The Battle of the Blackwater has radically shifted the balance of power in the War of the Five Kings. The Lannisters and Tyrells are now allied together, granting the boy-king Joffrey a vast army against which it appears that Robb Stark, the King in the North, and his allies cannot stand. In the distant lands beyond the Wall, Jon Snow has infiltrated the wildlings to learn more about their plans and objectives, but finds his loyalties torn when he learns that even the free folk have their own codes of honour. And, far beyond the eastern seas, Daenerys Targaryen attempts to hire an army of warriors to her cause from the stinking cities of Slaver's Bay, and decides to bring justice and freedom to these lands, despite it delaying her return home to Westeros.
A Storm of Swords is both the third volume of A Song of Ice and Fire and, individually, the finest work of epic fantasy published since at least The Silmarillion in 1977. George R.R. Martin's writing skills in the first book were good, better in the second and hit impressive new heights here in the third, with growing layers of description and writing giving the Seven Kingdoms more colour and more depth with each passing volume. The characterisation remains strong, and in A Storm of Swords Martin delivers one of his masterstrokes by upgrading the hitherto villainous and reprehensible Jaime Lannister to full POV status. By taking us into the head of one of the 'bad guys' and showing us what makes him tick without descending into cliche (Jaime is still a dangerous and somewhat unpleasant character), Martin achieves some very fine character description and growth.
Elsewhere, Swords gives us some of the most out-and-out memorable moments in fantasy fiction in a long time. The duel between the Red Viper and the Mountain That Rides, several confrontations between Tyrion and his father, two certain weddings, the epic battle of the Wall, Bran and his companions' journey northwards and much more all resonate very strongly indeed. There is also some very nice subtlety, such as Meera's 'story' which is clearly not just a story, and Daenerys' realisation that having royal blood isn't enough, she must also earn her crown through experience and wisdom nicely subverts some of the more dubious cliches of fantasy fiction centering on noble families ruling through 'divine right' alone.
There is one slight cause for concern: Martin's writing definitely becomes more descriptive with each passing novel, contributing to their growing sizes and page-counts. Arguably not much more happens, in terms of sheer important incidents, in Storm than in Thrones, but the book is over a third longer. Whilst the pacing and writing quality remains superb in this volume, this growth in size and depth does evoke troubling memories of what happened to Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series around its sixth volume. Also, whilst it's not a problem for Storm, the decision to hold back some story developments from the end of Storm (where they chronologically belong, such as the ironborn kingsmoot and so on) for the then-planned five-year-gap (and later inserted into Feast instead) does contribute to some of the writing issues in the two subsequent novels, and their resultingly epic writing times. On the plus side, this does result in Storm having a very strong and somewhat final ending. It's certainly not a full resolution of all the stories in progress, but those stories are 'plateaued' or put on hold in a manner that does not demand immediate resolution (probably why the wait for Feast was not as onerous for many fans as the one for Dance is at the moment). For those put off from reading A Song of Ice and Fire so far due to its incomplete status, the fact that you can read the first three books alone and reach a natural pausing point rather than a cliffhanger may be useful information.
A Storm of Swords (*****) is an excellent fantasy novel, rich in memorable characters, classic moments, fierce battles, quieter moments of reflection and some almost stomach-churning moments of genuine shock and betrayal. It remains unmatched among modern epic fantasy novels (although some have come close to unseating it) for combining a sheer epic scope and a real sense of humanity at the same time. It is available now in the USA. Annoyingly, in the UK it was split into two volumes for paperback publication, entitled Steel and Snow and Blood and Gold.