I said I would not read these books until they were finished, and I have been congratulating myself on that decision ever since (giggling a little inside -- and sometimes also outside -- as fans of the series grew ever more frustrated with the amount of time it takes Mr Martin to finish it).
Due to circumstances I won't go into here, however, I decided it was time to have a go. And so I did.
I had seen the tv series. I do not generally approve of watching an adaptation of something before reading the book (due to ingrained cultural notions of originality and authenticity -- I prefer to make my own reading before seeing someone else's), but I made an exception because I did not expect to read the books in a long, long time.
But. Here I am. Having started yet another unfinished series. And I am very ambivalent about this one. It seems confused. I think that is the word. It veers from horrifying (say, the rape of a 13-yearold presented as an acceptable, erotic seduction scene) to almost feminist in its undermining of the traditional female fantasy narrative in Sansa. It is definitely a more "realistic" fantasy-world narrative, but it does seem to lack depth (despite its grand schemes of cold and warm). What depth there is, it seems to me, lies in its acknowledgement of the grey zones of characters. The language is not terribly impressive (occasionally downright bad), but generally not distracting.
What follows is my take on the series after the first book (spoilers galore
if you have not read it). I have not seen or read the second season/book. I don't know what is coming (except, you know, winter). But I am sufficiently fascinated by the moment in the middle of narratives to wish to preserve my first understanding of this one before going on to read the rest.
1. Characters: To Martin's credit he seems to be at pains to show that perspective is king, and a good ability to have you sympathise with the character who is the villain (or at least a problem) in the mind of the one whose perspective you have just read. As far as I can tell, that seems to be the point of the series (or the book, at any rate). And it is a point I approve of wholeheartedly. But. That said, I miss a more distinct colouring of the voice in these chapters. The perspective changes, but there is little change in the narration. There is some, but only enough to make me wish he had taken it all the way.
I do also wonder whether Martin is going to offer the same curtesy to the characters he has so far presented as villains. While Tyrion is shown not to be the villain Catelyn takes him to be, Cercei and the rest of the Lannisters are never given a perspective. The majority belongs to Stark.
Moreover, his characters don't have a lot of depth. He does provide the discrepancy between the perception from afar and the character from within (Catelyn's perception of Tyrion vs Tyrion's experience of his own life), but within the perspectives, the characters are not very developed. Having stepped away from the mythical towards the "realistic", I would have expected Martin to do better.
Tyrion is perhaps the most developed character among them. So far, anyway. Together with Jon Snow and perhaps Arya and Daenerys, he has Overcome Obstacles in life, but he is the only one who seems to have arrived at an equilibrium. I suppose that may mean the latter three will either develop or disappoint in what follows.
2. World details: Ah, the curse of epic fantasy. Martin has caught it too. In Jordan you get dresses and women's names; in Martin there are banners and castles. What could possibly be their purpose? There are too many to keep track of in any sensible way, and I cannot imagine there will be much reward for doing so. Nor does it quite succeed in creating the impression of colour and variety, which I think is what is aimed for, because it takes too long in the description of it. Hopefully, he has got it out of his system in the first book and will turn to other matters in what follows.
The layering of histories is common currency in epic fantasy, and I confess I get a little fed up with it. Children, first men &c. I assume it will have some bearing on the plot, otherwise it is just a poor man's Tolkien with rape thrown in. Much depends on how Martin plays this.
3. Plot: It seems blatantly obvious to me at this point (indeed, it seemed obvious quite early in the book) that Jon Snow is the son of Ned Stark's sister Lyanna and Rhaegar Targaryen. I assume he raped her (the only possible justification for the rape theme that pervades the series) and that she made her brother swear to keep the child's parentage secret so that Robert would not kill it. I have heard Jon Snow's parentage presented as one of the great mysteries of the series. This depresses me.
I am more interested in how the deadly grass will play out (the type that seems to work just like the ice-zombies do). And I imagine Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen will be the heroes of the piece, with Tyrion Lannister and Bran Stark between them. I must also confess to some curiosity as to what Stannis Baratheon is up to. The Game of Thrones is precisely the most attractive side to the series so far: I want to know how the intrigues play out.
4. Themes: Well, ice vs fire seems to be a given. I hope it will develop a more balanced mythology (or whathaveyou) with an equally scary baddie on the fire side of things. At the moment, Daenerys does not quite seem to match up to the Others, and it would be depressingly like the conventional good vs evil flatness that made me go off epic fantasy many years ago. A more balanced fire vs cold narrative with the good somewhere in between would be more interesting. Jon Snow would seem to be rather important, at any rate, reconciling the two sides in his parentage (if I am right).
Rape seems to be another major one. I have heard that Martin has said that while rape is pretty much everywhere in the series, it is never condoned. Well, you can take that with a lump of salt. I already mentioned Daenerys' wedding night. I forgot to mention that she falls in love with her rapist. Granted, in the Seven Kingdoms, rape is generally presented as a wicked man's weapon. But somehow, that is not applicable to the Others (by which I do not mean the icy evilly zombie-people but the Dothraki) on the other side of the sea (seriously, can you give me some more Orientalist stereotypes to go?).
Women in general is a problem for Martin. I think that like Jordan he suffers from the delusion that he writes strong female characters. Instead we get Catelyn Stark (Mother, relegated to the supportive sidelines, although Martin should get props for highlighting the frustrating side of that), Cersei Lannister (Mother, using sex for control, also drunk on power and Evil), and Sansa Stark (Headless Chicken, although here too I am tempted to give Martin a nod for showing the uselessness of her fantasy world). Daenerys Targaryen (Wife and almost Mother, whose narrative is depressing in as much as she falls in love with her rapist and then uses sex to sway him -- because really people, that is what women are all about) might offer some hope, but I am not holding my breath (in the end she seems to gain power, but only through her supernatural powers: women need dragons to kick ass?). And then there is Arya Stark, the vulnerable Child playing at men's games with her sword, but really lost in the world. Arya is the one I have the most hope for. I like that Martin at least opens the floor to questions of female roles, but I hope she does not end up getting rescued by someone.
I did like the fact that Martin killed off Ned Stark. It showed an ability to engage with the problem of moral action in an unjust world. I hope he will keep exploring that (rather than, say, just have a load of characters raped). I also see traces of the same topic in the Night Watch (but with some faulty logic here and there). It will be interesting to see whether Martin can actually juggle all these balls or whether he has just picked a lot of shiny ones and thrown them into the air.
Finally, history. I can see the allusions to the War of Roses, though not as much as I had expected. There certainly does not seem to be any clear overlap between the two. I imagine the main overlap will be the reconciliation of two warring factions through a figure who takes part in both. Say, Jon Snow.
Knowing epic fantasy, though, there will probably be more characters, more plot lines and quite possibly more nations any moment now.