Epic fantasy is a whole 'nother animal when it comes to fiction. It's usually only good if it's super long, complicated, and the series still isn't done yet. (See: Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, those Kvothe books, The Stormlight Archive, etc.) I came late to the "A Song of Ice and Fire is the Greatest Latest Epic Fantasy" party, which is fine, because the writer's been stalled on the last book for approximately 2000 years. Or, y'know, days.
There are four books out, they're all great, and I'm going to do individual reviews here. But first, some generalities about the entire series:
GENERALITIES ABOUT THE ENTIRE SERIES:
As a reader, you're frequently surprised. Anytime you think the story is going to go a certain way, A MAIN CHARACTER DIES. It's insane. I've honestly never read anything quite like it. All the pieces finally get placed for a great story, and then SOMEONE DIES and it gets even better. It's frustrating, but you get over it because it makes you actually wonder where the story's taking you. You can't really predict anything. There are no tropes at work here, because THE TROPES DIE.
Additionally, the actual writing itself is excellent -- far and above the prose of almost all other fantasy writers I've come across (except our good friend Patrick Rothfuss, possibly.) There are a lot of characters, and a lot of viewpoints, which can become a problem when you dislike at least a third of those viewpoints (read: Wheel of Time, Super Girls), but these characters are incredibly interesting. It's not just good prose at work here, but good characters, and excellent storytelling.
BOOK ONE: A GAME OF THRONES
Everything seems to be set up for a nice, heart-warming "young hero and family/friends do what's right and beat the bad guys" story at the very beginning, until A MAIN CHARACTER BREAKS HIS SPINE. They go off on an adventure into a very dangerous political arena, where the main guy, Eddard Stark, acts honorably and stoically to the end, despite being in a world where everyone is selfish and corruptible. The whole book reminds me of the first half of Dune, which is one of my favorite stories in sci-fi. It's a fantastic story that really should be read by anyone who's ever liked a fantasy book. 3/4 stars
BOOK TWO: A CLASH OF KINGS
So at the end of book 1, you have two different people claiming kingship over the land. The whole country's stewed in craziness. What to do, if you're writing the sequel? DOUBLE IT, SIR. Now there are FOUR different kings claiming kingship over the land, which leads to various big epic battles taking place at various big epic locations. In the end, I feel like the double-or-nothing conflict ploy was kind of a frustrating waste of book space, but it's not like anything's resolved and swept under the rug for future books. Also, there's a lot of gratuitous sexual detail in this one. This book complicates the plot far more than the other books do, and I found myself liking it the least...except for maybe the 4th one. 2.5/4 stars
BOOK THREE: A STORM OF SWORDS
The last book's climaxes were two different enormous battles on two different fronts. The two biggest events in book 3 are both...weddings. George R. R. Martin is great at involving the reader in political story arcs, and this book is probably his best of the series. Lots of great conflict, lots of surprising turns, and a great coming-of-age story takes place in the North, with Jon Snow helping defend against an enormous army. 3/4 stars
BOOK FOUR: A FEAST FOR CROWS
This book was also a feast for critics, because it wasn't as good as the other ones. This was originally supposed to be half of a book, but it was getting so huge and complicated that RR Martin (what kind of middle initials are those? Roger Rabbit?) cut the book in two and said he'd release it in two installments, where each book followed different viewpoints of the same time period. So, for this book, he decided to follow all the boring people, plus Jaime Lannister, and it feels as if literally nothing is resolved by the end of the story because the book was cut in half. 2.5/4 stars
We all eagerly await book 5 of this series. Luckily, George R.R. Martin (I'm going to call him "RR" for short because I feel like Tolkien rolls in his grave every time I type out the guy's entire name) has a blog. And he's been working diligently on book 5 (he said it was almost done anyway when book 4 came out) since 2005. His website has an update on the book's status, which says he'll probably be done by the end of 2008. Hooray! Isn't that soon?
Wait a minute...