A latecomer to a fantasy phenomenon
I had picked up the first book in the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series over a year and a half ago. I didn't have time, so I returned it without reading a single word. Here we are now, with two seasons of the HBO series Game of Thrones already aired, and nearly everyone I know having read and raved about the series. Not reading a single word proved to be a fatal mistake in my literary life!
If I had read the prologue, I would have been hooked. A Game of Thrones takes place in a world where magic may have existed once (or still exists on the fringes of the known world), and is now populated by knights, queens and 'imps'. And what a population it is! There are probably over 30 main characters, and approaching 100 characters who play at least some type of pivotal role throughout the books 830+ pages. The main characters take turns as the point-of-view character, giving Martin's world a wider scope and providing the reader with a multitude of viewpoints and plot developments.
I had heard how A Game of Thrones was a unique fantasy book. It downplays traditional genre staples (magic, elves, quests) and inserts a more gritty and visceral feel as political intrigue, battle scenes and intense sexual elements all play out with the fantasy elements providing only a backdrop. This certainly adds a new layer to the book, and has played a large role in bringing in readers (and viewers) who would normally shy away from high fantasy. I don't know about ground-breaking, but it makes for a riveting and fast read. I am now angry that I don't have time to pick up the second book in the series (there are five books already published, with two more planned)!
If you like gritty stories with plenty of political intrigue, I would absolutely suggest you try Game of Thrones. Be prepared for plenty of sequences that may shock or even scare you. If you are leery about fantasy books, this is a nice introduction to the genre, since it isn't heavy on dragons and magic, but instead focuses on a twisting story that takes plenty of surprise turns and a wide world of characters that gives everyone a different person to root for. Even better, after you read it, you can watch the first season of Game of Thrones on DVD, and see what you think.
Don't make the same mistake I did: if you have the chance, read A Game of Thrones as soon as you can!