The beginning of a modern fantasy epic that has the potential to be very, very good. I have to admit that halfway through I was having trouble understanding what all the hype was about. Martin takes his sweet time setting up his dominoes before starting off a chain reaction that unravels quickly with quite a few satisfying and saddening twists and turns by the end. While the first half of the book reads quite slowly (there's a massive cast of characters to introduce and geography to be laid out) the second half is quite gripping. Martin definitely deserves credit for the development of his plot and some, but not all of the characters. There are three separate, but finely intertwined stories that develop quite independent of each other throughout the course of the novel and one gets just the briefest glances of how they may someday come thundering together.
What's good? Martin constructs an interesting world that is heavily back-storied. In that respect, I suppose you could compare him to Tolkein. Families have lineages listed in an appendix and races and religions have histories that are deep. You can tell that Martin took as much care constructing the setting of his world and the tangential elements as he did with the main plot and characters. There's just a hint of magic and fantasy throughout most of the story that leaves you yearning for more. This is a world that's moved beyond magic and dragons - a time beyond the Age of Heroes and is mostly a story about men, and a few very cunning and clever women, who play out their lives doing what men throughout history have always done: they fight over territory, women, pride and honor to the disaster of their fellow men. Not to worry though, Martin starts to deliver and we do see some traditional fantasy elements begin to rear their heads by the end, which entices us into the second book. The politicking and intrigue is layered and keeps you guessing throughout most of this work and a lot of the predictions I made for where the story was going failed to materialize, which was actually quite pleasant. It feels like he's doing something quite unexpected and different from the usual vein of the fantasy genre. The characters are wonderfully round too, much to young Sansa's (who believes in epic tales of good knights and evil villains; a character not unlike the typical fantasy reader) despair. Noble men like Eddard Stark are blinded by their preoccupation with duty and honor into impracticality while crude and barbaric individuals display the occasional and inexplicable kindness, perhaps spurred by a memory of their past or a desire to be something more human for once. You find yourself rooting for some characters to be vindicated and ridiculously pleased when things turn against those you despise. Favorite among these is Tyrion Lannister, the misshapen dwarf brother of some of the main antagonists in this volume.
What's bad? I think Martin is trying too hard to be a rogue among epic high fantasy writers. Yes, it's refreshing to get characters with a bit more gray in this genre rather than the Stark blacks and whites and naiveté that are symptomatic of the poorer novels in this field, but it's easy to see how he can sometimes go overboard with the blood and rape and pillaging and the like. Maybe that's some people's cup of tea, but I could do without graphic depictions of rape several times throughout the course of a single volume of a multi-part epic. It's enough to introduce the idea that war is bad. Anyone with a shred of knowledge of history knows how terribly unpleasant it is to be among the losers in a war, especially if you're female. The casualness of these scenes is unpleasant and highly uncomfortable. Some people might argue that that was the intent of the author, and that's all well and good, but this series hardly strikes me as one that aims to break societal conventions and get us to rethink our culture and values. It's very nature is escapist entertainment and I don't like repeated instances of rape, especially of young girls, in my escapist entertainment and it made me uncomfortable enough to make me drop it a star in my rating. Other reviewers complained that the multiple sex scenes distracted from the narrative as a whole or were too explicit, but I don't necessarily agree with that. Yes, this is an R-rated book, but it's not smut fiction. As I mentioned earlier the beginning takes a long time to play out too. The pacing in the first half seemed like it could use some work from an editor, but I think it meshes by the end and you have to remember that this book was planned as only the beginning of an entire series that's thousands of pages long, so four hundred or so of exposition isn't too bad.