Anticipation is sweet, but satisfaction's sweeter. George R. R. Martin's fans have waited five years to read "A Feast for Crows"...

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Anticipation is sweet, but satisfaction’s sweeter. George R.R. Martin’s fans have waited five years to read “A Feast for Crows” (Bantam Spectra, 774 pp., $28). This latest volume in his enthralling “A Song of Fire and Ice” series provides the same pleasures as the three earlier books (“A Game of Thrones,” “A Clash of Kings” and “A Storm of Swords”): deeply involving characters; complicated yet clearly laid out plots; sharply realized settings; language rich in that love of words which is so central to high fantasy.

Set in a world in which the Middle Ages span millennia, the “Song” series tells of the dynastic struggles between the once and future rulers of an imaginary country called Westeros. The surrounding lands are as carefully constructed and as vividly described as the story’s main arena, giving the book a panoramic effect.

Author appearance

George R.R. Martin will read from “A Feast for Crows,” 7 p.m. Monday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or

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Enchantments and supernatural entities make the experience even headier. Here there be dragons; queens and outlaws return from their graves, riddled with worms and planning vengeance. It’s not the magic that engrosses Martin’s audience, though, so much as the figures with which he peoples his vast stage.

Much of “Feast” focuses on Cersei Lannister, Westeros’s reigning queen. A physically beautiful woman with blue eyes and hair of “beaten gold,” Cersei is undeniably evil. That Martin gets us to sympathize with her while accurately portraying her murderous schemes and incestuous desires proves his power to portray the depth and fullness of the human heart.

Cersei’s twin brother, Jaime, comes close to playing the part of “Feast’s” hero, but the loss of his sword hand keeps him from doing so in any conventional sense. Another contender for that role, Brienne, the “Maid of Tarth,” has taken up arms and armor and ridden off on a quest to succor two lost little girls who also happen to be contenders for the crown. Far from a romantic, Joan-of-Arc-like crusader, or a Valkyrie-esque shieldmaiden, Brienne is tall, gawky, ugly and so naïve that at times she appears downright stupid; the cover story she uses to conceal the objects of her search from potential foes fools no one

Sincerity is Brienne’s saving grace. None of Martin’s characters are without at least one of these, including his bit players, including some literal spear carriers. This may be why their myriad slender storylines are so effective at luring Martin’s readers into his magnificently intricate creation.

Veering from war-haunted Westeros to the southerly deserts of Dorne; from the demon-infested walls of ice that mark the northern boundaries of humanly inhabitable lands to the rocky, storm-ridden Iron Islands; “Feast” covers a lot of fictive ground (maps on the books endpapers help, though they could be a bit more detailed).

But apparently Martin felt cramped, even with a canvas this big. Half the chapters he wrote while struggling to complete “Feast” deal with events across the sea. They’ve been relegated to a fifth book, “A Dance with Dragons,” due out in June of next year. As the forthcoming novel is already close to completion, the wait for “Dance” should be less anxious for his growing number of fans.

A test subject unfamiliar with the series’ previous installments concluded after reading a few pages of “Feast of Crows” that he’d want to finish this latest novel — with or without having the first three under his belt. The extensive appendices which list characters and their alignments among the contending dynasties, plus the aforementioned maps, make such a thing possible — but the earlier books are all still available in paperback, and well worth reading.

In scope and detail, the “Song” books invite comparison to Dorothy Dunnett’s legendary Crawford of Lymond historical fiction series. It also commands the same sort of fiercely loyal following as her work. The appearance of “Feast” is the perfect chance to find out why firsthand.