For the past few months, I've been reading an amazing series of fantasy novels (as of yet incomplete) called A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. If you have not read the series, abbreviated ASoIaF by its fans (henceforth as well), let me be the first to recommend it. I myself heard about it on a message board, where the book was actually being bashed. One topic was attacking the writing style, which seemed fine to me. There were a couple of good posts as well, but they were in the minority. The name sort of attracted me, and I was looking for something to read, anyway.
I went to Barnes & Noble and checked out the first book,A Game of Thrones. I provide the Amazon.com link for reference only. Amazon actually charges double the retail price, which is only $3.99. If you decide to buy it, buy it from a real store. I figure it's so cheap because if you read AGoT, chances are you're going to continue on to A Clash of Kings. ACoK is actually the weakest link in the four currently published books, but neither is it a bad book. It's got some good stuff, and at that point you'd be a fool not to read A Storm of Swords, the best book in the series (and at that, only a little better than AGoT, the first one). The fourth, A Feast for Crows, is the oddball of the series. The fourth book Martin wrote was too long, deemed his publishers, so rather than split it at the middle, he split it by characters (read on to learn why this is significant). He then scrapped the rest and started on it anew. We're still waiting for A Dance With Dragons, the forthcoming fifth volume.
A Song of Ice and Fire is written a little differently from other books I've read. First and most simply, there really is no clear good and evil, as with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series - and just about every movie ever made. The world of Ice and Fire is mostly seven kingdoms which are united - at the beginning of the story, anyway - and each Kingdom and some other places have Houses, or noble families. At the beginning, all are sworn to the Iron Throne at the city of King's Landing, but that changes before long. There are a couple characters who are mostly evil and a couple who are mostly good, but everyone else is in between, out for themselves. As you read, you'll find yourself taking sides with one of the Houses. My House of choice is actually House Targaryen, which starts off being portrayed as the bad one. The Targaryens ruled the land for nearly 300 years, but a sort of mutiny took place 15 years before the start of the books; the last Targaryens, in exile.
Secondly and a little more complicated, each chapter is dedicated to a character's point-of-view. Not all characters get a POV chapter, and some get more than others. It's hard not to root for House Stark at the beginning - both parents, the two daughters, and the middle son (of 3) and the father's bastard son are all POV characters. House Lannister, perhaps the most central House in the story, has only one POV character but adds one in each of ASoS and AFfC, so by the end, we've seen parts of the story from the point-of-view of 3 Lannisters. I believe the younger Targaryen rounds out the POV characters. So characters are seen not just from one, but often more characters' points of view - exclusively. Each POV is slightly affected by opinion as well as experience. Characters many miles apart often don't know what's going on elsewhere, sometimes have things wrong. We hear nothing at all about events not witnessed by POV characters unless they hear about it. So you could say parts of the story are left out, but you don't miss it.
So what's it about? That's actually hard to say. I can't even talk about what happens in the fourth book without spoiling the first one. None of the books are stories in their own right (except maybe the first one, if you ignore the rest) so even though they all have names of their own, it's all one story. But it's also several stories, because of the POVs. I went over (briefly) the regional stuff. But as for the first book - a Lord Stark and two of his sons come across a dying wolf mother and her litter. The older boy notices that the male-to-female ratio (including birth order) is the same between their family and the wolf litter, so each Stark kid takes their corresponding wolf, including the bastard son, Jon, who takes the albino runt. Early on, Jon joins the Night's Watch, a group sworn to defend a massive continent-spanning wall of ice in the North. Robert, the King, asks Lord Stark to serve as his Hand (essentially, high advisor), and Stark soon discovers a plot of treason. After that - spoilers. But basically we end up with a lot of political maneuvering, backstabbing, and eventually war.
3,880 pages (for all four books) and having read it, it just seems like a lot less. But Martin isn't even halfway done with the story. But from what I've read, I can confidently say that this beats Lord of the Rings. Easily. I prefer the Harry Potter books to the Lord of the Rings simply because the former is so much more fun to read. I prefer Ice and Fire to Potter, but it's a similar kind of read (being a world you feel a part of), just much, much darker. Ice and Fire isn't being made into a movie as far as I know, but HBO did buy the rights, and it's assumed that they're going to make a live-action TV series - but not confirmed. If you've read and/or seen Eragon, you've actually seen some of Ice and Fire's plot. I'm not so sure the author plagiarized all the people some say he did, but he did lift elements from a bunch of fantasy novels - including Ice and Fire. Eragon borrows a character name and a plot point (not going to say which one, it's a spoiler) from Ice and Fire, maybe a little more. It takes the most from the original Star Wars (1977) movie.
If you're looking for a real good read, I urge you to head down to your bookstore and pick up a copy of A Game of Thrones. It's only $3.99, so you really can't go wrong by trying it. You don't even have to be into fantasy - I wasn't.
The only complaint I have is that now I'm looking for something similar in the fantasy genre and it looks like Ice and Fire is about the best out there - so if I continue to explore fantasy, it'll be strictly downhill until the next ASoIaF books come out.