Bantam Spectra, 2011 reprint of 2000 original, 1216 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-553-57342-8
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice fantasy series may have been originally conceived as a trilogy, but by the time third volume A Storm of Sword wraps up, it’s obvious that we’re in for a much longer story. The cast-of-thousands carnival of the story’s sprawling plot has seldom felt as chaotic, and the conclusion is nowhere in sight. As ironic as the statement can be after a 1,216-pages book, it’s time to settle down and enjoy the ride.
It goes without saying that long-running series have the strengths of their weaknesses, and vice-versa: There’s enough space and time to fully develop the world of the story, to pile on characters and see them evolve through dramatic changes in situation. Properly handled, this can lead to a fundamentally different reading experience than single novels or even mere trilogies: an entertainment experience closer to a long-running TV series (in which Martin’s series is slowly being adapted) rather than anything else.
On the other hand, multi-strand narratives featuring the proverbial cast-of-thousands can also test readers’ patience. Not everything is equally compelling, and some characters are just annoying. The setup/payoff cycles pacing, in particular, can be off for a while as the author builds plot-lines that will resolve later on.
These strengths and weaknesses are particularly obvious in A Storm of Swords, which contains some of the dullest but also some of the finest moments of the series so far. The first half of the book is about setting up dominoes; the second half is about upsetting them. The wait is substantial, but the payoffs just keep happening once the book races to a conclusion.
For series fans, it means that Arya keeps wandering around Westeros, never quite reaching her intended destinations. It also means that she gets a long-awaited payoff late in the book. Jon Snow keeps trudging through the snowy north, but he also gets a bit of recognition for his efforts at the conclusion. Far away, Daenerys Targaryen is still in the process of trading
a paperclip for a house a trio of dragons for an empire, but even the growing power of her fire-children can’t completely excuse the monotony of her quest so far away from everything we know about this world. Closer to the center of action, Tyrion Lannister can’t get no respect as the unheralded savior of King’s Landing, but the book ends on a few shocking development that may make readers wonder about him and the nature of his revenge.
Not that he’s the only character to be re-evaluated by readers. One of the first groans in A Storm of Swords is seeing Martin give viewpoint chapters to Jamie Lannister, the no-good incestuous children-thrower who crippled Bran Stark at the very beginning of the series. Imagine our surprise as Jamie undergoes enough extreme hardship to deserve some sympathy, and reveals himself to be more than a good-looking psychopathic warrior. (It helps that he’s one of the wittiest characters around.) Such, again, are the advantages of lengthy pre-planned series: Villains to heroes, and possibly heroes to villains.
The first half of A Storm of Sword may not escape a bit of tedium (something that the narrative structure of the book, which locks itself in subjective point-of-view for lengthy chapters, does little to soften), but the accumulation of shocks and revelations in the book’s final third more than compensates for the initial slow burn. Even readers who feel that they have spoiled themselves reading about the book will find that there are more surprises in store than they ever expected. (Hint: don’t read about the “Red Wedding”. Just accept that it’s coming and it’s going to be bad.) HBO recently announced that A Storm of Swords would be adapted as seasons 3 and 4 of the Game of Thrones miniseries; I’m already looking forward to comments and reactions to the second half of season 4, as the body count piles up and characters start doing things that will surprise even their biggest fans. It’s going to be a wild ride. If people through season one was merciless, they haven’t seen anything yet…
These adaptation considerations, of course, have no reflection on this third book, which eventually ranks as the strongest volume of the series so far. Martin has embarked on an ambitious project with A Song of Ice and Fire, and A Storm of Swords suggest that he’s making things even harder on himself as he goes along. In the wreckage of the book’s multi-strand conclusion, readers are expected to blink in astonishment and wonder… what’s next?