Review: A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

When my friend Natalya and I weren’t already tearing up just thinking about our favorite moments in Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings driving to and from the screenings in June, we were dishing about A Song of Ice and Fire. She had just finished A Game of Thrones and I was only one book ahead of her, so I got her fresh reaction to that thing that happens at the end of A Game of Thrones. You know. That thing. Combined with the fervor over the release of A Dance with Dragons in July, I got so fired up that I put A Storm of Swords on hold. Spoilers for the series abound below!

A Storm of Swords ends the War of the Five Kings that began in A Game of Thrones and was fought in A Clash of Kings. With Renly Baratheon dead and the Greyjoys laying low, the Lannisters seek to marry Renly’s maiden widow to King Joffrey to strengthen his claim, but Robb Stark still fights against the throne while Stannis Baratheon bides his time, advised by Melisandre, the Red Priestess whose supernatural claims are startlingly true, and Davos, who is wary of her hold on his king. On the Wall, Jon Snow follows the last orders of Qhorin Halfhand by ingratiating himself with the wildlings and their king, even as more supernatural threats make themselves known. And Daenerys Targaryen, finally in a position of power, continues to gather strength in the East.

I have to be honest, I’m just continually blown away by this series. Martin’s method of telling a macro story on a micro level is just devastatingly brilliant; it really allows you to feel the weight of these situations and that there are real consequences to everything. The fact that Martin isn’t shy with the ax, even for characters whose positions would make them untouchable in any other series, certainly goes a long way to making these consequences real. But it’s the little things that make it so human. When Jaime Lannister returns to King’s Landing a very changed man, he encounters Ser Loras Tyrell, the youngest and newest member of the Kingsguard. “He’s me, Jaime realized suddenly. I am speaking to myself, as I was, all cocksure arrogance and empty chivalry. This is what it does to you, to be too good too young.” (759). A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t about one story in these people’s lives; it’s about their entire lives, including the legacies they leave behind—a concern for young and old, as Dany deals with the legacy left to her and the legacy she wants to leave behind. (I adore Dany. Her strength, her dignity, her vulnerability… she’s truly amazing.) To be totally honest, I don’t feel like they’re characters; they’re people, and that is a remarkable achievement.

A Storm of Swords is where the supernatural element really kicks in. By spending the first two books grounding us in this reality, Martin has made the supernatural elements honestly frightening—it probably helps that the Others are essentially zombies, which leads to the horror of the men of the Night Watch fighting their own dead. But Melisandre becomes more of an overt threat, most because she gets results. You could argue that the War of the Five Kings comes to an end because of her; at the very least, she certainly helps. At the end of the novel, Martin appears to be placing Stannis and Melisandre just so in order to set up a conflict that will make that civil war look like child’s play. (Which is good, considering he’s got four more books to fill up!) He also contrasts the real threats against Westeros versus the petty squabbling over the throne, which just adds one more level to this complex story—what does it say about these people when the Night Watch begs for more men and receives no reply?

I’m fascinated by the darkness of Martin’s world and the light that survives in it. At first, it seems that inner decency is almost specifically sought out and destroyed, such as in the end of A Game of Thrones. But decency and honor in Martin’s world require a certain level of pliability to survive, as well as power. It’s only in the more or less egalitarian Night Watch that Jon Show can survive and thrive, even as he compromises his vows to help his brothers, and it’s only in Essos that Dany can gather enough power and resources to be the better woman. Westeros, or, at least, the old Westeros, is crumbling, but even as family turns against family and death touches everyone, there is still some hope—and it’s not just tied to characters with honor or decency. Even the wickedest are capable of magnanimity. And that’s what makes these books so incredibly fascinating; it’s an epic plot told on a multi-faceted human scale.

Bottom line: George R. R. Martin does it again—telling an epic tale on a multi-faceted human level. These aren’t characters, these are people, in a world where every choice has a real weight and a real consequence to it. You want to protect yourself by not getting attached, but you can’t help yourself. Fantastic.

I rented this book from the public library.

  • Martin, George R. R. A Storm of Swords. New York, Ballantine Books. 2000. Print.

3 thoughts on “Review: A Storm of Swords

  1. An excellent review and an excellent observation that these characters aren’t characters, but people. I think the shades of gray that most of these characters are painted in is what makes them so incredibly indentifiable to readers. The fact that someone like Jaime can become a sympathetic character is a testament to Martin’s ability as a storyteller. I wish I had better words than this, but I love, love, love this series. What’s more, they get even more engrossing on successive re-reads. Love your blog, keep up the good work.

  2. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: 2011 in Review « The Literary Omnivore

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