A Storm of Swords

Review: A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: November 2000
ISBN: 0-553-57342-X
Pages: 1177

This is the third book of The Song of Ice and Fire, a huge fantasy series that is as much a single long novel as a traditional series. Martin provides small reminders of what happened before but keeps them to a minimum, which makes reading the series together quite nice but which means that one should not try to jump into the middle of the series.

After the previous book, A Clash of Kings, I was worried that Martin was drifting into the extended scenes and loss of interesting characters of some other fat fantasy series. Thankfully, A Storm of Swords is a noticably better book, which gives me hope that Martin is going to pull this off. There is still a middle book feeling, with characters being shuffled about and sometimes left in transitions for annoyingly long. I got very tired of reading about Bram and Jon traipsing through wildernesses. I still wish the book were shorter and less rambling. But Martin got away from confused and boring battles and back to political intrigue and tightly woven plot developments, doing a considerably better job with the major battle of this book.

The same three characters captured the lion's share of my attention and interest. Tyrion's sarcasm and cynical intelligence makes his sections a highlight of the book, even if he spends more of the time angsting and less time doing things this time around. Still, I particularly liked his interactions with the Dornishmen. Arya's story felt a bit silly at times, as she kept getting kidnapped or captured by yet another faction just as she was about to reach her goal, but she has a determination that I love reading about. With Arya, I think Martin also does his best job of symbolism. Animal symbols are used throughout The Song of Ice and Fire, but with Arya the wolf symbolism seems both the strongest and the most fitting. And Dany continues to steal the show.

It's amusing that in a series I enjoy largely because it's not like the typical faux-medieval fantasy, the character I'm enjoying the most is the most magical and most fantastic of the characters. Dany has bonded with dragons, is spearheading in some ways the return of magic to the world, and in this book manages several feel-good conquests and daring battles, challenging old and corrupt regimes and winning the adoration of the common people. It's a bit pat, and while Martin touches on some of the drawbacks and problems, it's a little too easy. But it's so much fun, made more so by the contrast with the rest of the book. It's more common with Martin to feel a growing sense of dread, or to watch characters be unable to take dramatic action for good due to their own limitations or realistic considerations of strength and momentum of culture. Dany is the one who gets to do the things you *wish* she would do, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and take on entrenched strength that no one should be able to overthrow. I have a sneaking suspicion that there's some deeper dramatic structure peaking through.

Despite dealing with more standard fantasy themes than the other characters, Dany comes at it from a different angle than I usually see. Stealing from Mongol culture rather than western medievalism was a great idea from the start, and Dany also doesn't fit the classic growth of the hidden ruler. Instead, she's thrust into the role of queen very early, without an obvious Merlin analogue and without relying on any one advisor, and many of her actions come from an intriguing sense of noblesse oblige and personal honor. She is, in many ways, the complementary opposite to Sansa; both girls were raised on fairy tales and romance, but Sansa was also artificially sheltered where Dany's life had a sharp edge. Dany is acting on her ideals, making hard choices and trying to create the world she believes in. Sansa is left without any hard core of strength or reserve of friendship, and therefore is battered about by the world helplessly.

Speaking of Sansa, I have gotten over my initial hatred for the character. My reaction now is a combination of faint pity and head-shaking. She again manages to make her life much worse by her inability to compromise her fantasies about how the world works and accept help where it would have been offered, but this time it's less infuriating than predictable and sad. Her role in the story is to show the actions of the bad guys, for which she has a convenient victim personality. It's hard to imagine her ever growing out of that.

Jon mostly continues as the coming of age hero, but Martin takes that story in interesting directions and adds substantial depth. He's still too much of an everyman for me, without sufficiently distinguished attitudes and opinions to give me much sense of personality, but the themes are at least intriguing. I like the way that Martin has handled the wildlings beyond the Wall in general; after starting the book as the Great Evil, he's added a lot of ambiguity and pulls a neat trick to play with the sympathies of modern readers with modern political sensibilities. The surprise resolution to the battle Jon's involved with was also well-done, logical in the context of the world but not too predictable.

Of the remaining viewpoint characters, Davros has the best shot at joining the top three, but I just don't like reading about Melisandre (who shows up frequently in Davros's scenes due to the circles he runs in). Apart from bit characters in Dany's story, she's the clearest pure villain of the piece. She's a good one, but that means she's a creepy one, enough that the scenes she appears in make my skin crawl.

These books are simply huge, and I think that's their biggest flaw. It takes a tremendous amount of time to read the next volume and a lot of dedication and missed opportunity to read other works to keep up with the series. Martin does a great job with plot, creates rich and detailed worlds full of complex characters (I have no idea how he managed it, but he turned Jamie from a hissable villain into a sympathetic character and made me care about him), occasionally writes some evocative descriptions, and manages about as good of pacing as one can get in a 1,200-page book. This is a good book, and better than the last. I just keep asking myself if it was really better than the three or four other books I could have read in the time it took me to read it. If Martin were getting where he was going at least half again as fast as he is, I'd feel less conflicted about continuing to read.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Posted: 2006-06-07 21:21 — Why no comments?

While I applaud your excellent criticism of Terry Goodkind and J.K.Rowling (because God knows they need it), I do feel that you're selling George R. R. Martin a bit short.

My first problem is more of a nitpick than anything else--while the Dothraki have roots in Mongol culture, there are some drastic differences. For one, the Mongols actually knew the meaning of tactics. Suicidal frontal charges are the name of the game in Dothraki-land.

I dislike your disparaging of Sansa--she comes across as an extremely realistic character. You mention that you don't see her character growing out of her immaturity--in A Feast For Crows, at least, we see Littlefinger taking her in hand. She has potential to become a seriously cool villain.

To go back to your previous review of A Clash of Kings, I think you dramatically underestimate the importance of the Battle of the Blackwater. Besides being an excellently well-written scene, it's an important turning point in Tyrion's character that will last him through the end of the series. It leaves seriously embittered, and sets him up for later falls.

I don't agree with your claim that Catelyn "gets little characterization." If anything, she is one of the more complex characters in the series--she's a real mother, with the concerns of a real mother. Her last chapter in A Storm of Swords remains one of the best-written chapters in the entire series.

Theon is not an idiot in the least--he's just in over his head with no way to get out. He makes some bad choices, and paid for them, but I'm amazed that he managed to hold onto Winterfell as long as he did. The man was stuck in between two cultures,and though he tried his best to please both, he ended up making everyone unhappy. To me, he is one of the most empathizable characters in the series.

You complain that Bran spends too much time feeling sorry for himself in ACoK--I find this realistic. If you were an eight year old kid who'd just been crippled, had your father killed and had your mother half a continent away, I'd like to know how you'd react. (On the other hand, your criticism that Bran spends too much time wandering in A Storm of Swords is justified, but his story really promises to pick up in A Dance With Dragons, however.)

As odd as this may sound, I think that your claim that Martin is avoiding the cliches of fantasy is an overstatement. He deliberately plays off these cliches, but puts them in fresh lights--Jon, Arya, Bran and Eddard fit typical fantasy archetypes, but remain substantially unique enough so that is not noticeable.

I hope you enjoy A Feast for Crows (I know I did), but from your criticisms of the the first three books, I can't imagine that you'll be overly fond of it. It's more of a transition book than anything else--it's fairly disjointed, and nothing *big* really happens, but it sets the place for Dany's and the Others' invasions. Try not to go too hard on it--it is what it is... and I hope you can get by without Tyrion's presence until Book V.

I know you must get review suggestions all the time, but I highly recommend you check out R. Scott Bakker's The Darkness that Comes Before. It manages to be more realistic AND more depressing than George R. R. Martin, while somehow remaining an awesome read.

--Charles

Posted by Charles at 2006-06-13 21:43

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