The Seven Kingdoms lie bleeding and battered. The War of the Five Kings has ravaged the countryside, many tens of thousands are dead, and a years-long winter is finally descending on the continent of Westeros with unmitigated fury. The war is petering out, with the Tyrell-Lannister alliance apparently victorious, but in far-off Dorne, on the remote Iron Islands and in the isolated Vale of Arryn plans are being laid that may mean the current peace will be short-lived indeed. In King's Landing, Cersei Lannister rules as Queen Regent, but without the moderating influence of good counsellors, she is ill-equipped to handle the Tyrells' jockeying for power. Her brother Jaime has his own battles to fight, whilst Brienne, the Maid of Tarth, embarks on an impossible quest into the heart of the warzone to find a single lost girl. From the Wall comes Samwell Tarly, bearing an urgent message to the Archmaesters of the Citadel, whilst beyond the Narrow Sea in Braavos, Arya Stark must learn to survive amidst a mysterious organisation with ancient secrets to protect.
A Feast for Crows is the fourth volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, and at the time of publication was the most troubled book in the series to write. George R.R. Martin had planned to have a five-year narrative gap between the events of A Storm of Swords and the following book, A Dance with Dragons, with the readership rejoining the action after the various characters had had a chance to regroup and learn new skills and get a bit older. In the event, this plan proved unworkable, with Martin unable to come up with a reason why the Others would wait five years before making their next move or why events in the Iron Islands or Dorne would not play out for another half-decade. There were also issues about major factions (such as the Faith Militant) appearing out of nowhere. With the writing not cooperating and the book being weighed down by flashbacks, Martin scrapped eighteen months' work on the fourth volume and decided to write A Feast for Crows instead to fill in the gaps in the story.
Of course, as is now widely known, this also proved tricky, and the published novel eventually only contained the stories of a number of the series' major characters, such as Sansa and Arya Stark, Sam Tarly, Brienne of Tarth, and Cersei and Jaime Lannister. A number of the series' other POVs, including the arguably central trinity of Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, were shunted into A Dance with Dragons (now the fifth volume), and it appears a whole host of new timeline problems were introduced (which ADWD will hopefully resolve). The result is a book that is somewhat problematic and has a number of issues, although in general terms it is as well-written (possibly even moreso) as the rest of the series.
On the plus side, Martin's skills with character, description and worldbuilding remain strong and indeed growing. A Feast for Crows introduces a number of new POVs, either 'proper' ones like Cersei and Brienne or 'temporary' POVs like Arianne Martell or various members of the Greyjoy family, and Martin gets us into these characters' heads and worldviews as ably as ever. His skills with political intrigue remain strong, with Littlefinger's machinations in the Vale, the complex political situation in Dorne (impressively depicted, as we only get a few chapters to convey this part of the story) and the jockeying for the crown in the Iron Islands all handled well. A Feast for Crows is also the most thematically tight novel in the sequence. This book is about the aftermath of the grand conflict in the first three books, and shows how the game of thrones has left tens of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands homeless and millions at the mercy of the coming winter. For a series often criticised for only showing the nobles' point-of-view, A Feast for Crows redresses the balance by showing the impact on the common folk and how they respond (turning to, as historically was and remains often the case, religion to help them).
However, whilst writing what is almost a side-novel to the main series showing the impact of characters' apparently minor decisions in previous books on the masses or the aftermath of events is certainly a valid thing to do (as with what Erikson did with Toll the Hounds, for example), it is fair to say that doing so in a series where the books take many years to be written and published does lead to a fair degree of frustration, particularly for those readers who came off A Storm of Swords expecting the next book to be as incident-packed and furious-paced as the previous ones, and instead found a much more sedately-paced novel focusing on 'quieter' events. At the same time, it is hard to say there is much in A Feast for Crows that is unnecessary. An enormous amount of pipe-laying is going on here, characters are being maneuvered into position, whilst schemes and intrigues are being set in motion that are designed to either re-ignite the war, or ensure Daenerys returns to Westeros as soon as possible, or to shatter the alliance between the Tyrells and Lannisters once and for all.
The only story that feels like it could have been told in less detail was Brienne's grand tour of the shattered riverlands, which, despite providing some interesting alternate perspectives on events and hinting at the fate of a major character from the previous book, feels a little overdone and if the end of the sequence is as it first appears (as unlikely as that is with a Martin novel), even a little pointless. I suspect that the relevance of Brienne's wanderings will become clearer in The Winds of Winter, if not sooner. The only other complaint I had was that the rationale for Cersei's character - yet another prophecy in a series whose first volume I once lauded for not having any hard-and-fast prophecies - felt somewhat unconvincing on a first read. On the series re-read I was surprised to see some elements in A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords setting up the revelation involving Cersei's childhood, but overall given the existing reasons for Cersei to loathe Tyrion, it seemed a bit over-the-top to include supernatural reasons as well, although some sort of additional reasoning for Cersei's hatred of Margaery Tyrell - a major driving force of this book's storyline - was indeed required.
A Feast for Crows (****) is well-written and engaging, but also slower-paced and more thoughtful and reflective than the previous three books in the series, something that has divided a lot of readers. It is available now in the UK and USA.