This past weekend while at ReaderCon, I finally completed George R.R. Martin's first novel in his Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones, something I've been trying to do since I first bought the book in 2007. Epic fantasy doesn't do much for me: I'm annoyed at the sheer complexity of most of the stories, (most of it unnecessarily so) and while that's put me off from Martin's books for a long time, I'm coming to understand some key differences between his books and the others that I've often read. At the same time, I've been following along with the HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones, which helped me visualize which characters were which, along with the various storylines.
To my surprise, I liked A Game of Thrones, quite a bit, and not just because I enjoyed the television series. It was genuinely cool to read, and I can see where a lot of the praise comes from for the novels: the plotting is outstanding, but moreover, it sets itself apart from other epic fantasy by placing the reins in the hands of the characters.
From the onset, it's clear that there is a heavy push to define the actions of the story within the characters themselves. They drive the actions forward, rather than external factors: magical rings, destinies, prophecies, etc. Author and Times critic Lev Grossman claimed that Martin 'The American Tolkien', and I think that's an accurate description: in this modern day and age, the definitions that help to define the story have changed radically since the end of the 1st and 2nd World Wars, the environment that sparked J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The world isn't as polarized as it appears to have been back then: there's no epic war between the good of the Allies and the evil of the Axis powers. We live in a world full of problems that come from every side of the political spectrum, from across the world, and jumping into A Game of Thrones felt like something inspired by the last twenty years of geopolitics.
The reason for the complexity and incredible work on the characters here builds the story and keeps it running. Characters take on their own actions, and in turn, cause further actions. The attempted killing of Bran sparks anger from the Starks, who in turn kidnap Tyrion Lannister, which in turn sparks trouble of its own. The conflicts snowball, all within a greater story of politics and strife over the seven kingdoms.
This is in sharp contrast to other fantasy novels that I've read, notably The Lord of the Rings, which took the complete opposite approach: Frodo and Samwise aren't defining their own lives by taking the ring to Mordor, nor any of the supporting characters who aid them: their journey is defined by a greater need. Rather than their own strength of character defining their quest, the quest defines their strength of character. The books are no worse for wear due to the world view: Tolkien's own experiences during the 1st World War likely helped to shape is own world. The conflict that swept over Europe was so much larger and almost inconceivable to the person in the trenches: it's not a style of conflict where anybody would be able to influence the entire operation by themselves: the war defined the soldier's lives: it brought out the best that they had, and sometimes, asked for more.
The larger issue is one that falls out in A Song of Ice and Fire is the idea that a long lasting winter is coming, which pushes the first book into a bit of both worlds, and I suspect, the series as a whole, putting some constraints on what the characters will be able to do: just as much as we define the world around us, it has elements that are much larger, whether they're a destiny or simply the force of nature. What seems to set A Game of Thrones apart is that this larger problem is still approached through the actions of the characters: the conflicts of men go on in Westeros, while those manning the wall prepare for the inevitable worse as winter approaches.
There's other, character-based fantasy epics that come to mind: Harry Potter is a notable example of not only where characters help to define their actions, but actively seeks to contrast the idea that destiny and one's own choices define the character, especially in the run up to the finale in The Deathly Hallows. Of the two approaches, it's hard to say which is 'better' or even if it's a measure of quality for any given story. Certainly, it's worked well for A Game of Thrones.