Off-Roading with A Game of Thrones: A Feast for Crows (2005) by George R. R. Martin

AFeastforCrowsWith the prevalence of book-turned-motion-picture phenomena, it’s often difficult for the casual observer to distinguish between book chatter and screen chatter, especially when a story is portrayed in pop culture dialogue as an amorphous series of iconically conventional moments. With the Game of Thrones series in particular, only the most sub-rock inhabitant will be unaware of its signature moves: the shocking deaths, the shocking rapes, the shocking betrayals, all amid the doom of impending seasonal transition.

But with the production of books and TV episodes overlapping one another, who can tell which pop culture response pertains to which format?

I’m not completely clueless. Although I have not yet felt inclined to watch the series, my exposure to GoT is above minimal: I read the first book maybe a decade ago, I am a semi-regular peruser of the internet, and I work in an office in which there is a watercooler. I am aware enough to know that Jon Snow is a big deal, Tyrion is a big deal, Hodor is a big deal– especially this week, apparently– and the portrayal of women is problematic, but only for people who write on the internet. I usually know enough to know that I don’t know enough, my one major lapse in judgement resulting in conversational sudden death when I jumped in with: “Are you talking about Game of Thrones? I’m reading one of those right now!” “Are you a fan? I had no idea!” “Oh, gosh no! I’ve never seen the show, I didn’t really like the first book, and I’m not really sure why I’m reading this one. I’m not even sure what number I’m on, haha!”

(I’d like to think I’m usually more small-talk savvy than this. Perhaps it was just an off day.)

Coworker fannishness aside, certain criticisms pervade, the most memorable being Nina Allan’s critique in last summer’s Interzone 259, in which she most quotably states:

Martin speaks out strongly against the “Disneyland Middle Ages” as portrayed in earlier fantasy epics. A pity then that Game of Thrones, far from showing the complex reality of mediaeval society, comprises the same regurgitated mess of stereotypes based loosely upon the authorised version of that reality as set down by the men of the time, whose interests were entirely vested in validating the status quo.

…The idea that it is dishonest or in some measure unrealistic to portray a world in which the power struggles, the conflict, to use GRRM’s word, are not based around the rape, objectification, or subjugation of women is just bollocks, frankly. More than that, it is an abnegation of what fantasy – the exercise of the imagination – is all about.

In these quotes, Allan sharply speaks to two of the most common, yet contradictory, defenses against GoT criticism: “It’s just being realistic!” and “It’s just fantasy!” and cuts to what it really feels like is going on:

I mean, it’s almost as if some writers find it easier, more enjoyable even, to write fantasy set in a thinly fantasised version of an earlier era because everyone agrees that women were second class citizens back then, so it’s OK to show that, roll around in it a little bit (Mad Men, anyone?).

“Roll around in it a little bit.” Thank smartdogs for Nina Allan, who nails my never-could-articulate, queasy reaction to Mad Men and the like. Now I get it: it’s a prurient portrayal of sexism.

Anyway, this is all to say that I don’t have much to say about A Feast for Crows (2005), book four of the GoT series, though, because of the combination of criticism and promo ads, I did go into it expecting nothing more than a concatenation of violent psychic onslaught– so much so, that I considered BINGO-ing my way through the ordeal. I even made a new BINGO card:

GoTBINGO-page-001

Not nearly so traumatizing as that– perhaps it’s the TV show that’s most guilty of these tricks– but instructive just the same. While this particular installment doesn’t drip in blood and maidenheads as I’d expected, it does drip in pseudo-feminist girl power and inconsequential harumphing at the second-class status of women that doesn’t serve anything other than to rally cheers from an uncritical middle class fanbase. Repeating the same message over and over again doesn’t go anywhere: story shows women treated badly → women characters respond: “Oh, it sucks that women are treated so badly when we are rational humans deserving of equal treatment!” → audience cheers and pats author on the back → author pats self on the back → move on to next scene in which women are treated badly → repeat cycle. Retire it already.

AFeastforCrows2But there are books that can do annoying things like that and still be interesting. Perhaps it’s rude to off-road read a series, but the truth is, A Feast for Crows is a bland and bloated piece of writing, and jumping from the first book to the middle book of the series only accentuates the feeling that the series is just a dialogue-driven effort to move imaginary people from one place to another. A Feast for Crows gives the sense of a story in limbo, in which characters have been nudged into unstable states: removed from their comfortable habitats, separated from family and friends, grouped with unlikely allies, forced to interact with hostile enemies. Perhaps every GoT book is like that: a gameboard diorama ending with the next check, with the next book exploring the consequences of that last check. We shall see.

The flaw here is that A Feast for Crows, much like the first novel in the series, never transcends itself, and it never applies to the real world in any salient way. It remains imaginary in thought, a toy, a secondary plot for a secondary world, this time with a sheen of soft feminist pandering.

 

*That’s not to say that I think ill of people who enjoy this book or this series, or even GRRM, himself. I enjoy vintage science fiction, so I am in no position to judge.

*And I know the book series is actually called A Song of Ice and Fire, not Game of Thrones, but at some point you just have to recognize that popular culture reclaims and reshapes things and that your pedantry is futile.

*I also keep calling this book A Feast OF Crows, and I also I keep defaulting to Spanish phonetics for Jaime’s name. Perhaps, despite all my grandstanding, it’s mostly the lack of these things that explains my dissatisfaction.

*And if you enjoy Nina Allan’s commentary as much I do, you should visit her likely-to-be-legendary blog and read her haunting, evocative books, where her voice rises above the noise of fandom and cardboard genre.

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20 thoughts on “Off-Roading with A Game of Thrones: A Feast for Crows (2005) by George R. R. Martin

  1. Your convo with your coworkers was hilarious! Ah well, reading for completion is a good reason, no? Speaking of which, I’m glad I read A Feast for Crows, but it wasn’t my favorite.

    Also, I wonder if your bingo card has enough room for also child abuse, infanticide, castration, animal cruelty… I am always amazed at the level of sadism GRRM has for all his characters including men, women, children, and even animals. When I see the amount of torture, rape, violence against women in the books and in the show, there’s no denying it is excessive and disturbing, but I also feel that way when I read about babies being killed, dogs being skinned alive, etc. I’m actually surprised we haven’t seen wider criticism from more groups.

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    • Nearly everyone I’ve gotten feedback from has said the same thing about this particular book. Some even gave up on the series after this one.

      As for adding infanticide and castration to the BINGO card, that sounds like a necessary move, and I’m even more put off by the series to find out about these elements. The positive and negative clamor around the show has been too vague, apparently.

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    • And did I not just see you and GRRM posing in a selfie together this weekend? ;-D

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      • You did, lol. In spite of the uncomfortable squirmies I get when reading his books and watching the shows (since I’m such a visual person, sometimes when I know something “bad” is coming, I have to do the little kid thing and cover my eyes) I am a big fan of his. I have some mixed opinions on the later books, but have to say A Game of Thrones is still one of my favorite books ever. It was really cool to meet him, and he was very nice 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. bormgans says:

    Great, great review. I watched the previous seasons, but based on the first couple of pages of the first book, I’m not going to read this. Seems complex (as in many characters) & brutal for the sake of complexity & brutality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! It’s not so much complex as it is tedious– due to the multi-character thing. I expected it to be more brutal based on the surrounding conversations about it, but it felt pretty mild. Just tedious, mostly.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Warstub says:

    *Claps furiously* I love this review.

    While I enjoy the show, I feel like people make so many excuses for the portrayal of women: “Have you seen how the men get treated???” So your argument is ‘violence for everyone’? It’s been very clear that the show has unnecessarily portrayed female nudity gratuitously without any kind of equal amounts of male nudity – not saying that would make up for it, only that it’s clearly men (heterosexual) in control of what is being portrayed. The exact same thing happened in the video game The Witcher – sex scenes stripped all the women while the men kept their clothes on… huh??? In what world did that ever happen?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! And you’re right: this kind of ratings-based packaging of women is common throughout all forms of entertainment. It keeps happening, yet ratings still skyrocket. None of it seems to bother the women in my office.

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  4. Why did you bother with this one then?Why didn’t you review his “Ferve Dream” or even “The Dying of the Light”?

    I assume that George Martin grew tired and disillusioned with the genre,as Bob Silverberg did in the 1970s,who came back with the cynical “Lord Valentine’s Castle”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m reading the H-ugh-os, and I’m too stubborn to stop even though I long ago realized it’s a crap list. That’s why.

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      • The Hugo award winners contain some good books or shorter pieces,but as I’ve said before,the Nebulas tend to have more pedigree.It’s not been unusual for those nominated for that award,not to have appeared in the miserable Hugo nominees.

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  5. Widdershins says:

    I read the first book, and probably the second, I can’t remember now … and lost interest after the eon-wait between the rest. Then I heard about the problematic stuff you mentioned, and went, ‘Nah, got better things to do with my reading-ness.’

    I might reconsider, when the series is finished and I find the complete box set in a 2nd hand bookstore for under $5 🙂 … maybe.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] A Feast of Crows (2005) George R. R. Martin, in which I admit to reading the Song of Ice and Fire series out of sequence, and refer to Nina Allan’s column from Interzone to determine why this series of unadulterated misogynistic violence incorporates so many moments of trite feminist soapboxing, and I basically conclude that it’s all a ratings scheme, but even ignoring that issue, the series is really, really boring. […]

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  7. Hestia says:

    I read the first book many years ago, and watched the first season of the show when it was out on DVD. I didn’t really enjoy either one, but I feel like I should continue at some point because I like fantasy and it’s such a big thing. I kind of wish he would finish the thing so I could just get myself through it and be done.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I really love the TV shows but I found the books incredibly boring. I don’t know how it’ll end because books after books the plot lines keep getting messier and messier. The last book out took me a month and half to read and it was a pain to get through. I will be reading Winds of Winter because I wan’t to see where the show and the books are going to differ and also because I will have the power to spoil my friends (muhaha, I’m evil).
    I read my first issue of Interzone two months ago and I can tell that it is going to be one of my favorite SF magazine. I bought this month issue but I have not managed to read it yet infortunetely.
    I don’t remember exactly what her essay was about in the Interzone that I read but it was really interesting because of that, I bought The Harlequin by her since I remembered that you really liked it and that I wanted to give her fiction a try!

    Liked by 1 person

    • People keep telling me the show is much better than the books, but my attention span is better suited to books nowadays. Investing in a TV series, or even a 2-hour movie, sounds like too much work.

      I love the nonfiction pieces in Interzone, and Allan’s contributions are always excellent! I still haven’t bothered to read the fiction in each issue, but I’ll continue to purchase the mag for the nonfic alone. Totally worth it. (And Allan’s fiction is absolutely worth it. Psst… the reissue of The Race is coming out this summer!)

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  9. I read the first book when it was first released. I still remember being shocked when Ned died. I was deeply school in fantasy tropes; you can’t kill a main character! I tried reading the first book again when the HBO show was about to air. I couldn’t get through it. “I get it. It’s a commentary on the conventions of fantasy.” But I think the analysis of gender is particularly telling.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. […] A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin – For GoT fans, this might be a great book. As a stand-alone novel, it offers a variety of characters in a variety of circumstances who demonstrate a variety of flavors of ambition. With a television series well-known for its violence against women, this particular installment will surprise newcomers by being made of primarily (solo) female-centered threads. While not rampantly violent against its SFCs and lower classes (and which measuring cup should I use for too much?), the story takes an opposite, yet just as bothersome, tact: misogynistic remarks are voiced loudly and regularly to rile up the indignant juices of readers for the sole purpose of provoked engagement. It rings false. […]

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