(Game of Thrones, Fantasy, High Fantasy, Politics, post-modern)
Grade: Γ — (Gamma) A good or even fantastic book within the genre, possibly worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that is likely to be unappealing to individuals who are not fans of a given genre. This is the highest grade that many very good books that are part of a series can receive, since series require an investment in reading that normally only appeals to fans of that genre.
A Storm of Swords is the second volume in George R.R. Martins’ Song of Ice and Fire series (also known as Game of Throne Series), which continues the epic saga of political intrigue that turns the Fantasy genre on it’s head by adding bitter realism to heroic tales. This dark and yet ‘can’t put it down,’ book added hugely to the saga, building my engagement in the series. It is my favorite volume to date, however, its cliff-hanger end and the six years it took until the next volume also created the greatest problem with the series as a whole.
Set in a High Fantasy world with a magic system that does not include D&D style spell casters (i.e. wizards who throw fireballs) or Tolkienesque non-humans (i.e. no elves, dwarves, orcs or other demi-human creatures), but does include dragons, the undead and hints of more fae-like creatures. The story follows the political complexities between the multiple power factions that exist in a medievalesque kingdom that very vaguely resembles the geography of the UK (in that it is divided into three sections: The South, the North and Scotland… er… sorry: Beyond the Wall). The personal and nasty actions of some characters set in motion a series of events that result in a very violent civil war and an epic story.
Also of great importance are the seasons of the world, for while every year has four seasons, there are also great seasons that last for years at a time, suggesting the planet has an irregular elliptical orbit. In this, the first book of the series, there has been an unusually long Great Summer, and no Great Winter… but as the Stark family motto decrees, it is clear that Winter is Coming.
I have a real love-hate relationship with Storm of Swords, one that is shared by many of Martin’s readers. For me, it is not the dark and bitter nature of the story, nor the loss of so many hard earned victories. That is the nature of a war and Martin’s ability to portray them engagingly and his bravery in introducing such things to fantasy is what helps set him apart as an author. Neither is it his brutal method of killing off characters that one comes to like; while many readers grew to dislike him because of that, for me that is again one of the great strengths of this novel. No, it is here that the serial nature of the tale begins to really take its toll on me. Even so, what Martin manages to unfold in this volume makes for a brilliant tale.
As with the previous installment, Martin continues to add depth to his world and particularly to the characters within it. One learns to sympathize with some of the most reprehensible characters of the first volume (like Jaime) and really begin to become annoyed and even dislike some of the most sympathetic characters of the previous volumes (like Caitlyn and to one degree or another, even Jon Snow). Added to that is the development of point of view characters who give additional insights to more central characters and to the world.
Standing out from these is Brienne of Tarth, whose perspective helps add depth to Jaime while simultaneously creating a break from the stereotype of women in Fantasy literature. Brienne is a warrior knight who, unlike most women warriors in fantasy, is not attractive. She is large and strong, and really quite plain of features. She is far from eloquent and in a sense is a bit of a brute, but she is also noble and kind without being (at all) soft. As we get to know her, we see she is feminine in her own way, yet unlike most ‘maverick’ style women warriors in the Fantasy genre, she is hard and tough with little sense of humor; in short she is about as uncharismatic as any character I’ve run across. Yet even so, she is in one sense as much of a romantic as Sansa, and one cannot help but love her – which doesn’t bode well for her long term prospects in Martin’s world.
As for the plot, as with any series, it grows harder and harder to discuss it in any detail without giving spoilers but in essence it is a War story – not a Military Fiction tale – but a story about war in all its horrors. We see the personal and family lives of the politically strong interfere and potentially derail the greater political and moral goals, we see the lives of those without power trampled by the war, and we see the really important issues (like the undead and Others from Scotland… errrr….Beyond the Wall) ignored as the comparatively unimportant War of the Five Kings drags on.
Theme-wise, character-wise, plot-wise, A Storm of Swords is a masterpiece. Indeed, the very mixed reaction that it inspires in readers demonstrates this. Yet, here also we see Martin setting the trap that his next two volumes fall into. He has painted a picture so vivid and complex that he has had (and continues to have) a difficult time completing it. As stated in my reviews of A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, the next two volumes are less a dragon of a tale as they drag on as tales.
Hopefully, in The Winds of Winter he will begin to cull his story and A Dream of Spring he will end it, but one can never tell. To that end, while I highly recommend this book to anyone who has read the others in the series, I would also suggest holding off buying the series until it is actually all in publication.
Notes about the Audio Edition:
There comes a point in reviewing a series of audiobooks where it almost becomes pointless to keep writing reviews of them – particularly when they remain at the remarkably high level of the Random House Audio versions of A Song of Ice and Fire. This is even more the case when you have a veteran actor like Roy Dotrice continuing to excel in his narration. Indeed, his plumby, highly educated English accent remains the perfect choice for the reading of this book, and his regional accents are pretty much spot on (well… totally spot on to my ear). While some of his choices for voices don’t quite match that I imagined for characters when I read the books, they are still solid choices that he delivers with such skill that in some cases they have replaced my own interpretations quite nicely. In short, a brilliant read for a brilliant listen and I highly recommend it.
A Game of Thrones Series 3, the Television Series:
In this season of the brilliant television adaptation of Martin’s books, we begin to see additional areas of divergence from the novels. For the most part, they are minor, but even when they are written large (like the entire Gendry plotline that appears in this series), they make sense and add to the story telling rather than detract from it. Indeed, they tend to tighten the narrative which, if you’ve been reading my reviews, is not a bad thing.
Additionally, the acting really continues to shine. Rose Leselie continues to bring Ygrette to life in a manner that far exceeds what Martin tried to do in the books, but matches what I feel he was trying to do. Similarly Oona Chaplin portrays Robb’s wife Talisa Maegyr in the TV series and together with the writers creates a far more engaging character than Robb’s wife in the books – Jeyne Westerling. To that end, Richard Madden’s portrayal of Robb gives depth to a character who is never a Point of View character in the books. Indeed, he comes across as far more sympathetic to me, though that could be simply because we see his point of view. Indeed, every actor in the series shines in some way or another…
There are, of course, story changes in the TV version, and this continues to increase, but they don’t actually seem to change the plot nor detract from the tale. Indeed, many of these are done to keep the cast of characters under a bit better control, and here they succeed. I must admit that in the books even I get confused sometimes when we get introduced to yet another new character or one who has been mentioned but never seen. Particularly as that there tends to be half-a-decade or more between publication dates.
To that end, I feel the TV version continue to shine – making a brilliant adaptation of Martin’s books… what ever will happen when they catch up?
 Though, I will admit, there are times where I have wondered if he just kills off characters because he wants to get a rise out of the readers. Some people think that is the case, but personally I think it has been part of his plan from the start, and part of a commentary on High Fantasy literature. Let’s face it, as much as we love the heroic nature of Aragorn and other classic heroes of Fantasy, in the real world of medieval politics they probably wouldn’t have lasted all that long. In A Song of Ice and Fire it is the cunning that succeed, not necessarily those whose hearts are pure…
 This novel left many of the storylines hanging at its conclusion. Up to the date of this book, there was a reasonable gap between the different release dates: 1996, 1998 and this volume in 2000. While waiting three years between publications of a serialized story was painful, it was okay. After this book, however, it took until 2005 for the next installment to come out, and to be honest, I felt that one was a bit disappointing… which you can read all about on my review of Feast For Crows.
 Disagree with me? Well, “You know nothing Jon Snow.”
 Indeed, there is a theme throughout this volume about the importance of family, family loyalties and individual needs played out within a family context. Some characters put the needs of the family before their own, others seem to follow selfish paths using family as an excuse for their own ends, while still others put the welfare of everything else in jeopardy in the name of their families. Who is selfish and who is selfless and how the role of family plays in that is very heavy and deftly addressed in this book.