Although I was pretty well hooked into the book after the prologue, I knew I was in for a great ride after the second Bran chapter, the one that ends with "The things I do for love." It's a brave writer who will do something that horrible to a main character and then not tell me the result of that action until after he wrote a chapter that had nothing to do with Bran's fate.
The first book, by the way, has a kick-butt ending chapter. If you consider each chapter of a book as an invitation to read the next chapter, then the last chapter has to serve as an invitation to read the next book. The final chapter's obligation and job is greater than the rest of the chapters. Martin literally took my breath away with the last chapter. The image is very, very cool, and the implications of what that image means to the progress of the rest of the story is immense.
So, here's what I learned:
First, although a lot of people talk about the difference of pacing between a novel and a short story, there often is an implication that a novel doesn't have to be as tight with its language, and that there's more room to meander through the world of the story. I never really bought that implication, and I've never had it more thoroughly debunked than while reading A Game of Thrones. From the opening of the prologue, which are these lines:
"Do the dead frighten you?" Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.
to the ending of each chapter which wraps up something that the chapter raised, I felt like I was reading good, short fiction. So the lesson from this is that novel writing is not an excuse to get lazy and to forget the tension inherent in a good short story.
I have an analogy for novels as opposed to short stories, by the way. It's a lesson I learned from fishing. I'm a Colorado stream fisherman. I used to just like little streams where I have to sneak up on pools that might not be any bigger than a bathtub, and then to flick my lure into just the right spot so that it will have a natural swimming action when it crosses the eye line of the trout. I used to dislike big streams, though. If the water was too big, I never had any luck. I figured the trout in a big river see so much food that they could afford to be more picky, while a small stream trout has to grab everything that comes by. Maybe nothing else will drift along for a while. Small stream trout were easier to fool, I figured. However, I started to have more luck in big streams when I realized that all the lessons I learned in small streams still applied. A big stream is really just a bunch of small streams flowing side by side. If I read the rocks, riffles, holes and currents in the big stream the same way I did in the small ones, I could catch fish.
I figure a novel is like a short story in that way. It's really just a lot of short story streams mixed together, and all the skills I have from writing short stories apply in the same way in a novel, except that the short pieces have so much more time to interact with each other. A Game of Thrones reads that way to me, like a bunch of small stories in the service of the grand one (which is, of course, exactly what it is).
The second lesson is that the prose needs to be just as crisp and snappy in the long form as it is in the short. I could put my finger randomly on any passage in the book for an example. If you want to show this to yourself (and if you don't own this novel), the next time you're in a bookstore and see a copy of it, open anywhere and read a paragraph. Martin is not fluffing up a short story by being lazy with word choice or just letting his control of imagery and rhythm go to hell because he has a lot of room. He's tight! Just about every paragraph is a lesson in word economy.
The third lesson deals with point of view. A Game of Thrones is arranged in chapters according to point of view. What's cool about this is that each character's character determine how they interpret the story. I love reading the Sansa chapters best for this because Sansa is exceptionally romantic and naive. Her interpretation of events are so at odds with my interpretation of them that reading each of her chapters was an beautiful demonstration of dramatic irony. I knew she was wrong about so much, but she soldiered on because she can only relate the world the way she sees it. By extension, though, each character's chapters are dramatically ironic in the same way. They all only know their part of the story, as any character in any length story is constrained by what he/she knows and by their way of perceiving. A Game of Thrones is an extended lesson in point of view.
As a side note, one of the many features of this novel that I love is that unlike "classic" fantasy, there isn't a clearly defined bad guy. There certainly are some unlikeable characters and some very cruel ones, but they don't seem evil in a Sauron/Saruman kind of way. They feel more real to me. The book demonstrates a great truism about most people: "Everyone is the hero of their own story."
I guess the last lesson is that if I care about the characters, I'll follow them anywhere. I realized when Martin started throwing totally unexpected events at me that anything could happen, and I would be cool with it. He's completely hooked me into the people. I don't see how he can end the series because the world of his book is as real as the world I live in. In the real world, meaningful events happen, and some of those meaningful events become our history, and history never ends. The young become old while the next generation of the young take their place. A Game of Thrones has a lot of young characters in it (along with a bunch of old ones--did I mention that this is what reviewers sometimes call "a sprawling narrative"?). I can see the possiblity that the story will take me into their maturity. These characters allude constantly to the history that produced them. The implication is that the events of A Game of Thrones will be the grist of the history of generations to come. But I don't think that I care that the series may not have an ending that wraps everything up. There can't really be the equivalent of "they lived happily ever after" because Martin has created a universe too real for that.
Some may be happy at the end, some may be sad, and a fair number won't make it that far.
Oh, something else I really like about the book that's different from much of the high fantasy that I've read is that the world is gritty. This is adult high fantasy. Real violence. Real passion. Actual sex. Multilayered relationships. High drama.
Just as an aside, my favorite characters are Tyrion, Bran and Arya. I really despise Cersei and Joffrey.