A Storm of Swords

I wistfully recall the halcyon days of my youth when the prospect of reading a book a week was not only achievable, but usually surpassed during vacations, holidays, and quiet weeks when the office was slow.

Not so anymore. If I want to hit 52 books this year it's gonna have to come at the cost of reading monstrous tomes like George R.R. Martin's A Storm of Swords, the third in his projected septilogy (yup, it's a word) of fantasy epics under the banner A Song of Ice and Fire. It's also the lengthiest of the lot, clocking in at 1,176 pages, which has both positives and negatives associated with it.  How you feel about it even 500 pages in might change significantly once you get to the second half.

At the end of previous book A Clash of Kings, everyone's in a pretty rough spot. The Lannisters, under petulant child king Joffrey, still sit atop the Iron Throne, having demolished their competition in a vicious water battle. All of our favorite characters are either in exile (Bran), mortally wounded (Tyrion) or undercover with one enemy (Jon) or another (Ayra). It was a dark and fantastic middle chapter, an EMPIRE STRIKES BACK looking toward the promise of a RETURN OF THE JEDI to wrap things up in a delightful Ewok celebration.

(For those so inclined, please feel to exchange the STAR WARS trilogy for INDIANA JONES or LOTR...we're all friends here)

But ah! Not so fast! Like the bolt of lightning that struck Lucas who then proceeded to piece by piece dismantle his great work by explaining everything, Martin realized that three books weren't going to cover the story he wanted to tell, so instead of the rousing conclusion you would expect, A Storm of Swords comes in and reminds you that the good guys don't always spring right back, ready to fight for another day (quick GM note: unlike Lucas, though, it doesn't suck). In fact, things at the mid-point of the novel seem just as dismal as they ever did. The nameless threat from beyond the Wall of the North continues to get closer and closer, decimating the Black, the soldiers who guard the Wall. Young Robb Stark, despite winning every battle he is in, seems to be losing the war due to politics and the desires of a young heart, as he breaks a potential alliance by marrying someone else. Jon Snow, the bastard son of the late Eddard Stark and ostensibly the "hero" of the books is now aligned with the Wildings of the North, having gone undercover after killing his mentor. Tyrion, the shining character of the series, the Imp whose machinations and manipulations are an homage to the classic Shakespearean villains, is battered and beaten, forced to act as the King's money man forced to marry Sansa Stark in a move that has got everyone in an uproar.

And in the background slowly comes Daenerys, keeper of dragons and an army of Unsullied, who vows that the Iron Thrones is her by right.

If you're confused by the number of players and continuous switching of allegiances, well I think that's exactly where Martin wants you to be. The books that make up A Song of Ice and Fire revel equally in the maneuverings of the nobility and the epic bloody battles. This is historical fantasy at its most ambitious, and things can admittedly get a little confusing. If I have a complaint to the book at all, it's that halfway in I don't see a clear objective to the novel - it just feels like a long interlude between novels, whereas both A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings seemed to have a solid through-line amidst the myriad of tales being told.

But then you get to about page 600, and you start to see why so many point to A Storm of Swords and call it the best of The Song of Ice and Fire so far.

Simply put, A Storm of Swords is the game-changer: the book where everything you came know and to expect from the previous two volumes is turned on its head, setting the stage for territories completely unknown. I suspect George R.R. Martin must have been laughing as he cranked out the final couple hundred of pages - any doubts I may have had about his unsure of the path he wants the series to were obliterated. Major characters die...MAJOR characters. Characters who seemed lost and without direction are suddenly granted purpose. Characters you love are reduced to slaves, prisoners, or worse, and characters you've come to loathe show a breadth and depth you swore was never there.
That Martin makes these changes in behavior work without feeling overwrought or purely in service to the plot is a wonder. That he makes the final 600 pages fly faster than the first 500 is just as big a compliment. I don't want to ramble on too long since my first half of the review last week was a bit of a whopper, so I'll close by saying that A Storm of Swords is a major accomplishment in the historical fantasy Martin's trying to weave, and a wicked harbinger of things to come.