A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin (2000) 1216 p.

(Spoilers for A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, but not for this book itself.)

I felt like George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series might be one of those destined to go downhill, since the first book was really good and the second only quite good. Fortunately A Storm of Swords, the third in the series, puts a spike in the line graph. Although it starts out slow, the final third of this book (which still amounts to a hefty 400 pages) is as good as the series has ever been.

A Game of Thrones impresses early on when Bran is thrown from a window, and later on when Ned Stark is suddenly and shockingly beheaded. A Clash of Kings didn’t have any shock moments that quite lived up to that, but A Storm of Swords has one that is, if anything, better than those first two put together. It’s not only a violent and grisly end to a character, but to a character who was embodying a whole lot of hope – a death symbolic of the snuffing out of a torch, proof that sometimes the good guys die and the bad guys win. I read in “The Monthly” (paywalled) that this aspect of Martin’s writing was inspired by the death of his friends in the Vietnam War; by a desire to overturn Tolkien’s noble, orderly world and replace it with something more real.

But I don’t want to suggest that great fiction derives from an author’s willingness to spare nobody from the butcher’s knife. Killing off a character too early can be a critical error; indeed, there’s a shock moment in A Clash of Kings which proves to be false, when Bran and Rickon are killed, and which I immediately knew was a psyche-out, because Martin had invested far too much time in foreshadowing Bran’s abilities, and his character arc was nowhere near complete. Killing off a character like that for sheer shock value is a mistake, and I’m glad he didn’t really do it. But Ned Stark’s time had come, and so had that of the unfortunate character in A Storm of Swords. And, as I said, it’s important not just for the death itself but for the manner in which that death shakes up the plot. (In fact, I somewhat guessed it was coming, because another character was about to finally reach safe haven – and I knew Martin wouldn’t let that happen.)

It’s not just this shock moment, either. The final third of the book involves a lot of great story threads finally seeming to push on from the doldrums they’d encountered: Sansa’s passive-aggressive imprisonment in King’s Landing, Tyrion’s relationship with his family, the growing threat beyond the Wall, and Jaime languishing in solitary confinement. I mentioned in my review of A Game of Thrones that it was impressively well-paced, and that it was one of the only 1000-page epics I’d ever read where I never felt my time was being wasted or the story was bloated. That wasn’t quite as true of A Clash of Kings, and it’s not true of the first half of A Storm of Swords, but by the end of the book I felt like things were really moving at a tremendous pace, and I was fairly keen to dive into the next book. (I didn’t, but still.) The only issue I have is the story of Daenerys, which at this stage is almost entirely disconnected from the main plot. The stories of the other characters merge into each other quite well, but when Daenerys pops up, it feels like I’m being interrupted and forced to read a different book entirely. Hopefully she’ll return home soon enough.

The plot moves on to the point where the title of the series (which, thanks to the TV adaptation, is now more likely to be known as “Game of Thrones”) is starting to make sense – there’s an even greater war brewing, between the fiery God of the south and the frozen evil in the north. I’m interested to see how that turns out; Martin is not the kind of writer to paint in blacks and whites, and the strength of the series so far has been largely about political intrigue on a personal scale rather than sweeping battles between good and evil.

I’m consistently impressed, for a fantasy series, of how tight and entertaining the dialogue is. When Martin gets away from tiresome battle scenes and really awkward sex scenes and various other fantasy staples, his dialogue sparkles – one of the reasons the books are translating so well to television.

Overall, an excellent entry in the series, and I look forward to A Feast for Crows.