When George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords begins, the War of the Five Kings has just ended, and it looks like the Lannisters have won the realm. They control King’s Landing, Westeros’ capital city, as well as the fifteen-year-old King Joffrey. Stannis Baratheon is in retreat, and their remaining foes, the Starks and the Greyjoys, have turned on each other rather than allying against a common enemy. Basically, the bad guys have won, but A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t over.
Martin highlights that there are still perfectly legitimate threats to the realm, especially the wildlings, the Others, and the giants that are invading from beyond the Wall. Jon Snow is charged with infiltrating the wildling army, an excuse that Martin uses to show off how cool it would be to live in a land that is in perpetual winter. Yes, the undead attack at night, but there are also giants riding mammoths.
Although A Game of Thrones felt like a comparatively “realistic” fantasy, Martin now displays a great gift for writing about the supernatural. In A Storm of Swords, the best example may be Lord Beric Dondarrion, who is repeatedly brought back to life, but never healed. Martin spares no expense describing Beric’s corpse: “One of his eyes was gone, Arya saw, the flesh about the socket was scarred and puckered, and he had a dark black ring all about his neck.” There’s more, and it’s Martin’s continued dedication to serving up the horrors of heroism alongside the benefits of villainy that makes these novels such an unusual brand of fantasy. After all, what would A Song of Ice and Fire be if Ned Stark had been rescued in A Game of Thrones?
Fortunately or not, Ned wasn’t rescued. However, Martin does a fine job of bringing Ned into A Storm of Swords. Martin adds new dimensions to Ned’s character through a fable that Meera and Jojen tell Bran that hints at Ned’s first love, through Arstan’s descriptions of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen and the rebellion against his father, and through Stannis’ constant reminder that “Ned Stark was no friend of mine.” Up to this point, Ned has been one of the most heroic lords of the realm. To some extent, he’s almost as much a father figure to the reader as he is to his children, and it’s disconcerting (but fascinating) to discover these new dimensions of Ned Stark: he was hated; he was loved; he was a great swordsman and a talented general. He left all that behind to go home to Winterfell, rule responsibly, and raise a family.
Many of the greatest moments in A Storm of Swords turn on new twists to characters we thought we could safely revile. There’s a dark humor at work as Martin describes Arya’s attempts to kill the Hound every night while they travel together, but before we know, we watch as the two of them are forced to fight side-by-side in one of the best bar (inn) fights fantasy has to offer. Still, the biggest twist must surely be Jaime Lannister, who is a new viewpoint character in A Storm of Swords. Up to this point, Jaime has seemed like a gold plated scumbag. However, as he begins to risk his life to save Brienne of Tarth, it’s tough not to warm to him. Perhaps he’s more heroic than we thought, though I feel compelled to remind readers that he tossed a child out of a tower window in the first novel and still feels no remorse.
“Meanwhile” would be a useful word to describe the rest of the novel, though only because these storylines are so detached from one another. Daenerys is fighting slavers across the Narrow Sea as she learns what it means to be a queen. Ser Davos is learning to read. Sam is learning what it means to be brave. Sansa is (still) learning that life is not a song. Robb is learning to rule. Bran is learning to open his third eye. There is a lot happening in A Storm of Swords, and the absence of a transparently unified plot could have led to a terribly confused novel.
Fortunately, everything that happens in A Storm of Swords is succinct and thrilling, and Martin weaves just enough threads between these characters to assure his audience that all of this is heading to a common fate for all of Westeros. So although there is no common storyline uniting these characters yet, A Storm of Swords is still a winner. In fact, it might even prove to be the best entry in the series.