If you haven't read Martin's previous books in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, just go out and buy them now. This is not especially a grand tale of human destiny but more a narrative of dynastic conflict, a fantasy epic with everything that Robert Jordan's dismal Wheel of Time series doesn't have - believable characters, believable cultural variations in a world based loosely on medieval Europe, tight plotting, surprise twists.
We've been waiting years for this book. I managed to get it electronically from Powell's rather than lay out on the hardback, but I will now put in an Amazon pre-order on the paperback as there's nothing quite like dead trees. Also the difficulty with ebooks is that you can't easily riffle back and forth through the pages to check back on small details. There's a difference between 784 sides of paper and 4448 "page down" clicks. It reminds you of why the codex won out over the scroll.
You couldn't really start the series by reading A Feast for Crows, as too much depends on previous narrative, and I slightly wished that I had gone back and reread the earlier ones to re-orient myself. But hey, that's what the Christmas holiday is for. Non-spoiler points to bear in mind - Martin has covered only half the characters here, and that doesn't include most people's favourites - exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen, the queen's dwarf brother Tyrion Lannister, religious fanatic and royal pretender Stannis Baratheon; we get only a glimpse of Eddard Stark's illegitimate son Jon Snow and hear nothing at all about his surviving brothers. We do get a whole new set of narrative viewpoints about the Greyjoys and the struggle for power on and around the Iron Islands. And we do get a couple of chapters for each of the Stark daughters, both of whom have now been forced to take on new identities - one of these chapters, "Cat of the Canals", depicting Arya's life in a foreign city, is a really fantastic piece of writing even taken on its own.
There were two new factors that I particularly liked in this book. First of all, Queen Cersei's unleashing of religious fundamentalism as part of her desperate attempt to cling to power, surely at least a partial commentary on current affairs. And second, Martin's portrayal of the devastating effects of a civil war that has now lasted for years on the ordinary people. A recurrent theme of the series has been the gap between the theory and practice of chivalry as it applies to knights and ladies. Now we seem to be seeing a lot more of what it means for those in other social categories as well.
I commented briefly in a previous post, when I was half way through, that the twin storylines of Jaime and Brienne, coming to terms with honour in their different ways, seem to me to be at the core of the book. Jaime's rejection of his sister at the end is a suitable termination to his particular journey. But I really didn't expect poor Brienne to come to such a sticky end, and that courtesy of Catelyn, of all people. She has learnt her lesson about the glamour of chivalry the hard way. (And Catelyn, surely one of the more attractive characters of the earlier books, has become literally a monster.)
Martin does have thoroughly evil characters, but they are at least comprehensible in their nastiness. Cersei is not an attractive personality, but is at least a comprehensible one, unable to trust anybody, driving away amyone competent enough to be a potential threat and thus weakened by her reliance on second-rate advisers; also shagging people to increase your power is a currency that gets devalued pretty fast the more you use it. Her fall appeared inevitable right from the beginning of the book, but again, I did not expect it to come at the hands of the religious forces she had unleashed. Presumably we leave King's Landing with both queens in prison and in the grip of a theocracy, and the stage is set for a vicious settling of scores between rival religions in a later volume. It feels almost like Iran in the second half of January 1979, except that there is no Khomeini waiting in the wings. Is there?
I was less gripped by the side story of the Martells, possibly because I had largely forgotten who they were. They will presumably have an important part to play in the restoration of Daenerys to the throne. Similarly the story of Samwell, though it included some nice bits of writing, felt a bit detached from the main narrative, and the Greyjoy story seems marginal at the moment (and if I'm not mistaken faded out not much more than half way through the book). I suspect those parts of the book will improve once I reread the earlier volumes and see them in context a bit better.
So, in summary, great stuff, and thoroughly recommended provided you've read the earlier books in the series. Mostly I read sf for escapism, but the subject matter here is surprisingly close to my work...