Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A reader’s guide to the Feastdance

If there is one common thread you can find in many reviews of HBO’s adaption of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, then it is the need to somehow strengthen the weak source material of its fourth and fifth installments, “A Feast for Crows” and “A Dance with Dragons”. The pervasive feeling seems to be that these books are overlong, at periods boring and set their characters on road trips that really lead nowhere. In the most extreme case, Brienne’s whole arc in “A Feast for Crows”, this is apparent from the get-go because her quest to find Sansa in the Riverlands or on Cracklaw’s Point can’t succeed in finding a girl having chapters in the Vale. Tyrion’s “Where do whores go?” drinking tour is also already infamous.

But does this make the two books bad? I have frivolously argued in the past that in fact, the two books are my favorites in the series. Given the new steam the debate garnered with season five of “Game of Thrones” hitting the small screens, I think it is appropriate to lay down the argument why exactly that is and maybe help some people to get more fun and entertainment out of their reading. The first important thing everyone needs to understand is that reading the two books as two books is the biggest mistake one can make, period. It is George R. R. Martin’s worst decision to split them as he did, and while real-world-concerns (book bindings don’t seem able to cope with 1500 pages, sadly) made it necessary to do something about it, doing it in the way it was done let to the disappointing reading experience many people, me included, had when we first laid the finished book down on the proverbial coffee table.

Not to indulge too much in tales from ye good olde days, back when I finished my first reread of “A Dance with Dragons”, my assessment of the book had become much more favorable, and I thought I was up to something when I pointed out major story arcs spanning both books (more on that later). It was my colleague from the “Boiled Leather Audio Hour” Podcast, Sean T. Collins, who picked this idea up and undertook the work of creating a reading order in which you alternated between chapters of both books. When you read this mammoth book, it feels like you read the book as it should be. You never, ever should read it any way else.

The book that is produced by this new reading order earned the moniker “Feastdance”, by which I will call it henceforth. I don’t want to spoil your reading experience too much in case you haven’t read it yet in this variant, but doing it in this way creates a totally different flow of the narrative than in the disservice Martin did to his own work with splitting it in two.

But not only is Feastdance really only one very large book instead of two normally sized ones, it is also Act II in a story that’s separated into three acts. The first act is comprised of the first three books of the series, “A Game of Thrones”, “A Clash of Kings” and “A Storm of Swords”. Act I is all about the proverbial “Game of Thrones”, with several factions vying for power in Westeros. In the end, Stannis, Balon and Robb are defeated, with the Lannisters seemingly on top of everything but showing severe cracks from the costs of the protracted war.

Act II, which is comprised wholly of Feastdance, is about the fallout from this giant civil war. Ever wondered how the Others were taking their sweet time travelling from the Heart of Winter to the Wall after they were pretty close already in the prologue to the whole series? Yeah, well, their time hasn’t yet come, because we really have to see how the Game of Thrones ruined the whole continent and is continuing to demand the attention even of people who like Stannis know what’s about to come down on them.

Cleaning up, looking around and trying to sort out the new status quo, however, is not exactly as exciting and fast-paced as producing the whole mess in the first place. Necessarily, Act II has to be slower and more deliberate than Act I, has to have its action happen more in the grey area and in obscure arenas. Hence Cersei’s spinning decent into madness, hence Jon’s getting stuck in the muck of wildling politics and hence all that stuff that happens at Dany’s court, with the factions of Meereen fighting it out right under her nose without her even noticing.

All of this stuff lacks the relatively clear-cut battlefronts of the War of the Five Kings which dominated the first act. Wars tend to simplify things, peace tends to muddle them up. And Act II is about the peace, and although it is never fully achieved, all the parties involved at least try to do so.

This murky picture is made worse by the travails of other characters who are lost in transition. Bran is on the road to his mentor, Tyrion doesn’t even have a clue where he should be going, Theon is tortured, the Dornish slowly unravel, Sansa is trying to find a new place, Jaime is searching for new purpose in life, and so on and so forth. Interwoven with all these personal quests that lack the grandeur and exciting adventure of the earlier novels are very tightly knit themes that are running throughout the whole narrative of Feastdance. I don’t want to go into too much detail; for Jon, Tyrion, Dany and Doran, Adam Feldman has done a tremendous job on the “Meereenese Blot” to analyze them in detail, and if you haven’t read this stuff, you should definitely check it out. If you need more convincing, it has the Seal of Approval from Martin himself.

However, I want to outline a few of those things. Martin has received a lot of criticism for Feastdance, because it comes across meandering and self-indulgent at times. Why, for example, are we following Brienne on a quest that we know from the first page she won’t finish? We do we witness Tyrion being rowed down the Rhoyne, along places we never heard of before? Why doesn’t Dany finally unleash her dragons and burn Meereen to ash? Why, oh why, is everything so slow?

I think that Feastdance is Martin’s most ambitious work on an artistic level. It consciously foregoes the major set pieces, arcs and twists from the first three books, getting rid of most of the glory and fist pumping in favor of the quagmire that really lays at the heart of daily life, be it in reality or in his fantasy world. Daily life, however, is never as exciting as pinnacles. It is an impressive feat telling of Martin’s abilities as a writer that it is even possible. Imagine a thousand-page story of the aftermath of the War of the Rings, with Sam coming to terms with his own mortality, or Aragorn trying to reign an empire that has its best days behind it and not seen a king in centuries. Gimli returning to his mines, not managing to fit in because of what he’s seen. Sounds implausible? It is. Feastdance is a testament to the strength of Martin’s characters. They are interesting even without world shattering events.

The slower, more deliberate and at times seemingly aimless second act is also important in order to communicate major themes that Martin had always wanted to develop: It’s much easier to start a war than to end it. In the game of thrones, it’s the smallfolk that suffers. The game of thrones is a universal plague on the world, played in Essos as it is in Westeros. Every human, no matter how and where he lives, is possessed of the same basic right to live. Occupation doesn’t equal peace. The human heart is at conflict with itself.

Moral dilemmas have been abound in the first three books as well. Whether Robb had to ask himself if he wanted to marry the girl he loved or the one he was promised to, or whether or not to execute Karstark or keep his army together. Whether Jon would desert the Watch or stay. Whether Stannis would heed his rights or his duty. Most of those dilemmas presented themselves sharply, and the character agonized over them.

Feastdance is also full of such moral and personal crossroads, but they are deeper, more hidden to the naked eye and not even visible to our character themselves, who define their choices through their actions, swing back and forth and try to grapple with them. It’s peace that brings the really hard decisions, not war. The temptation of war is that everything is reduced to black and white, to victory or defeat, and gets rid of the ambivalences. This is a luxury peace doesn’t allow, and a constant temptation for a ruler to revert back to, to simplify the world.

Temptation, therefore, lays at the heart of much of Feastdance. Jon is tempted to meddle in Northern politics and engineer the downfall of house Bolton, and when he finally succumbs to the temptation, it proves his undoing. Dany is tempted to cut the Gordian Knot and either abandon or scorch Meereen, to choose “fire and blood” instead of compromise and deliberation, she succumbs to the temptation when she can’t bear the traditions of Meereen and Drogon lifts her out of it, a dragon ex machine, to a simpler way in the Dothraki Sea. Doran Martell is tempted to fulfill his decade-spanning revenge plan, engulfing the continent in fire and blood yet again and destroy all those who wronged the Martells, and he will bring down fire and blood on what is holiest to him, the innocent children, always the first to suffer in war.

Cersei is tempted to continue ruling as if she remained under siege, ignoring the damage she inflicts on everyone around her. Tyrion is tempted to see his good qualities as weaknesses that led to his downfall, indulging his darker side, and he is engineering the next Targaryen civil war with one game of Cyvasse in a cynic power play to make himself valuable to the likely winner. Arya is tempted to use power, but to bear no responsibility, whereas Jaime is tempted by a false sense of a fresh start he could have into doing feeling safer than he actually is and avoid the really hard insights and choices.

This only a very short and incomplete list, and given the more or less arbitrary ending of Feastdance, many arcs remain incomplete and can only be guessed at (Theon, Sansa, Bran, Brienne, …). But my point remains: Feastdance is a complicated book, not only a long one, and its meandering and the seeming unimportance of its plot for the greater story to be told are in truth necessary to convey many of these points. The much tighter requirements of the TV series have shown abundantly that for many of these themes to gain full impact force, they need to be developed over time, with characters pondering their options, going back and forth and being pulled this way and that by their advisors, with no clear cut path or choice. It was easier when Robb had to decide between the war effort and his honor, because as excruciating as the choice was, at the least the consequences were clear. In Feastdance, nothing is clear. The characters are put through the same temptation as the readers are, to yearn for a severing of the Gordian Knot with the sword, to bring back the simplicity of war and its clearer and final choices.

This is the real brilliance at the heart of Feastdance, the complexity and quality of the work. It makes the book more work and a bit less instantly engaging than the first three novels, but it sets up the canvass of one of the most ambitious arcs ever told. It is for the readers as much as for the characters to get their priorities straight and really understand the implications of the game of thrones.


  1. No offense to your extraordinarily well thought out apologia, but no. Just no. Brienne's meanderings alone cost GRRM over 200 pages. Tyrion's ENDLESS funk cost the reader nearly 100 pages. Sam's travails literally made everyone seasick for 50 pages! There was no excuse for this rot! Even the Meereeneese Blot was bloated. Dany's self-immolation was a very substantial homage to the Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now inspiration from which it drew both its unsubtle anti-imperialism themes and its quagmire characteristics. Love means never having to say you're sorry, it is true, but GRRM's flaws should not be covered up with it-is-so-brilliant-it-is-impossible-to-get-through arguments. This is not Joyce's Ulysses for heaven's sake.

    1. I agree, it's much, much more readable than Joye, and you may even get some joy out of it. - But in the end, I fear we have to agree to disagree here.

  2. I complete agree with Stefan and I love FeastDance - contains my favorite passages of GRRM writing. How can anyone be bored with the Theon arc at Winterfell? I think that is edge of the seat stuff. But also full of beautiful passages : Brienne walking in low tide across the salt flats to the Quiet Isle, Septon Meribald on the broken men, even the relatively uncommented- upon chapter when Davos washes up in Sisterton. I love to reread those descriptive passages. I really felt the dark-damp environment at Breakwater, and we get to experience the hardscrabble life of a minor lord in Godric Borrell, how limited their powers are, and the constant politicking and compromises needed for minor lords to hang on. Anyway, Feastdance is my favorite for just great writing.

  3. I agree with you. I love the books, on rereads of the whole series I Always enjoy the moment when I start with Feast for Crows. The problem I think is that Dance with Dragons doesn't have a proper ending. I see AFFC and ADWD as 1 book and Feastdance builds up to the 2 battles and you don't get a pay off. At least one of the battles should have been incorporated. This would have changed the reception of the books.