After getting "burned" once by starting a series of books and then having the devil's own time locating a copy of the third and final book (this was before the days of the Internet, o best beloved), I vowed never again to start a series unless all of the books were out. Well, needless to say that vow has been broken a time or two, but for the most part I've avoided getting sucked into multi-volume epics until they're complete. I do this by avoiding anything that says on the cover "Book One of..." or that has some additional title, like "The ______ Saga."
So back in 1998 or thereabouts I picked up a paperback in a used bookstore, and after carefully looking over the cover and title page (or so I thought), I concluded it was a stand-alone novel, and took it home. I was hooked almost immediately, and read avidly through about 700 of its 800 or so pages. But then I realized - there's no way this guy is going to be able to wrap up all of these storylines in the 100+ pages remaining. So I looked again at the title page, and there it was: "A Song of Ice and Fire."
DAMN. Suckered again. Felt even more suckered when I discovered in the middle of book 2 that this was not the usual trilogy, but was projected to span SIX books.
If you're a fan of the books, you know how the rest of this goes: The first book, A Game of Thrones
, came out originally in 1996; the second, A Clash of Kings
, in 1999 (? I think?), and the third, A Storm of Swords
, in 2000. The wait for the fourth, A Feast for Crows
, was another five years
. And the fifth, To Dance With Dragons
, is set to come out this summer. SIX years this time. It has been an agonizing wait, soothed only by periodic re-reads of the series to date. Meanwhile, the author informed us that since the fourth book ended up growing to proportions that made it impossible to publish as a single volume, he split it into two parts, and the series would now consist of seven books instead of the originally-planned six. Which means that at the rate of the last two, we're looking at some time around 2022 before ASoIaF is completed.
OK, now, all of that said: This series is pretty incredible. Martin's world of Westeros and its neighboring countries is fully realized, with a consistent recorded history going back at least 1000 years. The world of which Westeros is a part has erratic seasons - a years-long temperate period in which "winter" appears only fairly briefly, after which a winter will come which can last for more than a year. As AGoT opens, the signs are pointing to the approaching end of summer, and as the story progresses, to the likelihood that the impending winter will be the worst in memory.
In the recent past (~15 years prior to the book's opening), the ruling house of Westeros, which itself invaded 300 years past and consolidated the seven separate kingdoms into one, has been overthrown by a coalition of nobles that tired of the excesses of the House of Targaryen, the "dragon lords", who often were just as crazy as they were powerful. The man currently sitting on the throne, Robert Baratheon, is known for his charisma as a warrior and battle leader, but has turned out to be a self-indulgent king who does not want to be bothered by the minutiae of ruling a kingdom and would rather spend his time hunting, drinking, and wenching, not necessarily in that order or as separate pursuits. As a result, his scheming wife Cersei (daughter of the wealthiest and most powerful noble in Westeros) and the members of the king's privy council steer the country as they see fit, mostly to profit themselves, their house and interests, and/or the interests of their allies. When the King's Hand (the second most powerful man in the country) dies unexpectedly, Baratheon travels to the chilly lands in the north to name as the Hand his childhood friend and ally, Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, which triggers a cascade of consequences that will change the lives of everyone in the Seven Kingdoms.
Meanwhile, in the far north stands a 700-foot-high wall of stone and ice that was erected more than 1000 years before as a barrier against "The Others", inhuman creatures now believed by a majority of those living south of the Wall to be only mythical but, as the "free folk" living beyond the Wall can tell them, only waiting for the return of a long winter to rise again. It is the misfortune of the Westerosi that their civil discord happens to coincide with the beginning of what will likely be a long, harsh winter.
Martin inserts some nice details with regard to the country's cultural underpinnings, like different religions for different areas of the kingdom (those in the North mainly follow "The Old Gods", which are worshiped in holy groves; those in the South adhere to "The Seven", a pantheon of archetypes that protect various segments of society, i.e., The Warrior for men of battle; the Maiden for young women; the Smith for working men, etc.); also, the tradition giving a bastard-born child a generic last name that signifies where they were born -- "Snow" for the northerners, "Rivers" for those of the fertile midlands, "Stone" or "Storm" for the people of the harsh lands and islands along the coastlines, etc. I also loved the ostensibly monastic heritage of the Kingsguard (the king's personal guard, always clad in white) and its mirror, the Night's Watch (the black-clad troops assigned to guard the Wall), the members of which give up claim to any inheritance, as well as their right to marry and father children. And of course there is the generational history of entrenched mistrust and ill will among the powerful houses of the seven kingdoms that date to well before the arrival of the Targaryens, to when seven kings ruled Westeros and had their own alliances and pledged nobles; all of that history -- especially since the Westerosi seem to have unusually long memories and can hold a grudge dating back hundreds of years -- pretty much guarantees that no joint plan will go exactly as intended, despite any initial good will or outward appearances to the contrary.
Martin's characterizations are delightfully realistic - the good are not wholly pure in their actions; the bad are not irredeemable, or at least can been seen as having understandable motivations for theirs; the noble are tedious, the shady are fun, the upright are corruptible if the right coin is used (or if they believe in the cause), the arrogant are surprisingly weak, and the least of a household's members may reveal an unsuspected depth and strength. Just like in real life, pretty much.
Although there are fantastical elements to the story, it plays out more like historical fiction - the only difference being that it takes place in a world other than our own.
Along the way there are boatloads of intrigue and skullduggery, alliances, betrayals, mysteries, battles, and deaths (including some key characters, which although painful in the moment certainly drives the development of the story - props to Mr. Martin for taking such risks in pursuit of his vision.)
If you're prepared to give the next 10+ years of your life (thereabouts) to waiting for the rest of the books, and if you love a well-wrought story with unforgettable characters and moments of indelible action, sign on. You won't regret it.