(NOTE: Though I mention the finale of Battlestar Galactica in this entry, there are no spoilers at all for the finale or series beyond the opening of season 3. On the other hand, spoilers ahoy for A Song of Ice and Fire)
Funny the things that set you off. I was reading George R. R. Martin’s “Not a Blog” today and saw he made mention of having hated the Battlestar Galactica finale. That, apparently, is what it took to finally get me to write about Martin’s last book, A Feast for Crows.
You can blame Brennen and Brent for my initial obsession with A Song of Ice and Fire, the massive, epic fantasy series by Martin of which A Feast For Crows is part. I remember clearly getting A Game of Thrones, the first volume in the series. I had won a gift certificate to Amazon.com from a trivia game Brent was running, and asked what the heck I should buy. One of the books Brennen recommended was A Game of Thrones. And so it began.
I also remember very clearly reading it. Not what it felt like to read it, but the actual physical sitting with the book in my hands. It was my Grandmother’s funeral in Erie, and I can still picture myself on a cheap hotel bed, feeling the shock of Ned Stark’s startling death. The same goes for book 3, A Storm of Swords, also read in a hotel room, this one not so cheap. I was in Alexandria, VA with my mom. She was on a business trip and I had tagged along. Instead of exploring the city, I sat for hours in that room, plowing through one of the best fantasy novels I had ever read. I made it out of the room for comics and a bowl of amazing Texas style chili. Otherwise, it was Martin all the way.
I say this to get across my deep love for the series. There was a time when this was becoming my favorite fantasy series, when all I could do was talk about how affected I was by the series’ momentum, brutality and authenticity. A time may come again when I feel this way, too. Today, not as much.
I am not going to gripe about the publication delays faced by book 4, A Feast for Crows. An author must take the time he needs to write his story, and waiting is not my problem. It’s frustrating as hell, certainly, but quality and not scheduling is an author’s primary concern. So A Feast for Crows was late. So it was very late. Big deal.
What bothers me is that the novel we got was a sprawling, long delayed side story of little consequence to the series. Long fantasy series’ generally have this problem. At some point in the middle they begin following every rabbit down every hole, adding side characters and background stories until the main plot is barely advancing at all. In book 1 our main characters are the only point of view characters, but by book 4 we are spending half of our time with people of whom we have rarely if ever heard.
A Feast for Crows may not be a bad book, but it is a pointless book. Martin’s original plan was to jump forward 5 years following A Storm of Swords, a bold idea that the end of that novel almost necessitated. The ending of Swords left characters on the verge of great developments, at the cusp of realizing much of the setup of the first 3 volumes. A five year jump would put us right in the middle of that payoff, allowing the final 3 volumes to race ahead from that point.
Book 4 was going to be A Dance with Dragons, a title full of promise considering we had spent the first half of the series slowly building the character of Daenerys and the return of dragons into the world. It was likely to continue the deliberate but fantastic character arc of Anya Stark, a child now on the cusp of being capable of the vengeance promised to her enemies. And it was almost certain to drop us into the middle of whatever terror was building beyond the Wall.
Instead we got, respectively: Nothing, almost nothing and nothing.
Somewhere along the line, Martin soured on the idea of jumping ahead. He said the need for flashbacks filling in the lost time was crushing the narrative of the novel and that jumping ahead was not feasible. So book 4 changed to A Feast for Crows, and it would presumably fill in those 5 years.
I was skeptical. If you initially thought those 5 years weren’t worth writing, was this really going to make for an interesting novel? Or was it going to feel like a book of backstory whose only reason for being written was setting up the next novel? I had, perhaps unfairly, assumed the jump was being done because the intervening years did not need to be told in detail. In fact, the revelation that even the initial version of book 4 was going to be flashback-filled had me worried. Why jump at all if you’re going to detail what we missed anyway?
Still, Martin hadn’t let me down and I was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. It might not be the most exciting book, but it would at least be necessary. And maybe it would be exciting, after all. Who knew?
Then came scary change number 2: A Feast For Crows was being split into 2 books. Not chronologically, but by dividing which characters would appear in which book. That 5 year period we were going to skip entirely? Yeah, it had just become 2 books.
A Feast for Crows was not an easy read for me. I admit freely I was very worried about the quality of this book due to the confusing narrative changes Martin had made to it. I know I’m not the writer of this series, but I have trouble understanding how a period you once felt confident you could skip could become 2 whole novels. This sounded like a writer too wrapped up in the minutia of his world, too intent on telling every detail of his story.
Unfortunately – and you can attribute this to seeing what I expected to see if you’d like, though I’d disagree – that was exactly what I got. Worse, I got something I did not expect: a preponderance of time spent on side characters of whom I had no emotional attachment and some odd narrative changes. Do the political maneuverings of the Greyjoys really matter to this story? The same of the Martells: why should I care? Was there any need to suddenly start naming point of view chapters after character aliases?
Worse, the of previous point of view characters who did make an appearance, few were the protagonists for whom we had been asked to care to this point. Yes, I think Jamie Lannister is an interesting character. Sure, I’m fine watching Cersei’s plans fall apart around her. But to spend the better part of a novel on them, the Greyjoys and the Martells while leaving only two or three chapters each for any of the Stark children was highly disappointing. It gave the impression of reading the series bible for background, not of getting the next chapter in the story itself.
Compare this to the end of season 2 of Battlestar Galactica, in the last minutes of which we suddenly jumped a year ahead. We saw lives changed without explanation, new conflicts, new problems. And then, when season 3 opened, we stayed a year ahead. In fact, it jumped another 4 months further down the path. Major changes had occurred, and rather than worrying about showing us how each one had come about, it plowed ahead, confident the audience would learn most through context and the rest as needed. Imagine if, instead, season 3 had opened back before the end of season 2 and decided to spend the season filling in that last year.
Now imagine that season 3 only did that for half of the characters, leaving the rest for season 4, and didn’t pick back up with the plot until season 5.
Sure we could have said “Oh, that’s exactly how Tigh lost his eye,” or “Oh, so this is when Tyrol became the head of the union.” But did we need it? Certainly not, and the series was stronger for jumping the exposition and getting on with the business of telling its story.
Which leads me back to what set me off. I’m curious as to what, exactly, Martin hated about Galactica. Is he going to be upset that the series didn’t deliver on what he felt it had promised him? That it had abandoned plot threads over its run and did not resolve them sufficiently in the finale? That it focused on characters he didn’t feel were important?
I ask because I have this sneaking suspicion that any complaint he levels on Galactica could be leveled doubly against his own series. Certainly Galactica played loose with many of its early themes and had a bad tendency to lose main characters for weeks at a time.
But do you know what it didn’t do? It didn’t give fans an entire season detailing exactly what role Simon and Dorel had in the Cylons’ decision to come to New Caprica while showing us no more than a few minutes of Tyrol and Tigh and ignoring everyone else. It didn’t extend itself endlessly, pushing the expected finale further and further away.
Do you know what it did do?
It ended while I still cared what happened.
Here’s hoping A Dance with Dragons proves me wrong. I want to love A Song of Ice and Fire again. Maybe Martin will use Galactica as a mirror and not just as a punching bag.