Back when I reviewed A Game of Thrones, I likened the series A Song of Ice and Fire to a television show, given Martin’s experience in showrunning. If that’s so, then A Feast for Crows feels like a season abbreviated by a writer’s strike: some excellent leadup, including exploration of two intriguing characters we’ve only witnessed second-hand, but with the series’ most popular characters left out for the sequel. But it also covers excellent ground, scarce explored previously. This is a book about a loss of identity, and what happens when peasant revolt and religious fervor mix.
Cersei Lannister, mourning the loss of Joffrey and haunted in her dreams by her brother and accused murderer Tyrion, struggles to consolidate her power as regent for her son Tommen. She slips into paranoia, seeing plots in every shadow — especially the long shadows of House Tyrell, who now dominate the court. We discover some interesting, though not unusual, motivation for Cercei’s morally ambiguous behavior: she was given a prophecy by a hedge witch that her brother would kill her. She embroils herself in a plot to remove young rival Margaery Tyrell — once Joffrey’s wife, now Tommen’s — from power, using a revived Knights Templar-like organization to do her bidding.
Cersei also has a falling-out with twin brother and onetime lover Jaime, now disgusted with Cersei’s constant scheming and her promiscuity. Increasingly bothered by his reputation as Kingslayer, he leaves Kings Landing at the behest of Cersei to fix the problems that plague their rule of Westeros — including the continued defiance of Riverrun, Catelyn Stark’s ancestral home. Jaime arrives and brokers a bloodless victory for his side, but finds that no amount of chivalry can restore his honor.
Also riding through Westeros with some motley traveling companions is Brienne of Tarth, in search of Sansa and Arya Stark, Catelyn’s last request before their parting. Brienne makes little headway, finding dead end after dead end. Here she witnesses firsthand what the constant warring in Westeros has done to the peasant population: they now live in constant fear of starvation, of rape, injury and death. Winter will be soon upon them, and the peasants will have little to hold them through.
Up the high mountains of the Vale, Petyr Baelish rules as Lord Protector for little Robert Arryn, a sickly boy. Robert’s caretaker is Alayne Stone, bastard daughter of Petyr. . . but actually Sansa Stark in disguise. Sansa adopted this identity on Petyr’s orders to keep her safe, but must maintain it at all times unless a servant overhear her. Sansa soon refers to herself as Alayne, remembering Sansa only as some other girl.
Sister Arya Stark has her own identity issues. Gaining passage across the Narrow Sea with an iron coin given by an assassin, she arrives in the free city of Braavos. She is taken in by the priest at the House of the Many-Faced God, who patiently instructs her in their ways of deception and assassination. But the training comes at a cost: Arya must abandon her identity completely, leaving a blank shell so that any past grievances or prejudices won’t interfere with her duties. Arya complies . . . but only to a point.
Also passing through Braavos is Samwell Tarly, caring for a dying Aemon Targaryen. Sam was sent from the Wall by Jon Snow, new Lord Commander, to become a maester at the Citadel in Oldtown and to find anything he can on how to stop the zombie-like Others. Sam has his doubts about the mission, and he faces temptation from Gilly, the wildling woman he brought with him. Sam learns to walk a fine line between duty to his vows and the needs of those he cares about. When he arrives at Oldtown, he discovers that the help he needs is much harder to get than anyone anticipated, stumbling into a centuries-old conspiracy to end all magic in Westeros.
As the book progresses, Cersei and her council soon have an even bigger threat than Stannis had been at Blackwater, as newly crowned Euron Greyjoy has launched his armada against the Lannister forces. It is all Cersei can do to keep Euron at bay and the Tyrells away from the gullible Tommen. She drowns her worries in goblets of wine at all hours, and she soon realizes how much she has become so much like her hated husband Robert than she would ever want.
But Margery Tyrell isn’t the queen Cersei should be worried about. House Martell in Dorne have grown restless, angered over favorite son Oberyn Martell’s death at the hands of Gregor Clegane at Tyrion’s trial. Some of the Martells move to make Myrcella, Tommen’s older sister, queen in Tommen’s place, but their infighting serves to bring their efforts to naught. House Martell has another plan brewing, but it will be a while yet before they can act on it.
Just when Cersei has things sorted out in King’s Landing, her rule collapses. The Faith Militant catches up with her numerous infidelities (including with her twin Jaime Lannister) and quickly lock her up to be put on trial, along with Margaery Tyrell. Cersei writes Jaime for help, but Jaime refuses, disgusted with Cersei’s behavior and her lack of love for him.
And then . . . the story doesn’t end, but merely stops. As Martin explains in the afterward, A Feast for Crows is only half of a novel too long for one volume, split down the middle like a fish (with the story arcs for Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, et. al. in the other half), so there could be a more satisfying conclusion than “to be continued.” Fans would wait six long years for the other half of the story, and the resolution, promised in A Dance with Dragons.