A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin
The Song of Ice and Fire, starting with A Game of Thrones is, on a personal level, the story of House Stark, and on a national level, the story of the continent of Westeros.
House Stark consists of Lord Eddard Stark, a man of solid virtues, fierce to his enemies, faithful to his friends, good to his underlings, and possessed of a strong sense of duty. In other words, he’s a throwback to a simpler time, and he’ll very soon find himself in over his head dealing with the political complexities of the King’s Court.
His wife is Catelyn Stark (nee Tully), a dutiful wife, wise adviser, just Lady, and loving mother …… except to Jon.
Jon is Eddard’s eldest child, a bastard by a woman he never speaks of, and Catelyn hates his guts because Eddard treats him like a trueborn son, making him a tangible reminder of Eddard’s infidelity. His other children are Robb (His legitimate heir), Sansa (A trueborn lady, and one who expects everyone to recognize it), Arya (who refuses to act like a lady, so much so that Eddard hires the memorable Syrio Forel to act as her fencing instructor as a compromise), Brandon (A boy of about seven, currently going through a ‘climbing’ phase), and Rickon, an infant.
The continent, Westeros, in which the Starks engage in their varied adventures, has a lot of threads making up its history: A deceased dynasty of dragonriding, sister-wedding kings, the usurper king that overthrew them, the vaguely celtic First Men who were displaced by the current inhabitants, the tension between their nameless old gods, and the new pantheron, and the culturally different areas of the Iron Islands and Dorne, whose differences are reflected by their geographic isolation from the rest of the kingdom.
I’m sure it’s bad reviewing technique to go into this much detail, but I do so in order to illustrate the richness and complexity of Martin’s world, and the characters that inhabit it: No characters with modern sensibilities stuffed into an ill-conceived pastoral idyll, as is so often the case with fantasy. No, these men and women feel like part of the world they live in, and are all the more believable for being so.
The only real fault with the series is that sometimes its a little too complex: it can be difficult to keep track of all the lords, ladies and assorted liveries. All the books after the first include an appendix which assists greatly in reminding the reader who’s who, but it’d be nice if Martin dropped a few more reminders into the main text (I still get House Florent and flower house, House Tyrell, confused. Which is kind of okay, because Florent technically has a better claim to Tyrell’s lands, but still ……).
All in all, however, these books make an excellent read for anyone interested in medieval politicking, or those tired of cookie-cutter fantasy paradigms. Be warned, though, these books will make you expect higher standards from every other fantasy you read afterwards.