about the anarchy, starvation and desperation that follows the brutal rape and pillage that was part and parcel of this style of warfare. While most readers point to the Wars of the Roses for real world parallels to A Song of Ice and Fire, it is not a war that is in my mind at least associated with widespread suffering (though writing that down immediately makes me think of the scene with the son who has killed his father and the father who has killed his son in Henry VI Part III). It seems to me to be more like the anarchic violence which virtually destroyed community life in much of France in the mid fourteenth century, as depicted in Jonathan Sumption's excellent history of this phase of the Hundred Years' War, Trial By Fire. Perhaps this is a little too much reality for the fantasy genre (even if Martin doesn't go into the tortuous financial issues which were an important cause of France's problems in the 1360s): it definitely makes for depressing rather than escapist reading, and really when it comes down to it is not as interesting as the real history.

The series takes a dip in interest here, but I would rate A Feast for Crows as good nonetheless. I will just add one more thing, which is fairly standard for any mid-series novel. If you have read the rest of A Song of Ice and Fire, you will have decided that the series as a whole is worth reading, and you will not be put off here. (A new novel by an author generally has to be pretty poor to alienate a fan.) On the other hand, this is neither the book by Martin to read first, nor is it going to gain new fans for the series - and those who have already tried this series and given up won't be reading it anyway.

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