***Spoiler Alert! If you have not read the first three book in the series, I would not recommend reading past this point.***
Wars in the previous books have left the Seven Kingdoms in shambles, but chaos and death are perfect conditions for crows to thrive in. Bands of outlaws have taken to raping, killing, and stealing. Some small groups such as the Ironmen have decided to make an attempt to fill the leadership void left from the death of several kings. Many have become more devout in their religion, and a group called the Sparrows has risen to cleanse the lands of corruption. Events in the previous book left the Lannisters as the lone bearer of power, though not without adversaries. It was the deaths of two characters in particular who have given cause for crows to feast.
While Robb Stark's surprise execution during the Red Wedding did away with the Lannisters' harshest opposition, Tywin Lannister murder by his own son, Tyrion, harmed the stability of the Lannister hold on the throne. However, it fits perfectly into the as yet unknown plans of the Tyrells, who saw to the poisoning of Joffrey, and now have a much younger, more malleable Lannister in Tommen to wed the twice-widowed Margaery. However, Cersei, as queen regent, has hopes of making herself the greatest ruler who ever lived. For Cersei alone this book is worth reading. She's a crazed, egotistical, paranoid woman who believes herself a goddess. She will do anything to hold onto the reins of power and knows how to use her sex appeal to win the obedience of certain men. Her paranoia, however, guides her decisions more than her wisdom. Against the good advice of those close to her, Cersei quickly removes as much Tyrell influence as possible, and as the second-most powerful family in the realm, you can probably see that's not a good idea. Cersei comes up with scheme upon scheme as though she can't have enough of the drink of power, and the desire to see how this scheming pans out makes the book difficult to put down.
Jaime makes a return from the third book, much humbled since losing his prized sword-fighting hand. He was the one who released Tyrion from prison and set in forth the events that led to his father's death. But Jaime has also grown suspicious of Cersei since Tyrion told her she'd been sleeping with Osmund Kettleback and their cousin Lancel (and maybe Moon Boy for all Tyrion knew). These words haunt Jaime. Regardless, it's clear that without his sword hand Cersei has become less attracted to him, and she grows upset with him when he begins to counsel her on how foolish her schemes are. As such, Cersei sends him along on a quest to get him out of her hair. Jaime's parts are welcome, as they give us insights into King's Landing from a more observant point of view, and then later let us see some of what's happening outside King's Landing. He also delivers the funniest line in the whole novel ("This must have been an uncommonly sinful horse"), which is certainly welcome in a book where humor is in such short supply.
Brienne is the third major character, and her parts are much better than you might expect. In the previous two novels, Brienne was accused of killing Renly, though his death was the work of Melisandre's black magic, and she later escorted the prisoner Jaime to King's Landing, through a roundabout way, on Catelyn Stark's command. The end of book three found Jaime sending Brienne on a mission to seek out and return Sansa, who disappeared after Joffrey's fateful wedding. Brienne, in previous books, was a bit of a dull character who spent much of the time sulking. On one hand I do sympathize with her for being a woman who does not fit in with the traditional ideals of a woman. Men tease her about her ugly looks and they don't believe it's right for a woman to take up the sword, but very few of those men would stand a chance against her in battle. Perhaps it was unfair for readers to see her from behind the eyes of Jaime in the third book, as he hurled insult after insult at her, but her character is much improved when seeing things from her point of view. One of the reasons I enjoyed her part is because she's the only character who truly gets to set off on an adventure, one with an unknown ending. That said, though, her finale is disappointing, leaving the reader in a cliffhanger.
We also meet some of the Martells, people from Dorne. Here I had to consult the back of the book and the map several times to situate myself. If you will remember, the Dornish people hail from south of King's Landing. Prince Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper, visited King's Landing for Joffrey's wedding in order to win the head of Ser Gregor Clegane as justice for the death of Elia Martell, wife of the late King Aerys. Prince Oberyn had his chance when he championed for Tyrion, who was accused of murdering Joffrey, but in the fight with Ser Gregor the two killed one another (Ser Gregor's death much longer lasting and more painful). In Oberyn's stead rules Prince Doran, but Oberyn's bastard-born daughters, the Sand sisters, have been clamoring for rebellion. The Dornish sections, unfortunately, are a little scattered and confused. First we meet Areo Hotah, the massive bodyguard for the young prince betrothed to Myrcella Lannister, and then we see Arys Oakheart, the kingsguard sworn to protect Myrcella, and finally we stick with Arianne Martell, daughter of Doran and heir to Dorne. Some of this is interesting, but part of me wonders whether Martin would have been better off without it, and the revelations at the end aren't particularly earth-shattering.
Of course, there are still other characters. Samwell is the fourth major character, sent on a quest to take Gilly and her child to the Tarly home, while he remains in Oldtown to study to become a maester. I've always liked Sam, and I also like the choice of actors to play him and Gilly in the HBO show. His portions of the novel are a little slow and not as interesting as some of the others, but I still enjoyed them. I hope the best for Sam's fate in the series. Arya and Sansa play very small roles. Sansa's parts are rather good, as we get to see behind the scenes of Petyr Baelish's schemes and plots. Arya's parts, unfortunately, are not so good. When we last saw her, she left the Hound and headed for a ship to take her to Braavos, where she could find Jaqen. When we see her in this book, it's unclear what she's doing. Having heard a little bit regarding what happens in book five, I can see now what is she's up to, but Martin doesn't make it particularly clear in book four. Perhaps this is deliberate, but it doesn't do much to wash the bitter taste in the reader's mouth following her strange conclusion in this book.
What makes these books so great is the human factor. These novels are about human failures and the frailty of human success. Many of the characters have some major flaw, defect, pain, or weakness. Brienne is a woman with the build and looks of a man. Tyrion is a dwarf. Bran is a cripple. Jaime is a warrior without his sword hand. Sam is fat. Prince Doran has terrible gout. These are men and women who are unable to mask their vulnerabilities, but must work that much harder to make up for them in the novel's cruel world. Pain comes much more often than not. Almost all of the characters are strongly driven to achieve some goal, which makes it that much more disappointing when they come upon a powerful force working against them. The end goal of this series is that somebody will be crowned king/queen of the Seven Kingdoms, and maybe more. Only one person (or two) can achieve this goal, which means that most of the characters in the series are doomed to failure, and that's just a part of human life. We will fall in love with characters and root for them, but only one can win, and it can't always be the one you're rooting for.
While there is certainly a little unevenness in A Feast for Crow's story, Martin's accomplishment in this series is astounding. He has done the incredible feat of juggling a massive assortment of complex characters and intertwining them in a fantastic story. Part of my own feelings of disappointment lie in the fact that the book had to end. There's also the fact that I really wanted to know where Tyrion ran off to, and I want to see Daenerys continue to kick ass, and I'm very curious to see how Jon Snow handles his new Lord Commander position. At least book five is already out. My main concern is that by the time Martin finally releases book six I will have forgotten so much I'll need to keep turning to the map and the character list every five sentences. Nonetheless, the imagination of the author who wrote these books is phenomenal.