Martin, George R.R. 2000. A Storm of Swords (A Song of Fire and Ice, Book III). New York: Bantam Spectra.

Reviewed 31 December 2000

A Storm of Swords (cover) After the last several Interminable Fantasy Series for adults that I've suffered through, it's been a relief to find an offering—even a middle book—that qualifies as fine literature. Martin's serial novel is, unlike most contemporary series and serial novels, built around the maturation and change in the characters and their attempts to influence events, not around some quest of false ambition. Although this kind of structure is no guarantee of success—execution is as essential as anything else—it does provide a foundation for something better than the usual crap fobbed off on us by illiterate marketing dorks who overrule editors with such regularity.

Martin's worldbuilding is exemplary. A careless reader would just believe that "this is England in 1438 or so, with the Lancasters, the Yorks, the Tudors, and all the other factions, spiced up a bit with some misspelled names and fantasy elements." But it's much more than that. Yes, the names and factions bear more than a passing resemblance to historical 15th-century England, recast through a consistent and appropriate linguistic shift. What Martin does that so few authors manage to even dream of is integrate the legendary history with historical fact. For example, The Wall is a historical barrier between England and Scotland (and one can find Hadrian's Wall on any decent map of England). The legends and facts of what is north of the Wall match very closely to those espoused in medieval Northumbria. The dragons originate on the western coast, in the counterpart of Wales. And so on. Unlike the pseudo-Arthuriana so popular now, though, Martin respects both his material and his readers enough that he avoids infodumping "proof" of historical authenticity on us. Instead of a tedious description of exactly how breeches and leggings were tied on (no zippers, not even buttons; no belt-loops; no elastic waistbands!), he mentions it in passing at a time that it's somewhat important to understand that Jon Snow can't just pull open his fly for, umm, adult activities.

Game of Thrones
(Book I, cover) Clash of Kings
(Book II, cover) Something else that Martin does for us is paint in grey, instead of black and white. All of the characters suffer from internal conflicts, and none can really establish a Master Plan of Life. The most admirable characters are Tyrion Lannister (one of the "bad guys" if one accepts the stereotypical indicators established in the first book, A Game of Thrones) and Jon Snow, the bastard son of Eddard Stark, who is purposefully excluded from the central action—or what seems, at least, to be the central action—at roughly the same stage. But neither of these characters is unrelentingly evil (good); both are marvelous mixtures of the noble and the base, the perceptive and the blind. It's somewhat unusual for an IFS to contain one such thoroughly realized character, let alone two; one might infer that the greater level of detail seemingly demanded at this length actually inhibits character development by forcing the author to eschew the power of implication and ambiguity. A Song of Fire and Ice, though, is filled with characters of ambiguous virtue. While Tyrion and Jon are the most "admirable," they are by no means the only real characters. On the one hand, we have Robb and Bran Stark; on another, Dani; and on another still… I'm going to run out of tentacles before I get to the end of the list of factions and alliances.

This points out the greatest strength of Martin's work. Although his writing is often marred by slightly pedestrian prose, the plot and characters interlock to reinforce a central theme that is all too real, and yet absent from most contemporary fiction. There are no "good guys" and "bad guys," except among the minor factions. The center of the story is not merely ambiguous, but arbitrary. This has the feel of life, not of allegory (what the IFS all too often masks). Throughout history, there has been little difference between oligarchs of various factions and opposing nations once one strips away the rhetoric. Just looking at their actions and policies, there's little (if any) difference among Margaret Thatcher, Fidel Castro, Ronald Reagan, Leonid Brezhnev, and Anwar Sadat. That's not to say that there is never an Evil Incarnate (offhand, I can think of at least half-a-dozen in the twentieth century, including Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and several others). But these are less-interesting characters, with less internal conflict.

And that, perhaps, is the key to why Martin's work is excellent and likely to endure. The characters' struggles are not just against monolithic prophecies or one-dimensional opponents (perhaps relieved by either a bad guy with a sense of humor or a good guy with a few insignificant foibles). As much as anything else, the characters must struggle with themselves. That's much better literature, and much more fun reading, than another marginally disguised 1968ish Superman comic book massing 550 grams. If I want overlong tales of stark good and evil, I'll go grab a law book.

Perhaps most subtly, Martin succeeds in conveying the problems caused by prejudice and egocentricity. A careful reader will look past the incest taboo and judge Cersei as a medieval queen attempting to ensure her family's dynastic succession, not as some disgusting subhuman charicature because she craves and enjoys sex with her twin brother (leaving less-than-clear the paternity of her son Joffrey, the King-presumptive by this stage). The way that characters treat each other from an almost xenophobic perspective provides an interesting, and quite probably more realistic, counterpoint to the expectation that class solidarity and not regional or clan allegiance will prove more important. Jon Snow, for example, is in the midst of learning that those who live north of the Wall are people, too.

Overall rating: 4 stars
Excellent (award candidate).
A decent plot summary would take somewhere around sixty pages, because Martin keeps things moving. It never feels frenetic, though, because he respects the reader enough to avoid allegory. Nicely drawn characters have to make difficult decisions and live with the consequences. The prose is professional, if not quite so majestic as the material seems to call for (admittedly, there's a fine line between majestic and bombastic, and Martin may have consciously chosen to avoid risking the bombastic). The novel—of which we have approximately half at this time—is satisfyingly integrated to an extent far too rare in serial novels, and in that respect compares favorably with Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and Peake's tragically incomplete Gormenghast.

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