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A Feast For Crows by George R R Martin

I’m sure you already know this but I am going to say it again anyway. A Feast For Crows is a sequel (and part of an on-going series). It is entirely possible that if you haven’t read the many words that appear in all the other books there may be spoilers below.

After centuries of bitter strife, the seven powers dividing the land have beaten one another into an uneasy truce. But it’s not long before the survivors, outlaws, renegades, and carrion eaters of the Seven Kingdoms gather. Now, as the human crows assemble over a banquet of ashes, daring new plots and dangerous new alliances are formed while surprising faces—some familiar, others only just appearing—emerge from an ominous twilight of past struggles and chaos to take up the challenges of the terrible times ahead. Nobles and commoners, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and sages, are coming together to stake their fortunes…and their lives. For at a feast for crows, many are the guests—but only a few are the survivors.

What has gone before… I made a conscious decision back in 2011 that I would attempt to tackle A Song of Ice and Fire. I had been avoiding it for a number of years and it had become my fantasy genre white whale, I knew it was out there somewhere just waiting to take me out. I decided though that, like a reviewing Captain Ahab, I had to give it a try, so roughly around the same time the television adaption was about to begin, I started reading. So far I have managed a book each year but now things are starting to get more complicated. This year due to televisual jiggery pokery, I suspect I am going to have to do a bit more just so I can keep up with all the various comings and goings.

The more I read of this wordy behemoth of a series, the more I find myself focussing on specific characters. A Feast For Crows has Greyjoys, Lannisters and Martells by the bucketload, but the chapters that really interested me were the ones featuring either Samwell Tarly, Arya Stark or Brienne of Tarth.

I find Sam’s journey particularly fascinating. Martin appears to be using this character to explore the nature of heroism and what is means to face your fears. There is a palpable sense of evolution occurring every time Sam appears in a chapter. Sam is all too fallible; every potential decision pains him with almost crippling anxiety. Yet somehow, erstwhile Sam manages to carry on. He manages to function and slowly but surely meet the challenges he is forced to face. That strikes me as pretty damned heroic.

Elsewhere, Arya Stark also faces some tough choices.  She finds herself entirely alone and she has to continually reinvent herself to stay alive. She sheds each of her old existences like a costume to ensure she can remain hidden until she can wreak her revenge against the ever-growing list of those who have done her wrong.

Finally, there is Brienne of Tarth. Driven by duty and honour she is compelled to complete any task that is assigned to her, irrespective of the personal consequences.  She is quite unusual for a female character in fantasy. There are many strong female characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, Cersei Lannister springs to mind with her devilish cunning, but Brienne exhibits a physical strength which is rare. She is a more than a match for the male knights of the realm. I love that she never backs down from a fight.

Of course it’s not all about the individual characters, is it? There is also the political wheeling and dealing on a grand, world changing scale. This isn’t just family against family, or even army facing army. The course of events unfolding in this series is shaping entire nations. Martin does a stellar job of counterpointing all the tiny, intimate moments in his story against huge mind-boggling scale elsewhere. It’s a genuine treat, being able to watch all the ruling families scrabbling around for anything that resembles power. Greed, corruption, money, religion always brings out the worst in people and Martin just loves letting us know it.

I’m not sure what other readers think about the fact that A Feast For Crows is essentially half a book, but I don’t really have much of an issue with it. The cast has grown so large now that in order to follow them all effectively it was only a matter of time before a move like that was going to happen. I certainly wouldn’t want the situation where characters were left out entirely just because of space constraints. The only sensible option is exactly what has happened, two books in the series running with tandem narratives. Even with that split, there are still a heck of a lot of characters in A Feast For Crows. A swift glance at the back of the book reveals pages and pages of appendices just listing characters names. I do endeavour to try and pay attention to them all (I figure Martin might try to sneak some important nugget of key information passed us all using one of them) but sometimes it can be hard going. So very many bloomin’ knights and what have you.

There is little denying that A Song of Ice and Fire is a huge, life sapping commitment on any reader’s part, but it can be so extremely satisfying when Mr Martin is bringing his “A” game. I’ll admit that perhaps I don’t necessarily need to know every little thing that is going on. Is my appreciation of the book enriched any by knowing that young Robert Arryn is a huge fan of lemon cakes, and will happily eat one hundred? Probably not, but I’m willing to live with if it means I also get more insight into Littlefinger’s latest evil scheme.

So now that I am all caught up with Sam, Arya, Jamie, Brienne and Cersei, I think I might just need to discover what has happened to everyone else. So next up, in attempt to keep pace with the television adaptation, it is going to have to be A Dance With Dragons isn’t it? I think I am going to have to admit defeat and just accept that I am completely in thrall to this series of books. Damn you Martin! You made me care. DAMN YOU!

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