"A Lannister always pays his debts" is a refrain that we saw often repeated throughout the first three books of this series. But once Tyrion Lannister paid his debt owed to his father Lord Tywin near the end of A Storm of Swords, he disappeared and he did not reappear at all in volume four. That is unfortunate since he is easily the most interesting character created by George R.R. Martin in this epic saga, but that's only part of the problem with A Feast for Crows.
Also among the missing here are Jon Snow (except for a short bit at the beginning), Daenarys Targaryen, and most of the far-flung remaining Starks. Arya and Sansa do appear but they feel tangential.
In fact, most of the characters in this book, many of them new ones that we hadn't heard from before, seem tentative and incomplete. They are not people who engage our attention and sympathies.
And the blood! My god, the blood and gore! The incessant and incredible cruelties perpetrated on these characters is both mind-blowing and revolting. I cannot count the number of characters who have their ears sliced off in battle. (Martin really seems to have an obsession with his characters losing their ears and noses.) The grossest of wounds are described in great and loving detail and yet the writing just seems stilted and without the passion that pervaded the earlier books. I think that lack, again, can be traced back to the colorful characters that are missing here.
Most of this story involves Cersei and her evolution into the mad bitch queen that one could see coming a couple of volumes back. She is one more testament to the proposition that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
A more interesting evolution has been that of her twin, Jaime. Having been maimed and humbled in the last book seems to have given him a clearer perspective on the world and a more sympathetic view of others. Dare I say that he has transformed from villain into hero? He shows definite heroic tendencies here especially in his dealing with Brienne, the Maid of Tarth.
Brienne, though, is a problematic character for me. She is a female knight who swore to Lady Catelyn Stark that she would find her daughters and return them to her. After reaching King's Landing with Jaime, she also gave him her oath that she would find Sansa Stark and keep her safe. And yet, as she wanders across the face of Westeros seeking Sansa and getting nowhere, she seems to have very little idea or plan for doing what she has pledged to do. In fact, she seems just a bit slow and dense, not a happy or safe combination in the dangerous world of the Seven Kingdoms. One just knows she is never going to find Sansa, because we KNOW where Sansa is and Brienne isn't headed there. One senses that Brienne may be a forever wanderer and that things will not end well for her.
There is an author's note at the end of this book explaining that the characters with whom we had bonded in the first three books will return in the fifth volume, A Dance With Dragons. Let us hope that Martin's robust muse returns as well and that he gives us better writing in the next entry. Ah, well, when you are writing an epic story of thousands and thousands of pages, I guess you should be allowed a few mediocre ones.