That the world of A Game Of Thrones is a brilliant epic fantasy is something I more or less expected. But the really genius part about it, the fact that it so strongly deviates from typical fantasy at the same time, was completely unknown to me, otherwise I would have read this book way earlier.
The Known World of A Song Of Ice And Fire is not only believable and realistic, but also shockingly reminiscent of our own world, in terms of structure, morale and cultural diversity, with an incredible attention to detail and background. The characters are real and unusual, strange and at times unpredictable, flawed and most importantly, morally ambiguous (just like us!) The depth of character development, especially considering that there’s so many protagonists to portray here, is simply phenomenal and without the slightest impact on the pacing and excellent fluidity of the book. I dare anyone to point me to one page that they think boring.
And that’s the short answer to the "but why over 800 pages?" question.
With the exception of the obvious one or two genuine bastard bastards, no one in this novel is positively good or evil, and it’s precisely this aspect that makes the people of The Known World feel insecure. Yes they fear their gods, the dragons and what’s beyond the Wall. But their biggest worry is greed and lust for control and power as an inherent trait of humanity. At the end of the day, whom can you trust if anyone? And this sense of fear of the dark side of man is brilliantly infused throughout the book.
A Game Of Thrones is also a story of violence, homosexuality, rape and death and George R.R. Martin evidently doesn't care about literary clichés, established faux-pas and deus ex machinas that will offer the expected happy ending to the cliffhanger with a cherry on top. And he gets away with it too, because he’s so bloody good.
There’s nothing (literally nothing) cookie cutter about A Game Of Thrones. If you want Gandalf the Grey to come back as Gandalf the White while you enjoy your popcorn, nothing beats J. R. R. Tolkien and you should be aware that aesthetically and morally speaking, the A Song Of Ice And Fire series is a different concept altogether. So expect ugliness. And expect a beautifully devised and incredibly well written unconventional fantasy story. Flawless*.
*almost actually. A couple of times sex felt just shoved in willy-nilly, but that is really very very minor.