One of the "rules of writing" that gets drilled into you if you write mystery fiction (and I believe it holds true for romance as well) is that no two characters should have names beginning with the same letter. The theory is that readers will confuse characters named John and Jim or Ellen and Edna. The suggestion is always to rename one of them so that Jim becomes Bob and Edna becomes Sandy.
Apparently George R.R. Martin, and possibly fantasy writers in general, never heard of this rule. Now I suppose that with the huge cast of characters in an epic fantasy you'd have to reuse the first letter. Otherwise you'd end up with some incredibly odd scenarios that would be less believable than having John and Jim talk to one another. However, not only do we have Brandon, the son of Eddard Stark, but also Brandon, Eddard's deceased older brother and Jon Snow, Eddard's bastard son, as well as Jon Umber and Jon Arryn. Admittedly, each Point of View (POV) character has a unique name and in real life a man would name his son for his brother, but it did make it a bit difficult to follow who was who in this lengthy book.
Add to the same-name problem the fact that characters have not only a given name (Eddard Stark), but a nickname (Ned), a title (Lord of Winterfell), and a position (Hand of the King), which can all be used to reference the same person and I found it very difficult to keep them straight, especially in the beginning.
As I inferred above, there are multiple POV characters in this novel, at least six or seven, and chapters are told by each of them in turn. In fact, Martin must have realized that having so many would have made it difficult for the reader to know whose POV she was in, so the chapters are merely titled with the name of the character whose POV this is rather than numbers or some other title.
My point is (and there is a point, I promise you) that I found it a tough go to get into this novel. I'm used to sitting inside the head of the main character and possibly one or two others, and following the story along from what they know. I didn't identify with any of the characters, got confused as each new chapter began, and wondered why I was reading this? Aren't there a lot of other books I want to read that would require less effort?
I even put it down one day, intending to start something a little more familiar, a bit more immediately enjoyable. Except, a few hours later, I found myself wanting to know what happens next, even though I wasn't sure what had happened so far. Martin had already sucked me in to this multi-threaded tale. Once I realized that I was enjoying it even though it was so very different from what I usually read, I kept going to the end. And it was a bang-up ending.
I don't think fantasy novels can be looked at as standalone stories. They are episodes in one much bigger tale. Once I accepted that this book was not going to move along at the breakneck pace of a thriller or even the fast pace of a mystery, I tried to stay in the moment rather than rushing to the end to find out what happens. In fantasy, the journey is as important as the destination.
I went from wanting to put this book aside, to wanting to follow the story to the end, to wondering what happens in the next book as I read this. I can see how you can get involved with this series and it's tempting to read all the books one after the other, but there are so many other books I want to read that will take less than a month to finish. I think A Song of Ice and Fire (the series title) will be like the Outlander series for me; I'll want to read them all, but will take them in small doses with lighter fare interspersed.
I realize that I haven't said much--well, nothing--about the plot. I rarely do. I figure you can read the publisher's summary on Amazon or Barnes and Noble or in any of a hundred standard book reviews. Why should I regurgitate that information in a blog post? I suppose that if I want to be a book reviewer (which I'm not sure I do) I should follow more of the standard format. But I'm more interested in how I feel about a book after I finish it than analyzing it. So I'm going to call these Book Impressions rather than Book Reviews from now on.