Spoilers for future seasons of Game of Thrones. If you haven’t read the books, turn back while you still know nothing, Jon Snow.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already read the books and therefore already know that A Song of Ice and Fire book four, A Feast For Crows, and book five, A Dance With Dragons, largely cover the same period of in-universe continuity, albeit from different points of view. Martin split what would have been one massive fourth book into two volumes, with the resultant book four featuring mostly new POVs in King’s Landing, the Riverlands, the Iron Islands, Braavos and Dorne, and book five featuring, well, everyone else. What’s more, book five catches up to book four a bit over the 500 page mark, and from then on POVs from book four like Cersei and Jaime crop up in ADWD’s home stretch. Fan-favorite Arya Stark is thus far the only character to appear as a POV in every book in the series.
Some helpful folks on the internet went through the trouble of recombining Feast and Dance into A Ball of Beasts, which presents the whole tale in chronological order so long as you don’t mind flipping between books every handful of chapters. That’s how I chose to do my re-read of books four and five. Between being fresh off the first three volumes so I remember what’s going on with all the sideplots/supporting characters and not having to wait a whole book for chapters on most of my favorite characters, both books are sitting much better in my literary gut this time around. As of now, I’m a bit past where A Feast For Crows ends, with maybe 300 pages of A Dance With Dragons to go, and it’s the chronological period of overlap between the two books I’m going to address today.
I said last time that the post-RW part of A Storm of Swords feels like the beginning of Act II of this tale, and I hold to that now that I have book four back on my shelf. AFFC and ADWD are unquestionably the middle novels of the series. The narrative slows and widens while Martin deals with the fallout from the War of the Five Kings and sets up the surviving players for the final act. This also gives him room for some serious world-building, using both new and old POVs to show us places we’ve only heard about second-hand in the first three books. To recap the major storylines from this section of the series:
The Splintering of House Lannister: With Tywin dead, Queen Regent Cersei Lannister becomes de facto ruler of Westeros in her son Tommen’s name, and she wastes no time surrounding herself with lackies, further bankrupting the throne, burning all her bridges, basically just running the whole country into the ground, at least until she winds up a prisoner of the Faith of the Seven. Though Cersei is convinced Tyrion is lurking behind every corner, our favorite Imp flees across the sea to Pentos, where Illyrio sends him on a river cruise across Essos with the goal of joining Dany. Those plans go awry when Jorah Mormont captures Tyrion, with the intention of taking Tyrion to Dany to win back her favor–which sounds fine by Tyrion until they’re captured by slavers. Meanwhile, Jaime does his best to put the Kingsguard in order, charges Brienne with the quest of finding Sansa Stark, then returns to the field, where he brokers a truce with Riverrun that honors his pledge to Catelyn not to take up arms against the Tullys or Starks. Though once incestuous lovers, Jaime and Cersei’s relationship sours during their reunion in King’s Landing, and when Cersei writes a letter begging Jaime to come save her from the Faith’s prison, he burns it and continues about his duties in the Riverlands instead.
The Vipers of Dorne: Following the death of the Red Viper, Oberyn Martell, his bastard daughters the Sand Snakes seek to start a war between Dorne and King’s Landing by crowning their ward Myrcella Baratheon, who is heir to the Iron Throne under Dornish law. Fearful her father the prince of Dorne will pass her over as heir due to her gender and hoping to set a precedent in King’s Landing, Arianne Martell seduces Myrcella’s guardian, Ser Arys, into helping her make off with the little princess, but the plan backfires; Arys dies and Myrcella is disfigured when Prince Doran’s agents apprehend the would-be agitators. Afterward, Prince Doran reveals to Arianne that he is part of a plot to bring the Targaryens back to Westeros, originally having intended to marry Arianne to the late Viserys; now that the situation has changed, he’s dispatched her brother Quentyn to win Dany’s hand instead. For his part, Quentyn suffers a series of misadventures and loses half his retinue on his long journey to Meereen, only for Dany to dismiss him out of hand after he reveals himself in her court.
The Night’s Watch: Jon Snow isn’t the most popular of Lord Commanders, but he does his best to prepare the Wall for the coming Other assault, and Melisandre’s interest in him grows once Stannis departs with his army to wrest the north from House Bolton. At Jon’s suggestion, Stannis allies himself with the northern mountain clans to shore up his numbers. As Jon grows into his new position, he feels more and more distant from his former companions and repeatedly questions his choices and place in life. Though Melisandre’s predictions sometimes prove reliable, Jon is wary of her, and he sends Maester Aemon Targaryen away with Sam to rob Melisandre of royal blood to burn. Sam and Aemon are tasked with sailing to Oldtown, where Sam is to become a maester, and with them goes Gilly and
her infant son “King Beyond the Wall” Mance Rayder’s infant son. Aemon grows ill on the voyage and the group stays a while in Braavos hoping he’ll recover; when they finally set sail again for Oldtown, Aemon dies en route, but not before sharing some theories on Dany and her place in prophecy. During the journey, Sam breaks his vow of celibacy with Gilly.
In the North: Theon reappears as a POV in ADWD after a two book absence. He is now “Reek” and seems half-mad after months of torture and mutilation at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. Theon lures the ironborn out of Moat Cailin so a host of Boltons and Freys can bring the North its new warden, Roose Bolton, then he gives away the bride at a supposed Stark-Bolton wedding that will secure Roose’s claim to the north. When Theon meets the bride he realizes the “Arya Stark” Ramsay is to marry is really Jeyne Pool, Sansa’s BFF from Winterfell. Surrounded by Boltons, Freys and northerners who think of him as “Theon Turncloak,” he holds his tongue and does as he’s told, to Jeyne’s dismay. The Bolton hold on power seems tempestuous at best, and word comes that Stannis, now allied with the mountain clans, is headed for Winterfell.
The Ironborn: With Balon Greyjoy dead, his brother the “Damphair,” a priest of the Drowned God, calls a Kingsmoot to select the next ruler of the Iron Islands. Though Balon’s daughter Asha and brother Victarion both vie for the crown, it’s Euron “Crow’s Eye,” the black sheep (ship?) of the family, who wins over the pseudo-vikings. Once king, Euron calls for the ironborn to abandon the north and leads them to take key islands and coasts in the west and south, threatening Highgarden and Oldtown. He also sends his brother Victarion to treat with Dany, “the most beautiful woman in the world,” but Victarion plots to marry Dany first before Euron can have her, all to settle an old blood debt. Meanwhile, Asha returns to Deepwood Motte, the northern fortress she conquered earlier in the series, only to be kicked out and captured by Stannis.
The Scions of Stark: Four Stark children remain alive. Rickon is in hiding with Osha. Bran, Hodor, Jojen and Meera follow the wight “Coldhands” to a haven occupied by surviving children of the forest and the last greenseer, who begins Bran’s proper instruction. Soon Bran learns to warg into crows and even to view history through the eyes of the weirwoods. Once in Braavos, Arya becomes a student of the Faceless Men, taking on several identities as she learns their arts. When she kills Dareon, the Night’s Watch singer who abandons Sam’s group, her sight is taken from her, though this is only a temporary part of the training process. Sansa continues her life as “Alayne Stone,” Littlefinger’s bastard daughter, and learns to play the game of thrones by watching him deal with the lords of the Eyrie. Littlefinger tells Sansa that once House Lannister has fallen, he will wed her–under her true name–to “Harry the Heir,” who will be lord of the Eyrie once Littlefinger’s stepson Robert Arryn dies. Poor Brienne spends an entire book stomping about the Riverlands looking for Sansa and even thinks once to turn for the Eyrie, but fate has its own set of misadventures in store for her, and she eventually finds herself gnawed-face-to-rotted-face with the reanimated corpse of Catelyn Stark, now “Stoneheart,” who is none too pleased at Brienne’s apparent failure to fulfill her oath to rescue the Stark girls.
Queen of the Rabbits: Daenerys Targaryen rules as queen of Meereen by right of conquest, but she soon learns ruling a hostile foreign city is a major pain in the ass. A powerful group of former slavers called the Sons of the Harpy are out to kill Dany, her followers and the city’s ex-slaves; her dragons are becoming too big and unruly to control; the remaining slave cities declare war on Meereen over Dany’s disruption of the slave trade. Dany falls in love with Daario Naharis, captain of the Stormcrows, but faced with enemies within and without the walls of her city, she consents to a political marriage to local noble Hizdahr zo Loraq. Unbeknownst to Dany, several factions are racing toward her in hopes of being the party to bring blood and fire back to Westeros.
…And that’s with another 360 pages of A Dance With Dragons still to go. Jesus, no wonder GRRM split this book. When I first read Feast I felt underwhelmed, but in retrospect there’s a lot going on in this “book where nothing happens,” especially when you bring in the concurrent Dance chapters, which make the common themes running through both books more apparent. For its part, Feast even manages to pull off some self-contained character arcs; Cersei, Jaime, Sam, Arya and Brienne all reach milestones in their respective tales. Compare that to Dance, which is probably the more popular book despite how it leaves several characters in mid-crisis and builds up to a pair of climactic battles that, oops, won’t take place until book six because GRRM felt book five was too long as it was.
One change of note in book four is the increased emphasis on female POVs. The first three books feature POVs by the Stark women–Catelyn, Arya and Sansa–and our wayward dragon princess, Dany. And that’s it. There are plenty of strong female characters in supporting roles–Cersei, Melisandre, the Queen of Thorns–but we don’t get inside their heads the way we do the men in their lives, nor do we get to see female perspectives outside the Starks or Targaryens.Feast introduces a slew of new POVs, four of them women, all from different camps. After three books as the literary equivalent of an NPC, Cersei is our main King’s Landing POV for 10 chapters in Feast, with another two appearances in Dance. Brienne, who has been around since book two, gets her first eight chapters in Feast. By comparison, returning male POV Jaime gets seven, Sam five. In Feast the only returning Starks are Sansa and Arya, who get a meager three chapters each. Though Asha gets only her first POV in Feast, she has three more in Dance and is presumably on an intercept-course with Theon come book six. Dornish Princess Arianne gets two of Feast’s Dorne chapters, a new POV from a new faction, and will return as a POV in The Winds of Winter.
Reading the two books together seems to draw a connection between Dany, who probably had the longest-running winning streak of all our POVs up till now, and Cersei, who finally becomes a POV just as the absolute power she’s always dreamed of is in her grasp. The parallels are obvious:
- Hubris personified, Cersei sees herself as “Tywin’s daughter” and believes it’s her right to rule. The peasants aren’t real people to her; she wants power for power’s sake, and gleefully murders, backstabs and sends several minor characters off for rape/torture/experimentation/???. For Cersei, it’s all about doing what’s best for her surviving children, Tommen and Myrcella. Everyone else can go bugger themselves.
- After a sudden crusade against slavery, Dany wonders if she has what it takes to rule a free people justly. She decides to play queen-in-training in Meereen, ruling through right of conquest, as a test run before she takes the Iron Throne. She does her best to be fair to her subjects, treating people from different classes equally, and worries about her “children”–human and dragon.
- When Cersei takes command, House Lannister is at the height of its power, with plenty of allies old and new. Caught in a power struggle with Margaery Tyrell over King Tommen (Cersei’s son, Margaery’s husband–making them both queens), Cersei throws away her alliance with Highgarden. She alienates long-time allies like Jaime and her uncle Kevan and surrounds herself with lackeys and ass-kissers who tell her what she wants to hear.
- As the new queen of Meereen, Dany starts with the allies she brought to the city (among them an army of eunuchs, a few Dothraki and thousands of former slaves) and has to make nice with the locals, striking alliances with public figures like the Green Grace, a religious leader. Though Dany falls in love with the sellsword Daario, she marries fighting pit tycoon Hizdahr zo Loraq instead, hoping to bind the rich old slaver families to her crown.
- Speaking of ass-kissers, Cersei takes Lady Taena Merryweather as a BFF/confidant/occasional lesbian lover with light D/s overtones; we know from Cersei’s POVs that she trusts Taena implicitly. She probably shouldn’t; seeing as Tyrion was innocent, Taena probably didn’t really see him putting something in Joffrey’s wineglass, and chances are she was a Tyrell agent from the beginning.
- Dany’s mistake is named Daario Naharis, and though he’s the first man to make her feel a woman since Khal Drogo, she wonders how long it will be before he betrays her. So far in the story Daario and his Stormcrows have remained loyal, despite Dany’s marriage to Hizdar. Instead, allies Dany thought loyal, like Brown Ben Plumm and his Second Sons, go over to her enemies.
- Much of Cersei’s paranoia seems rooted in a prophecy from “Maggie the Frog,” an old maegi living by Lannisport when she was a girl. Under prophecy’s veil, Maggie told Cersei she would marry Robert instead of Rhaegar, that all her children would die, and that the “valonqar” (“little brother”) and a queen “younger and more beautiful” would be her downfall. Convinced that Margaery is the queen and Tyrion the brother, Cersei creates a trap for Margaery, then walks right into it herself, gloating until she realizes her error. Cersei’s final POV for the conjoined Feast-Dance timeframe ends with her a prisoner of the Faith.
- The more Dany sits around in Meereen, the more she wonders about her visions in the House of the Undying and the riddles from Quaithe of Asshai. Quaithe’s prophecy in Dance seems to predict the coming of Victarion Greyjoy, the red priest Moqorro, Tyrion, Jon Connington, “Young Griff” (supposedly her nephew Aegon Targaryen) and Quentyn Martell, and she’s been warned by her own maegi that she’ll be betrayed three times. But real world problems seem to be steering Dany off the path of fate, and Dany’s power lingers, her momentum fades. Dany’s final POV for the conjoined Feast-Dance timeframe ends with her married to Hizdahr, symbolically chained to him wrist and ankle.
The other obvious parallels seem to be:
- Jaime & Theon. Both Jaime and Theon have undergone some major psychological rewiring during the War of the Five Kings, and both wind up taking a somber victory lap, Jaime as a Lannister commander in the Riverlands, Theon as a Bolton captive in the North. Jaime talks the Tullys out of Riverrun; Theon talks the ironborn out of Moat Cailin. Jaime refuses to help Cersei; Theon agonizes over whether he should help Jeyne Pool. It’s questionable whether either character will achieve the redemption he’s working toward.
- Brienne & Arianne. The maid of Tarth and the Princess of Dorne are victims of Westeros’ patriarchy with their own ways of rebelling. Clever and beautiful, Arianne plays politics to get her way; Brienne solves problems by stabbing them in inns. Myrcella, Arianne’s charge, is harmed as a result of her manipulations. Podrick, Brienne’s squire, is probably the hostage Stoneheart is using to make Brienne betray Jaime. Neither woman succeeds in what she sets out to accomplish in book four, but Brienne still has business with Jaime, and Arianne may play a role in helping Jon Connington and the mummer’s dragon overthrow the Lannisters.
- One could also say all the Stark POV children are “in training” for now: Arya is learning to be a Faceless Man, Sansa is learning to play the game from Littlefinger, Bran is learning to be a greenseer, and Jon is learning to be a leader. Presumably the Starks are grinding levels so they can come in big again for the finale.
No doubt about it, these two books feel like they should be one–at least until Dance catches up to Feast. At that point we have Cersei imprisoned, Dany married, Arya newly blind, Sam in Oldtown, Bran training with the three-eyed crow, and a number of other subplots in both books reaching momentary conclusions. Thematically, these chapters seem to form a single work. I’m still in the middle of them, but the post-Feast chapters of Dance feel like they’re moving the characters into position for Act II’s climax, which I already know won’t come until probably sometime early in book six. I’ll tackle that chunk of the story, and the preview chapters from The Winds of Winter, once I’ve managed to slog through the last few hundred pages of book five.