A Week of Ice and Fire, Day Three!
I couldn’t find the laughably terrible cover that I have at home at a suitable resolution online, and the new “classy CG” covers are just awful so I’ve declined the opportunity to put them up. Just imagine a book with a really cool cover, because damn fantasy gets poorly treated in the cover stakes.
A Storm of Swords is the most exciting entry in A Song of Ice and Fire of the first three. It’s interesting to say this because it’s essentially an exercise in sadism for Martin from start to finish. Gelling in a way that A Clash of Kings never quite managed, the sheer dynamism on display makes for an incredibly entertaining book. Certainly, the entertainment value falls within the bounds of believability, but … truly, nothing is sacred to Martin, and that is amazing.
Contains spoilers for A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings
In the North, Rob has to treat with the Freys after wounding their honour. Arya, meanwhile, lurches from bad situation to worse in search of her family, and a questionably freed Jaime tries to make his way back to King’s Landing.
In the South, Davos tries to protect Stannis from both Melisandre and himself. At King’s Landing, Tyrion is tortured by his awful family and tries to make the best of his situation and Sansa continues dreams of escape.
On the Wall, Jon Snow attempts both diplomacy and self-preservation, while across yet another sea Daenerys embarks on a new campaign of her own: for an army and something else besides.
The first thought that I had upon finishing A Storm of Swords was “I never saw that coming”, but the same could be said of so many moments in the book on the whole. Martin has mastered unpredictable but logical plotting and, unlike A Clash of Kings, he doesn’t have to rely upon sorcery to provide it. With such a large cast of characters, there is an infinite spectrum of plausible acts for them to commit. While one may not exactly like what Martin does to his characters, they can at least understand them.
The momentum that Martin builds up is unparalleled by anything in the previous novels, largely because he has finally managed to converge some of the POV characters in a meaningful way. There are a series of alternating chapters set inside a great hall and its outskirts. Where before he might have ended a chapter on the precise moment that would make a reader groan for more but have to wait hundreds of pages, Martin here offers an uninterrupted onslaught of his most involved storytelling yet. These are breathless chapters and well met, instantly worth the thousands of pages read to reach that point.
The enthusiasm that Martin feels for his work and his world translates well to the page and infects the reader. There are several points in this novel – not even chapter stops – where I had to put it down for a moment to either prepare myself or simply say “fuck yeah” (academic critical response). Martin’s choices are bold and brutal, but not contemptuous of his characters or readers. People are still talking about the Red Wedding ten years later, and with good reason. There is little point going over a highlights reel of this book because, for once, every POV character, even Davos, gets at least a streak of genius prose and plotting.
Worth particular note, though, is the introduction of Jaime as a POV character. Up to this point he has been little more than a sketch, an extension of Cersei tempered only by Tyrion’s love for him. By getting some actual page time with the man we can see where he comes from – albeit in a severely diminished capacity. The Jaime we have is tempered by a touch of humility, although he still has a mouth on him. Still, we can understand where he comes from and the place that he has in his family and in the monarchy. His relationship with Brienne is one well worth exploring, and Martin makes the most of the character combination. Once more the reader is made aware that villains aren’t cut and dry, or necessarily villainous – and this is a big call considering some of Jaime’s actions in A Game of Thrones.
I used to have clear favourites, but now most all of the POV characters have their own special place in my consideration. Even Sansa (but only so far). It’s hard to fathom just how good basically all of the plot points are without giving them all away or simply rehashing them, so I’ll just leave it at that. (That said: Daenerys! Jon Snow! Samwell! Perfection!)
A Storm of Swords is successful not simply because it is more deftly constructed than A Clash of Kings but because there are great equalisers at play that tie into the seasonal themes of the larger series. It’s not fun if some characters are perpetually winning while others are losing; plainly it’s most fun if everyone is losing equally. I’m not quite sure that’s what Martin was going for but it’s very near to what he’s achieved, and it makes for a blast of a read.