I first read this book back in 1997 (which was sixteen freakin' years ago now), and I didn't like it. It was too dense, had too many characters, and they all had similar names, enough so that every time I started the next chapter, I had to re-check the family tree to remember who the hell I was supposed to be remembering. I recall plodding through it, and when I thought back on it from time to time, I could only remember a handful of images: the Eyrie prison; Viserys' golden crown; and Daenerys surviving the flames with the dragons. I started watching the show earlier this year, and figured that it would be worth re-reading it with a clearer idea of who was who.
Having the show fresh in my mind definitely helped, but I think I've also started reading a better class of fiction over the last decade or so. Reading Now You See It... was a bit of a wake-up call reminding me that what I used to enjoy no longer holds my interest. Where I remember trudging through this book sixteen years ago, this time around I was looking for those stray moments to read another chapter. The political machinations were such that the story was wildly compelling.
There's a real brilliance in the story here. It's well crafted (the political intrigue is complex and sprawling, but never difficult to follow), well paced (Martin knows when to break one character's story to jump to another, keeping the reader intrigued in the narrative), and well-told (Martin makes it look effortless, like he could write this over a lunch break if need be). It also shines with its theme, which is more than just a Machiavellian power play. The story has a feminist slant, if you can see it. Because the book is set in Medieval times, the women have a lesser place in the world than the men. But the women find ways to still be relevant in their roles: Catelyn plays the role of Ned's adviser; Daenerys slowly takes on the role of a respectable warrior queen, despite her being given as a gift to the warrior king; and Cersei manipulates all the men in her life to grant her the power she seeks. They recognize their limitations, but they also realize that they can still take power in their own ways.
One thing that did start to bother me was Martin's overuse of describing everyone wearing "boiled leather." I swear, if anyone in a chapter stepped up to be featured for the first time, he would be described as wearing a number of items, like mail, armor, and "boiled leather." Not "leather armor" or "leather skins," but "boiled leather." Is this some historically accurate detail or something? And if so, was it necessary to describe it as such every single time? That might have cut 100 words out of the story right there.
But beyond that, I'm damned impressed with the way the book can be so dense, so complex, and so epic, but still be compellingly readable. It's a fantasy novel by the inclusion of the Others, Bran's far-seeing, the dragons, and some other otherworldly tidbits, but it's really a retelling of a Medieval alternate history, enough so that almost anyone can be drawn into the story. I only wish I had been able to recognize that sixteen years ago when I first read it.