There is a point after the death of Balon Greyjoy that you think some of the madness will cease. The Ironborn have been called to a “kingsmoot” by the priest Aeron Greyjoy. House Greyjoy’s rebellion has taken Moat Cailin, House Glover’s Deepwood Motte, House Tallhart’s Torrhen's Square, and burned the Stark’s Winterfell, but there is a sense that they cannot hold it given their power lies in their fleet, not an army. Balon’s brothers Victarion and Euron are the favorites to be chosen by the other lords of the Iron Islands. Asha Greyjoy, a fierce captain and Balon’s only daughter, makes a bid for the throne by demonstrating the folly of continuing this conquest. At the very least it seems the more devout, more skilled, and more respected Victarion will win the lords. Then Euron steps forward with his dragon’s horn. The first born exiled son wins the day with his plan of conquering Westeros with Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons.
It is then that I you realized - if you hadn’t already - that this warring will never end. George R.R. Martin will not be ending the Song of Ice and Fire with a stable truce between the just actors of the known world. Such leaders exist throughout Westeros, but there are just as many, if not more, who take power at the expense of the weak. And those who are power hungry know how play parts of the Game of Thrones that the Starks of the world reject. Ned Stark and his House are now burnt and scattered while the Lannisters, Boltons, and Freys rule from the Dreadfort to King’s Landing.
After the carnage of the end of its predecessor, A Feast for Crows is rather tame. The Seven Kingdoms seem to be settling. Roose Bolton, though not mentioned, is probably consolidating power in the North. There is word that the Manderlys of White Harbor have spurned Ser Davos Seaworth. Most of the river lords who stood with Robb Stark have pledged their loyalty to the Iron Throne in exchange for the lives of their kin who were spared at the Red Wedding. The Riverlands are lousy with Freys and Lannisters as they attempt to expunge the Blackfish and the remaining Tully garrison at Riverrun.
Martin continues to transform Jamie Lannister from one of the most hated and immoral characters to one of the most liked and moral ones. His sister Cersei, however, continues to be consumed by jealousy and ego.
Brienne of Tarth continues her tireless search for Sansa Stark, but Sansa is hidden away in the Vale, disguised as Petyr Baelish’s bastard daughter. Baelish, having killed Lysa Arryn in A Storm of Swords, seeks to hold his title of Lord Protector and guardian of the sickly Lord Robert. He doesn’t have the army to defend against Lord Yohn Royce and the other lords of the Vale who wish to expunge him, but with cunning typical of his character, he prevails in his encounter nonetheless. Baelish’s scheming puts Sansa in the position of inheriting the Vale and the North her brother had lost.
Though his tactics involve scheming instead of fighting, Baelish is much like the Ironborn in his tireless pursuit of power. Both start the Song of Ice and Fire in lowly positions. The Ironborn are confined to their islands after their rebellion was crushed, Balon’s sons killed or taken hostage. Baelish is on King Robert’s small council, but holds no lands. Both are content to wait, but neither ever forget the goal, no matter how distant it seems.
After two full books without a mention, House Dorne make a brief appearance at the end of A Storm of Swords. It is in the fourth book where they are given the full treatment. We find that they too have been biding their time. Prince Doran’s daughter, Arianne Martell, and his guard, Areo Hotah, each have point of view chapters. The Dornish are incensed at the death of Oberyn Martell, who was slain by Gregor Clegane at the end of the previous book. Sunspear, the seat of Dorne, seems to be in conflict, with Oberyn’s bastard daughters (the Sand Snakes) clamoring for war, Arianne seeking to elevate Princess Myrcella Baratheon to queen of the realm, and the Prince trying to suppress it all. The gout ridden Prince is seemingly unphased by all that has happened to his kingdom. His people think him weak, but his cautious demeanor masks a smouldering rage. His grief for Oberyn Martell is a blip compared to the anger he harbors for what the Lannisters did to his sister Elia and her children during the sack of King’s Landing.
In what I thought was the most dramatic scene of the book, Doran allays Arianne’s fears that she was not meant to be his heir. The old men he had offered to wed her to were meant to be rejected. She was meant to wed Viserys Targaryen and exact vengeance upon the Lannisters. Tyrion Lannister and Khal Drogo undid those plans, but the hunger for revenge remains. The Martells have long served as garnish to the story of Westeros, but (to stick with the metaphor) their contribution has been simmering out of sight the whole time.
It is interesting to note that the main female characters in this edition pretend to be someone they are not, or at least something they are not supposed to be. Sansa is disguised as Petyr’s bastard. Arya has already been Arry in Yoren’s trek to the wall, Nan the cupbearer at Harrenhall, Nymeria the direwolf in her dreams, and Salty on a ship to Braavos. In Braavos she must discard everything about her former life if she wishes to join the House of Black and White as an adherent to the Faceless Man god. Cersei is the queen regent, but refuses to hear herself called anything but queen. Asha Greyjoy wants to be queen of Ironborn, but by tradition they will only accept a queen. Brienne of Tarth roams the countryside as a knight would while often being encouraged to go home and marry by the lords and knights who do not accept her as a warrior.
I found interesting the groups not associated with a House in this fourth book. Call them non-state actors. There have always been mentions of sellswords like the Brave Companions and those across the Narrow Sea. And there have always been outlaws and rebels like Lord Beric’s Brotherhood Without Banners. After the spasms of violence that marked the end of the third book, non-state actors gain more prominence. The animals of Vargo Hoat’s Bloody Mummers terrorize the Riverlands while Dondarrion gives his command to vengeful Lady Stoneheart, formerly Catelyn Stark. (I was hoping we’d see more of Stoneheart, given her dramatic appearance at the end of the previous book.)
As the Iron Throne wages total war on its enemies and their lands, it forgets its duty to the Realm. It cannot, nor does it care to, stop outlaws from pillaging towns, raping women, and putting innocents to the sword. That’s if it is not the Throne’s own who are carrying out such atrocities. It is an interesting statement about the power of a state. When a state attains a certain level of power, the maintenance of that power supersedes the protection of its subjects. At this point people must look to others - or themselves - for safety. It puts the state in a difficult position. The harder the state fights to maintain its own power the weaker it becomes, having expended men, weapons, and money on military adventures, spreading its troops throughout the realm, and angering its supporters.
With this understanding we see the rise of the “sparrows”, common folk who flock to King’s Landing with stories of the atrocities committed against the faithful. It is a religious movement, but one that soon becomes political. In a quid pro quo the weakened Throne allies itself with the Faith of the Seven. The Faith is allowed to arm itself in the form of the formerly disbanded Warrior’s Son and Poor Fellows in exchange for forgiving the crown’s debt. Now armed though, the Faith sees fit to enforce its law upon the city...and even upon the Queen Regent.
While this fourth installment is slow and maybe, I dare say, the least enjoyable so far, it is foreboding. Dorne, the Iron Islands, and Petyr Baelish will be making their moves soon. Stannis Baratheon and Daenerys Targaryen have yet to tell their story. And Cersei Lannister has sufficiently hurt the crown so that it seems on the brink of collapse. As the War of the Five Kings died down the suffering of Westeros’ people did not stop. And that was with an alliance between two of strongest of the seven kingdoms. What happens when that collapses and the central government of the realm dissipates? In normal times the great houses and lesser lords might have been able to make due. Maybe even common folk could have gotten along on their own. But the fields have been burnt. Workers have been pillaged or are off pillaging. And as the Starks always warned, winter is coming. In fact, as Jamie Lannister learns gazing upon the riverlands, winter is already here.
This fourth book of A Song of Ice and Fire is the point at which Martin’s story grows too wide for even one of his books. A short explanation after the final chapter reveals Martin excluded Stannis Baratheon, Jon Stark, and Bran at the Wall; the Boltons in the North; Tyrion and Varys; and Daenerys Targaryen’s march through Esteros because he could not have finished all of the stories in one book and wanted to give the entire story of half rather than half the story of all.
The following characters have point of view chapters: Cersei Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, Jaime Lannister, Samwell Tarly, Arya Stark, Sansa Stark, Aeron Greyjoy, Victarion Greyjoy, Arianne Martell, Asha Greyjoy, Areo Hotah, Arys Oakheart, and Pate.