The War of the Five Kings is over. The Lannisters appear to have won, with only the mop-up remaining. However, the Seven Kingdoms are far from stable, with enemies both near and far conspiring to grab what power they can. If nothing else, winter is coming, and the war has meant little food has been harvested and stored for the expected coming cold. Brienne continues her quest. Arya seeks an identity. Samwell travels towards Oldtown. Jaime solves problems and Cersei acts as regent to young King Thommen.
Following hard along the heels of A Storm of Swords, book four in A Song of Ice and Fire takes things in a somewhat unexpected direction structurally. Instead of, as before, following the entirety of the storylines and characters, A Feast for Crows only has “main” viewpoint chapters for Sansa, Samwell, Cersei, Jaime and Brienne, as well as smattering of chapters for Arya, the doings of the Iron Men and events in Dorne. Tyrion, Dany, Bran and Jon are conspicuously absent, to be dealt with in book five. This decision probably made the narrative more focused, but unfortunately means that some of the more flamboyant characters are missing. While by no means a boring read, it is a bit of a mise en place, with characters somewhat too obviously moved forward in their arc to where they will need to be for the next stage in the story. Reinforcing this impression is the lack of grand defining battles and events like in the previous three books, making this installment somewhat anticlimactic. Mr. Martin can certainly write, and even when the story is a tad bland his prose is a pleasure, but I would have wished for a bit more action amongst the introspective internal dialogues. Even Cersei’s incessant scheming, no matter how wicked, gets old after a while.
Under the thick ice crust of the moon Ilmatar, there is a world-spanning cold ocean filled with strange alien creatures, some of them intelligent with primitive technology. A human expeditionary base studies this dark and submerged world under strict non-contact rules. Inevitably, one of the academics tries to get a bit too close. At the same time, a ship from the advanced Sholen race arrives at Ilmatar. The Sholen with to contain human contamination of pristine worlds, and due to internal Sholen politics they attempt to force the humans to leave.
The sub-ice ocean of Ilmatar is richly described through the diverse viewpoints of Ilmatarans, humans and Sholen. Mr. Cambias has managed to make the aliens quite alien in their thinking, especially the Ilmatarans with their immediate sense of experience, tricky relationship with memory and sudden narcolepsy. An adventure novel at heart, this book manages to ride above mere action into more intellectual territory by exploring the relationships between three races with different motivations in an unusual environment. It is also a good first contact novel. I was strongly reminded of the film The Abyss, with its mix of dark underwater milieus and dank submerged base.
Following the events in Abaddon’s Gate, humanity has access to a thousand worlds connected by The Hub left behind by the protomolecule builders. The Outer Planets Alliance holds The Hub as a sort of way station. On the planet Ilus, Belter refugees have set up a lithium mining operation. However the UN has given the exploration charter for the world to Royal Charter Energy, a large corporation. While the Belters have been building a hardscrabble life, an RCE expedition to claim and explore the world has slowly been making its way to Ilus. The name itself is the first political issue of many, as RCE calls the world New Terra. Some of the Belter colonists take direct action against the perceived thread, destroying the first RCE shuttle to attempt a landing; killing several RCE staff and scientists. The UN and OPA send Holden and the crew of the Rocinante in to mediate. And from there, things go rapidly downhill.
In trademark The Expanse style, things start calmly and slowly, only to accelerate into a furious page-turning crescendo of action by the end of the novel. The world of Ilus/New Terra is not what it seems, and humans are messing with forces they can only barely comprehend. The crew of the Rocinante have matured into a closely knit team, and I can’t help comparing them to the crew of the Firefly. I even kept seeing Amos as Jayne. They trust each other to get the job done, without any doubts or hesitation. While not quite as strong as the previous installment, and somewhat ponderous in the first half, this yet another great read in the series.