Mar 10 2011 1:00pm

Best SFF Novels of the Decade: An Appreciation of A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. MartinDuring 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.

1. Winterfell13
Well said. Even to this day I remember exactly where I was when I read about that jaw dropping part of the book. Its just brilliant writing.
Christopher Orr
2. Daedalus
I think GRRM just likes to makes sure the readers can never think, "I've got this all figured out." Well, not really, but it certainly feels that way.

When I got to that scene, I honestly could not believe what I had just read. More than anything since the scene on the cathedral steps at the end of AGoT, I knew then that everything had just changed. I was reeling from the blow.

I am much more cautious (jaded, perhaps) in reading this series. It is a struggle between making emotional connections with the characters and not wanting to get hurt again as a reader.
3. orokusaki
@Daedalus, I'm the same way. I just have to keep telling myself that I should expect the worst, and I won't be as disappointed when it happens. And it will. After this scene we're describing, I've kept reading, but wondering, "What is left of this story to keep me interested?" Somehow, I still am.

I can't deny how gripping the story is, and how good an author he is, but also how much I hate when evil triumphs. And it does. Often. Far more often than anything good happening in this series of books. However, it's an awesome twist on the genre after reading stuff like Terry Brooks and Tolkien and Robert Jordan most of my life. Those authors provide just enough darkness and conflict to keep it interesting, and then the good guys pull it out somehow. GRMM ends up providing just enough casual lightness to make you think that good will succeed, only to dash your hopes upon the rocks of "there are no happy endings."
4. mahram
Ohhh, that scene. I know PRECISELY what scene you are referring to. When I was reading it, it nearly had a surreal feeling to it, like I couldn't quite believe it was happening despite the fact of the words on the page. I literally had to put the book down after that and take a breather. A few days later I picked the book up again and was able to finish it.

I've never had that happen in a book before where I literally put the book down and picked it back up later due to the intensity of a scene.
5. Patrick C
I'll never forget, I had got my friend reading these books. He had quit smoking a few weeks before reading Storm of Swords. Then he got to THAT scene. I got a very angry phone call, after he threw the book across the room and bought a pack.

(Don't worry, he quit again after that, I don't want anyone thinking either myself or GRRM caused a permanent relapse).
Rob Munnelly
6. RobMRobM
I really enjoyed this book and voted for it in the poll. (FFC in contrast was more of a top 20 book.) Lots of good story arcs (in addition to the shocker I particularly enjoyed the events at and above the Wall). Loved it. Rob
7. Jonny7514
For me that chapter was merery a "wow, did this really happen" moment. The "WTF did just happen" moment came with the last sentence of the following chapter. That was where I had to stop reading.
8. Kevin M.
Oh, this makes me nervous as all get out... I'm in the midst of reading "A Storm of Swords" for the first time, and I haven't seen anything remotely like what was referenced yet... suddenly I'm not sure I want to continue!
9. Kevin M.
(Hmmm... I wonder if my unconscious has been trying to tell me something... I actually haven't read the book since Monday, and I'm right around the midpoint...)
someone else
10. Naraoia
That Scene is one very big reason I'm reluctant to reread the series again even though I found the first three books absolutely brilliant. It was spoiled to me by a random drawing on Elfwood years before I picked up the books, which probably made the actual reading even worse. Seeing the situation rush headlong towards disaster and knowing you can't stop it happening. Eek.
11. DarrenJL
The Red Wedding angered me at the time, but mostly because whenever Martin wants to shock us, he make the Starks morons. I still get upset at how stupid all of the Starks have been, throughout the series. For a family whose motto is "Winter is Coming" they sure behave like pie-eyed optimists. Arya's the only one with any brains, and she's a psychopath.
Elio García
12. Egarcia
You know, it's true, I probably should not assume that those who read on in comments have actually read the book. So, edited. Thanks for pointing it out!

@11 DarrenJL,

The fact that pretty much the whole realm is utterly shocked by what happened suggests that it's not so much stupidity , as the extremes their opponents are willing to go to.

Now, it's true, the Starks are not politically astute or savvy as a whole -- but they made all the right moves under normal circumstances. But these were not normal circumstances.

To go on a little bit of a tangent, I was thinking about the series recently, and realized that you basically have people with happy childhoods and people with somehow messed-up childhoods -- and that determines what sort of approach they take to a host of issues. So Ned and Catelyn and Robert, they led pretty happy lives as kids according to the standards of ther society... and they grow up believing pretty fully in the tenets of that society. Especially those things that have to do with honor and loyalty and trusting someone else's word if they're your blood, or if they were fostered with you.

And then you have the unhappy or messed up bunch -- all the Lannister kids, and even back to Lord Tywin (whose father was a complete pushover, turning the house into a laughing stock), these are people who are disillusioned with the society and its mores ... and so they're able to just treat it as an artifice.

The former group of people are completely incapable of dealing with the latter sort of people, because the former can't imagine things that they'd consider impossible: the depths that others will go to to win "the game of thrones". It's stuff that's outside the framework fo their understanding.

So (to come back, circuitously, to the topic at hand) when someone has been pushed well beyond the bounds of civilized behavior, it's no surprise that morally upright people in the setting are completely blindsided. It's not a matter of being smart or stupid. It's a matter of expecting people to imagine what is utterly unimaginable to them.
Eli Bishop
13. EliBishop
Egarcia, that's pretty amazingly spoilerrific, which is kind of a shame considering that Elio & Linda were very careful not to get that specific and there's clearly someone on this thread who hasn't gotten to that part yet.
john mullen
14. johntheirishmongol
While GRRM is a great writer, I thought it was a dumb way to take the series and I don't think it has been anywhere near as good since. I felt like he did it for the shock value and didn't really consider the ramifications of where that was going. I have known quite a few writers and they all liked their protagonists, it's often one of the things that can keep a writer going even when the plot becomes difficult. Since then what was a great series has become rather pedestrian.
Rob Munnelly
15. RobMRobM
@13 - I believe Egarcia is Elio, FYI. The spoilerific post is @11.
16. peachy
@12 - Agreed. The Starks can be too straightforward for their own good sometimes, but what happened was so far outside the norms of their society that only the clinically paranoid would have expected it. Even a Tywin Lannister or Roose Bolton might have been caught off guard... (though perhaps not - those two are about as untrusting as it gets.)
Claire de Trafford
17. Booksnhorses
@14. I'm still holding my breath that he does know where he's going. Guess we'll see in a few months (squee!). I thought it was a fantastic scene and it was necessary for the subsequent plot lines but there is no denying that Feast has wandered to very little purpose subsequently (and I really like Brienne).
Elio García
18. Egarcia

Yeah, you're right. Linda and I wrote the post to avoid spoilers because we figured there will be people who have not read the book ... but we sort of expected that anyone who'd dig into comments probably has. However, shouldn't assume that, so we have re-written it.


19. Gendry's Hammer
When I was reading that part of the tale I was so floored, pissed, and overwhelmed I almost put the book down to never pick it up again. It is rare to feel such strong emotions with art. So when it does happen I know that what I am viewing, listening , reading is somthing truly special.
20. Ben F
In addition to what else has been said about that event, there are several other things that make A Storm of Swords phenominal.
1. The pacing at the beginning is one of the best starts of all of the ASOIAF books. Even in the great earlier books, there were some POV characters I looked forward to less. Here, though, every chapter turns up the suspense. With ASOS, I just couldn't find enough time in my schedule to read as much as I wanted to.
2. The POV characters outside of the Seven Kingdoms really become prominent, particularly Daenerys. In ACOK, I only found one of her chapters to be captivating, but here, her story is on a different level.Just as the one event sends readers into shock, Daenerys has one moment in the middle of the book that did the opposite: it made me put the book down and go "That... was.... awesome!" Jon and Davos also get great moments as well.
3. Once I had all my visceral reactions to the one event, another thought came to my mind: the book is far from over! And sure enough, the rest of the book packs plenty of shocking twists. Any more words from me about it would spoil too much.
21. Kevin M.
@ 18: On behalf of all of us who haven't finished the books, I really REALLY appreciate the lack of spoilerage (both in the post itself and in the comments). I kind of had an inkling of WHEN (or at least, to whom) it was going to happen (really, there was an extremely limited pool of people to whom something could happen that could cause that kind of visceral reaction), so whenever I got to one of those POV chapters, I decided to put the book away. So it took me a week to get there.

When I got there? I had JUST given blood. I mean, literally. I was still sitting in the canteen afterward. Had I not consciously decided to not read during the actual donation, I probably would've freaked out half a dozen Red Cross nurses... and gotten a few people waiting to walk out the door. Fortunately, there was no needle for my massive body-twitch to cause to fly out, and I had a mouthful of cake to muffle the whimpering.

I also agree that the Starks are simply too straightforward for the times they live in. They're too honest and trusting for their own good (although I'm pretty sure that that's been wiped clean from Arya...) They truly believe that the people they're dealing with have their own iron-bound sense of honor, and could simply never imagine that somebody, ANYBODY, would do... THAT. Especially considering the circumstances.

(Having finally gotten past THAT scene, I've quickly moved ahead, and am currently swearing at Tyrion for his past actions in the previous book regarding the Wall. And wishing Daenerys would hurry up and get to Westeros and burn the entire country to the ground, starting with King's Landing...)

(Also... I admit, I was kinda scanning through the comments last time half-hoping for a spoiler. Curse you all for not giving me one! ...And thank you all for not giving me one.)
22. M5piece
I really hate catelyn. I think she is to blame for most if the Starks problems

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