Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Feast

Tuesday, February 14, 2006
After a certain number of years you almost forget what you were waiting for. You remember that you liked a book or a series of books and you remember that they were good, but you don't remember just how good they were. I'm thinking about George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Five years ago he published the third volume of this series "A Storm of Swords" and it was fantastic. It was better than fantastic, it was everything good that fantasy should be. The interesting thing about this is that this is a "fantasy" series that does not hold so many of the trappings of fantasy. There are hints of dragons and hints of a dark magic and "old gods", but this is really a medieval society caught up in the trappings of politics and playing "the game of thrones" to better serve their own clan or family. There are swords. Occasionally there is sorcery, but very rarely. But this is a vision of fantastic proportions.

Five years pass and some don't believe that George Martin really will ever publish the fourth book, A Feast for Crows. He has been "working on it" all this time, but finally he does...but with the announcement that he had to split the novel in half. It was just too big and so Book 4 is now Books 4 and 5. He could have given us half of the story for all of the characters or all of the story for half of the characters. He chose the latter. A Feast for Crows focuses tightly on the story around King's Landing and Southern Westeros. We get full stories for Jaime the Kingslayer, Cersei the Queen Regent, Brienne the Beauty, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, and a couple of other viewpoints. It is a very centralized story.

I was reading an interview yesterday with Brandon Sanderson (Elantris) where he claimed that George Martin is a master of storytelling without actually telling a story. He meant it as a compliment. I've sort of thought around these lines for a while. With a typical fantasy novel the reader has an idea of the storyline. There is a character or a set of characters and they are doing something concrete. It may not always be clear, but they are working towards a specific goal. This may be why so much fantasy is quest driven. There is a clear goal. George Martin (and others) write a different sort of a fantasy. He is building a world, building characters and setting them in action and letting them live in a dangerous world where what family one was born into can be very dangerous. Maybe other readers are far more astute, but I have no idea where this series is going. None. I mean, there are certain things that I expect to happen: Danaerys will likely invade Westeros with some sort of an army. There will be major problems north of the Wall because we've seen an evil brewing for a while now. The Lannisters will be pulled completely out of power in this game of thrones. The Starks may get their revenge, but they will probably not be a true power as they were in Winterfell. How any or all or none of these things play out is what is so interesting about Martin's books. He is setting up something so grand, so exquisite, but with so many twists that things never play out the way I expect. If I think that Danaerys was the Bad Guy of the series, she has turned out to be less of one than I expected. If she is to invade and take over, then perhaps Westeros will unite...or maybe Westeros will fall...or maybe part of Westeros will fall...or maybe Danaerys will invade at the same time the evil north of the Wall will invade. That's the thing about this series: anything can happen.

There was a challenge in reading "A Feast for Crows" because the entire time I knew that I was only getting half of the story. I don't get the viewpoint of Jon on the Wall or Tyrion the Imp or even Danaerys across the sea. I was setting myself up to be disappointed, but as much as I missed Tyrion's viewpoint chapters I found that it didn't matter. George Martin is one hell of a writer. As much as I initially hated the characters of Cersei and Jaime, they are fascinating characters and well written. Jaime Lannister, in particular, is becoming a favorite.

So what happens here? To quote Robert Jordan, "Read and Find Out". On one hand not a lot happens, but on the other hand it brings characters farther along in the story and does it well enough that even while we are figuring stuff out with how everything fits together the novel works. On the other hand, there is enough intrigue that when Book 6 rolls around I think that Martin will be pushing through the series quite well and making large advances in plot. Some characters get to do quite a lot here. Brienne has the most "action" while Cersei stays at King's Landing and tries to protect her son the king. So, it is all a matter of perspective because certain characters physically can't have large jumps in plot because it would change the entire makeup of the world and what is happening and Martin is not ready for those changes. But in the next book we'll be seeing the other half and I suspect there will be major events set in motion. But this book felt to be much the aftermath of A Storm of Swords.

To simply say that "it is good" does not do justice to the quality that George Martin gives us in a novel. Some may be disappointed because this is only half of a novel, but half of a George Martin novel is worth two of most other authors. I understand that disappointment, but I don't share it. I would have rather had a 2000 page full novel with all of the characters, but taken for what it is, this is a good feast.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

There it is!

I agree that Martin probably writes better than any fantasy novelist working today, but this particular installment was quite a step down considering what came before.

The reason it took all of five years to write was apparently because he had it mind to skip ahead a few years in the plot - something I would have loved to have seen done - but after two years of writing decided against it, claiming that a certain character arc needed to be dealt with immediately. The character in question was Brienne, and after having read Feast, I feel both nonplussed and fearful as for the future of this series. Robert Jordan, too, started frakking up after the third book.

Not only was Brienne a weak character, but the sole purpose of her plot seemed to be to tie up loose ends. Ends that didn't need to be tied up!

Take the entire part with the Martells that, though supposedly necessary, was handled badly for the simple reason that, apart from its conclusion, it was boring. How the hell could that happen?

If this were any other fantasy author, I would not be making all of these many smaller complaints. But I have come to expect much more than the regular from Martin, and all these many complaints add up to a lesser entry in what had up until this installment been one of the best fantasy series ever written.

Now what we have is a conclusion approaching fast, with a plot that appears to have begun to inconsequentially dawdle on less important, and more importantly less exciting characters and therefore plotting. There were too many ingredients in this bland soup and I'm afraid dinner may be spoiled because the cook is high on praise for his previous meals.

I suspect Martin may be the victim of his own (though richly deserved) success, as he appears in this installment to have lost both edge as well as his focus. Five years for this?

Here's hoping that A Dance of Dragons and the following novels rectify my misgivings, and show this to just be a stumble along the way.

- Nick

RobB said...

I think far too many people are judging the book as what it was supposed to be and what it actually was.

Granted, one can read a book and think that some points could have been elaborated upon, or characters fleshed out more fully, but that is different. That is judging the writers ability to deliver on certain elements of a potentially good book.

Here, with AFFC, people are/were judging it against the 5 year wait and what they thought they were getting. I don't think that is entirely fair.

I don't think I've expressed that conflict well enough, though.

ulvciooj!

Joe Sherry said...

Rob,

I think I agree with you more than Nick there. When I finished reading the book I was not at all disappointed. Sure there are different things I'd like to have seen, but if I hadn't know that this is a split book, I'd have had no disappointment (except that there was no Tyrion).

The trouble is that when books take a couple years to come out and more and more people start to like them the book and author gets elevated. Nothing George Martin could have done here would have been good enough. This book could have forgiven the sins of all who read it and it wouldn't have been enough for some.

And that's fine, but I don't want to limit my enjoyment because I "expected" the book to be more than it was.

 
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