Here we are, less than halfway through the epic series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and I’m feeling a little ragged out. My exhaustion wasn’t quite so pronounced as I worked my way through the 1,000+ pages of A Storm of Swords, the third of seven volumes in the series, but I will say that it felt like an accomplishment to turn the final page on this sucker. Though my elation was short-lived, knowing I had two more enormous entries to read through before I could rest. If I’m not being totally clear here, let me say it in so many words: these books are long, folks, and they require a serious investment of time to work their way through. Luckily, with A Storm of Swords at least, that investment is rewarded with a great story.
Those folks who’ve been following the series solely through Game of Thrones, the HBO show, have had it pretty easy up ’til now. A Game of Thrones, the first volume, was a solidly straightforward narrative with a reasonable number of characters and plots to keep track of. This is largely the case with the second book, A Clash of Kings. The relative tightness of the story worked to the show’s advantage, allowing for remarkably faithful adaptations in 10-episode chunks. A Storm of Swords is going to change all of that. In fact, A Storm of Swords is going to be broken into two sets of 10 episodes, filmed over the course of two years. Thinking back on everything that happens between the covers of this volume, I wonder if even that’s going to be enough.
Before I was able to summarize somewhat effectively the happenings of the books I reviewed. That is no longer the case. Even the Wikipedia entry on A Storm of Swords is massive, owing to the complex — and, of course, lengthy — goings on. I’m not even going to try to recap here, which may make this review ironically shorter than the ones I wrote for less hefty tomes.
The basic takeaway from the review, should you decide to read no further, is this: if you liked the first two books in the series, you’re going to like this one. Author George RR Martin takes everything (and everybody) from the prior installments and brings them back for more, and to make matters more complicated he adds still more point-of-view characters that you’ll now have to keep track of. If you think this is somewhat sadistic of him, then you will have to wait until I review the next book, A Feast for Crows, which seems to be written deliberately to make people stop reading the series.
Sadism is actually a recurring theme in this book. By this point in the game you should probably be aware that Martin does not do happiness. Positive occurrences do not transpire in his narrative. If there’s a choice between something good happening to someone and something bad happening to them, Martin will always decide for the latter, and the more heart-rending the better. There is stuff in A Storm of Swords that’s going to stop you right in your tracks and which may even cause you to wonder if you want to read on. I did keep reading, largely because Martin did such a nice job of creating a compelling framework for his misery, but as I said earlier, the shine is starting to come off his writing by the time we reach A Feast for Crows.
Time and again George RR Martin has been compared to JRR Tolkien. I don’t know if it’s the double-Rs in their names, or what, but anyone who actually reads the work of either author should understand without being told that these are two entirely different men with radically different visions of what a fantasy novel should be. This is not to say that one is superior to the other, because taste is always subjective, but I find it interesting that to this day at least a dozen books a year come out that are clearly stamped from the Tolkien mold while none are written in the style of Martin.
I suspect part of this is due to the fact that George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books are only nominally fantasy. Yes, they take place in a fictional world and, yes, there are things like dragons and giants and people who can see through the eyes of animals, but all of that could be easily excised from the narrative without disturbing at all the characters or the plot. Maybe his telling of the exiled princess Daenerys Targaryan would have to be different — no dragons, natch — but the rest of it would be exactly the same. Martin has gone on record as saying his books are heavily inspired by the historical Wars of the Roses, and truth be told he could probably have just written historical fiction and still have been able to put his particular, dark spin on things. It would also mean less record-keeping for him, what with the bazillions of named characters who flit in and out of the story, sometimes to return and sometimes not. It’s impossible to know who’s going to become of significance at some point later on, but I will freely admit that when Martin starts reeling off names and noble houses and sigils that my eyes sort of glaze over. I’m sure it will come back to bite me later.
So, yes, even when writing a good book Martin has his flaws, but he’s made millions writing these things his way, so any criticism I might raise is completely pointless. The fans like it, they keep buying the books, and so it will carry on being so. The question is only whether you really should sign on for the long haul with these books, and despite the deep misgivings I have about the whole enterprise following my experience with the next volume in the series, I think the answer is yes. The books aren’t Tolkien-esque in any way, which makes them almost unique in the fantasy genre, and they are generally written with skill and attention to storycraft, two things that are often lacking in today’s genre fiction.