This is the third volume of Martin's highly successful series, A Song of Ice and Fire. The series is epic fiction on a grand scale. A Storm of Swords jumps between no fewer than ten different viewpoint characters, twelve if you count the prologue and epilogue. (The astute reader will have gathered by now that being the viewpoint character in a George Martin prologue or epilogue is NOT conducive to one's health.) Through these characters' eyes, we have met dozens of other important characters and countless subplots, so I will not attempt a thorough plot synopsis for A Storm of Swords, but here are some of the key ingredients:
The struggle for control of the Seven Kingdoms is going very well for the Lannisters. With the support of Highgarden and Dorne - Martin introduces us to several new characters from these southern regions, and they are interesting folk indeed - King Joffrey's forces now badly outnumber all of his foes.
Even though he has won every battle he has fought, Robb Stark's position continues to weaken, and he faces growing insubordination from within his own ranks. His bannermen, particularly the Karstarks, are enraged when Catelyn, without Robb's approval, releases Jaime Lannister, instructing Brienne of Tarth to exchange him for her daughters Sansa and Arya. (Catelyn does not suspect what a difficult journey lies ahead of Jaime and Brienne.) It is not certain whether Roose Bolton can be trusted - Robb remains unaware of the role Bolton's bastard son played in the destruction of Winterfell. Most importantly, Lord Frey of the Twins withdraws his support entirely when Robb falls in love and marries, breaching his promise to wed one of Lord Frey's daughters. Robb must win Lord Frey back to his cause if he is to have any hope of recapturing the North from the Greyjoys or successfully engaging the Lannisters.
Stannis Baratheon has returned to Dragonstone, licking his wounds from the Battle of the Blackwater Rush. The mysterious Melisandre is still convinced that Stannis will ultimately prevail, with her unorthodox help. Stannis' faithful servant Davos remains distrustful of Melisandre and her methods.
The only Lannister for whom things have not gone well is Tyrion. He begins the book recovering from grave wounds he suffered, he believes at his sister Cersei's instruction, in the Battle of Blackwater Rush. His relationship with his father Tywin, who is now calling all the shots for the Lannisters, deteriorates throughout the novel. His love life could hardly be worse. Finally, Tyrion will stand accused of a serious crime he did not commit.
Meanwhile, nothing is coming easy for the other Stark children (except perhaps Rickon, who is offstage). Sansa is delighted to be released from her betrothal to Joffrey, but this only leaves her a pawn for various players interested in her potential claim to Winterfell. Arya continues her meandering quest to be reunited with her family, encountering among others the Lightning Lord, Beric Dondarrion, and his peculiar band of outlaws and the Hound, Sandor Clegane. Brandon works his way north, in hopes of learning more about the strange talents he is developing.
In the North, the Night's Watch is in a dire position. In this novel they finally engage both the wildlings commanded by Mance Rayder and the supernatural Others, and they appear hopelessly overmatched. As commanded by Qhorin Halfhand, Jon Snow has joined the wildlings. He waits for an opportunity to turn on his new comrades, even as he becomes romantically engaged with one of them. Some difficult choices lie ahead of him.
Finally, across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen proves extremely formidable in pursuing her goal of challenging for control of the Seven Kingdoms.
With the first two volumes of this series, I was extremely impressed with the quality of Martin's writing, but dismayed by his leisurely pace of advancing the story. With this third installment, my patience has been rewarded. Martin wrote this book intending that the next three volumes would pick up the action several years after the end of A Storm of Swords. This plan prompted him to tie up a number of loose ends and advance his major story lines substantially by the end of A Storm of Swords. Martin has reportedly altered his plan in the course of writing the next book, A Feast for Crows, and there will not be a gap between the third and fourth books after all. Still, I think A Storm of Swords benefited from the fact that Martin thought there was going to be a break in the action. In marked contrast to A Clash of Kings, in this book all of the major characters (with one arguable exception) take part in important events that significantly advance their stories.
In the previous two books, I was particularly disappointed at how much the story focused on the struggle for the crown of the Seven Kingdoms, at the expense of the story lines concerning the threats to the Seven Kingdoms from the Others in the North and Daenerys and her followers across the sea. In this book, those story lines catch up significantly. Jon assumes a crucial role in determining whether the Night's Watch can hope to hold the Wall against the wildlings and the Others. After accomplishing little in A Clash of Kings, Daenarys begins to show the abilities and accumulate the level of forces necessary to be a legitimate threat to the Seven Kingdoms. (The key chapters in which she builds strength were published as a stand-alone novella in Asimov's Science Fiction magazine's December 2000 issue under the title "Path of the Dragon.")
I was also delighted to find that in this book the fantastic elements of the story, which were only hinted at in the preceding two volumes, are finally coming into play. Impressively, Martin manages to blend in these fantastic elements without losing any of the gritty realism that has marked this series.
As we have seen in A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, one means Martin is not afraid to employ to advance the story is to kill off important characters. On the one hand, this is much to his credit - Martin's readers never suffer the loss of dramatic tension that occurs in so many epic stories once the reader realizes that, no matter how badly outnumbered, the heroes are simply impervious to the forces of evil massed against them. (Think of the swarms of stormtroopers in the Star Wars movies, all of whom were apparently deliberately chosen for their poor marksmanship.) On the other hand, the deaths of certain characters seem in hindsight to render meaningless events earlier in the series that at the time we believed to be crucial. Perhaps this is inevitable in a series of this scale. If the reader is going to follow over a dozen viewpoint characters through a multi-thousand page epic, he must be prepared for some of their actions to lead to dead ends - for every scene to lead inexorably toward a tidy conclusion would only seem contrived.
We knew from A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings that Martin has succeeded in creating a fascinating world peopled with believable characters entangled in a powerful epic story. This is no small feat, but it is another matter again to draw together the disparate elements of such an epic tale into a satisfying resolution. I am delighted to report that A Storm of Swords strongly evidences that Martin is up to that challenge.
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