I could go on for another week about “A Game of Thrones”, but I’m wearing out, so let’s flip all the cards back* and get to the big question: I’ve laid out several reasons why the book shouldn’t work, and talked about how Martin turned many of his potential weaknesses into strengths, but we still haven’t really established: Why is the writing so addictive? Why did I get so sucked into reading, even though:
- I’d already decided I couldn’t countenance Martin’s worldview and abandoned the show.
- I knew everything that was going to happen so I didn’t need to read to satisfy any plot curiosity.
- I’m wary of fantasy books, and long books in general.
This gets to the heart of my book. This is the “stranger on an airplane” test: How do you learn to write so well that you win over even someone who doesn’t want your story? I think what really grabbed me was the “warm slipper” quality of the writing. What created that feeling?
- Supremely confident world-building: World-building is where most sci-fi and fantasy loses me. I end up saying “That’s not the way the world works”, even if it’s not our world. The rules of the world being presented just haven’t been properly thought-through. Martin, by combining his encyclopedic knowledge of the medieval world with his boundless imagination, has created a free-ranging world in which all of the (thousands of) pieces fit snugly, and it’s astonishing to watch it all come together. It’s all-enveloping, like a warm slipper (even though it’s a cold world, in every sense.)
- Intimate limited POV: I’ve already talked about this. The multi-sensory writing and strictly-limited POV create a sense of intense intimacy with whatever character we’re reading about. It’s the opposite of alienation. The full-identification also creates a warm slipper feeling.
- Martin is not afraid to use the oldest tricks in the books to intensify our emotional experience, which makes the book an intense thrill. A simple line like “For a heartbeat he dared to hope” right before a gruesome death works every time.
My two favorite reading experiences are also super-long, multi-POV, and set during wartime: “War and Peace” by Tolstoy and “The USA Trilogy” by Dos Passos (which I originally encountered in one volume). Martin isn’t in that league, but he’s doing the same thing they’re doing: Creating a vast world at a tragic time, though many intensely intimate points of view. In all three cases, I found it addictive and didn’t want it to end.
(One difference is that Tolstoy and Dos Passos didn’t abuse my addiction. They finally wrapped up their epic sagas just before I could exhaust myself. Martin just keeps his junkies on the hook year after year. The other difference is that I ultimately agree with Tolstoy and Dos Passos’s worldview, but disagree with Martin’s, which is why I was able to painfully break away a few hundred pages into the second book.)
*Never let it be said that my pop-cultural references are not super-up-to-date.