Great feasts, especially the vast ones of high fantasy, are an affair of multiple senses and motives where the convoluted journey through myriad courses can leave the literary diner not merely full, but profoundly changed. And no more so than in A FEAST FOR CROWS, George R. R. Martin's fourth and latest in his ever-expanding saga, A Song of Ice and Fire.
If you count a tantalizing preview of the upcoming A DANCE WITH DRAGONS --- which picks up the massive FEAST's abruptly truncated threads --- and the very necessary appendices listing principal movers and shakers among the families vying for control of his fictional Westeros, you're in for an 800-page ride through the amazing geography of Martin's imagination.
Now I have to admit early on that I didn't really have time this month to delve into a book this size, and opened it thinking (naively) that I could jump out and resume "normal" life whenever I wanted. I can already hear the rueful laughter of hardcore Ice and Fire fans. Yes folks, you're right; the strange convoluted beauty and visceral energy of Westeros imposes its own "normal" on anyone who steps through the thin places of our universe into its realm. After only a few hours in that world, I too could see the map of Westeros every time I closed my eyes and could place more and more features onto it without flipping back and forth to the inside covers!
Strangely enough, that amazing power of Martin's prose to weave the reader into its unfolding fabric doesn't include waves and waves of overt magic and mystery, nor even (in this epic segment, at least) the advent or return of magical great beasts. For sure, there's talk of dragons and sorcery, and you do get the odd simmering potion wafted about here and there, but compared to the vibrant presence of characterization, superb dialogue and plot-building, these more conventional aspects of high fantasy are often just supporting elements.
That may sound rather heretical, but once you've traveled a few pages into the varied quests, flights, machinations and yearnings of Martin's distinctive characters, they quickly develop memorable texture and substance of their own. Martin achieves this in part through his consummate skill in wielding the point-of-view approach, so that the reader --- more fly on the castle wall than omniscient --- becomes wholly invested in their individual fates and futures. Some previous characters in the Westeros saga (the high profile Jon Snow being one to note) never step onto the stage except in conversation, while others who bided their time in the wings through earlier cataclysms (like the fully drawn Brienne of Tarth) emerge to fill the instrumental spaces left by the dead and disappeared.
It almost goes without saying that the Westeros of Martin's dizzily fertile imagination is no more destined for peace, calm and predictability than the Middle East of our "real" world from which it seems to take some palpable overtones. And not surprisingly, A FEAST FOR CROWS (what more symbol-laden bird is there?) captures moments of awe and transcendence that do more to whet the saga-lover's appetite than to satisfy it. But the company on the journey is another matter. Whether you love them, hate them, puzzle over them, or even grieve over them, the fighting, striving and conspiring families of Westeros and beyond are built on the flesh and bones of deeply felt human nature. The same folks who will bug you to death on the Main Street bus will thoroughly entrance you as they rule over the knights, ladies, connivers and serfs of Martin's remarkable Seven Kingdoms.
Start wherever you will (but preferably at the beginning with A GAME OF THRONES) and you can count on being taken a very willing prisoner by this highest of high fantasy achievements. Look for at least a trio, maybe even a quartet, of new adventures continuing in the illustrious line of A FEAST FOR CROWS.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 21, 2011