It’s been a long time since I read the books. I think I’ve been through each one twice, except for A Feast for Crows, which I read when it came out, and that was the last I touched the series. And I decided — just before they announced the No Really We Mean It This Time publication date for book five — that I’m going to hold off until the end is in sight, so that means I’m fuzzy on a lot of things.
But watching the TV series, I remember why I like the books. It isn’t because Martin’s writing is Gritty! Epic! Fantasy! Grit for grit’s sake is not pleasing to me. I’ve picked up, and then put down, several other series in that vein. But Martin manages some things that his fellows in the sub-sub-genre don’t, and they are why I hooked onto him and bounced off the others.
Example: characters. There are many unpleasant people in this series . . . and yet, they’re unpleasant people I want to know more about. The absolute bastards are generally intelligent bastards, and I’m keen to see what they do next. The bitter assholes have understandable motivations for their bitterness and assholitude, and some of them preserve a weird core of decency underneath it (which is not the same as a Heart of Gold). People have loyalties instead of Chronic Backstabbing Disorder. I am a reader who generally prefers sympathetic characters; what Martin manages, and many other authors do not, is making me sympathize with people who aren’t very nice. (Exhibit A: Jaime Lannister.)
Also the world. I loves me a good world, whether it’s secondary or built off the real world. I don’t just mean the setting detail, though that’s part of it; the wall of ice and the regional surnames for bastards and Dany eating the stallion’s heart, all that stuff pleases my little anthropological heart. But there’s also the history underpinning it, that makes it feel real instead of a set built just for this story — and the history is both In Ye Olden Days stuff and the intricate network of kinship and alliances that sets up the present moment. Catelyn calling out to the armsmen in the tavern, and Jory reminding Jaime that they fought at each other’s sides once. (I especially love how many of those details the TV show is managing to preserve.)
And, partially underlying those world details, the fact that Martin makes me believe — as so many of his compatriots don’t — that he understands how medieval society worked. How politics work. Money and favors and people passing along tidbits of information; the importance of kinship and ideals, and pragmatism ramming up hard against those ideals. My friends and I are catching up on past episodes, and the conversation between Robert and Cersei just made me so happy, because of the richness it managed to convey. “What’s holding this kingdom together?” “Our marriage.” The trade in daughters isn’t a side note to the important stuff; it’s one of the central posts holding that society up. And Robert’s a shitty king, but he understands war — really understands it, not “the author tells me he does” — so you suddenly see that he isn’t an idiot, just very ill-suited to his current challenges, and it took both him and Cersei to screw up their marriage. That whole scene felt real, because it was based on real understanding, rather than the pale fictional shadow so many authors fall back on.
I know there’s a lot of shocking stuff in his story, and it isn’t to everybody’s taste. But for my own part, I don’t ever feel like I’m being shocked gratuitously — which is not true for many of the other Gritty! Epic! Fantasy! authors I’ve tried. (Note: I speak here of the books, and not HBO, which continues to give me uncomfortable-looking sex scenes I could really do without.) And Martin gives me things to care about, too, even when they’re broken and ugly things and I don’t understand why I care. If I had to put it in simple terms, I might say I feel a sense of empathy in his story, that I don’t feel in his imitators’ work.
Which is a long-winded way of saying I’m really enjoying the TV series, and it’s reminding me of why I enjoy the books, too. I haven’t given up on them; I’m just going to wait until I can enjoy them on my own, more timely schedule.