This review contains spoilers for A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, Books 1 and 2 in A Song of Ice and Fire.
George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire did much to reinvigorate the epic fantasy genre through its first two volumes. Fans became ‘comfortable’ with its inescapable realism, moral ambiguity, and the idea that no character is safe. Apparently not satisfied with his readers merely squirming, Martin drops A Storm of Swords like a ton of bricks, forcing us to re-evaluate everything we thought we knew. A Storm of Swords is a game-changer.
The throne of King Joffrey has been temporarily secured through his victory in the Battle of the Blackwater and a new alliance between houses Lannister and Tyrell. Joffrey is compelled to cast aside Sansa Stark and marry Margaery Tyrell, but the Tyrells have planned their own moves in the game of thrones. Robb Stark, King in the North and the major remaining threat to Joffrey, has to face the consequences of a broken marriage pact and his mother’s decision to release Jaime Lannister.
On the Wall, the remnants of the Night’s Watch have retreated from an onslaught of Others and wait at Castle Black for the massed forces of Mance Rayder, the King-beyond-the-Wall. Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen plans to build an army capable of taking the Iron Throne.
Brilliantly convoluted plotting
With each book Martin has increased the scope of A Song of Ice and Fire, wisely introducing one additional major faction one per book. He is not afraid to tread all over reader expectations and change the game, particularly by inserting new players who had been operating behind the scenes. Having met the Tyrells in A Clash of Kings, we are introduced to the Martells, a powerful house with long memories and strong ties to the Targaryens. The number of pieces Martin has on the board and the skill of his maneuvers is a testament to his incredible talent. He patiently builds the story to an incredible climax, and the build up is as engrossing as the payoff. With one of the final scenes, Martin stomps all over our assumptions about who has been pulling the strings since A Game of Thrones. The revelations he skilfully weaves into the story are breathtaking.
So rich you can smell it
The amount of information Martin fills the page with can be overwhelming, but at the same time it serves to give an immense solidity to his world. The pivotal scene in the book (you’ll know it when you read it) is a sensory assault. The atmosphere that Martin creates with his prose draws the reader in so completely that you just don’t see the knife he’s about to drive into your gut with one of the most memorable twists in modern fantasy. Lest we forget, Martin can also write scenes of heartrending beauty, such as the wonderfully serene moments when Sansa Stark, having been thoroughly abused, plays innocently in the snow of the Eyrie.
Not yet complex enough, apparently
Having praised Martin’s world building so fervently, it is saying something that the characters remain the crowning glory of A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin has absolutely outdone himself in bringing to us the viewpoint of Jaime Lannister, the despised Kingslayer. Without alteration or excuse for a moment of what has come before, the reader comes to understand the difficult decisions Jaime has had to make, which paint his past actions in a very different light. By the end of A Storm of Swords, Jaime is almost a character to cheer for. It was certainly to the advantage of this transformation that Martin gave very little time to Jaime in A Clash of Kings, though his one appearance was characteristically repulsive, in keeping with the impression we get of the man from the perspective of those who hate and fear him. You can’t help but applaud Martin for the depth and complexity each of his characters possesses.
Not afraid to use a trope
The human drama is still central to the narrative, but Martin continues his trend of building our exposure to the fantastic with each book. In particular, A Storm of Swords introduces a significant prophecy that seems to be known right across Westeros and has obvious implications for the outcome of the conflicts in A Song of Ice and Fire. By the time we come into contact with the denizens from across the Wall, there can be no doubt that we aren’t in Kansas anymore (you know, if the dragons didn’t give it away).
Why should you read this book?
A Storm of Swords contains incredible payoffs for both the dedicated fan and the casual reader. Although A Storm of Swords is longer than the earlier volumes in the series, your perseverance will be rewarded because it is even better as well.