Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Of maidens, warriors and queens


I must confess that I really enjoyed this book but for reasons very different from the previous book which is unarguably the pinnacle of everything that made A Song of Ice and Fire such a rich, beautiful fantasy series and deconstruction of the genre. That said, A Feast for Crows is more intimate and experimental in its narrative, choices of character POVs and theme focus. What do I mean when I say this? Well, a lot of critics who read this book agreed that it was a lesser novel than the others because first and foremost, the fan-favorite major characters are not present here (and by fan-faves I of course meant Tyrion, Jon and Daenerys who later appeared in A Dance with Dragons as the main POVs). Having that in mind, it’s so easy to dismiss AFfC as uninteresting and bland. Since I knew about that flaw, I went with that perspective as I perused through the pages and yes, I saw for myself that it was indeed true. Nevertheless, it was not as bad and unpleasant as those critical reviews led me to believe. I think if a reader approaches reading this book with the high expectations that was built up by the previous book, it would be an injustice and a hindrance in fully enjoying and understanding what A Feast for Crows has to offer.

Narrative-wise, the prose was often longer in the wrong places and irregular, and most of the time even lacks the usual GRRM signature of stylistic language, metaphor and varied atmospheric descriptions a fan has come to know and love. But it makes up for these weaknesses through the two other factors I’ve mentioned: choices of character POVs and theme focus. Now, of course I miss Tyrion and his emotionally infectious narrative. Though not my personal and absolute favorite characters, Jon and Daenerys’ POVs also provide me with a sense of danger and adventure that are not present in AFfC at all. However, I was also given new characters to examine: Cersei and Brienne, the lioness ex-queen and the shield-maiden respectively. In addition to that, Sansa and Arya have two or three POV chapters in AFfC that are so intricately parallel to each other content-wise and which therefore only strengthened the sun-and-moon metaphor GRMM has established in the previous three books. Jamie and Samwell also share a parallelism that is not instantly recognizable until the reader learns to read between the lines and see for themselves that they are both men struggling through the new obligations they didn’t want in the first place and are both responsible in taking care of people they would rather be rid of. Both of them desire to play in the sidelines but also recognize the potentials of leadership within them and this is a challenge they deal with differently. At first glance, POVs from these characters are less interesting to read and Tyrion/Dany/Jon could outweigh them in so many aspects. And they do. Still, these are mesmerizing characters in their own right, more so the new ones we get to understand better: Cersei and Brienne.

With that said, it’s the theme focus of A Feast for Crows that made me appreciate and love this novel in an unexpected way that’s incomparable to the first three books. And that theme focus is its feminist perspective. Usually, fantasy stories consider its women to be of secondary importance in the narrative. They fall into comfortable categories and are not nearly as developed and well-nuanced as their male counterparts. They are either prizes to be won, symbols to be idealized or treacherous fiends to be burned in stakes. GRRM approached AFfC with this in mind, I believe, and where he fails to engage us in this book with exciting plot and twist-and-turn storylines as he did in ASoS before, he succeeds nevertheless in portraying women with depth and sensibility that I’ve never seen done before in the genre. He succeeded in delivering feminist perspective with his handling of the plight of either Stark sister; both of whom have abandoned their identities in the name of survival. Arya hardens again but was also beginning to regain hope when her purpose as her family’s avenger is renewed while Sansa learns insights pertaining to the political subtleties of the game and is eventually going to recognize her potential as a possible player. For the Stark sisters in AFfC, it’s not just about surviving anymore but also about forging a path to personal liberation and victory. On the opposite side of that, readers are served with Cersei and Brienne who are both trying to rise above Westerosi gender norms but through different choices and motivations.

For Cersei, her political ambition is both her strength and downfall. She’s a proud woman because she was raised in the Lannister household by a father who disregards any leadership potentials she has because she’s female. This stigma damaged her in so many ways that it has driven her to commit appalling and self-serving deeds. Though she embraces being a mother with an unfaltering dedication, she also doesn’t want to be solely recognized in that role. Eager and desperate to prove that her station as a woman does not hinder her from gaining true power, Cersei is blinded by false ambitions and greed more than any other female character in the series. To contrast this, GRRM also provided us two POVs about the Kraken’s daughter, the late Balon’s ‘heir’, Asha Greyjoy. The first POV was her own, and she shows a thirst for a dominant role but she has also established herself as a very capable captain with a league of followers who obey her command. Her fellowmen respect her—but unfortunately not enough that they would grant her a chance to sit upon a throne. Nevertheless, by the second POV which belongs to her uncle Victarion, Asha stands before the men and claims her rights not through namesake alone but through experience and a goal to give the Iron Islands the peace and progress it deserves under her rule. When she gets constantly insulted when some of them scream for her to find a husband or birth a child, Asha answers by showing her axe and saying that it’s her husband, and then pulling a blade from between her breasts and saying that this is her suckling babe. When someone questions her authority by pointing out that women are only good for needlework, Asha readily answers that she will knit them a kingdom, taking that insult as a way to compliment herself as someone who will “weave” the Ironborn a successful regime when she’s queen.

Cersei does not posses the wit and confidence of the Greyjoy princess, however. She schemes and conspires with questionable allegiances and employs thieves and mercenaries to carry out her will because she fails to recognize the need for comrades who can offer intelligent counsel. She feels constantly threatened by such men and dismisses any potential alliances with them because she’s insecure about their loyalty since they’re smarter than her. It’s as if she believes that when a man can think for himself and has different opinions than her, he will immediately try to use or betray her. She therefore alienated even her uncle and twin brother in belief that they will try to subdue and impose their will over her which she endured enough already from her father and husband for decades. Cersei is aspiring to rule the world but the truth is what she needed is the will and strength to run her life. She tries to hold onto the position of a queen because she thought this will give her control over her life but her ruthless pursuit of it has rendered her powerless, disillusioned and utterly alone. Although she remains unpleasant throughout AFfC, her struggles and the psychology behind them have made her sympathetic for me which I never thought would be possible at all.

To contrast this again, GRRM gives us another noble lady who struggles to fight the prejudices of patriarchy but, unlike Cersei, she doesn’t try to remove herself from her gender in order to achieve this. And I’m referring of course to Brienne of Tarth. A lady of noble birth who is aesthetically ugly, she decided to be a warrior and a knight not because she wants to be ‘one of the boys’ but because she craves autonomy in such a way that society may recognize as noble. She knows her obligations as a knight which is more than most men in the series do. But to be simple about it, what initially motivated her to hold a sword is because she felt like she never belonged to the cluster of noble ladies in the first place. She felt undesirable and instead of being a victim to this lonely feeling, she decided to gain strength through taking arms. Still, unlike Arya in the first book, Brienne didn’t do this because she hates the gender norms of being a noble lady. In fact, she still holds it in highest esteem especially since she is honest enough with herself to admit that she can never be a lady and should find other ways to make her father proud.

She and Cersei are both intrinsically tested by the misogyny of the men around them. Cersei handles it by exploiting her sexuality and charisma as queen and takes advantage of the weakness of a man’s flesh in doing so which doesn’t truly empower her. Brienne, on the other hand, fights with her sword to prove that she is a physical match to these men and even better than them. Every time she is called ugly or unseemly, every time a noble lord like Lord Tarly commands her to don a gown and give up her sword because she’s a disgrace to her family, Brienne allows such hurtful words fall away from her because she knew in her heart that her intentions are pure and she will not give up being a warrior because a man says she’s not fit for it. Meanwhile, Cersei is vengeful and bitterly dismissive of such criticisms and would reason out that she is a Lannister and can never be intimidated, but at the same time disparages her own gender in the process, believing that just by being a woman, she is immediately weak. Brienne knows she’s a woman and that it’s not something that makes you weak, only something that makes people perceive you as such and she knows she can prove it otherwise.

Their POVs are the most beautifully and emotionally infectious narratives in A Feast for Crows and my sympathy for both have grown every single time I compare and contrast their actions and thoughts from each other. I also like how both women perceive younger, more beautiful girls than them. For Cersei, Margaery Tyrell is a threat to her and should therefore be vanquished. For Brienne, Sansa Stark is someone she must save or die in the attempt, because she swore a vow to Catelyn and Jamie and perceives herself as a protector of the weak because that’s what being a knight is about. This is what differs Cersei from Brienne. Cersei is a queen who wants to rule everything even when she can’t even rule herself and is losing in touch with her femininity, while Brienne is a knight who only wants to serve even if it means that her acts of valor will never be completely acknowledged by a misogynistic society.

To me, that’s what makes A Feast for Crows such an immensely touching novel. The additional POVs of sideline characters are also a treat since it lays groundwork for the new players of the game.

[MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS]

Favorite POVs: Brienne, Arya and Cersei

Second Favorites: Alayne, The Iron Captain, Jaime, The Kraken’s Daughter

Crowning Moments of Awesome: KINGSMOOT and Asha’s speech, yo! The new High Septon not taking shit from Cersei and restoring the Faith’s arms, Brienne’s action scenes, Arya in Braavos, Samwell punching an asshole, and of course, Ser Hyle Hunt’s attempts to court Brienne which never fails to make me giggle like a school-girl with a crush

Tearjerker Moments: Cersei and Jaime’s alternating POVs and how they are drifting apart, Brienne crying for the first time, Arya burying Needle in parallel to Sansa building Winterfell as a snow castle in the previous book, Gilly grieving in the ship, Maester Aemon dreaming of serving Daenerys Targaryen, and THE LAST SCENE IN BRIENNE’S POV

Most favorite characters: Brienne, Asha Greyjoy, Alayne Stone and Arya

Second favorites: Samwell, Jaime, Cersei, Arianne Martell

Sideline characters I enjoy: SER HYLE HUNT FOREVER, The Sand Snakes, Aerys Oakheart, Osney Kettleback, Qyburn and Gilly

Tiny moments I appreciate: Anything about Dorne, Sam-Gilly shippy moments, Jamie learning to be a better man even if it means neglecting Cersei, Brienne-Hyle shippy moments, Petyr teaching Alayne the way the game is played, Alayne being kind to Robin Arryn even if he’s such a messed up kid, all references to Tyrion or Sansa, and Arya being friends with the whores of Braavos and learning the language and ways of the Braavosi.

RECOMMENDED: 8/10