Yes, I'm still here. This summer is gonna be rough for me, so expect sparser and shorter posts. Sorry.
Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is surely the hottest property in speculative publishing at the moment (maybe disregarding YA), especially with the conclusion of the second season of the HBO series, which has been a success critically and in the ratings. I had my doubts about the first volume, was won over by the second, and adored the third. There's a general consensus that the fourth and fifth volumes show a decline, and, well, I guess I have to agree.
I obviously read A Feast for Crows first. My quick take is that it’s not as poor as its reputation – the fact that it was years late and its sequel years later factoring large in its assessment. That said, it’s a partial story, and the characters left out (not to mention the end points for the characters left in) seem especially designed by Martin to frustrate readers. The book is fairly focused though, and, in Cersei Lannister, we get one of our clearest single-book character arcs since Ned Stark’s in book one (though, again, it lacks an ending). I’d probably give it a B+, which is a big step down from the previous two entries, but not bad at all.
A Dance with Dragons, on the other hand, I found even worse than its reputation. I think it's a clear low point in the series. The series has always been a little notorious for its tangents - character arcs never quite end up at their original goal, new elements are constantly added, and characters can get bogged down in specific locales or storylines. Some people have gone so far as to suggest that Martin is using delaying tactics because he doesn't know where the series is going. I'm not going to go that far, but that would explain a lot.
In Dance, one major character sets out in a promising direction and then gets waylaid at least half-a-dozen times to the point that he ends up as a slave performing a variety act. A major new claimant to the Iron Throne is introduced. Yes, by God, another one! Another major character is killed off for no particular reason (though I doubt he's really dead). Several characters only get look ins or don't appear at all, and most of the plotlines left hanging in Feast land with a thud. I found this novel somewhat tedious, and it took me months to get through (I read A Storm of Swords, which is longer, in a week or so, and Feast even faster - I think because I was still riding the high of Storm).
That said, the book does still contain many of the series' virtues. The prose is strong, the dialogue clever, the characters feel real, and he world is insanely detailed. Song of Ice and Fire fans will still find plenty to like. But some forward momentum and simplification of the plot would really be welcome.
A lot of bloggers seem to think that this is the odds-on favorite to win based on the current buzz that the franchise has. I'm not sure I buy that - my gut says Embassytown is unbeatable - popular Hugo-winning author does space opera for the first time is a clear winning formula. But I can't say I'd mind horribly if this did win, even after spending a full blog post complaining about it. There's no clearly better winner, in my opinion, and I'd view an award for this novel as an award for the series, which has not yet won and really does deserve to. I wouldn't vote for this novel though.