New religions and powerful women aplenty
Well, kind hearts, here we are in the fourth of a five-book series. At the risk of being accused of indulging in extravagant praise, I must begin with words like “amazing, astonishing,” and yes, even “spellbinding.” All of George R. R. Martin’s characters are still here (although some have momentarily vanished), and they are still scheming, deceiving, murdering and ... surviving.
However, A Feast of Crows contains a series of significant surprises. One of the darkest villains in this epic saga (Jamie Lannister) is gradually morphing into a tortured and possibly heroic character. Arya, the angry 9-year-old daughter of Ned Stark, who goes to sleep whispering the names of the people she intends to kill, has now passed from kitchen wench to talented thief to murderer’s accomplice. In time she finds her way to and finally to the House of Black and White (the Temple of the Many-faced God). Arya becomes an acolyte in a strange cult where everyone aspires to become “faceless.”
Time and time again, Martin’s characters find themselves torn from safe havens and cast into a hostile world where they are forced to change, or “adapt.” The children of kings become thieves and a once-honored queen, noted for devotion to her children, “becomes” a terrifying creature known as “Stoneheart,” a merciless purveyor of justice (death by hanging). Heirs to a kingdom are banished and questing knights become assassins.
Such reversals are sometimes called “sea changes” if the changes are “extreme.” The term is especially apt in A Feast of Crows, since much of the action in book four quite literally shifts to the sea isles and the land of Dorne where the ancient enemies of the Seven Kingdoms reside. With names like Damphair, Crow’s Eye, Browntooth and Silverhair, they are a fierce, sea-going race who nurse a thousand-year-old hatred for the Seven Kingdoms because they believe that all of its land and wealth was taken from them by treachery. Although torn by inner power struggles and intrigue, they feel that a day of reckoning is at hand. They have heard the rumors of the Queen of Dragons who is moving with a mighty army toward Kingsport and the House of Lannister. There are also rumors that she has three dragons that are maturing at an alarming rate, and are fated to bring back the fabled age when fire-breathing dragons ruled the skies over Westeros.
Far to the north where a 700-foot wall of ice marks an ancient boundary, the forces of the “Other” have breached the wall and are moving toward the Seven Kingdoms. Although the alarms have been sounded, no armies are sent to halt the invasion. Ironically, Queen Circei and her corrupt court appear to be totally engrossed in a complex game of intrigue. Throughout all of the kingdoms, the great armies of King’s Landing are involved in a dozen rebellions. Although warned repeatedly that enemy attacks are imminent, major officials scoff, making jokes about mythical dragons and an army of the dead. Meanwhile, as thousands starve and the roads and woods are choked with the unburied dead, a half-dozen “new religions” sweep through Westeros. One of them has taken up residence in the streets of King’s Landing.
As Queen Circei leaves her fortified court, intent on her latest scheme to destroy her enemies (her daughter-in-law and her court), she finds the streets filled with “sparrows” who are petitioning the city for food and shelter. Essentially, they are the victims of a dozen wars that has burned and ravaged the small towns and farms throughout Westeros. When the Queen befriends the leader of the sparrows and enlists him to convene a tribunal to arrest and imprison her enemies, she is astonished to find herself arrested and imprisoned in her own dungeon. No doubt, countless readers will relish this moment: the brutal, arrogant and self-serving Circei (who has come to resemble the evil Queen in Snow White!) is finally brought down. Will her brother, Jamie, save her?
There are a number of new forces at work in A Feast of Crows, and the two most significant are: the growing emphasis on women and the continued stress on religion. Although powerful portrayal of Ned Stark’s wife, Lady Catelyn and her daughters have provided a sensitive portrait of women in danger, especially in Catelyn’s courageous efforts to protect her family. Abandoned in the streets of Kings Landing after witnessing the execution of her father, 9-year- old Arya Stark quickly develops survival skills which are both admirable and chilling ... she can readily assume a variety of identies, and if need be, kill with efficiency and ... gratification.
However, a new feminine trait appears and gradually comes to dominate parts of this epic saga. Martin’s women are beginning to demand equality! Obara Sand dares to challenge the rights of her brothers to the Seastone Chair — the Dorne equivalent of Iron Throne at King’s Landing. Suddenly, remarkable women emerge from a half-dozen locations. Some, like Queen Circei and the Red Queen are both courageous and destructive, while others, like Daenerys, the Dragon Queen and Asha Grayjoy, (another possible heir to the Seastone Chair), proclaim the need for a cleansing war that will precede an era of universal peace.
However, the most alarming development in A Feast of Crows, is the appearance of a variety of religions or cults. The Red Queen, who advocates a religion based on magic and human sacrifice, burns her enemies as she marches with her most powerful convert, Stannis Baratheon (who claims to be the rightful heir to the Iron Throne). Perhaps the most daunting religion is the followers of the Drowned God. In order to acquire acceptance, warriors must willingly be subjected to drowning. Following their death, they are “revived” in what seems to be a primitive form of resuscitation. Thus, they are “reborn” as disciples of the Drowned God. True believers sometimes volunteer for additional drownings, thereby becoming “The Thrice Born.” Then, there is the Temple of the Nameless that offers an anonymous life or voluntary suicide (a peaceful drought and an eternal sleep).
Somewhere in the background is the old religion in which the number 7 had profound significance. In the past, holy “septs” to these gods were common and consisted of wooded groves and trees that contained the watchful faces of the seven gods: Father, Mother, Maiden, Warrior, Stranger, Crone and Blacksmith. As other religions flourish, they destroy the old temples (The Red Queen) or struggle to incorporate the old concepts into the new religion (the Sparrows). Yet, the reader may feel that the old neglected gods are still present, waiting quietly... A Feast of Crows ends with a sense of anxious anticipation ... Something tumultuous is about to happen. Where is the Imp? Daenerys? Jon Snow? Did Catelyn die with her son at the Red Wedding? And what about that traitorous creep, Theon Greyjoy? Stay tuned.
A Feast of Crows by George R. R. Martin. Bantam Books, 2005. 753 pages.