"A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one."
I was going to undertake the rather mammoth task of reviewing all 5 of the currently published books in the Ice and Fire series in one post...but to those who haven't read it, it would be impossible to do without ruining the plot of further books. So instead I'll go into the main plot of the first novel in the series for those who want to know more about what the story it's self is about, and then I'll discuss the series as a whole at the end.
The books take place in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a fictional land similar to medieval Europe which in the first book is mainly separated into two areas; The North And The South. Though the whole of Westeros is ruled by one king, Robert Baratheon, he resides in the south. There is a man titled Protector of the North who acts in the Kings place in those lands, Eddard Stark.
In each progressing books more and more "main" characters come into play, but in the first, A Game Of Thrones, the main characters surround these two men; Baratheons wife Cersei Lannister and her brothers, Jaime Lannister, a member of the Kingsguard, and "The Imp" Tyrion Lannister, as well as Cersei's eldest son Joffrey Baratheon.
Eddard Starks family are also major characters; his wife Catelyn Stark, his bastard son Jon Snow (bastards in the kingdoms last names are given in juncture to where they were born, e.g. Snow for the north, Rivers for the riverlands), some of his other children Rob, Sansa, Arya, and Bran, and his ward Theon Greyjoy who he took from the Iron Islands as a boy. Other main characters in the Stark family are their "pets". The sigil of house Stark is the Direwolf. Each of the children, including Jon, have a Direwolf for a pet.
Eddard is appointed Hand Of The King, and must go to the south, to Kings Landing to serve for Robert. He takes his two daughters with him; Sansa who dreams of Princes soon fancies herself in love with Joffrey Baratheon and a betrothal is formed. Arya however dreams of archery and sword fighting...
There is a place in the north where Westeros comes to an end at the foot of a great wall made of ice, The Wall is manned by The Nights Watch, which Starks bastard son Jon joins. The brothers of The Nights Watch must vow to dedicate their lives to the wall, which they man in hopes of protecting Westeros from what lies beyond it.
The Cult which pretty much summed up what a heavy read the series can be;
"For those looking to dip their toes and test the waters- you're gonna get your foot bit off. If you are lucky enough to recover it, you can keep it in a jar as proof of the encounter, hobbling around with a smile on your face, content in knowing this is only the beginning."
This series was really my first foray into medieval fiction and I have to say I was absolutely enthralled by these books. First off Martin is just an absolutely beautiful writer. He writes with real complexity and intellect, in that everything is researched down to a T; the writing really feels authentic, and he has so many characters, none of whom really feel like any of the others. What I mean by that is, you start reading a chapter from Daenerys and you absolutely know it's her, not any of the other number of female protagonists in the book. That's what's really astonishing to me, how many main characters there is by the fifth book, and each of them with their own distinct personality and voice.
Something else I really admire about Martin is that he's really not afraid to kill off any major characters. With most books you form an attachment to a certain character/s and because they are such a huge part in the story you feel some security in thinking that they can't be killed off: they're too important, well, Martin smashes that theory. There have been several, weak (and short) moments for me while reading this series where I have exclaimed that I simply can't read any more, because I couldn't stand the thought of loosing another important character.
Martin has definitely fleshed out a very realistic Westeros for us to explore and I really recommend that you do so. I for one feel like this is a series I'll be going back to and discovering more things about for many years to come. The sixth book in the series, The Winds Of Winter is thought to be out next year. An excerpt from the book can be read here.