This is long and spoiler filled.
I'd give this a 3.5. I chose to go with the official 3 star rating instead of the 4 for a few reasons that I'll go into a bit later. This book chronicles the fallout from The Red Wedding and the deaths of Joffrey and his grandfather, Tywin, following various characters as they continue to try to survive and navigate their way through the treacherous expanse of Westeros.
This book is very character driven, and I think many of the characters went through a few defining moments in this book. This book also introduced a few new faces and POVs that provided some insight into parts of the story. I enjoy stories that really try to delve into the machinations of the characters because I like to know how people, even fictional people, tick. A story can't always be constant action. Well, it could, but what would be taken from that? The stories that stick with us are the ones that have unforgettable stories with unforgettable characters. There's something in them that touches us on more than just a shallow level. There needs to be a time for characters to morph, to adapt, to grow in response to what's going on around them--especially for a story as epic as this one. If characters didn't change in response to all this upheaval, this would be disappointing. There's so much going on that we do need this downtime to see how the characters are changed (or are being changed) by the events surrounding them.
Jaime. I'd already started mentioning to friends as early as book two that the deconstruction of Jamie Lannister is one of the best parts of the story for me. In this book, I compared him to a phoenix trying to be reborn from the ashes. He's not quite ready yet, though. He still needs to make peace with various areas of his life such as his relationship with Cersei. To watch him go from having everything to having nothing (in his mind), watching him breakdown in his own way and face the hypocrisies and tenuous privilege and respect that rule his life, and watching as he tries to forge himself anew has been a really refreshing. Captivity cowed him a little, left him with time to think about things, and losing his hand teaches him that battles can be won with simple actions and words rather than swords, a notion he'd never entertained before losing his hand.
Cersei. Wandering through her meanderings was like watching a train wreck. Her paranoia causes her to make some truly bad decisions backed by ludicrous, shaky logic. Aside from her paranoia, Cersei forgot how to scheme like Cersei and tried to become her father when she truly doesn't understand what made him a capable ruler. She becomes entrenched by petty concerns while ignoring the true problems. One fascinating thing about her is her struggle with sexism. She hates men for thinking they can run all over her because she doesn't have a penis, but at the same time, she calls herself the greatest of Tywin's sons, believing herself to be a ruler as great as--nay, greater than--her father. She laughs at the thought of one of her ships named after her father being referred to as "she." Yet, she derides other women for showing womanly weaknesses, but often says a woman has to use the weapons she has to triumph. So, this internalized sexism created an interesting dichotomy.
Brienne. Everyone who knows me knows that Brienne is one of my favorite characters. And right now, she's the one I fear for the most because it seems it's always the "good" characters who meet their doom first. The characters who are honorable, honest, kind, and just are the ones who end up having those same virtues become their downfall. So, I worried about Brienne a lot during this book. Even though she is 100% warrior maiden, behind all her brawn there lives a sensitive woman trying her best to hide the bruises on her ego, who doesn't take joy at the thought of having to kill another person. She knows that many think her to be an abomination for her looks as well as for her decision to be a soldier rather than what is expected of a woman. Her resolve to see her mission through to the end, even if it means her death, is admirable. And learning more about her life before leaving to become a soldier made me love her more.
Sam. One day Sam will realize that he's stronger than he thinks he is. He's proven that time and time again already. He continues to refer to himself as craven when he he's doing and saying things the old Sam never would. I don't expect Sam to turn into a svelte, skilled swordsman. Sam knows you can't win a fight with steel alone, but he doesn't seem ready yet to acknowledge the fact that not slaying the most men in battle doesn't mean you're not a warrior and an asset. Sam does seem to be starting to find his courage, though.
Arya and Sansa. If there is one thing that can be said of the Stark children, they can adapt despite their privileged upbringing, and they adapt in the ways that are true of their nature. The Stark girls are shining examples of this.
Arya becomes something of a drifter, relying on and honing her scrapper instincts, fighting and using her wits to get her out many situations. She's tenacious, crafty, and quick to learn. She's hurls insults as easily as she takes them. She becomes Cat of the Canals, an orphan girl who sells oysters and mollusks, who hides a dagger in her sleeve and has a tongue sharp enough to draw blood.
Sansa uses her grace and sweet nature to charm and sedate. She relied on this while living with the Lannister's and continues to rely on this while she poses as the "natural" daughter (read: bastard) of Petyr Baelish. Even at her young age, she knows how to care for a large household. She understands courtesies. She even "befriends" Prince Robert, managing to calm him where so many others fail.
Minor characters. Okay, I really hate to call them that because most of them are not truly minor characters. They add a lot of depth and new angles to the story, especially Arianne in my opinion. It was nice to see the story told from the perspective of totally different characters.
Another thing I liked about this book is how insular each part felt. Each POV, when pieced together with its various parts, could serve as a story all its on. And while I'm largely talking about the main players in the story. The chapters from the other somewhat minor characters POV (Arianne, Asha, Victarion, etc.) could serve as short stories in their own right. What I mean is that, while the stories are interconnected, they're not so dependent on one another that you have to read them in sequence for fear of missing something. It felt like each character was telling a separate story and depended less on other POVs. Parts of Cersei's and Jaime's converged, but most of the other characters told a more personal tale.
I loved all the character near-misses such as Brienne arriving into Maidenpool just as Arya sailed from there to Braavos. How Sam is rescued by Arya in Braavos with Sam none the wiser. Little things like that that make your heart go thump and wish these characters recognized one another.
Now, the things that I'm not crazy about in this book.
The revelation that Petyr and Lysa are the true orchestrators of Jon Arryn's death didn't sit well with me. Not because they did it, but because of the shaky hope of the chaos it'd create with the help of their blame misdirection. It's a bit too much for me to give them credit for starting a war on an action that could've not worked as intended.
How could Petyr have known that Catelyn would've acted in the manner that she did? Yes, he'd been close to her at one point, but what made him think, after years of not seeing her, that she'd respond in exactly the manner he wanted? That was a high gamble to leave to chance, hinging the start of a war on Catelyn's impulsiveness. What if she hadn't acted? What if she'd acted much differently (since I do think she would've done something)? We'd be seeing a very different fallout, and maybe this why I've never made my peace with how Catelyn took Tyrion captive, which never felt "right" even if I did understand the motivation behind it.
But then, when I thought about some other instances with Petyr, many of his schemes depend a bit too much on certain characters acting or responding in a certain way. There are a million other rational and irrational ways for them to act, but somehow, it always works exactly how he wants it. It's starting to feel a bit too convenient for me, and really is starting to make me not appreciate Petyr for his scheming as much as I once did.
Adding Maggy (maegi) the Frog to the story sort of disrupted the flow of reading for me. The introduction of this character seemed a bit sudden. When Cersei randomly thinks that Olenna looks like Maggy, I was left asking, "Who?" She was introduced in the story as if she was someone that I should already know, and I joked that maybe she was the product of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy's affair. I tried to chalk it up to Cersei's paranoia causing disjointed thoughts, but it continued to feel a bit silly to me even after that detailed dream about what happened. I think the prophesies angle is great in fantasy stories, but... I guess that element of the story just never gelled with the rest of it for me.
I guess both of those grievances boil down to questionable execution of plot elements. I don't think he needs to get rid of them, but it would've been nice to see these things better executed in context of the story. I think in general there were many more instances in this story where I just detached from the story due to some left field revelation or something equally as jarring to my reading experience. And once I'm jarred from a story, it takes a while for me to get back into it. I can't say that I've experienced moments like this with earlier books in the series.
Teleporting Sam. There were two points in his story that I thought that I might've missed something because Sam was suddenly places that he wasn't when I left him. It happened when he suddenly appeared in Braavos, and I was under the impression he would still be on the boat. And it's not so much the fact that he's no longer on the boat, but the way that's it's written that we should know this. Duh. It starts with telling what he's currently doing in Braavos instead beginning with a simple transition that shows he's no longer on the boat. For a second there, I actually asked myself, "Why is Sam making a fire on the boat?"
The incessant need to always remind readers that darker skinned people, especially the Summer islanders, are darker skinned just started to annoy the hell out of me. I understand they're black people. Really, I do. It's only been said a million times that they are dark people. This book just went into black/brown description overkill. If the word Summer Islander even so much as appeared, it's immediately followed by some description of brown/black skin such as ink, night, teak, mud, or tar. Except for that one time the men were black and the women were wanton-colored. And this complaint is coming from a woman of color who wants to see more diversity in fantasy and sci-fi.
But I do have to say that I liked how we learn a little more about them in this book. They're shown to be a vibrant, colorful people, who revere the dead, but believe celebration of life is how death is truly honored (think of a traditional New Orleans funeral that ends with dancing and celebration after the dead are laid at their final resting place).
Overall, I thought this was a great book as far as seeing how the characters are changing in response to the trials that they're going through, but I wish there'd been better transitions and introductions of some of the new elements that Martin has introduced.