Martin’s third installment in A Song of Ice and Fire is phenomenal. The set-up of the first two books finally begins to really deliver, and the reader, who’s already invested numerous hours in this story, is rewarded for his adherence. At around halfway through this installment, much of the tension that has been mounting swiftly comes to a head. Although the reader may not be too pleased with the fate of some characters, the excitement is undeniable.
Martin’s timing accounts for much of his success. He pushes the fastidious depiction of his world and vision to the tipping point of being wearisome, then reins in his characters and his plots deftly, drawing the unfurled plot lines of A Storm of Swords together like fingers in a gauntleted fist. In what has been heretofore an increasingly vast world of “endless” characters, the players start to gravitate toward the same locations–even if they don’t yet meet.
These intersections finally reify the world Martin’s has been building, placing fixed limits on what had previously seemed ever-expanding. And there is beauty and craftsmanship in how Martin closes down the story lines he does. As the clashing kings of the previous book continue to battle (and fall), the greater threat facing the world begins to take form: the forces of fire and ice. The reader can’t help but to anticipate that if these forces, that have slowly gathered their strength on the periphery, should strike amidst all the squabbling and infighting for the throne, then the entire realm will surely fall.
In the first book, the motif of fire and ice seems little more than bardic lyricism attached to the name of this sprawling epic. Sure, there is a sword called Ice and the people of the frozen north are at odds with the those of the warmer south, but this is rather superficial. As the greater story progresses, we see the elemental forces as not merely metaphorical: there are supernatural forces at work representing both elements. The force of fire being dragons that have returned to the world, invading from the south. The forces of ice being the undead army of wights threatening to destroy from the north.
Much as I’d hoped he would, Martin takes the opportunity in this installment to flesh out some of his shallower characters. For example, it took 3 books, but Jaime Lannister really comes to life in this story. Up until this point he was basically a flat, evil character, reviled for committing two unforgivable despicable acts, and driven by some rather base desires. In A Storm of Swords, Jaime is finally given complexity, and the reader is invited to understand and then empathize with his motivations.
Much of the allure of these books is this kind of divergence from the typical tropes and themes found in the fantasy genre. Martin wants plenty of grit and tarnish on his world, and therefore creates a story that is, in a sense, a ballad of the misfits: bastards, tomboys, murderers, bandits, smugglers, cripples, hags, and usurpers.
For all the greatness in these books, there’s one thing I’ve been loath to embrace–the living dead. By the end this story there are two characters who seem either unable to die, or have returned from the dead. These undead characters are not like the wights of the north. They are grisly incarnations of characters whose gambits failed. The undead characters are by far the weakest aspect of the story, and one, I hope Martin doesn’t invest too much time in going forward.
Despite these misgivings, the next book in this series will undoubtedly prove an exciting installment. A Storm of Swords leaves the reader on another cliffhanger whose plot implications promise ever heightened conflict and drama.