I'll admit that Martin's epic may not be for everyone. Certainly those fantasy readers who enjoy orphan children who are secretly heirs to a kingdom and wizards who shoot fireballs from their hands will find little to love here. But it would be a shame if you denied yourself, as a reader, the compelling read Martin offers.
I don't use the word compelling lightly either, this is an utterly enjoyable read. Its quick, complex, exciting, and it defies expectations repeatedly. In many ways it stands alone in the genre, but I wanted to highlight three virtues of this book and, by extension, the series.
First, the female characters are treated with respect and empathy. Within Martin's books are princesses forced into political marriages, sisters who inadvertently do greater harm than they intend through their bickering, and mothers who are completely devoted to their children. It's a far cry from the petulant temptresses and the masculine amazons who inhabit most other fantasy novels.
Second, the violence in the story carries a weight absent from most fantasy novels. Martin captures the casual, sudden, and unexpected nature of violence. Horrible things happen so quickly that one stops to reread sentence, almost as if, like the characters, we can hardly believe what we've just seen. There's gut-wrenching injuries and accidents. A character thrown from his horse breaks a leg and swoons with pain instead of hopping up to fight on. In Martin's imagination, just as in reality, these things, these ignominious accidents, happen.
Finally, Martin does a fantastic job portraying magic. The book's detractors will disagree with me strenuously here. Martin handles magic subtly, it happens in caves and forests, in dank places where few witness it. The use of magic is fantastic, beyond the belief of most characters in the novel. Magic doesn't happen often. Each time, however, it is completely memorable.
There are other great touches in the book. Martin takes the time to name the games children play, uses heraldry and feudal politics extensively, and devises a clever set of surnames for children born out of wedlock. There are plenty of sources for high adventure as well: sworn brotherhoods, zombies, deft swordsmen, poisons, intrigues, and dragons.
In short, this is an absolute classic.