Prologue On page 1 some magicians’ apprentices are discussing how they’ll save up the money to pay to deflower Rosie, the newest whore in the tavern they’re drinking in:
He could hear Emma’s laughter coming through a shuttered window overhead, mingled with the deeper voice of the man she was entertaining. She was the oldest of the serving wenches at the Quill and Tankard, forty if she was a day, but still pretty in a fleshy sort of way. Rosey was her daughter, fifteen and freshly flowered. Emma had decreed that Rosey’s maidenhead would cost a golden dragon.
On page 8 there’s the first use of the f word, in a typically crude exchange:
‘Your mother was a monkey from the Summer Isles. The Dornish will f*** anything with a hole between its legs.’
On page 17 Pate, the apprentice to whom these insults were addressed, having stolen the key to the maegicians’ Citadel and handed it over to a mysterious alchemist in exchange for the gold with which he hopes to pay to deflower young Rosey, instead falls to the cobbles, betrayed and poisoned and dying.
Yes. We are back in the steamy, sexually charged, treacherous, densely packed and wonderfully imagined fantasy world of George RR Martin and his vast sequence of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire.
Cornucopianism, or The problem of overflowing In this, the fourth book of the series, Martin has to deal with the problem he’s created for himself in the first three, namely that he has created so many characters pursuing so many plotlines that they won’t all fit into one book. I christen this problem ‘cornucopianism’. In their fecund sprawl the plotlines overflow themselves. In fact, several storylines have already ended, in that they had a beginning, a development and a decisive climax – but they continue anyway – such as the Threatened invasion by the wildlings, Brienne’s quest to return Jaime to King’s Landing, Robb Stark’s kingship, the Coming of Daenerys and her dragons.
Undaunted, Martin solves the problem of cornucopianism by splitting a manuscript which had become unmanageably vast into two more normal-size books. This one, ‘A Feast For Crows’, focuses on one set of characters – all the other characters are followed up in the next volume, ‘A Dance with Dragons’. But – important point – the second book doesn’t follow the first one; events in both take place in parallel. Which allows for some nifty timeshifts as characters in the second book refer hopefully to things which we know from the earlier book have or haven’t fallen out to plan.
I very much liked the result. In ‘A Feast for Crows’ the focus of the series shifts significantly from the previous books to follow events in three of the seven kingdoms of Westeros which had been previously ignored or overlooked – the southern kingdom of Dorne, the western sea-kingdom of Pyk – the Iron Kingdom – and the eastern kingdom of Arryn, dominated by its castle in the air, the Eyrie (illustrated below by Ted Nasmith).
A colour-coded map of Westeros might come in useful for understanding the location of the seven kingdoms of Westeros and, of course, there’s one available on the internet.
In this fourth novel, along with new locations, a new suite of characters is introduced. Two of the most striking are the Damphair or prophet (a religious leader of the Iron Men’s harsh seaworshipping religion) and The Captain of The Guards (who serves Lord Doran Martell, ruler of Dorne). These are powerful and ‘deep’ characters; which means they invoke deep associations – to the power and mystery of the Sea for one, to sheer mute strength with the other. But in addition there are other, new, “narrative characters”, ones who give their names to the chapters which see events from their point of view: the Kraken’s Daughter, The Soiled Knight, The Iron Captain, The Drowned Man, The Queenmaker. In the earlier novels the chapters were named after specific characters; in these later ones they’re as often named after generic types, a new wrinkle which gives them Tarot-card-like mythic associations.
The Iron Islands The Ironborn are Vikings who live in storm-lashed islands and love nothing more than to sail their longboats on raids along the vulnerable coastline of Westeros. Their king, Balon Greyjoy, has died in a freak accident and the novel follows their assembly at a great kingsmoot where the pretenders to the throne stake their claim. Will the Ironborn vote for Balon’s brother Victarion or his daughter Asha, or for the returned exiled eldest brother, Euron. The latter, it turns out, who offers a grand plan to raid right round the coast and sail for distant Essos to capture the fabled princess Daenerys and her dragons.
The kingdom of Dorne This kingdom is evoked in a marvellous piece of scene-setting, painting the ailing lord of Dorne, Doran Martell, at his country water palace, watching children frolic in fountains, on the beach and in the sea. It is an eerie, strange and moving image. It reminds me of the landscapes of Entropy in JG Ballard’s collection, ‘Terminal Beach’. Lord Martell is himself in constant pain due to untreatable gout and arthritis, and is accompanied everywhere by the enormous, silent, totally obedient Captain of the Guard, Areo Hotah, and his 7 foot double-edged axe.
But a reluctant and ailing Martell is forced back from his pleasure palace to Dorne’s capital, Sunspear, to put down his brother’s illegitimate daughters, nicknamed the Sand Vipers. They want to invoke Dornish law to declare the 10 year-old Myrcella Lannister (sent to Dorne as a tactical ward by the powerful Lannister family) the true inheritor of the Iron Throne, and set her against her brother, the boy-king Tommen. But Lord Martell realises this will bring down the wrath of the Lannisters on a weak kingdom which couldn’t possibly stand up to them. But, unknown to him, his own daughter, Arianne, is seducing the member of the Kingsguard supposed to protect Myrcella, in a cunning conspiracy to start the very war Martell is striving to avoid…
The kingdom of Arryn After suave, scheming Petyr Littlefinger has brutally disposed of the woman he married, Lysa Tully, sister of Lady Catelyn Tully/Stark, he is free to rule Arryn as he wishes, with the 13 year-old Sansa Stark whom he rescued from King’s Landing in the ambiguous situation of being his pretended natural daughter. This thread of narrative revels in Littlefinger’s smooth cunning and Martin enjoys getting Littlefinger to explain to Sansa exactly how and why he’s manipulating the lords and ladies he meets. It’s like Holmes and Watson. For the bannermen (loyal lords) of Arryn smell a rat and want to take stewardship of Lady Lysa’s son, the sickly heir to the throne, young Robert. Petyr’s great.
Cersei If the first half of the book offers several refreshing changes of scene, the last part is dominated by the machinations of the wicked Queen Regent Cersei in the overfamiliar setting of the capital, King’s Landing. Convinced all her advisors are weaklings or out to get her, the increasingly paranoid egomaniac makes a series of rash decisions, unravelling the alliances crafted by her father, Lord Tywin, alienating allies, appointing highly dubious councillors and making terrible strategic mistakes like allowing the growing numbers of religious fanatics – the so-called ‘sparrows’ – to rearm and establish their own independent powerbase, a decision which she is soon to rue…
Sex This novel is noticably more pornographic than the previous ones. I marked all the pages which included the f or c word and there are about 50. For the first time in the series, entire chapters are about sex, for example the lavish description of Arianne Martell’s seduction of Ser Arys Oakheart of the Kingsguard, who she exploits to help her smuggle princess Myrcella out of Sunspear. The final part of the book is dominated by the wicked Queen Regent Cersei and includes, among her general decadence, how she takes her handmaidens to bed and has lesbian sex with them, in a typically exploitative joyless kind of way. Elsewhere soldiers and lords casually but continually refer to sex in the crudest terms. The ugly but heroic female knight Brienne of Tarth is subjected to sexual threats on almost every page of her sections.
Somehow I feel the hothouse eroticism of the sex passages and the football terrace sexual abuse let the book down. The superbrutality and the testosterone cynicism are all well and good; I’ve paid my money, I’ve signed up for a machiavellian swords-and-shields fantasy and this GRRM delivers in wonderful spades. But the sex scenes risk the criticism of all sex scenes, that they’re heavyhanded and embarrassing; and the barracking is too much like being stuck in a pub with a coachload of football hooligans. It isn’t inspiring and terrifying like the violence. It’s lowering, it lowers the tone. In this book more than any of the others I think Martin lets himself down with too much swearing and the barely-veiled hostility to women which underlies it.
‘I think I’m going to fuck you up the nose, wench,’ Shagwell announced. ‘Won’t that be amusing?’
‘He has a very small cock,’ Timeon explained. ‘Drop that pretty sword and we’ll go gentle on you, woman. We need gold to pay these smugglers, that’s all.’
‘And if I give you gold, you’ll let us go?’
‘We will.’ Timeon smiled. ‘Once you’ve fucked the lot of us. We’ll pay you like a proper whore. A silver for each fuck. Or else we’ll take the gold and rape you anyway, and do you like the Mountain did Lord Vargo…’ (page 331)
Having said which, almost all the people I know who’ve read the series are women. I ask them, Doesn’t the sexism, the raping and killing of women, the continual verbal abuse and threat against women characters, doesn’t that put you off? Yes, they reply, but the story is just so exciting.
So, compelling narrative trumps repellent subject matter, apparently.
But… This issue aside, there is still lots – lots and lots – of inspiring and breathtaking writing here. The opening scenes of the Ironborn thread, depicting the Damphair or prophet of the Drowned God performing the ritual by which he drowns and then revives initiates in the freezing northern sea, is inspired, brilliant, visionary.
Westeros.org links through to scores of other GoT websites, as well as hosting hundreds of FAQs about the series.
The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and has just been released on dvd. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.
All quotes from A Feast For Crows copyright George RR Martin.