No spoilers, please-- I'm only(!) about 600 pages in.
This book strikes me as realistic in a very general sort of way-- history is crowded, with lots of people and nations bumping up against each other. Much as I love LOTR and the Riddlemaster Trilogy , those have the nations being much too distinct. Even Martin probably underestimates how much the various cultures would influence each other.
It also has a quality that I can only describe as atheistic-- it seems like a universe where no one is in charge.  It's not like The Golden Compass, which is more like an argument for atheism, or at least the badness of organized religion, or possibly the badness of organized religion which looks something like Catholicism. The thing is, if a book is making a strong argument for a single point, it isn't the same as book about a universe that just sort of thrashes along.
A minor nitpick: Martin consistently uses "wroth" when he means "wrath".
I much prefer the first book.
I was tempted to say "not even the author", but that seems unfair-- I'd been worried that Martin had lost track of overall story structure, but this book at least seems as though it's building towards something.
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