A Feast for Crows

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 This is the fourth book in George R. R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice & Fire’ novel series. To read my reviews on the rest of the series, click here.

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 This entire series is a monumental study of power. Fans will know that each novel explores the coveted crown from a different point of view. Feast‘s principal themeis easily reflected by the adage “Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown.” In this novel, power, the true fragility of one in a position of power is brought to light. No one can rule in complete security. There is always intrigue, suspicion, betrayal and angst.  And in the end, a crow will feast upon kings and beggars alike.

There are a couple of things about the fourth installment of the series that make it different from the other books. First and foremost, a flurry of new characters are thrown into the mix. Our newest narrators include Ser Arys Oakheart, the member of the Kingsguard assigned to protect Princess Myrcella in Dorne; Arianna, princess of Dorne; and Pate, a novice at the Citadel.

Also, while the story is still told via the narrators, now the chapter titles have been switched up a bit. Instead of the chapter being named ‘Oakheart’, it’s titled ‘The Soiled Night’. It’s almost as if Martin is emphasizing certain personality shifts in the characters. This is especially evident when it comes to Sansa Stark/Alayne and Arya Stark/Cat of the Canals.

As readers we are given much deeper insight into previously neglected areas in this mythical world. Through Arya Stark we see the strange city of Braavos. Through Alayne, we see the Vale, and we are brought right into the middle of a fiery succession dispute in the Iron Islands through the Prophet. Most interestingly, it is in this book that we are finally introduced to Dorne – a place that has been frequently referred to in the previous books but never really explained.

It took Martin 5 years to write this book, and any reader will instantly know why. The width and depth of the storyline is amazing. In most fantasy series, the exaggerated detail is often mere bloat, and pieces of it keep fizzling out every now and then, replaced with new pieces – basically, it’s a continuous flow of temporary story-stretchers. Martin has raised the bar for all fantasy series. This book has no fewer than 10 story threads continuing over the approximately 1000 pages, and with so much investment in bringing each of the characters alive, and giving the story so much dimension, I’m wondering how long he’ll be able to keep this up.

In the words of a fellow blogger, “With A Feast for Crows, Martin found himself faced with so many characters and so many stories to tie together that, after half a decade of struggling with this Gordian knot of his own making, he made a crucial decision: to cut it. “

As mentioned in the Author’s note, Martin decided to present us with the whole story about half the characters rather than half the story about all the characters. So his book was chopped into two, and the first half was titled A Feast for Crows. The second half is the fifth book of the series, A Dance with Dragons – which I am currently reading!

And now, let’s take a look at my favorites aspects of the book:

Rhaegar Targaryen, for a man dead, certainly knows how to stick around. Eldest son of the mad King Aerys II, and brother to one of the principle characters, Dany, he is remembered as a hero by those loyal to the dragon kings. Famous for being excelling at anything he decided to do, he is also remembered to be a broody, melancholy man, who would prefer playing his harp to jousting any day.

With the lilac eyes and silvery hair typical of the Targaryens, Rhaegar was Cersei’s first obsession. He was the man she wanted to marry, the man her father had promised to her. Robert Baratheon, our beloved king now dead, slew Rhaegar in the rebellion, and for that, Cersei never really forgave him. This is a decidedly interesting twist in Cersei’s character. Up till now, she’s never really loved anyone except for Jaime and her children.

Every mother loves her children, and her love for Jaime was kind of just a love for herself. She loved Jaime only because he looked so much like her. In this novel and its predecessor, we have seen that she was quick to be disloyal to him when he was not around, and quick to reject him when he was weak (when he lost his sword hand). Even more to the point, she became downright disdainful towards him when he stopped jumping at her every command.

To know that Cersei Baratheon ever loved a man (albeit for his good looks and skill as a warrior) brings interesting dimension to her personality. I would love to see this further explored in later books.

Another interesting point about Rhaegar is brought to light by Jaime, reminiscing about the last time he ever saw the dashing prince. Jaime was apparently on quite good terms with the young Targaryen. “When the battle’s done I mean to call a council. Changes will be made. I meant to do it long ago, but … well, it does no good to speak of roads not taken. We shall talk when I return”. These were the last words Rhaegar ever spoke to him. He never returned from the battle, and so what changes he intended to make remain unknown.

Kevan Lannister

Tywin’s younger and far less-glamorous brother was pleasantly surprising to say the least, when he turned from quiet side-kick to an intelligent, capable and independent man. After Tywin’s death, I expected him to fade into the background, another man added to Cersei’s army of sniveling, wheedling good-for-nothings. Alas, I was very very wrong. Tywin Lannister did not keep Kevan as his right hand man for nothing. Reliable and dependable, Kevan may be the other character so far to truly understand Tywin, and even to sympathize with him.

When Cersei starts to take control of the kingdom and put some truly disastrous policies into place, Kevan Lannister tries to set her straight. In a mini-monologue he gives her solutions, and makes it clear that he is not a pawn on her chessboard. In true Cersei style, she passionately throws him away and goes on trying to prove him wrong. Silly Cersei.

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A Storm of Swords

Tyrion Lannister

This book is the third installment of the A Song of Fire & Ice series by George R. R. Martin. To read my review on the first book, titled A Game of Thrones, click here. To read my review on the second book, titled A Clash of Kings, click here.

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It’s terribly hard to do a review on a series I’ve loved so much without giving away spoilers!

What the book looks like

My overall impression of the novel is as follows:

In life, there’s the exciting, high-action bits, and in between them, there’s a mass of every day details that can be a bit dreary, but that make the high-action possible. A Storm of Swords is a good mix of the two, whereas the first two books were more high-action.

Having said that, I did thoroughly enjoy the book. It brings together a lot of loose ends from the earlier book, and if you’re like me, you’ll be pleasantly to surprised to find some characters from the earlier books back from their previous MIA status.

Now in this book, Samwell Tarly is given a voice as one of the narrators of the story. Up till now, we’ve heard the story from characters that are far more central to the plot line, but branching with Tarly and other sub-characters makes it just a tiny bit more interesting. Sam is a man of the Night’s Watch, though he considers himself an incapable coward.

Samwell Tarly

High-born, and well-fed, Samwell Tarly is very different from the other men of the Night’s Watch. Where they are lean and street-smart, he is rotund and easily frightened. Tarly is a classic example of characters that authors employ under the ‘it’s the heart that matters’ cliche. Though he may seem wimpy and lame, Tarly’s got a good heart. He’s what all the aunties would call ‘a nice boy’, ‘a good boy’. A nice boy he may be, but in this book Tarly busts out with a heroism few would expect of him. He braves fearful odds, and manages to do it all without losing his wits (though he almost does a couple of times).

Even more surprising than Sam’s title as ‘Slayer‘ is the fact that somewhere in the course of this book, I began to sympathize with Jaime Lannister – a character I was determined to hate in the beginning. He is chastised by everyone he meets, branded the Kingslayer, a monster, killer, liar, fool. He has come to epitomize the worst of what House Lannister stands for. Lord Tywin (Jaime’s dad) is the driving force behind House Lannister’s greatness (it is said he even shits gold), but he is at best a distant character. The reader is not given much personal insight into Tywin in this book and barely any in the previous two. Instead, we see Jaime, his prized stallion, prancing back and forth across the pages, parading the glory of his house. And thus, in the reader’s mind (or in mine at least) Tywin’s cold cruelty and Jaime’s own flamboyant arrogance are gelled into a solid image that Jaime Lannister is most definitely not a good guy.

Jaime Lannister

In my eyes, it is Jaime who is the unsung hero of this bit of the story. He had a long way to fall, and fall he did. It was not a sudden, surprising drop but rather the slower, more subtle kind that I imagine causes more pain, with enemies smiling at every dip. I’ve ended up thinking of his as a young boy who grew naturally cocky and arrogant because he had money, a beautiful woman, a powerful position. He cannot really be blamed for his arrogance. How many times do we see a young Islamabadi boy, the son of some MP or bureaucrat, driving his daddy’s big car, throwing away his dad’s money, and playing at king? Jaime Lannister was a degree better, he actually had true skill with a sword. So this little arrogant boy, talented and good-looking, made the mistake of taking for granted that his life would always be so great (don’t we all?) and didn’t think much of being nice to other people. That’s what got him in trouble later. He’s lost everything and yet lost very little. Towards, the end, I’m heartbroken for Jaime.

Jon Snow & his direwolf, Ghost

 Jon Snow is an old favorite. Bastard-son of Eddard Stark (or is he? The online forum gossipers have quite a few theories about that one), and far more noble than any other character, Jon Snow is what every girl wants in a guy. He’s good looking, taking after his father’s manly strong looks, and has an undying sense of honor, duty and loyalty. He’s skilled with a sword, and gentle to weaker souls, brave, kind and understanding, nice to his little sister. Throw in the fact that he’s got a totally awesome big white wolf, what else could you ask for?

And now, we come to my favorite character from the book – Tyrion Lannister.

Tyrion Lannister

Tyrion Lannister is Jaime’s brother, and Tywin’s second son. He is blamed for killing his mother just by being born (she died during childbirth) and for being a hideous monster, shorter than most men by half, and ugly to boot. He uses gold to buy loyalty, and allows himself no delusions about anyone loving him. His brother Jaime is the only one who has ever shown him any kindness. From his sister Cersei, he has only ever had a particularly cruel brand of hatred. From his father, rejection, hatred, disdain, punishment, & accusations.

Tyrion has had a hard life, and lost the only woman who ever loved him far before Martin ever brought him into the story. In his character, we see a sort of determination to prove the world wrong, mixed with an utter desperation for companionship and love. He’s crude and blunt, but he’s always right. Tyrion’s mind more than makes up for his lack of skill with a sword.

In my mind, he is one of the most dangerous characters – a good man, made sarcastic and cynical by constantly being put down, desperate to belong. I find myself wondering when Tyrion will crack from all the pressure building up against him. He is capable of great kindness, but when will he finally go over to the dark side, so to speak?

A Clash of Kings

Stannis & Lade Melisandre

This is the second part of a review on the A Song of Fire & Ice series by Geroge R. R. Martin which is now being made into a TV series by HBO, titles ‘Game of Thrones’. To read the first part, click here.

 

Something it took me a while to realize (because I’m as slow as a tube light on low voltage) is that the books in this series are very aptly named. The first book was titled ‘A Game of Thrones’ because it was precisely that – a  bunch of parties vying for a throne. In the same way, the second book is titled ‘A Clash of Kings‘ because this is when these different parties, each with their king of choice, battle for victory.

George R. R. Martin‘s epic fantasy series is known for its elaborate details and interwoven plot structure. In the words of another blogger, “There is so much detail! A minor character in a minor scene will be referred to or refer to something that is significant elsewhere, what a character says seems different given the context later books provide… It’s really neat how everything all fits together.

For many that, like myself, may at first thought find the task of reviewing or even summarizing these book daunting, this may present a simple and convenient solution.

Let’s move on to the actual review, shall we? Now, my aim in doing this review is not to spew the details of Martin’s genius plot all over this page. That would just leave you with a regurgitated mess (since I cannot begin to rival his skill) and an utter lack of motivation to go and read the series for yourself. What I actually want to do here is tell you my favorite things about the novel, why it’s so appealing to me, and encourage you to take a look for yourself. (I’m trying really hard to avoid spoilers, so bear with me when I seem vague!)

The first thing I want to mention is Martin’s total nonchalance when butchering his characters. No one is safe. So be careful not to get too attached, your favorite man’s head might get chopped off in the next few pages.

A line of the disciplined spear-men routing a cavalry charge.
Brienne, the Maid of Tarth

Next up on my favorites, Brienne of Tarth, a woman stronger than any, all parts knight and no parts elegant lady. A warrior to rival any man, Brienne is one of the characters introduced in the  The Clash of Kings, and one who quickly won my sympathy as she loses the love of her life. Warrior though she is, Brienne is also frail. Her father wanted sons, and try as she may, Brienne was always a poor substitute. She scorns any reference to her gender, and her insecurity is evident when any lady-like duties are presented to her, but why do I admire her? She is a woman of honor, strength and courage. These days, there is so much media out there telling us not to be afraid because we’re ‘different’ and might not blend in with the group. Well, Brienne sticks out like a sore thumb, and can beat many a man on the battle field. How’s that for girl power?

Varys, The Spider

Varys, sometimes called The Spider, is a major character in the second book. He initially appeared in ‘A Game of Thrones’. Varys is a eunuch and the Master of Whisperers on the king’s small council. He is a skilled manipulator and commands a network of informants across two continents. He seems pretty insignificant at first, just a weak little man playing at God, but we soon learn that he’s far more cunning than he appears.

He claims his duty and loyalties lie with the realm. All he wants is a prosperous Westeros, but he’s decidly vague on what exactly he thinks is best for the realm. In the book, he presents quite the philosophical riddle:

“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him to slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?”

Varys was born in the land beyond Westeros. He is a eunuch and was castrated in his youth. He is a member of the King’s small council, where he serves as Master of Whisperers, the King’s foremost spymaster and intelligence agent. He holds no inherited title or land in Westeros, but is called ‘Lord’ as a courtesy due to his position on the council, which traditionally is made up of great lords. Varys is bald and tends towards fat. He has a gift for impersonation.

He is disparagingly known as ‘The Spider’ due to his vast web of intelligence sources. His sophisticated intelligence network spans both Westeros and the land beyond. He refers to his agents and sources of information as his ‘little birds’.

And lastly, Eddard Stark’s youngest daughter, Arya, was downright ignored in the first book, but in the second she really comes to life as a character. The spirited young girl is tested to the full and emerges brilliantly, battling hardship in a way that I certainly did not expect of her.

Arya is spirited, interested in fighting and exploring. You could call her the foil of her sister, Sansa (the epitome of lady-like perfection). Throughout the story, Arya displays great resourcefulness, cunning, and an unflinching ability to accept hard necessity.

Most interestingly, she saves the life of an impeccably polite man whom she is positive is very dangerous, along with two of his companions. This seemingly innocuous man (who always refers to himself in the third person) presents himself to her, seeking to repay his debt. He will kill three men for her. Three lives she saved, and three lives she shall have. That’s just one of the little details I loved.

And I’ll end with my favorite line from this particular book:

For when kings clash, the whole land trembles.

A Game of Thrones

Khal Drogo, ruler of the Dothraki

This post was also published on Youth Correspondent. To see that post, click here. 

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With midterms in three days,  a deliciously cool breeze wafting through my window, sunshine filling up my bedroom, and a brand new book in my hand, I was utterly conflicted. In my hand I held the first installment of the A Song of Ice & Fire series, by George R. R. Martin, initially published in 1996.

I knew I should study. I knew it. But when you’ve got a new novel in your hands, its edges crisp and its pages untouched, how can you not throw every thought of midterms to the wind?

Rest assured, I did study. I managed to lock the book in my closet (it felt like I was banishing a loved one), and get down to the drastically less exciting coursework.

As of 11:30 am this morning, I am pleased to announce that I am a free woman. Book in hand, I couldn’t wait to come home and embrace the adventure that awaited me. And what an adventure!

George R. R. Martin throws you straight into the world of Westeros, without an introduction to ease you into things. There’s talk of ‘winter‘ and the ‘undead‘, and it took me a while to be able to sort through all the terminology. For example, something I was finally able to figure out:

Westeros is the name given to the great continent in the far west of the known world. It stretches from theuttermost north to the Summer Sea and from the Sunset Sea to the Narrow Sea, which separates it from the continent of Essos to the east.

The terms ‘sunset lands’ and, more commonly, ‘The Seven Kingdoms’, are sometimes used to refer to Westeros, although the latter only applies to those lands south of the Wall. The Dothraki call it Rhaesh Andahli, the land of the Andals.

In the world of Westeros, we are introduced first to the Stark family, Eddard (Ned) and his wife Catelyn (maiden name: Tully) and their bundle of children. There is a bastard son, Jon Snow, and a species of super-wolf, called direwolves. There is a big wall, which I keep imagining as the Great Wall of China, and a girl named Daenerys, who seems completely unrelated as you start to worm your way through the book.

I often find fault with books based of fantasy worlds. Most writers don’t seem adequately committed to making their fantasy a reality. I imagine it looks very nice in their head, but often, it doesn’t translate on paper, and into my mind as a reader. Then there is an opposite extreme, when writers are so committed to the fantasy that they take it overboard, and you’re so lost with the werewolves and the she-monkeys and all these other random things that you lose interest in the plot line. It’s my opinion that in any fantasy novel, you need to have a “human, non-beast” aspect that your readers can relate to.

George R. R. Martin finds this balance easily. There are weirwoods, and septs and the Others, but there are also humans, and values such as honor, prestige, loyalty, kindness. He doses out a fair amount of cruelty and hardness to his characters too. In sum, he creates a world that is believable. There is a story, there is a plethora of characters to entrance you, and there is emphasis on the cardinal values of justice and honor, to entrance the hero in each man.

Things I loved about the novel:

Khal Drogo, ruler of the Dothraki

1) The Dothraki

Fierce “savages”, the Dothraki are a nomadic warrior tribe, who honor the horse and human strength above all. They are blunt in their love-making and quick to murder, but they honor the greatest warrior with the title of Khal (ruler/king/leader) and are prepared to stake their lives for him. A reverence of mother nature is prevalent, as is a fierce pride in their strength and power. “The stallion that mounts the world has no need for iron chairs.” – Khal Drogo

In the picture (which is from the adapted TV series) shows his really long ponytail, but in the novel, repeated reference is made to the fact that the Dothraki oil and braid their hair, and a man’s hair is not cut until he loses a battle. A man with hair as long as Drogo’s is a man that has never been defeated. The bells sown into their braids indicate their many victories. The TV series does a grave injustice to Drogo’s grandeur by skipping out on these details.

The Iron Throne

2) The Iron Throne

The entire concept of the Iron Throne is so different from the usual gilded chairs of fairy tales, that I had no choice but to be entranced.

The Iron Throne was made by  Aegon I Targaryen, the first king of the Seven Kingdoms, and continues to be the seat of the king when we are invited into the A Game of Thrones narrative. The Throne is made from the swords surrendered by his enemies, it is supposed to have taken a thousand blades to make, and was cooked in dragon-breath. Now how’s that for innovative?

As I said before, Martin’s writing is infused with the importance of honor and valor, that which makes a man. It is no different with the throne. The Iron Throne is a monstrosity of spikes and jagged edges and twisted metal. It is uncomfortable, and the back is fanged with steel which makes leaning back impossible. Aegon the Conqueror had it made, saying that a king should never sit easy.

 3) The words of the House of Stark, “Winter is coming.” and the entire concept of “winter” in itself throughout the story.

In Westeros the seasons last for years, sometimes decades, at a time. Nobody knows why, but ‘winter’ implies hard times, and ‘summer’ implies easy times with good harvests, plentiful resources, peace throughout the Seven Kingdoms.

All in all, I’ve loved every minute of the book. I can’t wait to finish the last 100 pages (I didn’t go too much into the plot so I wouldn’t spoil any of it for you guys) and start attacking the next one, a A Clash of Kings.