Could ASOIAF have been written sans the Others? What drew me into AGOT in the beginning was the remarkably magicless fantasy setting (ok, there were some dragons at the end). It was just cutthroat medieval politics. The wildlings migrating south could for instance have been explained by the onset of a hyper cold winter (climate change is a bitch!). Or is the overarching fight between good v. evil that forces many of the main players to make hard choices necessary for the story as a whole?
AGOT is indeed the most tightly focused on the social/political milieu, exploring how people at various levels of power integrate themselves into unfamiliar surroundings, whether Jon at the Wall, Tyrion in the Vale, Dany on the Dothraki Sea, or the multiple Starks in King’s Landing. And it does a great job of that, for the most part (I’m of two minds as to how GRRM handled the Dothraki), but I have to admit that one of many reasons I much prefer ACOK to AGOT is how GRRM started layering in the magic, and specifically how well he intertwined it with said politics. It’s the best of both worlds.
Right from the book’s beginning, Team Dragonstone hovers exquisitely on the perhaps-imaginary line between the political and metaphysical plot:
Such folly. He leaned against the battlement, the sea crashing beneath him, the black stone rough beneath his fingers. Talking gargoyles and prophecies in the sky. I am an old done man, grown giddy as a child again. Had a lifetime’s hard-won wisdom fled him along with his health and strength? He was a maester, trained and chained in the great Citadel of Oldtown. What had he come to, when superstition filled his head as if he were an ignorant fieldhand?
And yet … and yet … the comet burned even by day now, while pale grey steam rose from the hot vents of Dragonmont behind the castle, and yestermorn a white raven had brought word from the Citadel itself, word long-expected but no less fearful for all that, word of summer’s end. Omens, all. Too many to deny.
That dynamic carries forward to Stannis as both rightful king and (ostensibly) prophetic hero, the philosophical clash between Davos and Melisandre, and Patchface interrupting the political machinations to offer divine spoilers to deaf ears.
Elsewhere in ACOK, you’ve got Bran’s struggle to reconcile his political and magical selves in the face of Jojen’s revelations and the Ironborn invasion; Arya’s story managing to incorporate both a brutal ground-level POV on the daily horrors of war and a haunted castle with a murder genie; Jon’s spy mission turned eldritch around the edges by the traces of magic in the stories, in his dreams, in the abandoned buildings and empty sheepfolds; Dany’s twinned trials in Qarth: the political (navigating the byzantine social and cultural requirements) and magical (climaxing with her dropping acid, getting a glimpse of the shit flashing in front of Patchface’s eyes 24/7, and nearly getting eaten by a bunch of mummy-sorcerers), both of them mirages and traps…
And the Others, of course, are the culmination of all of this: the definitive display of magic crashing the great game’s party. (We’ve got a microcosm brewing in Oldtown, where Euron will smash the “grey sheep” certain that they killed magic along his way to rolling out the red carpet for the white walkers.) Yet they’ve still served a vital purpose throughout. For all that AGOT is the least magic-oriented in general, the series still opens on the true enemy at work, and that informs everything that follows. The Others are meant to eat away at you from inside, quietly and slowly but relentlessly, forever haunting the background of every scene (as, again, they so effectively do in Jon’s ACOK arc). They (and the Crow’s Eye) are the feasting crows, Westeros’ reward for the war, come to turn your fields of dead against you. The war has rendered us unable to fight them, serving only to give them more soldiers. If you take that away, you lose not just an overarching villain, but an overarching thematic and emotional tension that is easy to take for granted because it’s literally been with us since the beginning of the story. Even before considering the climax to come in TWOW and ADOS, it would be a completely different story without the Others, without our terrible knowledge of them.
For example: Bran I AGOT, following on the heels of Will’s Prologue, is both the Ultimate Fantasy Opening Chapter (from Bran’s dialogue with Ned to the direwolf puppies) and a critique of everything that happens in it. For all that we’re meant to invest in Ned, his model of justice, and the entire political plot that goes with it, Dad just snuffed out the chance to warn the world about the Others. (Not saying Ned is responsible for the end of the world, to be very clear; just saying the political and magical narratives produce some extremely productive collisions, and will continue to right up to the end.)