Book Review: A Feast for Crows

Book Review: A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first three volumes in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.  If you have not read those, you may want to consult my reviews of those books instead.

A Feast for Crows

While war still ravages the land of Westeros, for the moment it is contained to a handful of trouble spots.  In King’s Landing, King Tommen is the puppet of his mother, Queen Cersei as she schemes to gain complete power over the realm.  In sunny Dorne, daughters seek vengeance.  In the Riverlands, the last castles are yet to be taken, and outlaws and soldiers alike despoil what little remains of the smallfolk.  In the Vale, there is no war, but their lord’s castle, the Eyrie, feels the effects of winter early.  Across the Narrow Sea in Braavos, a girl has lost much and stands to lose more.  On the other side of Westeros, the Iron Islands must choose a new leader.  And in Oldtown, there are sinister doings at the Citadel of the Maesters.

And everywhere, the crows are feasting on carrion.

When Mr. Martin realized that this book was getting way too long, he could have taken the Wheel of Time route and split the story in half by time.  But that would mean checking in with about thirty viewpoint characters, most of whom would accomplish relatively little in that timespan.  Instead, he chose to split this and the next volume, A Dance with Dragons, up by location.

The good news is that this allows the characters that do appear to advance the plotlines considerably.  The bad news is that if your favorite characters were in the other territories, you won’t see them until the next book.  And back in the day, that would be another five years!

There are a bunch of new viewpoint characters, and Mr. Martin gets “cute” with the chapter headings, naming them “The Soiled Knight” or “The Kraken’s Daughter” instead of the character’s name.  He even uses different nicknames for different chapters!

With their numbers dwindling and scattered, the Stark family is down to two viewpoint characters.  Sansa Stark is now going by “Alayne Stone”, supposed daughter of the cunning Littlefinger.  With the death of her aunt Lysa and her cousin Robert being less than mentally sound, Littlefinger has free reign as the Lord Protector.  This does not make him or Alayne loved by the people of the Vale, however.

Arya Stark has arrived in Braavos, the city of secrets, and seeks shelter in the temple of the Many-Faced God.  She is learning to serve death, but can she make the final sacrifice of her own identity?

Brienne of Tarth goes back to the Riverlands in search of Sansa.  What she finds instead is outlaws, many of whom have a grudge against her specifically.  Her sections have some of the best writing in the book.

Samwell Tarly is sent south from the Wall to Oldtown to learn maester skills that the Night Watch desperately needs…and for more secretive purposes.  He has an encounter with Arya during a stayover in Braavos, though they don’t realize at the time how they’re connected.

Jaime Lannister quarrels with his sister Cersei and is relatively happy to get the order to end the siege at Riverrun.  He’s still trying to adjust to the loss of his hand, and attempts to navigate the contradictory oaths he’s taken.  Jaime may have no honor as far as most other people are concerned, but he wants to keep what honor he has.

Queen Cersei becomes a viewpoint character for the first time, and we see how the patriarchal nature of Westeros society has contributed to her personality.  If she’d been properly trained in leadership and statecraft from the beginning, things would be better.  But instead she’s always been told her job is to pump out babies, and barred from anything but backstairs scheming.  And scheming is not the only thing needed to run a country.  Possibly worse, a certain prophecy has made her essentially the Wicked Queen from Snow White, right down to dwarfs thwarting her will.  It’s no surprise when her own plots backfire, leaving Cersei in a nearly inescapable bind.

(Indeed, one of the minor subthemes here is “The Patriarchy ruins everything, even for patriarchs.”)

Over in the Iron Islands, we see things from the viewpoints of Asha Greyjoy, daughter of the late King Balon and sister to Theon (who does not appear in this book but is probably still alive); her uncle Aeron, a fanatical priest of the Drowned God, and her uncle Victarion, leader of the Iron Fleet.  None of them like the other uncle Euron Crow’s Eye, who is just outright evil, but at the Kingsmoot Euron reveals a plan to conquer Westeros that most of the Ironmen like.  And with Westeros in the shape it’s in, now is definitely the time to attack.

Asha is the smartest of the lot, but her uncles don’t listen to her because she’s a woman.

Down in Dorne, the viewpoint characters are Areoh Hotah, captain of Prince Doran’s guards; Arianne Martel, Doran’s daughter and heir; and Arys Oakheart, a knight of the Kingsguard who is protecting Princess Myrcella Baratheon.

Under Dornish law, Myrcella would have precedence over her younger brother Tommen for the Iron Throne.  Arianne, who is worried that her father is scheming to have her put aside in favor of her own brother to match mainstream Westeros culture, comes up with a plan to crown Myrcella queen and stir up war with the Lannisters.  Certain facts have been hidden from Arianne, so her plan has disastrous consequences.

Lots of plot twists and interesting developments this time, but I sorely missed favorite characters.  There are maps at the front, and an ever-growing character guide in the back.

As always, there’s tons of violence, talk of rape, and strong language.  Torture is on-page this volume, and worse implied.

Because of the largely-new cast, this volume reads differently than the earlier ones  The reader should probably have the next volume ready by the time they finish this one, as I am told they read better as a set.

 

 

Book Review: Jewish Noir

Book Review: Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia

Many of the themes of noir fiction, alienation, hostile society, darkness and bitter endings, resonate with the experience of Jewish people.  So it’s not surprising that it was easy to find submissions for an anthology of thirty-plus noir stories with Jewish themes.  (Not all of the authors are themselves Jewish; see if you can guess which ones.)

Jewish Noir

The volume opens with “Devil for a Witch” by R.S. Brenner.   A man caught embezzling for what he thinks are good causes has his death faked by the FBI so that he can go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan.  The title comes from an old saying about trading a known danger for an unknown one, and this assignment turns out to be perilous indeed.  The author bio mentions that this is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.

Most of the stories in this collection are appearing for the first time, but two are not.  “A Simke (A Celebration)” by Yente Serdatsky was first published in Yiddish in 1912, and this is its first publication in English.  It’s a melancholy tale of a woman whose refusal to conform to the social norms of Russian-Jewish immigrants made her popular in her youth, but isolates her now that she is middle-aged.  Harlan Ellison® contributes a story first published in 1960. “The Final Shtick”, about a comedian returning to the small town he had good reason to flee, and his feelings concerning this.

As one might expect, several of the stories concern Nazis, neo-Nazis and/or the Holocaust.  “Feeding the Crocodile” by Moe Prager is perhaps the strongest of these–a writer tells stories to a death camp commandant in hopes of surviving just a bit longer.  But the crocodile gets greedy.

There’s a fairly wide variety of protagonists in these stories.  Good people who do bad things, bad people who try to do good things, evil people who sink even lower, men and women, religious Jews and secular ones, Jews of different sexual orientations and skin colors.  Ethnic slurs and antisemitism are peppered throughout, and there is mention of child sexual abuse, suicide and rape.

“The Golem of Jericho” by Jonathan Santlofer is on the borderline with supernatural stories.  A bullied boy and his grandfather build a golem, which may or may not have killed the bullies; it’s certainly a mysterious coincidence.

The weakest story is “Her Daughter’s Bar Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi” by Adam D. Fisher which is just one long kvetch.  (My spell checker doesn’t flag that word, interesting.)  No crime, no hopeless ending, just complaining.

It should be noted here that this volume published by PM Press has no connection to the series of regional noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books despite the very similar presentation and book structure.

Most of the stories are good; recommended to noir fans who are willing to stretch their focus a little.

 

Book Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau

Book Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

Edward Prendick, a young man of independent means, decides to take a natural history sea voyage (ala Charles Darwin) aboard the Lady Vain.  Somewhere in the Pacific, that ship crashed into a derelict and was lost.  Prendick and two other men managed to escape in a dinghy, but after a disastrous attempt at cannibalism, he was the only survivor.  Prendick was found by the tramp ship Ipecacuanha, which happens to be carrying a passenger named Montgomery, who nurses Prendick back to health.

Bela Lugosi as "The Sayer of the Law" in "The Island of Lost Souls", a movie based on this story.
Bela Lugosi as “The Sayer of the Law” in “The Island of Lost Souls”, a movie based on this story.

Montgomery, as it happens, is a former medical student who had to leave London in a hurry a decade ago (for reasons never fully explained.)   He and his odd-looking manservant have engaged the ship to deliver a supply of animals to a certain island, including a full-grown puma.  At the island, the animals are delivered to also odd-looking but differently so boatmen, and Prendick is not invited ashore with Montgomery.  On the other hand, the ill-tempered, alcoholic captain of the Ipecacuanha won’t let him stay on board either.

Thus Prendick is dumped back in the dinghy.  After some parley, Prendick is reluctantly allowed to land on the island by its master, the highly antisocial Doctor Moreau.  Prendick recognizes the name as someone who also had to leave England in a hurry under a cloud of suspicion.   After some initial misunderstandings, Prendick learns the secret of the island…which I am fairly certain you already know.

This 1896 novel by H.G. Wells was the second of his book-length (but just barely) speculative fiction works.   It still stands up as literature thanks to the multiple levels it works on.   It’s a chiller about a man stranded on an island of beast people who are rapidly going feral, a warning against cruel/unnecessary animal experimentation (Prendick is not opposed to vivisection per se, but becomes even more disgusted with Moreau once he realizes the doctor has no actual goal beyond turning an animal into a human being to prove he can), and an allegory about the animalistic behavior lurking beneath the thin veneer of human civilization.

Prendick, like the Time Traveler, is a bit of a stumblebum.  He has a smattering of scientific education which allows him to follow along when Moreau and Montgomery give explanations, but not enough knowledge in any given field to be useful in survival.  He also burns down Moreau’s lab entirely by accident, and is repeatedly bad at making rafts.  Prendick only eventually escapes when he stumbles across the Ipecacuanha‘s lifeboat, with the captain’s corpse inside (which is never explained either.)  On the other hand, Prendick turns out to be an excellent shot with his very limited ammunition.

Montgomery is the most nuanced character, a man who lets his weaknesses (primarily alcohol) guide his actions, but with frequent decent impulses.  We learn that it is in fact, he, not Moreau, who came up with the Law that the Beast People follow, in an attempt to help them not regress to the animals they once were.   He also shows small kindnesses throughout the book until his death.

Moreau, conversely, is very much the mad scientist.  He starts with the knowledge that body grafts are possible on a small scale, and decides that turning an animal into a human being would be a really cool achievement.  There’s no scientific method involved, he doesn’t bother with anesthesia, and he loses all interest in his creations once they fail to live up to his expectations.   Like Victor Frankenstein, he’s so busy sculpting his new humans that he fails to step back and look at the aesthetics of his creations until he’s already done.  Unlike most real scientists, he fails to apply any ethical standard to himself or his work,  although he does feel that he is religious and that the pain he inflicts is meaningless in light of his higher nature.

The Beast People are victims of Moreau, animals carved into humanoid shapes (and sometimes blended for fun, like the hyena-swine), given limited speech and intelligence, yet just human enough to realize that they are not fully human and never will be.   Yes, they are dangerous, and a couple of them may actually be evil by human standards.  But they never asked to be made or abandoned; for them death is a kind of mercy.

It is nigh impossible to re-create the experience the original readers might have had, not having seen anything like this story before.  I note, however, that the trope of deformed, degenerate sub-human tribes of natives tucked away in the depths of Africa or the Pacific was common in adventure literature of the time, and the first readers might have believed they were getting such a tale from the early chapters.

The framing of the story is old-fashioned; there’s an introduction by a nephew of Prendick’s, explaining that this manuscript was found among his uncle’s effects, and while the shipwreck part is true, and Prendick was found a year later in a lifeboat that might have been the freighter’s, nothing else can be verified.  The only island in the area of pick-up shows no sign of the events of the story, and Prendick claimed traumatic amnesia regarding the missing year during his lifetime.  (Prendick explains in the story proper that he did this to avoid being locked in a loony bin.)

This is a good read for both horror and science fiction fans who can handle the old-fashioned vocabulary and slow start.  The vivisection theme makes it more suitable for junior high on up, and parents of younger readers may want to discuss proper scientific ethics with their wards.  One of the classics.

“Not to go on all fours, that is The Law.  Are we not Men?”

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