Sunday, June 17, 2007

Book Review: A Feast For Crows

George R.R. Martin is the slowest writer in the known universe. Okay, maybe not, but it sure feels that way.

A Feast for Crows is Book 4 in the series A Song of Fire and Ice, which started back in 1996 with A Game of Thrones. There are three more books planned; however, as Mr. Martin originally envisioned this as a six-book series, then realized he had far too much material and split Book 4, I wouldn't be surprised if this series ended up with eight or even ten books total.

A Game of Thrones takes place in a world that resembles Medieval Earth. There are seven known kingdoms, there are knights, there are serfs and common folk who get trampled when the seven kings decide to play their game of thrones. Technology is primitive at best. Maesters are the local "wise" men, kind of like Merlin, but without his magic.

There is magic, however, of a limited sort. And there are now dragons, which were thought to be mythological creatures. Only a few have actually seen them. Only one controls them.

The power of women depends on the kingdom and her station. Some cultures accept a female ruler; others have only men in charge, although the women in those situations work behind the scenes. Some kingdoms and their associated houses have a lot of power. Others had power, but have lost it, have limited power, or have traditionally been the "bannermen" to a more powerful house.

In the northernmost reaches of the civilized world is The Wall. The men of the Wall guard against the incursion of the uncivilized, including some who might not be alive in the usual sense. The Wall is also a perfect place to banish someone or to be rid of an inconvenient bastard son or younger son that a king or noble just can't kill.

Bastards are common. Their surname indicates who their father is, generally by using a geographic feature of their particular kingdom. Thus Jon Snow is the bastard son of Eddard Stark, king of the northernmost kingdom.

The seasons are longer than our seasons and the weather is more severe. This is important because hostilities break out at the end of summer. Winter is coming and the common folk (and those of the nobility with any common sense) realize that burning the fields and killing off the peasants now means starvation later.

Oh... add to the mix a couple of major religions, one old and the others newer. They have varying degrees of political power. The kings are not above using the Septons for their own ends and the Septons have an agenda as well.

Autumn is coming at the beginning of A Feast for Crows. Several major characters have been killed or injured and one has been "re-animated"--it hardly seems fitting to call it "life." A female knight is looking for the oldest daughter of Eddard Stark to fulfill a vow she made to Eddard's wife, Catelyn. The youngest Stark daughter, presumed dead, finds herself in the novitiate of yet another religion. A Brother of the Wall is sent by his commander to The Citadel to return the Wall's Maester home and then to study for himself. The king on the Iron Throne, the most powerful king of Westeros, is an eight-year-old boy. His grandfather, the Regent, has been poisoned by his uncle. The king's mother is now the Queen Regent and wishes to show herself truly worthy of being her father's heir.

The king is not the son of the previous king, although he called him "Father." Only a few know the truth, although more suspect it.

Children are traded amongst the houses, partly held as hostages but also to instill some sense of loyalty to the household they are raised in. And the hosting household is required to keep that child safe, as well as ensure their education and upbringing. This system doesn't always work. And there are consequences, as one princess discovers when she, thinking her father is weak, takes matters into her own hands and her plans go terribly astray.

In fact, most plans have unintended consequences. No one is truly trustworthy.

And off the the west are the Iron Islands, a Viking-like people, born and bred to the sea. They also have claims to the land of Westeros (as well as their own religion); claims which their new king has promised to fulfill.

My mass-market paperback weighs in at 976 pages of story, plus another thirty or so of characters and their relationships plus another fifteen of a preview of the next book. (So why isn't it out already?!)

This saga isn't for everyone. You have to be patient. You have to enjoy tales of King Arthur and the Saxons and the Vikings and the complicated relationships of noble houses and crowns (think Eleanor of Aquitaine, King Henry of England, and King Louis and King Philip of France). Each chapter tells the tale of a different character from their point of view, usually at about the same time as the previous character.

You have to be willing to step into this world completely and accept its mores and customs. And learn a bit of the language as well. (Although the vocabulary is not as complicated as that of Middle Earth.)

I find it helps if you have someone to discuss this with. In my case, it's BIL#3, who gave me the initial three books as a Christmas present. He hadn't quite finished the third book at that point. When he realized that this was not a trilogy as he had thought, he apologized. We now keep each other updated regarding when the next volume is due out. (Volume 5 is late, according to Mr. Martin's website.) Since BIL#3 travels a lot, he was able to re-read the first three volumes before reading the fourth. I don't have that kind of time, but there were enough clues to remind me of the previous events. I was especially grateful for the family trees in the back of the book. I'm sure I missed some subtleties.

On the March Hare scale: 4 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks. Since Mr. Martin is older than I am, may he continue in good health until this magnum opus is completed!