Within the first few chapters I'd fallen in love with the setting. Jo says:
the planet itself is certainly one of the protagonists
and I know what she means, but I'm not sure I would phrase it that way. The setting is totally unique, and I found myself wondering whether GRRM had dreamed up the story and then created the setting in order to make the story work, or if the setting came first and he dropped the story in. Honestly I suspect they were both independent creations which he fiddled with to make them work together, because both setting and story are totally awesome.
Worlorn is a wandering planet which recently wandered close enough to a star-cluster to warm up enough to terraform. Folks from the Fringe planets decided to hold a years-long festival there with each planet contributing a city as well as plants & animals to help form the ecology. There are probably a million stories you could write, set during the Fringe Festival, yet this story is set following the festival as the planet moves further and further from the light, and every day is colder and darker than the previous.
Layered on top of this is the story of Dirk t'Larion and Gwen Delvado, and their interactions with the culture of High Kavalaar. High Kavalaar also seems like it could totally be the setting of a million fascinating little stories and explorations of a very unusual culture. Instead we just see the fringes of that culture, and the impact of its interactions with other human cultures.
There are so many awesome little bits. The power of naming something. What you need to do in order to respect yourself. How much our decisions depend on the people they will impact - you do things differently when your actions will affect someone you love. The role of violence. Whether refusing to react violently is a good idea or not. Learning to respect someone who is completely different and has totally different values.
But mostly what was awesome about this story, was that I had no idea where it was going most of the time. Done poorly this would have left me feeling very frustrated and unable to connect with the characters, but GRRM is awesome. Initially it seemed like a fairly straightforward setup. Gwen had sent for Dirk, he was going to show up and rescue her from whatever weird situation she had gotten herself involved in, they would travel off into the sunset. Then things got weird - people's reactions weren't quite right, you really couldn't imagine Gwen wanting to leave the guy she's obviously in love with for Dirk, and it because obvious very quickly that Dirk wasn't at all in love with Gwen. By about half-way through the book I had no idea where anything was going and couldn't really imagine a situation where Gwen & Dirk were going to survive the night, let alone get through another hundred pages. Then things started to get really interesting.
In most fantasy things are black and white. GRRM really excels at writing stories where the right choice just isn't clear, and often coming up with circumstances where there isn't actually a right choice. This is a story about how we often see the person we want to exist rather than the person who is actually there, and how we try to be the person who is being reflected back at us. The answer this story has come up with is that just being yourself won't necessarily work - what you really need to do is to find the right person to reflect you back at yourself.