Sara got me a surprise birthday present (very surprising, since it's not my birthday yet); A Dance of Dragons. Even in paperback this thing is immense; I've spent 5 straight nights reading the thing (hence my complete absence from the computer).
It is clearly the weakest of the series, and much of what the negative reviews say about it is true: far too much ink is spent on food, bodily functions, gratuitous graphic sex, repetition, and pointless characters. The man should have my agent; she would never let that slide. Basically, Martin's weak points have been magnified, while his strong points have not gotten stronger - but then, they couldn't have. This is the problem with starting at the top, where the first three books are: there's nowhere to go but down.
One of the complaints, though, is that the main characters behaved in non-heroic ways; but this struck me as appropriate. The degeneration of Tyrion's character is understandable; he has pretty much hit rock-bottom as a human being. Daenerys is not an avenging angel, and Jon Snow is not a knight in shining armor. That was always the point of Martin's world. It makes for depressing reading, sure, but after this many pages, that can't be a surprise to anyone.
If anything, my chief concern is that his main characters are becoming too much the hero: Tyrion, in particular, seems to be acquiring the Hollywood gloss that means no matter how dire his circumstances, he'll always survive. I no longer believe Martin can kill any of his characters; these three, in particular, seem inviolate.
Which is fair enough, in any other book. History is written by the victors, and stories are written by the people who survived. But Martin made a point of a world where grim realism trumped dramatic narrative, and exempting even just three popular, decent characters seems jarring. Especially when they are in such incredible danger so much of the time.
On the other hand, for all I know, he's going to kill them off in the next book. That'll show the critics, eh?
But even at his weakest, Martin is a great read. The only truly bad thing about ADwD is how long we have to wait for the next one.