Monday, 25 January 2010

Wertzone Classics: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

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.


Anonymous said...

Pray tell, Werthead, which books have come close to topping "A Storm of Swords" in awesomeness? :)

I also agree that it's extremely annoying that the third book was released as two halves (something I dearly, dearly hope they won't repeat with "Dance" - fingers crossed!) since it made "Storm" seem much shorter then it actually is. When I saw how well they had handled it with the US version, I felt really annoyed.

On a slightly different note, am I the only one who thinks that climate-wise, the first book at least SEEMED much "colder" then the subsequent ones? I mean it. The freezing weather is supposedly nearing all the time, but somehow the beginning of the series seems to be the coldest so far (the snow drinking Gareds blood eagerly, the poetic descriptions of the icy North etc.) Much colder then, for instance the scenery in the third book, where all of a sudden we have rain instead of snow and soft autumn mud instead of the harsh ice. But maybe I'm just imagining things.

Otherwise, a truly superb book with a fantastically harsh ending :D

The Flying Halftrak said...

Greatest single work of epic fantasy since The Silmarillion is exactly right.

As far as pure enjoyment, the aspect I liked the most were the multi-endings. Dany's ending could have been the ACTUAL end, but it wasn't. It was topped by Jon's ending, which could have been the actual ending, but it wasn't. It was topped by Tyrion's ending, which was equalled by Sansa's ending, and then we get a "wtf!" epilogue to boot.

Adam Whitehead said...

In epic fantasy terms, I'd say that Bakker's THE WARRIOR-PROPHET, Erikson's MEMORIES OF ICE (and maybe DEADHOUSE GATES as well), Kearney's MONARCHIES OF GOD and Abercrombie's BEST SERVED COLD are all somewhat in the same ballpark of quality.

Yes, the layered endings which seem to be competing to make the reader more startled than the one before works quite well. Interesting to see it done on HBO, if they get that far.

Gabriele Campbell said...

The German and French translations divide the books as well (and I think not only the third, but all three in case of the German version). One of the reasons may be that they get even longer in translation. :)

What I tell people interested in the series is to read the first three books of ASOIAF, and wait with Feast until Dance is released and then read those two.

Anonymous said...

That's what I'm doing. :D

Jeff King said...

Great info, i must read these books it sounds like...


Unknown said...

A Song of Ice and Fire is my favorite series and a Storm of Swords is my favorite book within the series. The first three books do have natural, definitive endings but the 4th book was a bit disappointing in that regard. I'm really looking forward to the next one.

Anonymous said...

Aren't we all... :D

Anonymous said...


I was at a booksigning for AFFC where someone asked about the climate of Westeros. It's been over 3 years now? So details are vague, but he said something to the effect that the climate change has something to do with magic being re-introduced into the world.

Omer said...

To change the topic, I wonder what you think about your "A Defence of Dragons" a year after it was originally published. Does it seem less plausible with each passing day, and with each broken deadline? Or do you still think Martin's mostly blameless?

Adam Whitehead said...

The weird climate is purely down to magical means, yes. A popular theory is that the planet's season systems were 'normal' up until the Others' first invasion eight thousand years earlier, when the Long Night threw the seasons out of balance and they have been out of synch ever since. Another is that the seasons reflect the ongoing war between R'hllor and the Great Other, and when R'hllor is in ascendance there's a long hot summer and when the Others are strong there is a huge winter instead. More details presumably to come.

As for the other point, with a novel, unlike a computer game or a movie, there is only really one person working on it. Whilst publishers and editors have some influence on a book, the buck stops with the author. So if there is responsibility for anything, than it goes with the author. For example, if a book is released and it is awful, I have noticed a tendency to blame the editors when their impact on the book is not as great as might be supposed, and the ultimate fault lies with the author (no edits to a manuscript can be implemented without the agreement and permission of the author).

In this case, the situation with AFFC and ADWD is clearly GRRM's responsibility. My position isn't that GRRM is 'blameless' - on the contrary I have said several times the PR/communication side of things could have been better-handled - but that the decisions taken each step of the way have generally been taken for the best of reasons. I remain firmly convinced that the 'mixed' reception that AFFC got in 2005 would have been as nothing to the scorn poured on ADWD if it had been released in 2006/07 - no matter the state it was in - as many have demanded, and rewriting the book was a good move.

However, before the discussion goes off-topic, I don't think anything more of value can be said about the situation until the book is released. If it comes out and is back to the AGoT/CoK/SoS level of quality, I think a lot of readers will be satisfied that the delay was justified. If it isn't, they won't. We just have to see if the ends justify the means.

Desk Jockey said...

Great review! Really glad to see that last bit of info in your review. I plan to read the first three volumes of ASOIAF after the Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Can't wait.

After that I'll have to take a peak at these guys named Kearney and Abercrombie.

Steven Till said...

Storm of Swords is the best book in the series. Sure it took 700 pages to get to the action, but once there, everything hits the fan, and the last 300 pages fly by.

In my opinion, Martin does tend to set up the settings in the chapters a bit too much which can cause it to drag. A Feast for Crows drags more than the other three. He could have cut that book by 1/3 and the story still would have fallen into place.

Still, Martin is unrivaled in the world of modern fantasy authors. It's hard to read another fantasy series once you've read ASOIF. There are a few others out there worth reading: Robin Hobb, David Anthony Durham, Steven Erikson, Patrick Rothfuss. I like the styles of these authors because their characters are not so black and white as typical of most other fantasy novels.