A Dance With Dragons 2: After The Feast by George RR Martin (2011)

The seventh and most recent (2011) book in George RR Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels, this is in fact, as previously explained, part two of the fifth book, Dance With Dragons, itself too large to publish in one volume. The two Dance with Dragons books combined would have totalled 1,117 pages of text, plus the 60 pages of genealogies at the end of each book; hence their division into two more manageable volumes.

But if you are reading the series, this is the final, most recently available book. Finish it and you join the legions of GRRM fans waiting impatiently for the next instalment, The Winds of Winter, expected publication date – 2015!

Photo of Harry Lloyd as Viserys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Harry Lloyd as Viserys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

This is a photo of Viserys Targaryen, exiled as a child from the kingdom of Westeros where his royal father has been brutally overthrown and killed. Viserys is brought up abroad, dreaming of completion and fulfilment, hoping to return and claim his rightful throne and bring his sad story to a triumphant conclusion. Instead he spends his childhood in an alien city and his adult years wandering across an endless steppe, thrown among brutal strangers, abused and humiliated, before being suddenly and sadistically killed by having molten gold poured over his head.

It is tempting to joke that reading all seven Song of Ice and Fire novels has been a somewhat similar experience. It’s taken me three long months to read them, three months during which my initial enthusiasm, my delusions that the multiple plotlines might reach some kind of fulfilment or closure, has peaked, plateaued and then, in this last book especially, rapidly declined.

Three things in particular have eroded my initial enjoyment – the misogyny, the climate of failure and the sense of disappointment. I’ve written about the misogyny of the novels in another post.

The Reader’s Disappointment

The first book, Game of Thrones, is given the underlying tension and pageturning exitement of a thriller as  we watch Lord Eddard Stark close in on the Great Secret at the heart of the Lannister succession. In the last pages he is abruptly executed and his secret is casually revealed in the second book by which time no one cares as the kingdom descends into civil war. The next few books have brooding over them two great, exciting threats – the attack on the Great Ice Wall which we know is being planned by an unseen army of wildlings and things of the night – and the threat that Daenerys Targaryen will sweep back to Westeros to claim her throne astride the three mighty dragons she has brought to life. Yet both these overarching narrative arcs fizzle out with no real resolution: King Stannis’s army decimates the wildling horde pretty easily; and Daenerys locks her dragons in a dungeon and gets bogged down in endless pointless politicking in the godforsaken slave city of Meereen.

Other great set-piece conflicts are set up, such as Robb Stark’s military triumphs in the North and Renly Baratheon’s elegant march across the South. These also are rapidly deflated as Robb is unceremoniously assassinated at Walder Frey’s castle and Renly is also assassinated by an evil spirit. The biggest battle in the whole series, the Battle of Blackwater Bay, also has a great sense of anticlimax as the attacker Stannis loses all his forces and the evil Lannisters emerge victorious.

“All signs are foreshadowing the terrible disaster that is to come,” it says on the Wikipedia entry for A Clash of Kings. But it never comes. One reads the ensuing four books in hope that something, anything, decisive will happen. Instead Robb is crushed, Stannis is crushed, Renly is crushed, Daenerys runs into the sand – the characters and plotlines may ramify out like weeds, but the edge-of-your-seat tenterhooks of the earlier novels slowly evaporates.

And this is directly connected to…

The Characters’ Failure

  • Lord Eddard Stark thinks he’s acting nobly and for the best. He fails and dies.
  • Eddard and Robert Baratheon think they can secure a peaceful transition of power but both fail; instead the continent collapses into brutal civil war.
  • Lady Caitlin Tully thinks she’s acting for the best when she releases Jaime to be exchanged for her daughter, Arya and Sansa. But Jaime is captured and mutilated and she never lives to see her daughters.
  • Robb Stark thinks he’s acting from duty when he marries Jeyne Westerling who he’s been sleeping with. it is a catastrophic error, as he had promised his hand to a daughter of the powerful Lord Frey and Frey takes his revenge by killing Robb, his mother and most of his army.
  • Sansa Stark thinks her young boy king fiance will give her a life of chivalry and beauty. It is a terrible failure of judgement; he strips and humiliates her.
  • Cersei Lannister’s every action is designed to protect her children but her beloved son dies in front of her eyes, while her daughter Myrcella is hideously maimed. She then plots to get her boy son’s fiance, Margaery Tyrell, accused of made-up crimes of fornication and debauchery – only to be herself imprisoned and tried for the same crimes – in her case, with justification.
  • Lord Tywin Lannister is motivated solely by the good of his House but he dies at the hand of his disgraced son, and it looks like the the entire house will be eclipsed by House Tyrell.
  • Jon Snow sends Maester Aemon to the Citadel for his own safety but far from being safe, Aemon dies on the way from the rigours of the long sea journey. Jon makes elaborate plans to incoporate the wildlings into the Night’s Watch, against mounting opposition from his own men who eventually turn on him and murder him.
  • Stannis Baratheon judges himself the rightful king of Westeros but all his plans are crushed at the Battle of Blackwater Bay. Although his defeat of the wildlings beyond the wall is a success, his journey to attack Winterfell is another catastrophic disaster in which most his army perish in the deepest blizzard seen for decades.
  • Brienne of Tarth dedicates her life to defending King Renly who is promptly murdered before her eyes. She is charged with bringing Jaime to King’s Landing and fails to prevent him being mutilated on the way. She is charged with finding Sansa and Arya and fails, getting herself hanged in the process.
  • Daenerys Stormborn is such a vital and heroic figure at the end of book one, having endured a forced marriage, and then the death of her beloved husband and unborn son, before being reborn along with three dragons ushering in a new age in Westeros. Sadly, she spends the next six books wandering deep into the desert continent of Essos, shedding dead followers along the way, before embarking on a pointless quest to liberate the slaves of the great slaver cities. Her stated aim is to return to Westeros and claim the throne due to her (and her dead brother Viserys), as children of the deposed king Aerys. Instead her threads in two or three books are entirely devoted to evermore tedious politics of faraway cities full of ungrateful citizens who she’s liberated form their shackles. All the promise and excitement of her thread died years ago.
  • Theon Greyjoy is an epic failure: determined to prove his worth to his father and touch sister, he takes the almost empty castle of Winterfell, only to be himself overrun by the terrifying Ramsay Snow, who locks him in a dungeon, starves him and tortures him, destroying his mind and body.
  • Mance Rayder, the Night Watchman turned wildling, assembles and leads a vast army of the ‘freeborn’ against the Great Ice Wall which defends Westeros. But after several books of threat and suspense, just as he’s attacking the Wall, King Stannis and his army emerge from the mist and decimates Mance’s forces, shattering all his ambitions and leading to his enchained imprisonment. In a later twist he’s freed to lead a raid on Winterfell, wrongly believing the young girl betrothed to Ramsay Snow to be Arya Stark. It isn’t her, all his spearwife helpers are killed, and he himself captured and tortured.
  • Ser Jorah Mormont, in exile in Essos, dedicates his life to defending Daenerys but when she realises that he’s been informing King’s Landing of her doings all along, she dismisses him from her service and he becomes a wrecked man.
  • Failure runs in the family as his father, Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, leading an ill-fated expedition north of the Wall to spy out the wildling forces and rescue Ben Stark, fails in both endeavours and ends up being murdered by his own men in Caster’s House.
  • Young prince Quentyn Martell, son of the gouty old Lord Martell of Dorne, is despatched to Essos to make a match with Daenerys the dragon mother, only to arrive far too late, Daenerys being up to her neck in complex court machinations in Meereen; and then, in making a stupid attempt to free the dragons from the dungeon where they’ve been chained, is himself burned to death.
  • Arianne Martell seduces Arys Oakheart of the Kingsguard to get his help in smuggling little princess Myrcella away from Sunspear. She intends to declare the little princess queen and raise an army around her. Instead her plot is foiled, the loyal Ser Oakheart is chopped to pieces before her eyes, and little Myrcella has half her face hacked off.
  • Victarion Greyjoy, a man already haunted by the failure of having his charismatic brother cheat on him with his wife (whereupon he beats his wife to death by hand), sets himself to be the next king of the ironborn when their father, Balon, dies. He is ignominiously defeated. When he sails for Eassos, also attempting to contact Daenerys and her dragons, almost half of his iron Fleet is destroyed.
  • Davos Seaworth, the “Onion Knight”, having had his fingertips chopped off by his stern lord Stannis, then watches his master’s plans come to destruction at the Battle of Blackwater Bay, where no fewer than four of his sons are killed. He is later despatched by Stannis to White Harbour to secure the loyalty of local lords, in which he completely fails and is imprisoned.
  • The dwarf, the Imp, Tyrion Lannister, sets out to preserve his family and keep his lover, Shae, safe –  but ends up killing his own father and strangling the beautiful Shae. He flees abroad seeking safety and ends up being sold into slavery.
  • Lysa Tully is hopelessly in love with cunning Petyr Baelish and thinks her dreams are finally coming true when he arrives back at the Eyrie, despatched from King’s Landing to secure her allegiance. Until he calmly pushes her out of a window 600 feet up a mountain. So much for childhood sweethearts.
  • Kevan Lannister believes he is acting for the best when he allows his niece, Cersei, to be led naked through the streets of King’s Landing to atone for her sins. He is just carefully planning  his next move when he is assassinated.
  • Even the supercunning eunuch, Lord Varys, though still alive, hadn’t anticipated when he helped to free Tyrion Lannister from the King’s Landing dungeons, that the Imp would defect from the escape plan to track down his own father and kill him with a crossbow – thus ensuring the end of Varys’s career as a statesman and player.

After this exhausting marathon, almost the only major living character who hasn’t failed is the (very) cunning Lord Petyr Baelish (aka Littlefinger) who has successfully based himself in the Vale of Arryn, cooly murdered his overtrusting wife, and playing divide and rule among the local lords. My son and I have been reading the series together, discussing its many aspects – and we’d agreed our favourite characters were Tyrion, Jon Snow and Littlefinger. Only with the death of Jon and enslavement of Tyrion did it begin to dawn on me that we liked them because they were successful. With the others more or less failures (and dying is a telltale mark of failure) it dawned on me maybe this is the reason we, as readers, like Baelish – even though he’s shown himself to be an amoral killer – because he has the charisma of success. Tyrion also had it for most of the series – in the early books he was a benchmark of irony and sanity and savvy – but his successive failures and humiliations have rubbed it off him.

This is interesting because it suggests a novel needs at least some characters we readers can identify with – not in the naive sense that they are like us, but in the Freudian or fairy tale sense that they live out our fantasies – they overcome obstacles and succeed.

Watching a succession of unlikable characters fail, more or less miserably, while countless bystanders get hacked to pieces, in an atmosphere drenched in woman-hating swearwords and crude abuse, has taken its toll on my senses – and I am oh-so-relieved to have finished this vast, amazing, appalling odyssey and escaped back to the real world.


Check out George RR Martin’s blog and his website.

Westeros.org links through to scores of other GoT websites, as well as hosting hundreds of FAQs about the series.

The books have been made into an ongoing HBO TV dramatisation. Series 1 and series 2 are now available on dvd. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

A Feast for Crows by George RR Martin (2005)

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.

Photo of Gethin Anthony as the ill-fated Lord Renly Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Gethin Anthony as the ill-fated Lord Renly Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

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).

'The Eyrie' as depicted by Ted Nasmith. © Ted Nasmith

‘The Eyrie’ as depicted by Ted Nasmith. © Ted Nasmith

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.

Photo of Carice van Houten as the priestess Melisandre in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Carice van Houten as the priestess Melisandre in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

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.

Photo of Rory McCann as Sandor Clegane, nicknamed 'The Hound', in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Rory McCann as Sandor Clegane, nicknamed ‘The Hound’, in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

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.

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Check out George RR Martin’s blog and his website.

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.

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