During the run-up to the publication of A Storm of Swords back in 1999 and 2000, the anticipation was mounting on the old “A Song of Ice and Fire” forums. We had speculated and argued about every aspect of the two previous novels. Adding fuel to the fire, a group of fans had pooled resources to win an auction to get a hold of three chapters (a fourth was thrown in as a bonus) from the book a couple of months before the publication date. Those particular chapters, from early on in the book, convinced some of our fellow fans that they knew where the third volume in the series was going to lead. Suddenly, speculations started to creep into the community about how a certain character was going to end up married to an unexpected ally, to name but one of these sudden “inspirations.”
Then A Storm of Swords came out, and the rug was pulled out from under us; not once or twice, but many times.
Not through authorial sleight-of-hand, but through a ruthless attention to characterization and plotting that covered, by this point, more than two thousand pages of text. Small seeds laid down back in the 1996 publication of A Game of Thrones blossomed into moments that were, quite literally, jaw-dropping. How did GRRM manage this? Years of experience, and a rare talent to lift your heart in relief (and sometimes exultation) as everything seems to have gone right at last… and then to cut it out of you, still beating, as disaster strikes.
This has never been a series for those who love best gentle stories, reassuring stories, stories where everything is right in the end. Bitter walks hand-in-hand with sweet in this series; that is, when it’s not strangling it and burying it in a shallow grave. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve advised new readers that George is the sort who believes in his bones that things have to get worse before they can get better. It’s one of the truest things I know about him as a writer.
There’s something more to it, however.
To this day, Linda has not fully read A Storm of Swords. Despite our having kept ourselves practically unspoiled, she had an inkling that this novel was going to be difficult for someone who tends to identify deeply with the characters she’s reading about. She let me read the book first, and I did, in a marathon blitz that lasted most of a day.
There’s an event right around the midpoint that’s etched in the brains of almost every reader we’ve seen discuss the book. It’s a moment of shocking brutality that explodes on the page after the tension of the scenes leading up to it build, and build, and build to nerve-wracking. When that moment hit after hours of intense reading, my response was so stunned that with the example of my gasps and exclamations of disbelief in mind, Linda simply couldn’t bring herself to read it in turn.
She does plan to, of course. Eventually. When she steels her nerve…
But we’re eleven years on and she hasn’t quite worked up the nerve. Is it any surprise that it had such an effect on me, on her, and on almost everyone else who read that moment? It’s the very last chapter George wrote for the novel, because the enormity of it shook him a bit, too. He knew what he was about to do, but I’m not sure he realized just how successful he was going to be when he was writing it.
It’s not just that he doesn’t pull punches, but that he writes viscerally, feeling what’s happening, evoking it on the page, and bringing it to life for his readers. And that, Linda and I think, is why George R.R. Martin has written one of the best novels—and series—of the last decade.
Elio and Linda have maintained Westeros since 1999 and have seen it become the home of the largest fan community devoted to the works of George R.R. Martin. They will be co-writing The World of Ice and Fire guide with GRRM some time after Kong gives up the ghost. They can be found on Twitter.