Series: A Song of Ice and Fire #3
Published by Random House on 31st October 2000
Genres: Adult, High Fantasy
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Of the five contenders for power, one is dead, another in disfavor, and still the wars rage as violently as ever, as alliances are made and broken. Joffrey, of House Lannister, sits on the Iron Throne, the uneasy ruler of the land of the Seven Kingdoms. His most bitter rival, Lord Stannis, stands defeated and disgraced, the victim of the jealous sorceress who holds him in her evil thrall. But young Robb, of House Stark, still rules the North from the fortress of Riverrun. Robb plots against his despised Lannister enemies, even as they hold his sister hostage at King’s Landing, the seat of the Iron Throne. Meanwhile, making her way across a blood-drenched continent is the exiled queen, Daenerys, mistress of the only three dragons still left in the world…
But as opposing forces maneuver for the final titanic showdown, an army of barbaric wildlings arrives from the outermost line of civilization. In their vanguard is a horde of mythical Others – a supernatural army of the living dead whose animated corpses are unstoppable. As the future of the land hangs in the balance, no one will rest until the Seven Kingdoms have exploded in a veritable storm of swords…
My, that was traumatic.
So here we are at last. The third installment in George R. R. Martin’s magnificent series of blood and steel and general unhappiness. I was assured long before I picked up A Storm of Swords that it was going to wreak havoc upon my heart, even more so than the previous books had done, and so I did my best to brace my tender emotions for the impending doom.
It didn’t work.
Because Martin, it seems, has absolutely no limits or provisions whatsoever when killing off his characters. No matter what your importance to the story may be, no matter how big of a role you may have played thus far, you are vulnerable to the creator’s mighty pen.
And it’s just awful.
A lot of people die in A Storm of Swords. This series has never been a stranger to death, of course, but it’s different here, because the killings don’t fall primarily upon the unnamed masses or small, secondary players this time. Oh, no. Characters who you would swear to the Seven (or R’hllor) to be untouchable are sent to their graves in these pages, and at such a volume that you can’t help but wonder if Martin will have anybody left by the final book. The consequence is a reading primarily marked by emotional highs and lows. Expect to go from cheering at the demise of one to the uncontrollable sobbing at the loss of another. Frequently.
And while it’s nice to see, amidst all of this pandemonium, Martin break away from the general storytelling format that he used for books one and two (slow beginning, death of important character halfway through, general mayhem ensues until the end), I can’t help but feel that the decision may have weakened the overall plotting, despite all of its thrills. The book in its entirety plows on at a breakneck speed, and is certainly nothing less than eventful from start to finish. But that’s the problem. The constant high keeps things exciting at first, but eventually turns exhausting; the repeated shocks are whipped out so quickly that they almost do not have enough time to truly settle in before the reader is sent careening into the next one. This is especially apparent near the end, when several long-standing mysteries are finally answered, with a few more unexpected deaths thrown in alongside for good measure. It’s fascinating, yes, but it almost feels like too much, too quickly, as though the author is pouring everything that he can think of into this single volume. Where’s the restraint?
I think the problem is that, despite my reservations, there really doesn’t need to be any. I sped through this one so quickly that I feel as though I simply didn’t give myself the chance to digest the many developments as they occurred, to really appreciate all of the twists and turns as they came. I get the impression that a slower, more casual reread would likely give me a better appreciation for Martin’s pacing, but I could, of course, be wrong. Time will tell, presumably.
I suppose that my complaint also stems from an uncertainty about the future of the series. With so many big things happening in this installment, the story has advanced much further than I thought it would have by this point. Now that we’ve come this far, I just can’t imagine what else Martin has up his sleeve. Who else can he kill? Where else can he send his survivors? I think that my expectations for the remaining books need to be realigned and my perspective broadened. It seems that I became so accustomed to the nature of the story as it was earlier in the series (in terms of scope and direction) that so much change so soon was a bit too much for me to absorb.
I have but one other small issue with A Storm of Swords. From the beginning, I’ve been nothing but impressed by the deftness with which Martin has been able to juggle so many characters and storylines simultaneously. His consistency and memory is astounding, and I’m amazed anew every time he resurrects some unresolved narrative thread to continue or tie up, since many are ones that I had all but forgotten about. I feel, however, that his normally tight storytelling suffers ever so slightly here, and winds up a bit sloppy as a result. Several times I found myself puzzled for one reason or another. Why did he decide to do that? When did she come to that realization? How did they come by this information? I can’t help but wonder whether some of this ambiguity was done on purpose. Did Martin simply decide that his audience was intelligent enough to reach some conclusions without his having to spell things out? Or did he genuinely forget to clearly define certain developments? I can’t say that I have any clear reason to believe one possibility over the other. Either way, there are moments throughout this installments that seem a bit too vague, or taken too much for granted by the author.
Looking back, my qualms seem large ones, but I’d be lying if I were to tell you that they truly are. Again, I suspect that these “faults” may only have presented themselves, or seemed so important, because of my rushing through the novel. Given how weighty it was, it probably wasn’t the best of ideas to speed through it so. Ah, well.
Regardless, let me make this very clear: A Storm of Swords is fantastic. So very much happens, and it takes the story and its characters in fascinating (and unexpected) new directions, leaving no one unchanged or unaffected in some important way. Martin’s writing, though occasionally a bit repetitive (but, honestly, it’s impossible to avoid such an issue entirely, regardless of how talented your pen may be) is as wonderful as ever, oftentimes moving and always expertly crafted. And, perhaps most importantly, there is real feeling behind the words. I laughed frequently. I gasped just as often. I felt tears prick my eyes more than once, and was routinely forced to withhold bitter denouncements and delighted cheering. There are simply moments – some big, some small – that force you to take a moment to realize just how much you’ve come to appreciate these fictional people and their struggles, to care about their lives.
Martin may be a cruel man when it comes to our emotional well-being, but he certainly knows how to tell a good story.
A Storm of Swords is huge, heartbreaking, and nothing if not intense. Be prepared for tragedy, and a lot of it. But, most of all, be prepared to turn the final page satisfied. Never before has a writer managed to craft such a hugely ambitious and thoroughly realized world, one so easy to get lost in. The problems are small, the achievements are vast, and I can only approach the next book with dread and excitement.
What have you done to me, Martin? Surely this sort of thing can’t be healthy.