I have never liked fantasy novels and usually only enjoy fantasy movies for their cheesiness and predictability (though there are exceptions).
However, the TV show won me over due to its drastic differences from most fantasy I am familiar with. As a fan of the show, I really felt no need to read the books. But when my friend told me he was really enjoying the audio books, I thought I'd give it a listen. (Thanks Derek!)
As someone who avoids fantasy, I cannot say whether or not what Martin does here is original, but it certainly strikes me as rather radical for a genre that normally seeks to make its readers happy.
The first thing Martin does right is that he populates his stories with "real" people - by this I mean that the people are morally ambiguous: they do good and bad things, they have good and bad motives, they make mistakes, etc. So often in the genre, we have a hero who is Good (with a supposedly fatal flaw that never quite proves fatal), we have villains who are Pure Evil. We might have someone who puts on an act, but at bottom everyone is either Good or Evil. Not so in Martin's world.
The second thing he does well is world creation. The world of A Song of Ice and Fire is so dense that it rivals the universes of Star Wars and Star Trek for depth. There is so much backstory - for literally everyone, and the world at large - that it's easy to lose yourself in the massive world he has created. You can investigate so many angles (especially with the different wikis) that you can literally believe this is history, and that makes it a lot harder to criticize other aspect's of Martin's prose, just because he has built this giant universe, an overwhelming one.
Finally, the way Martin introduces his characters is unparalleled in my experience of the genre (with, perhaps the exception of one character in the Harry Potter series). And here we get to the SPOILERS!!!
If you haven't read the books or seen the show, I'm about to reveal some major plot points.
Think about how Martin introduces Tyrion, arguably the hero of the entire story. Tyrion is not only unhero like in his build and his behaviour, but he's actually positioned by Martin to possibly be a villain until about 2/3rds of the way through this first book. That's fantastic.
Also, Ned is positioned as The Hero for the vast majority of the book. (This is what won me over in the show. I so thought Ned was going to live.) And instead his heroism, or rather his character traits we normally associate with heroism, lead him to his death. He is, rather than a hero, a fool.
Finally, there is Littlefinger. Sure, he seems conniving. But he also seems minor and rather harmless compared to the Lannisters. This is how Martin introduces perhaps the Villain. (The villain controlling the villains, without their knowledge.)
But, though all of these things are impressive, there are still some obvious flaws to his work that keeps this book (at least) from being transcendent.
The first is Martin's obsession with description, which goes part and parcel with his world creation. There are a few moments in this very, very long novel where you're just like "Jesus Tapdancing Christ, stop listing things." Particurlarly when Sansa is at the tournament or when Bran is learning about history. It's just too much. And I feel like though it provides more of the history, couldn't this have been done more effectively?
And of course the dialogue is merely fine. It's not quotable (for me anyway), it's not life changing. It serves it's purpose, but it's hardly great dialogue to go with classics outside of fantasy.
But overall this is very impressive and it has changed how I view a genre I thought I hated. I'm glad I was able to enjoy it even while being caught up with the show.