In the first three volumes of this series, Martin wrote chapters from different limited third-person points of view, with each character’s chapters forming a complete story but all the chapters interlinked and commenting on each other. The chapters weren’t in any particular order—sometimes there would be two chapters from the same character interrupted by just one from someone else, and sometimes there would be huge gaps between. Each chapter was marked with the name of the narrator, so you knew who you were with right away. This worked remarkably well. This is actually a very unusual way to write and structure a novel. There are a variety of more standard ways of doing multiple viewpoints, including a very popular variant of omniscient invented by Dickens in which the writer switches into the head of any character at will to give a little of the story from everyone’s perspective—which may be as little as one chapter, or even one paragraph. In this system narrators are points-of-view and not people who necessarily have their own stories, and they are used as convenient. Martin gives us multiple narrators, but they are the same narrators—with new ones in each volume as old ones get killed off, to be sure. This is one of the things that makes these books so memorable and so nifty.
In A Feast For Crows he departs from this system to show us what’s happening in Dorne and in the Iron Islands—instead of giving us one new viewpoint for each of them, he gives us a whole set of them, some for just one chapter, some for two. This is one of the things that makes this book less satisfactory, for me. I missed the discipline and shape provided by the controlled points of view.
I read that Martin’s original intention was to begin the fourth book with a five year gap (in internal story chronology, not publication time!) after the end of A Storm of Swords. This is only the second time I have read A Feast for Crows, but the more I think about it, the better idea the gap seems. Up to the end of A Storm of Swords everything felt directed, it was huge but I was confident it knew where it was going. A Feast For Crows is uncomfortably much like Stuff Happens. It all happened. It all needed to have happened. We didn’t need to see it, and what we did need could have been handled as backstory, the same way the way of the Trident was. I wonder whether Martin might be less stuck now if he’d stayed with that original purpose?
This is of course made worse because Feast is half a book—all the story for half the characters. We don’t see Bran or Jon or Daenerys. This means we don’t get any ice or any fire. This book is all human level interactions. The Damphair seems to be really killing people and really bringing them back to life—more zombies!—and there’s a glass candle burning in the Citadel, but that’s all.
I already said I don’t like the Dorne and Iron Islands points of view. The two new “real” points of view are Cersei and Brienne. The book starts with five chapters before you get a familiar point of view. Brienne is cool. I like her point of view and I like her story, even if it is, objectively, futile and pointless wandering about looking for people and not finding them. Oh, and I don’t like the “resolution” of her strangling and screaming “a word.” I’m sure she’s not dead, and I found the tension on that artificial. (See also, Arya, blind.) Cersei disappointed me. Unlike her twin, she’s very much the same inside as she seemed from outside. I don’t think it would have been possible to have done this book without her. She’s such a villain and such an idiot, she annoys me even more than Catelyn did. I appreciate that Martin’s contrasting ways to be a woman, I think that’s wonderful, but I think Cersei from inside is a bit much. It’s nice seeing her try to run the country, as Ned and then Tyrion did, but she makes such a mess of it I just want to shake her.
The treatment of religion in these books generally is brilliant—and surprisingly realistic. There’s the old religion and the new religion, and the new new religion, and the idea in Braavos that all religions worship their god, the Dothraki religion, and even Bakkalon in Meereen (Bakkalon the pale child with a sword appears in a number of Martin’s earlier works as a nutty religion, most notably And Seven Time Never Kill Man). The “reformation” of the Septs in this volume is my favourite thing in it. The sparrows, the new High Septon, the newly revived religious fighting orders—all this is great.
It’s possible that when A Dance With Dragons appears the things that feel unsatisfactory in this volume will stop grating on me. And even with everything that does feel unsatisfactory, and even wishing he had leapt five years ahead over all these events, I still couldn’t put it down, and I still dreamed about it every night, and I shall be buying A Dance With Dragons the second it hits the shelves. Watch this space. But don’t, you know, hold your breath.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.