To be perfectly honest, I have never seen so many characters handled so deftly in narration. True, I don't read a wide variety of narration. Now that I think of it, most of the fiction I read is seeming duller by the moment and pretty predictable. Third person omniscient acting like limited, or first person narration with the same predictable arcs. . . . Martin's biggest strength is his ability to convincingly voice this veritable host of players, while keeping a continuity of story, tone, and mood. Neither am I finding that I don't really like any of the narrating characters. Sure, Danaerys was kind of pitifully naive in this book and Jon Snow was much whinier than I had imagined he would be (he is an unloved teen -- what did I expect?), but their chapters and points of view aren't burdensome or unpleasant. This style allows you to get inside all of these characters and really start to connect with them, again, without it being overwhelming or their voices all blending together.
What I did most enjoy, however, was Martin's unflinching and untroubled stance when it came to so many of the things that are controversial in the show: nudity, violence, more nudity. . . . I was expected something salacious a la Fifty Shades of Gray, because that's how it's portrayed in the show. I only saw more cunning linguists in Orange is the New Black, but I suspect that one's really more for shock value (ooh, look how strange and tough jail is). Having said that, shock value and salaciousness is a huge part of the TV show. Let's show boobs and weiners and people having all kinds of crazy sex and bring in those people who really like a bit of soft porn in their television watching habits. In the book, it's all kind of, well, boring. Hodor wanders around without clothes and they all tell him to put on pants. Dany and Drogo have all kinds of sex, but it's from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old girl: alternately sweetly romantic or frank. In their world, sex is not taboo or shameful, something to shock audiences with, but just part of life and yes, you do it in front of your whole khalasar. Because you're the khal, why would you sneak off to do what you wanted to do? It made perfect sense to me in the world that Martin has created.
I feel torn on the aspect of prostitution and rape in the series so far, though. To me, it seems as though Martin is not shying away from the fact that rape was fairly common in this kind of world and not ever nice or pretty, but I feel like the general attitude is one of mild injustice coupled with acceptance. I don't think that this is perhaps the correct message for the times we are living in, where rape culture is readily permissible for most and gender roles seem to get stricter in the every day living while they are expanded in the glittering world of movies and TV. (Just for an example, there seem to be more openly gay TV and film characters, as well as celebrity actors [Hodor!], but yet an LGBT teen is still today four times as likely to commit suicide than his or her straight counterpart. But hey, way to make homosexuality no big deal, George! It really doesn't seem to matter if a man likes men or a woman likes women, just as long as everyone's getting some.) Having said all of that, I think that Martin, for better or for worse, is sticking to the world he created, and in this very Middle Ages world, characters are dealing with rape in the best ways they know how, and the smart ones abhor it and their abhorrence is made clear by the author. On the subject of prostitution, there was a quote in A Clash of Kings that I thought summed up some of these perspectives pretty well. It's how you look at your job that really determines what it is, at least as seen through the eyes of whore-house owner and operator Chataya, who looks on her job more as a spiritual calling and a beautiful fulfillment.
The violence has been violent, but I have been more disturbed elsewhere. Michael Crichton and Richard Preston, your descriptions of those ants versus the tiny people in Micro will haunt me until my dying day. I will never, ever look at ants the same way again and I am still amazed I was able to truck through that chapter. Having said all that, haven't gotten to that whole Mountain versus Pedro Pascal bit yet. . . . But again, life in the Middle Ages, on which this has loosely been based if you hadn't figured that one out already, was brutal and uncompromising. I like the amount of swords being thrust through heads because it seems probable. And how great is that whole Ned Stark is the executioner of those he condemns bit? Because every time that comes up, I just want to give it a "hell yeah!". I really do think that if you are going to pass judgment, you shouldn't be allowed to do so unless you wield the sword. If you really want this fellow to die for what you think is wrong, you have to be able to hack his head off with your own two hands. And a kick-ass giant sword called "Ice". Best name ever? Possibly.
My most favorite thing about this series, so far, is the realism. Yes, there are dragons and magic and crazy shit happening everywhere, but there is a fundamental understanding that life is sad, short, and unsatisfying, so you better realize that now and try and get the most out of it that you can, otherwise you will probably be sorely disappointed. I like this not just because this is how I often feel about life (for my other side, see Sansa's chapters pre-patriarchal homicide), but because I am kind of fed up with most fantasy novels taking the perspective that everything good will prevail. No, no. Sometimes the bastards get you down. Sometimes they win. Most of the time they win. And I can handle the ooey-gooey "goodness always wins" shtick if there's some serious sacrifice (Harry Potter -- don't remind me). I feel like Lord of the Rings is the perfect example of what I don't really like. Most bad guys are just bad. I mean, why does Sauron even want to rule the world, other than sheer megalomania? At least I know that Joffrey is an evil twat because it's part genetix (eww) and part environment, and he wants to kill and maim and rule because that's how he's been brought up. In a sense, he doesn't really know anything else, but that doesn't excuse him. In LOTR, bad guys are bad because. . .they're bad. It's a nice little circle. It makes it so that it doesn't really affect you when yet another orc bites the dust. That orc probably has no feelings or loved ones, so who cares that Aragorn shoved a sword through his forehead? In Game of Thrones, everyone's a little bit bad. And except for Joffrey, everyone's a little bit good, too, and I feel so much more conflicted about all of them. Plus, there's just no sacrifice in LOTR. Yeah, Frodo can't live life in the Shire anymore. Okay, fine, but tell me who else of real importance dies on the page? And don't say Boromir, because he's dead at the end of the first book and isn't really super likable anyway. Even with my most recently read and beloved fantasy series, Mistborn, I truly felt like good would triumph (mostly because I loved those characters hard enough), and though there was sacrifice, it was kind of fakey feeling. In the books out of The Chronicles of Narnia that I've read, goodness is never really at stake. But, if you want to talk about gritty kids' fantasy and some serious sacrifice, pick up The Underland Chronicles. I'm telling you, best book series. Anyhow, I like the idea in A Game of Thrones that people aren't who you thought they were, basically everything sucks at least a little, and the gods probably aren't listening.
In conclusion, even though it took me probably two years to actually pick up A Game of Thrones enough to finish it, it was well worth it. It's probably one of the better written fantasy series I've read in a while, and it's a nice change from all of the teenage angst books I've been reading recently (Looking for Alaska, The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, Divergent, Insurgent, Allegient, half of the Pretty Little Liars series. . .oh god, why do I do this to myself?).
Having said that, every time I get into a new fantasy series, either I'm picking excellent ones to read or I really should just read more fantasy. I am already halfway through A Clash of Kings and thoroughly enjoying it (I like Sansa so much better in the books -- poor thing), but I mustn't forget that I have a big, fat Dickens novel to plough through before the year is done, and I'm still trying to get through my quota of at least fifty books this year. I'm shooting for fifty-five, but we'll see. I am also in the middle of Mansfield Park, but as I'm reading that on my phone at about the pace of five pages every couple of days, I'm not really holding my breath on finishing that one quickly. Plus, I know who she gets with at the end, so it's not like it's really riveting me with its mysteries and suspense.
The real conclusion I've come to, however, is that I need to read more fantasy. Yeah yeah, I know I should read Wheel of Time, but what else is out there that really, really deserves a read? I've done Mistborn, I'm doing A Song of Ice and Fire, I've done LOTR and the Chronicles of Narnia (mostly. . .I can't really handle C. S. Lewis that well) and I've read most of the major kids' fantasy series. What comes next?? Help me fantasy-reading friends, you're my only hopes.
Hmmm. . .maybe I should read some Star Wars. . .