A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
When George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords (2000) begins, the War of the Five Kings has just ended, and it looks like the Lannisters have won the realm. They control King’s Landing, Westeros’ capital city, as well as the fifteen-year-old King Joffrey. Stannis Baratheon is in retreat, and their remaining foes, the Starks and the Greyjoys, have turned on each other rather than allying against a common enemy. Basically, the bad guys have won, but A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE isn’t over.
Martin highlights that there are still perfectly legitimate threats to the realm, especially the wildlings, the Others, and the giants that are invading from beyond the Wall. Jon Snow is charged with infiltrating the wildling army, an excuse that Martin uses to show off how cool it would be to live in a land that is in perpetual winter. Yes, the undead attack at night, but there are also giants riding mammoths.
Although A Game of Thrones felt like a comparatively “realistic” fantasy, Martin now displays a great gift for writing about the supernatural. In A Storm of Swords, the best example may be Lord Beric Dondarrion, who is repeatedly brought back to life, but never healed. Martin spares no expense describing Beric’s corpse: “One of his eyes was gone, Arya saw, the flesh about the socket was scarred and puckered, and he had a dark black ring all about his neck.” There’s more, and it’s Martin’s continued dedication to serving up the horrors of heroism alongside the benefits of villainy that makes these novels such an unusual brand of fantasy. After all, what would A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE be if Ned Stark had been rescued in A Game of Thrones?
Fortunately or not, Ned wasn’t rescued. However, Martin does a fine job of bringing Ned into A Storm of Swords. Martin adds new dimensions to Ned’s character through a fable that Meera and Jojen tell Bran that hints at Ned’s first love, through Arstan’s descriptions of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen and the rebellion against his father, and through Stannis’ constant reminder that “Ned Stark was no friend of mine.” Up to this point, Ned has been one of the most heroic lords of the realm. To some extent, he’s almost as much a father figure to the reader as he is to his children, and it’s disconcerting (but fascinating) to discover these new dimensions of Ned Stark: he was hated; he was loved; he was a great swordsman and a talented general. He left all that behind to go home to Winterfell, rule responsibly, and raise a family.
Many of the greatest moments in A Storm of Swords turn on new twists to characters we thought we could safely revile. There’s a dark humor at work as Martin describes Arya’s attempts to kill the Hound every night while they travel together, but before we know, we watch as the two of them are forced to fight side-by-side in one of the best bar (inn) fights fantasy has to offer. Still, the biggest twist must surely be Jaime Lannister, who is a new viewpoint character in A Storm of Swords. Up to this point, Jaime has seemed like a gold plated scumbag. However, as he begins to risk his life to save Brienne of Tarth, it’s tough not to warm to him. Perhaps he’s more heroic than we thought, though I feel compelled to remind readers that he tossed a child out of a tower window in the first novel and still feels no remorse.
“Meanwhile” would be a useful word to describe the rest of the novel, though only because these storylines are so detached from one another. Daenerys is fighting slavers across the Narrow Sea as she learns what it means to be a queen. Ser Davos is learning to read. Sam is learning what it means to be brave. Sansa is (still) learning that life is not a song. Robb is learning to rule. Bran is learning to open his third eye. There is a lot happening in A Storm of Swords, and the absence of a transparently unified plot could have led to a terribly confused novel.
Fortunately, everything that happens in A Storm of Swords is succinct and thrilling, and Martin weaves just enough threads between these characters to assure his audience that all of this is heading to a common fate for all of Westeros. So although there is no common storyline uniting these characters yet, A Storm of Swords is still a winner. In fact, it might even prove to be the best entry in the series.
The Good, The Bad, & the Ugly. That cliché is the most accurate description of A SONG OF AND ICE AND FIRE. When I finished A Game of Thrones, I foolishly thought I had a clear view of who was the Good and who was the Bad. After A Clash of Kings I again grew bold enough to make that judgment call. Now I’ve finished A Storm of Swords, and Martin has shown me he’s the master and this pupil better not chose sides.
Its easy to tell who the Ugly are; freaks, dwarves, undead, the scarred, the drunken, and the craven, but whose side are they on? (Don’t think the handsome ones can stay out of those ranks either, not with the “Bloody Mummers” or “The Mountain Who Rides” roaming the countryside.)
This epic power struggle could just as well have happened in medieval times. (That is, if the dead could walk, the seasons last for years, and prehistoric mammals had survived.)
While the list of characters seems endless, each one is believable and intriguing, and in each chapter they take turns showing you this tale through their eyes. Trust no one, because the most noble can fall to shame and the most despicable can become selfless.
Most of all, be warned: George R.R. Martin has no mercy. At any given moment, anyone — and I do mean anyone — can die.
I’m almost out of breath after completing George RR Martin’s A Storm of Swords. Each chapter is like its own short story with its own little cliffhanger. Martin’s characters are dramatic, melodramatic, genuine, realistic, and so bold and colorfully drawn that I find myself thinking about them in between readings. After each book I’ve needed to take a little breather, but find myself drawn back to the stories and the characters’ individual and interconnected dramas, desperate to find out what’s happened next, while enjoying the immersion in Martin’s world.
While some of Martin’s characters are clear ‘black hats,’ and some are ‘white’… there’s more ‘gray’ than anything else, which adds to the realism of the ever-changing qualities that the characters display. Some of the black hats start moving toward white, and some of the white drift towards the black. Like real life, few of Martin’s story lines have true endings. Even when a character is killed, the ramifications are often far reaching and impact Martin’s landscape across multiple books in the series.
One couldn’t really get their arms around A Storm of Swords without having the background of the previous two books. The author doesn’t pander to one looking for detailed background and reminders. He relies on the memories of the reader to connect the dots until Martin’s good and ready to connect them outright.
This is the first book in the series that really takes a full leap into fantasy, whereas the first two were more medieval historical novels set in an otherworldly location. Martin introduces some of the evil that’s been threatening from the north — Giants, Mammoths, Shadowcats, and the living dead. There’s a sprinkle of magic from Melisandre and her Lord of the Light. And oh yeah, and the three dragons, with their mother Daenerys, are threatening Westeros from the East.
What drives this series are the characters and storylines. And there are a lot of each. Martin chews through pages like a direwolf through a deer, but things are never dull, and the storylines never dry up. The final 300+ pages absolutely fly by. A Storm of Swords is as solid, deep and satisfying as the previous two.
Rebecca has read the book in two parts (A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow & A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold), which she has reviewed separately. She gives each 5 stars:
A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow & A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold
A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow
I continue to make my way slowly through George R.R. Martin’s magnum opus, several years after everyone else joined, then abandoned, then rejoined the band wagon. With the conclusion of the HBO television adaptation in sight, it would appear that Martin’s saga is finally drawing to a close, even if the books are still being published at a snail’s pace.
The third book in A SONG OF FIRE AND ICE is so long that many paperback editions divided into two: the first, Steel and Snow, and the second, Blood and Gold. This is a review of the first one, which stretches from Jaime and Brienne setting off for King’s Landing to Jon fleeing Ygritte and the wildlings. For those already familiar with the overarching story, be warned that the famous weddings are not included in this volume (a problem rectified by purchasing either Blood and Gold or the complete text of this particular book).
The Seven Kingdoms have been torn apart by war, but the powerful Lannister family seem to be the closest to victory: having won the battle for Blackwater Bay, they have scattered the men who serve under Stannis Baratheon and installed the young king Joffrey on the Iron Throne.
But of course, nothing is very that cut-and-dry in a Game of Thrones novel: young Robb Stark, son of the wrongfully executed Ned Stark, is still rallying forces in the north, and Stannis is far from defeated, especially with the red priestess Melisandre insisting that his reign is foretold by the God R’hllor. Meanwhile, across the seas to the east, young Daenerys Targaryen is mustering an army to join her ever-growing trio of dragons, and Jon Snow discovers strange secrets among the people of the far north, slowly but surely rallying in the winterlands beyond the Wall.
More than anything else, it’s the sheer scope and detail of Martin’s created world that inspires a deep sense of awe. Geographically and historically speaking, it’s probably the most in-depth fantasy world since Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings, though it’s infused with a more complex morality. There is no true good or evil here, just human beings with varying degrees of integrity, set against a difficult world that tests them at every turn.
In every family, faction or organization, you’ll find characters that are heroic, pitiable or loathsome. It’s hard to root against the Lannisters when you know Tyrion Lannister’s fate is caught up with theirs, and likewise you know that every victory the northerners secure strengthens the likes of Roose Bolton and his monstrous son as surely as they do the noble Starks.
You don’t usually see much of religion in fantasy fiction, but Martin creates several fascinating belief systems which guide the behaviour of many key characters; particularly the worship of R’hllor, a god of light and fire that’s pitted against one of darkness and ice in a dualistic conflict. His name is preached by the priestess Melisandre, but also pops up in several unexpected locations in the Seven Kingdoms, with complete with miracles and prophecies that ring eerily true.
In fact, supernatural occurrences are on the rise in A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow. Naturally there have always been dragons and ice-zombies, but now we have prophetic dreams, living shadows, and men raised from the dead. It all points to a great upheaval in the history of the Seven Kingdoms, and most of the characters are simply caught up in its wake: Arya and Sansa Stark, each struggling to survive in drastically different environments, Bran Stark and his companions Jojen and Meera, piecing together the mysterious parts of their family histories, Cersei and Tywin Lannister, trying to consolidate their power despite turmoil within the court, Davos Seaworth, fearing for his king’s soul in the midst of religion fanaticism…
The scope of the story is just breath-taking; the incredible detail and interlocking mysteries, the vast history and the gradual character development … it’s no wonder these books take so long to get published. And heck, even without a conclusion in sight (save in the HBO series) for me at least the journey is worth the agonising wait for more…
A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold
If you’re reading the version of A Storm of Swords that cuts the lengthy book into two parts, then the second part (Blood and Gold) takes us from Daenerys’s arrival at the gates of Yunkai to the rescue of Sansa from Lysa in the Eyrie (with the reveal of Lady Stoneheart in the epilogue). Having the book divided into two parts made me realize just how huge Martin’s magnum opus really is, and I was struck all over again by its scale and detail — from the epic descriptions of geography and history to the little details like meals and heraldry. It’s all the more amazing considering it comes from the brain of just one man, as other expansive fictional universes (like Star Wars or Star Trek) are the work of many people over the course of several decades.
And this is perhaps Martin at the height of his story-telling powers, with two of his greatest narrative twists (hint: they involve weddings) contained here. In this volume Daenerys Targaryen continues her conquest of the eastern cities, leaving a trail of freed slaves and enraged nobility in her wake. Being a conqueror has its complications and Daenerys herself is still a teenage girl, quick to lose her temper and easily distracted by a pair of bright blue eyes in a hired mercenary.
Meanwhile civil war still wages across Westeros, causing chaos and discord that is signified perfectly in the scattering of the Stark family, each one struggling to survive without their proverbial pack. Young king Robb Stark and his mother Catelyn work to keep the northern lands safe from the tyrannical boy-king Joffrey, who holds their sister/daughter Sansa Stark hostage in the capital city. Meanwhile Arya Stark is captured by a disgraced knight, Bran Stark is on a secret mission of his own, and their bastard brother Jon Snow is kept busy on the Wall, soon to be overrun with wildlings from the north — with a much greater supernatural threat on their heels.
Meanwhile the Lannister siblings: twins Cersei and Jamie and their dwarf brother Tyrion, are at the height of their power yet still at the mercy of their father’s machinations. Tyrion is forced into a marriage he doesn’t want before being accused of a crime he didn’t commit, Cersei tries to grasp power through her son Joffrey, while Jamie struggles to return home to his sister with the help of a knight called Brienne: a large and unattractive, but infinitely capable and brave female warrior.
This brief synopsis doesn’t do the sprawling storylines in A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold justice. Alternating between all these characters and keeping the timelines straight is a feat in itself, and I’m always impressed by the handle Martin has on his created world: the arcs of the characters, the flow of the plot, the intricate world-building; they all weave together perfectly. (Of course, I’m also aware that this is the last book that does have a handle on these things — after this the author begins to struggle with the sheer scope of his story).
But for now at least, everything is firing on all cylinders. Subversions of the typical fantasy clichés are constantly catching a reader off-guard, and the attention to realistic detail — from the weight of a shield to the pain of an injury — keep things both grounded and suspenseful, knowing as you do that danger and death stalks all these characters.
Comparisons with the HBO show are inevitable, and though a few things are done better on television (the bond between Jamie/Brienne, the characterization of Margaery Tyrell) the characters are much more nuanced and three-dimensional on the page. Tyrion, for example, is a much darker and morally ambiguous character in the book, and Littlefinger not so obviously a villain. Then there are the things that didn’t make it onto the show at all: an Arya imposter, Robb’s marriage to Jeyne Westerling, Sansa’s disguise as Alayne Stone — it’s exciting to realize that the show and books are significantly parting ways from this point on.
I may have arrived late to the party, but I’ve come to appreciate what George R.R. Martin has achieved with his magnum opus — now it’s time to settle in for the long wait to see if he can stick the landing.
Spot-on review, Ryan. Its got me even more anxious for the Dance of Dragons release next week.
I am going to have to find time to read Feast for Crows again, though I remember it being a bit of a let down after the first three.
It was for me too. Still good, but not up to the level of the first three. Wertzone has some really good recaps if you run out of time.
This book made me want to throw it against the wall in anger and disbelief. It made me root for the death of a child (and then despise myself), love a hated character, cry angry tears, and bite my nails because of all the suspense.