After A Storm of Swords, anything was bound to be a disappointment: it's an extremely hard act to follow. While A Feast for Crows, by George R.R. Martin, is easily the weakest installment in the series so far, it is still a strong book with a lot to like about it.
The last book had so many game-changing moments that George R.R. Martin now has to build up a new game so he can change it. To that end, he opens up the world even more by giving us POVs in the Iron Islands and Dorne. The former chapters are nigh intolerable because the Greyjoys are awful, awful, misogynistic assholes—it turns out Theon is actually not that bad compared to his kin. Thankfully, the presence of Asha Greyjoy is slightly redemptive, and the look into their society's religion and politics is illuminating. I could have used some more Dorne chapters, as the characters down there are more likable, plus they actually allow women to rule. These chapters are very interesting on a structural level because with A Storm of Swords, GRRM essentially resolved the War of the Five Kings (which had been winnowed down to one king and change by the end of it), so he introduces two smaller conflicts that are microcosms of the larger power struggle. Wherever you are, people are going to fight over who will rule.
But what of our returning cast? Well, half of them aren't even in this book, so there's that. Although Jon does make a brief appearance, he, Tyrion, Dany, and others are relegated to A Dance with Dragons, but that does leave some of my favorites for this book. Brienne finally gets chapters of her own as we follow her search for Sansa, and the strong sense of purpose in her story made her chapters some of my favorites. Of course, we know she's nowhere near Sansa, who is stuck in the Eyrie with the scheming Littlefinger, forced to pretend to be his daughter, a ruse she makes herself embrace. There is a strong sense of characters searching for their identity in this book, as Arya finds herself having to strip hers away in Braavos, and Jaime tries to come to terms with who he is after the events of A Storm of Swords. The identity theme even extends to the chapter titles, which are no longer required to be a character's name. Meanwhile, Sam is on a boat. But the spine of the story is always the King's Landing POV, which in this book is Cersei, who is every bit The Worst we have come to believe. It is kind of fun to be in her bitter, devious head, although her constant paranoia can become tiring.
A Feast for Crows may not have as many mindblowing, earthshattering, game-changing moments as previous books, but it certainly has its share of WHAT THE FUCK moments, some of them hidden in the text, requiring the reader to make certain connections between characters. The storytelling remains dense, never completely straightforward when it comes to what is going on, who a character may be, whether or not a character is dead. But it continues to be extremely compelling on the level of characterization, as the characters in the book grow and change over the course of the story, subtly and dramatically, our understanding of them ever deepening.
And yet, A Feast for Crows is only half the story! Now to discover what was happening to the other characters all this time in A Dance with Dragons.