God, what a slog.
I was really hoping that my original impression of this novel, way back when, wouldn't hold true this time around. When I first read Feast, it had been a few years since I'd read A Storm of Swords, so a lot of the finer points of the various plotlines were not at all fresh on my mind. I chalked up my impression partly to that...but now that I've read the entire series in the last few months, I still think this book is a giant slog. Parts of it are really good. Parts of it are duller than ditchwater. Too much of it is duller than ditchwater. My view of these books as a reasonably high-quality fantasy soap opera is more and more ingrained in my head. Here's how I described that, in the afore-linked post:
When I was a kid, I actually became for a time a huge fan of General Hospital. This was back when each summer would have a long and sometimes "action-packed" tale involving spies and espionage and intrigue of such nature, usually featuring characters like Robert Scorpio and his former wife Anna, who were both also former agents of the WSB (World Security Bureau), when they'd square off against the nefarious agents of the enemy DVX. As these storylines wended their way through the summer months, lots of other characters would see their own lives intersect with the "main summer storyline". This was all usually quite a bit of fun, but there were characters I didn't really care about, and thus their bits in the storyline tended to slide beneath my radar. And not all of the show's characters would be involved in the "main summer storyline", so once a week -- usually on a Tuesday or Wednesday -- there'd be an episode of GH that served only to catch us up on the characters who had nothing to do with the fun stuff. These episodes were largely boring as hell; I was watching the show for Robert Scorpio's heroics and whatnot, and I didn't really care one whit about Steve Hardy's son's relationship problems or the various infighting of the Quartermaine clan or the trials-and-tribulations of hooker-turned-straight Bobbi Whatshername. But that was the price to pay for the good stuff.
So GRRM's massive fantasy series is getting kind of like that. Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, with that character being named in BIG LETTERS at the top of each chapter, so as soon as one chapter ends, you know just by looking at the next page where you're going next in the story. This is classic soap opera structure, and in the first two books it was extremely effective, but I'm finding that now as we're into our fourth book here, it's all starting to feel the same way it felt when I'd watch GH all those years ago. "Oh, cool! An Arya chapter! Her story's interesting!...Oh, bugger, another chapter about Sansa. Snore." If ASoIaF were to be filmed, I think it should be as a soap opera, titled Westeros!. And if they change actors, a voiceover guy could intone, "The part of Jaime Lannister will be played on this episode by...."
In Feast, George RR Martin found himself in a bit of a quandary. He was writing the fourth book in this series, with all the characters present, but it quickly became – surprise, surprise – too long. So he had to cut it in two. But that presented its own structural problem.
Consider, say, The Empire Strikes Back. Suppose, for whatever reason, that George Lucas and company had decided that the movie was too long and needed to be cut in half and released as two movies. Now, what you might suppose he would do is, well, pick a point halfway through and chop it in two right there: maybe just after Han and Leia and friends take up refuge in the asteroid and Luke meets Yoda.
But Martin didn't want to do this. He felt, as he indicates in his afterword, that he found it preferable to "tell all the story for some of the characters, instead of some of the story for all of the characters". So: imagine an Empire Strikes Back that follows Luke, and Luke exclusively, all the way to the end of the existing story...and then another one, a while later, that tells what Han and Leia and Chewie and C3PO were doing while Luke was doing all that other stuff. That's what Martin does here. Does it work? Well...meh.
The problem is, as I note in my soap-opera metaphor, that telling part of the story is only partly satisfying. Of the four best characters in this series – Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Arya Stark, and Daenerys Targaryen – only Arya appears in this one. Who is left to follow, then, over the course of almost 700 pages? Well, there's Jaime Lannister, who continues to be interesting, although he suffers from blockheaditis. There's Samwell Tarly, whose stock is rapidly rising in my estimation, although his story in this book largely consists of riding a boat and mooning over a girl. Cersei Lannister becomes a viewpoint character, but she does not become sympathetic at all, as Jaime did in the previous book. Sansa Stark is around, but her story doesn't really go anywhere of great interest. Brienne of Tarth is here, but her story is really problematic.
And then there's new stuff. Martin devotes a bunch of chapters to the royal succession of the Iron Islands, the seafaring, Viking-like society off the coast of Westeros. I remember this stuff being fairly interesting before, but this time it was just there. And there was a whole storyline involving Arianne, Princess of Dorne, that was...well, I guess I should just be blunt here. I didn't care about it at all.
Of the stories presented in Feast, the only one that really works is Arya's, and it suffers from feeling a bit shoe-horned in here. Martin's apparent focus here is in depicting the events in Westeros basically south of The Neck (a narrow area of the continent between the North and the South, not quite narrow enough to be an actual isthmus), and yet, we have Arya, who is in Braavos, the city across the sea. And her story ends over a hundred pages before the book does.
I think that points up my increasing problem with this series: it's becoming so big and epic that there is almost no sense of structure at this point. Aside from just a couple of points, there's just not that much evidence to be had that we're building toward anything. (Those two points? The fact that two of the factions in this book are apparently setting their eye on the dragons they've heard about in the East.) I don't feel like I'm reading a story; I'm reading, well, a soap opera, with the feeling that I could leave off for a year or two and just start watching again and there everyone will be, give or take a character or two.
:: I have to admit that part of my distaste for large parts of this book have to do with the constant drumbeat of sex. Sex, sex, sex, sexity sexy sex. And none of it is, well, good sex, either. It's all lust and rape and a bizarre fascination on Martin's part with the word "nipple". There's constant probing of "the secret sweetness", comment on how wet women are "down there", and...I'm sorry, maybe I'm a bit of a prude, but this book is loaded with passages like this, and I felt my eyes rolling each and every time. Cersei dabbles with lesbianism, just out of curiosity (and decides that she's grossed out by it, after). Samwell Tarly loses his virginity. Jaime constantly mopes over the fact that his sister hasn't been faithful to him. Littlefinger seems to be coming on to Sansa, who points out numerous times that she's a real maiden, flowered and all. Cersei sets a trap for a rival, which involves having the pious priests probe the girl's privates to see if her 'maidenhead' is intact. And don't get me started on Brienne, whose every interaction with another person must apparently begin with the other person telling her how ugly she is, and more than a few people telling her "What you need is a good raping!". (I am not making that up.)
I haven't much enjoyed the sexual parts of these books, but in Feast, it all becomes downright creepy. Maybe GRRM is exploring this all as a theme – how the lives of millions are affected by the sex lives of the few in power – and I believe firmly that depiction is not the same thing as approval. But, does there really have to be this much creepy sex? Really? None of it is even steamy sex – aside from Sam's drunken lovemaking with Gilly, all the sex in this book, and most of it in the entire series, is violent sex that sounds more painful than anything else.
:: I like Brienne of Tarth a lot as a character. But her story sucks. It's just her, wandering around, asking people if they've seen Sansa Stark, being told how ugly she is, and her pining for poor dead Renly Baratheon. Her final cliffhanger? That's as purely a soap-opera moment as I can think of. You can practically see the show freeze-framing on that moment.
:: One of the rules of soap operas is that if you didn't see the body, the person ain't dead. Therefore, I do not believe that either of the Cleganes has died. (And in the case of Sandor, that would be a shame, as I was finding him a highly compelling character.) We're also told that Davos Seaworth has been murdered, but I'm going to hold that in abeyance, as well.
:: Poor Theon Greyjoy. He was a viewpoint character in Book II, and now he hasn't been seen at all in Books III or IV.
:: If you've ever watched any soap opera for any length of time, you've seen an instance of the producers introducing a new location – a new place in town, for instance – where all the characters claim to have been going for years but which we've never seen before. I kind of felt like that with Dorne. Yes, there have been a few characters from that region in the first few books, but now, suddenly, we had to spend a lot of time there, for reasons I'm not entirely sure of.
:: I'm being pretty hard on this book, but I really did find it a slog and at times a not terribly interesting read. I've read that at one point, GRRM was planning to execute a 'time slip' in between Books Three and Four, which means that he was going to skip over all the stuff that's happening in this book (and in what has become the fifth book). Obviously, I won't know until much later on – if ever, as I'm still unconvinced that this series will ever be finished – but maybe it's the case that the conclusion of this saga makes the events in this book seem more important in retrospect. For now, it bothers me that for a great deal of A Feast for Crows...I found myself not caring.
Oh well. One book to go, and then I'm caught up. At least that one will be totally new to me.