George R.R. Martin’s sprawling series A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t just a cultural phenomena. It’s also a tour de force of storytelling. Here’s why:
Truth and Fiction
In GRRM’s epic, every chapter is seen through the eyes of different characters, which means they filter details through their own particular perceptions. The details of a story told by a young girl and a hardened knight are similar, but the thrust of the stories are completely different.
Take the outcome of the Tourney of Whent, where Prince Rhaegar Targaryen gave the crown of Love and Beauty to Lyanna Stark, rather than his wife, Elia Martell.
No one knows exactly what happened between the long-dead Rhaegar and Lyanna. Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon hold that Lyanna was kidnapped, raped, and held captive. But other, more neutral tellers of the tale suggest that Lyanna went with Rhaegar of her own accord. The reader thus concludes that Ned and Robert’s version of the story isn’t the “true” one.
Each chapter in ASoIaF is told linearly, and each chapter is another day, another week, or even another month into the future. Importantly, the events of the previous chapter impacts the characters of the next chapter. (For example, the events in Tyrion’s chapters make their way to the characters in Braavos, an entire kingdom away.)
But some of the best information isn’t just who won which battle or who captured an enemy. It’s the little things that make this big, sprawling universe so very real.
For example, in A Storm of Swords, a prostitute tells Arya, “I’m a king’s daughter myself.” Here's Arya's reaction:
The girl did have hair like the old king’s, Arya thought; a great thick mop of it as black as coal. That doesn’t mean anything, though. Gendry has the same kind of hair, too.
What Arya, or even Gendry, doesn’t know is that Gendry is in fact one of King Robert Baratheon’s many bastards. So many lovely details in ASoIaF are never told outright. They are merely implied.
Minor Characters Come to Life
Sadly, the TV series has had to prune several minor characters from the books (Strong Belwas!). But these characters, such as Tom O' Sevens, Pia, and Mya Stone are some of the best reasons to read ASoIaF.
For example, in A Game of Thrones, Mya Stone is a young girl (another one of Robert Baratheon's bastards, although she doesn't know it) in love with a squire. We learn this from her time with Catelyn Stark. In A Feast for Crows, she's become embittered about love, after the squire threw her over when he was knighted--as told from Sansa Stark's point of view. Later, in the upcoming The Winds of Winter, Sansa sees that Mya is visibly annoyed by the presence of the young knight.
Reading about the lives of these characters across the span of several novels is like catching up with old friends.
Rereading and Re-rereading
Every backstory and every history has a very specific place in GRRM's universe. Only after a second read-through does the reader finally see the pieces lock into place like a perfect jigsaw puzzle. Although I knew Arys Oakheart was one of the kingsguard who had beat Sansa in A Clash of Kings, I didn't sympathize with him until A Dance with Dragons. But only after re-reading the novels did I see just how hard he was trying to remain honorable while trying to obey Joffrey's execreble orders.
And it wasn't until a third read-through that I realized why he did what he did.
GRRM's novels are completely satisfying. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
To sum it up, in this smackdown of the Game of Thrones, you read or you die.