I have read up through A Storm of Swords (book 3) and almost finished the first season of the HBO series (it did pick up the pace) and I have thoughts — especially as related to the frequent accusations of sexism/racism/isms of all kinds
I have to admit, I actually set out to read spoilers for this series. I had read the first book and part of the second and felt too emotionally battered to continue — also, by the time I got around to the series, everyone was already complaining about delays on either the third or the fourth book, so I figured maybe I would just try to read them again later, when the series was finished.
Obviously, I didn't wait for that. I think the chatter around the HBO series probably tipped me over into the "okay, time to read this puppy!" camp. But the chatter also included mention of something called a "Red Wedding," and I was like, "OMG WHAT IS THAT IT SOUNDS BAD." Spoiler: it is. Anyway, as I read through book 1, I realized that already knowing the horrors that awaited actually gave me a little more fortitude to deal with them. That's right, it was way less stressful to read the whole thing already knowing Ned Stark gets his head chopped off at the end, without actually diminishing my enjoyment of the book.
So, I read the Wikipedia plot summaries for all the other books. They aren't the most elegant plot summaries, and can be a little hard to follow, but they will prepare you for the worst indignities the characters have to suffer. And that's all I wanted. I wanted to know "how bad does it get, really?" Spoiler: pretty bad, actually.
George RR Martin is very familiar with fantasy in general, and the book has, I think, little nods to everything from Lord of the Rings to the work of HP Lovecraft. What it reminds me most strongly of is Shakespeare: throw the histories and the tragedies into a blender, add some modern sensibilities and many, many additional words, and you have it.
This is probably my only substantive complaint so far: I don't think the writing is bad, but it is frequently not very attentive to details like word repetition. Plus, some of the words that crop up again and again kinda get on my nerves. For example, "smallfolk" for peasants or commoners just doesn't sit right in my mental ear, and I was irritated by the frequency of "boiled leather" until I found the fan blog All Leather Must Be Boiled and now it makes me giggle, which might be inappropriate but whatever.
While the series is not the anti-Tolkien, I think it does exist in dialog with the vaguely Tolkienesque fantasy that precedes it. I know from being on a panel with him (squee!) at Foolscap that Martin likes Tolkien and doesn't see himself as the anti-Tolkien in any way. But Lord of the Rings is a consolatory fantasy — China Miéville isn't wrong about that (although I do believe the book is more progressive in its political and social content than he recognizes. Someday, in my fantasy world, he and I will debate this topic). Martin's work is not at all consolatory. It's strongly anti-consolatory, as a matter of fact. You know how everybody's dead at the end of Hamlet? This is pretty much like that, except everybody isn't dead yet, some of them have merely been tortured and maimed. Will they all be dead by the end? Spoiler: It seems likely!
You know how, at the end of LOTR, Frodo is pretty much the only character who's been utterly wrecked by his experiences and can't adjust to normal life and has obvious PTSD? Imagine a book where he's the best-adjusted of the surviving characters and you sort of have it.
It's not just characters getting tortured by the winds of violent circumstance — it's watching characters you like and care about make stupid horrible choices and act like jerks sometimes and even do reprehensible things. The anti-consolatory aspect isn't only characters getting "punished" for doing what seems like the right thing, it's also the fact that it's mostly difficult-to-impossible for either the characters or the reader to guess what the right thing even is.
For example: Melisandre, the Red Priestess. When she first appears, she's creepy, controlling, and engages in magical murder, ritual sacrifices, and other clear signals — in any other series — that she is BAD. (Also, she's kinda cool-looking and stylish, which often says "villain!" and why is that exactly?) But, as we get to know her better, we realize that she is probably entirely sincere in her belief that she is doing the right thing and trying to save the world. Even more significantly, we start to suspect, given the larger forces at work, that she might even be correct. Sort of. Maybe. In a way. We don't know if it's good to root for her getting her way and performing ritual human sacrifice, or to root (as we are more naturally inclined to do) for the other characters who keep trying to prevent this. And this makes us uncomfortable.
Or, take Catelyn Stark. Most of the time, we like her. But then she's really mean to her husband's bastard Jon Snow, who we also like. So we don't like that. It makes us uncomfortable.
Or, consider Tyrion Lannister, a reader favorite, in part because he is quite possibly the only person in the entire ASOIAF world with a sense of humor. He's a viewpoint character, so we know that he actually has a conscience and often tries to do the right thing. But he is also a Lannister (f*king Lannisters) and acts with considerable loyalty toward his hideous family. Until they push him too far. Then he kills his father Tywin, who is a monster who pretty much needs killing. But the scene is robbed of any wish-fulfillment fantasy feel-good revenge emotion by the fact that he finds his girlfriend/whore in his father's chambers and kills her too. Understandable, yes — she not only testified against him at his trial (for a murder he didn't commit) but she did so in a manner that was excessively cruel and humiliating. Still, nothing about it feels good. It makes us uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable. I do keep using that word.
And that's why I think accusations of various "isms" are off the mark. Most of them argue from the standpoint of how we are "supposed" to feel — that it's sexist because this male character is right and this female character is wrong, or racist because this white-seeming character is right and this nonwhite-seeming character is wrong — but I don't think the text is nearly clear enough in its concept of right and wrong for that to be a compelling argument. Hamlet is the hero of the play, but are we really on his side when he stabs Polonius, rejects Ophelia, and arranges for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be killed in his stead? I don't think so.
There is pretty much one, and only one, clear message is the three books so far: listen to your direwolf.