Daniel Abrahams' A Shadow in Summer is an example of a nastyworld novel I find plausible. There's slavery considered as normal, treachery, revenge, and crime (and no implausible thieves' guilds, either ), but somehow, I get the impression of a lot of people spending most of their time doing useful things, and that's missing in Martin.
I'm not sure how much of the difference is in what's actually going on, and how much is subtle matters of prose and emphasis. When I read Martin, I feel like I'm in the hands of an utterly competent modern fiction writer (this especially applies to the first book), and I'm willing to be pulled along in compulsive page turning. There's a lot of direct connection to the character's emotions.
Abrahams takes a slightly more distant and dignified approach. His world seems as though it's absolutely there rather than being made up for entertainment. (I'm sure I'm describing my impression of his books accurately, not quite so sure about my implication about Martin's.)
I would dearly love to see some discussion of emotional distance in fiction. It's not the same thing as immersion. LOTR is highly immersive, but for the most part (Frodo's suffering might be an exception), I'm more involved with the story than the characters. Heinlein's characters go through a lot, but it isn't central in this reader's awareness. That's a lot of why while I liked Stross' Saturn's Children a lot, most of it didn't feel like Heinlein. Just thinking about RAH's Job and I Will Feel No Evil (probably the two novels most focused on central characters), the emphasis still seems more outwards towards the world and its details.
Anyway, back to A Shadow in Summer-- as you may gather, I liked it and recommend it. It's got an original magic system, slowly going sour. Poets can make demi-gods with magical powers, but it's quite difficult, and no demi-god (they're called andats-- the one thing weak about the book is that the names aren't evocative) can be made twice, though sometimes they can be maintained for the lives of more than one poet, and you're stuck with any subtle flaw in their making. A lot of the story is driven by a city being economically (and therefore, militarily) dependent on one destructive andat. Virtue is going to be *very* expensive, and people don't want to try it.
I've only read the first book-- if it isn't too much of a spoiler, could someone tell me whether the very harsh methods used to train poets is part of what's going wrong with the magic?
The book has more about economics than the average fantasy novel, and it all looked sensible. It also has an accountant as a major character, and it's refreshing to have a kickass character who doesn't literally kick ass in person.
I can't think of any other novel where the characters are so alert about each other's emotions.
I keep mentioning all these quiet virtues that the novel has, and I'm concerned that I'm making it not seem interesting. It has quite enough sex and violence and love and anger and intrigue and hidden identity to have made up a much flashier story, but somehow all that combined with the steady view and good sense adds up to a very satisfying book.
When I reread it, the comments were better than I remembered.
I'm happy enough to read about thieves' guilds, I just don't believe in them.