A Storm of Swords is a very long book. This is objectively true—it’s 1216 pages, where A Game of Thrones is 716 and A Clash of Kings is 768. It’s also subjectively true, it’s very long, a lot happens in it. It’s impossible to summarize it, or to make even an impressionistic attempt at talking about everything that’s in it. It’s the third book in the series, do not read it without reading the other two first because it won’t make any sense.
When my son Sasha was younger, he used to refuse to read books with multiple points of view. His objection was that you’d have something like: The prince ducked beneath the blast of dragon-fire, drawing his sword. He prepared to stab, but his foot slipped. The dragon’s head bore inexorably down. End of chapter sixteen. Chapter seventeen. “More tea, Duchess?” inquired the archbishop. I always think of this when I read cross a chapter break cliffhanger. Martin uses these in this book for the first time. In the first two books, the chapter breaks usually have some closure. But the amazing thing is that with everything that’s in it, Martin manages to make A Storm of Swords work as a novel and not as a pile of stuff happening. It’s not just that he has a large number of point-of-view characters who all have to have a character and plot arc, there are also huge numbers of other people he needs to keep track of as they’re moving around and doing things. He makes the pacing work, and he makes the end, the multiple climaxes, work as genuinely climactic. Long and complex as this is, it is a novel.
I think this is only the third time I’ve read this book. Certainly I remembered it less well than the first two—I remembered the highlights, but there were also surprises.
Do feel free to talk about any and all the specific bits and pieces you want to draw attention to in comments. I’m just going to talk about some things that stand out.
Daenerys—in this book, she doesn’t really have anything to do. It’s as if the Young Pretender had gone off in 1749 and conquered Burma. It’s an interesting story, but it doesn’t really connect, and it feels unconnected. I’m sure Martin has a plan for Dany to come home and do something, and I wish we’d get to that. Astipor and Meereen—well, OK. But if we’re going to have another map, I’d like a map of the Free Cities. I’d like to know how that fits together.
Also, how about the seasons? Is that for the whole world, or just Westeros? And how does it work, considering they have the plants and animals I’m familiar with from Europe, growing them without seasons? Peaches need frosts, so where did Renly’s peach come from? Why am I suddenly thinking about this now, when for the previous two books I just took it for granted?
There are a lot of weddings in this book, Sansa’s, the Red Wedding, and Joffrey’s. The deaths at them works to clear away some of the excess claimants to the throne, and provides some stunning moments. I feel really sorry for Tyrion here, after everything he did in the last book, he loses everything. The Red Wedding surprised me and again impressed me on first reading—this is the sort of thing you just don’t do. Also, it leads to Arya and Sansa having nowhere to go. Arya’s wanderings in this volume take in the Brothers Without Banners—a terrific bit of work, forgotten from Ned sending them off and now so interesting—and the Hound. Arya ends up bound for Braavos. (I was delighted to discover what valar morghulis means.) Sansa’s caught up in Littlefinger’s nets and ends up in the Vale. She’s still married to Tyrion and Tyrion is still alive, I wonder if that will have consequences.
Stannis—I love Stannis’s appearance on the Wall. I want to cheer. Finally, something going the way it’s supposed to go! Except… it isn’t. The whole Night’s Watch plot here, with Jon and the wildings and with Sam is heading something towards something that it doesn’t yet reach. Jon ends up head of the Night Watch, having turned down the possibility of Winterfell. It’s made slightly too easy for him with Ygritte dying. (“You know nothing, Jon Snow.”) But there he is and there Stannis is, and there the real threat is.
This leads me to my theory. I was thinking about Melisendre and how her prophecy which she thinks is for Stannis is actually for Daenerys. I was also thinking how horrible and evil she is, and yet she’s supposedly on the side of good—and it occurred to me that there is no side of good. Not just with the human level conflict here, but at all. We see the Others and the undead, and undead are fairly icky, but we also see Beric and Catelyn raised as undead by the “good” side. We don’t have any Other point of view, but we do meet Coldhands in this book, and he takes Bran (and the crannogmen) off with him to meet the Three Eyed Crow. Are the Others perhaps not as bad as they’ve been shown? I’d have sworn there were no redeeming features to Jaime Lannister before I got his point of view, and now I see him as a flawed complex person but one I can sympathise with. This is something Martin seems to be doing generally with this series.
Could he mean to do that? All shades of grey, no black and white, even in the big picture? In the endless night and the Battle for the Dawn, the epic battle between Ice and Fire that we’re supposedly headed for, which side is the right side? And that led me to thinking about The Armageddon Rag, which remains my favourite Martin. “When Armageddon comes, both sides will think they’re fighting for right, and they’ll both be wrong.” “The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Could Martin be doing that with this? Could we be heading for an ultimate conflict in which both sides are wrong and the right answer is being human and choosing the excluded middle? Wouldn’t that be cool if it were the case?
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.