(review originally posted on my livejournal account: http://intoyourlungs.livejournal.com)
I've been meaning to read this series for years. I first heard about it four years ago when I first started working at the bookstore that I'm working at now, and since then I've heard nothing but good things about the series. I'm not too sure what deterred me from reading them because I'm no stranger to epic fantasy (I started reading Jordan's Wheel of Time series when I was 13), but then my TBR pile got huge and they fell off my priority list.
Then I heard about the HBO adaptation and about the release date of the long-awaited fifth installment and decided that I *had* to read them. Due to school, I didn't manage to read it in time for the show's premiere, but I did finally get around to starting it last week, and I just finished it yesterday.
I tried not to let my expectations escalate too high despite all the praise this series has received, because who likes disappointment? Luckily, I *loved* this book and can't wait to read the rest in the series.
The first thing I found myself noticing, and really liking, was Martin's writing. He writes from a third-person limited POV, and the chapters alternate between eight different characters' POVs. At first I was wondering how Martin was going to pull this off, because writing in this manner can very easily lead to all the chapters and all the characters sounding the same. However, I had absolutely no trouble differentiating all the characters from each other. Martin very subtly changes his writing style for each character; for example, the prose from any of the children's POV FEELS like you're reading the thoughts that children would have (and I'm not just talking about dialogue).
A word of caution though; be prepared to learn a lot of names and a lot of history. I was lucky enough to have my boyfriend on hand who has already read the first two books, so whenever I was confused (which happened a few times) I was able to just ask him. I also watched the tv show as I read the novel (again because of the boyfriend -- I would tell him what part I was at in the novel and he knew up to which episode I could watch spoiler-free) which helped to give a face to different characters which helped me organize people in my mind. Anyway, my point is, there are A LOT of characters and a lot of people and a lot of lords and houses and all kinds of things to learn which can be a little confusing at first.
Another word of caution: this novel is GRITTY. People die left and right (not excluding main characters) and there's a lot of graphic violence. There's also a lot of graphic sex (though these sections are never very long). Things are pretty much always grim and rarely look up. When they do, something TERRIBLE inevitably happens to counteract it. This book likes to extinguish any semblance of hope you might have. So if you're looking for something uplifting, you will not find it here. I appreciated the grittiness of it all though, even if it did depress and anger me most of the time.
The strongest point of this novel is the characters. All these individuals (especially the POV ones) are complex people. None of them are perfect and pretty much all of them make huge mistakes that have massive repercussions. Another handful of the characters, such as Varas and Littlefinger, are amoral backstabbers whose loyalties are ambiguous at best. All of this bolsters the main plot, which is a very engaging and engrossing political intrigue. Despite its 800+ page length, I managed to plow through this novel relatively quickly.
It'll be interesting to see what they do with certain plot points though. The one I'm most curious about is Jon Snow's mother, especially since the one person who knows who she is is dead by the end of the novel.
Final Verdict: This book has become one of my all-time favorites. I don't think I got across how much I really liked it in this review. This character-centric fantasy (which is light on the fantasy by the way -- you won't find magic or wizards here) is rife with political intrigue and is absolutely engrossing. It's got a very wide cast of characters who are very complex and far from perfect and are in equal parts likable and infuriating (except for the Lannisters -- excluding Tyrion -- I wanted to smack all of them. Apparently they become a lot more sympathetic in later volumes though. I guess we'll see.) This is also a very well realized world that Martin has fabricated here, rife with its own history and cultures. The plethora of names and houses is a little hard to keep straight at first, but it was mostly easy to learn because I was so interested. The length is a little daunting, but this reads a lot faster than I thought it would, so even if epic fantasy is not exactly your thing, I still whole-heatedly recommend this. Even if fantasy isn't your cup of tea, I'd still recommend this because the fantasy is very light. Accompanied with Martin's stellar writing and his amazing grasp on the limited third-person narration really makes this an all-around great read. I can't wait to get to the next volumes of the series.