N.B.: As with my review of A Clash of Kings, I will avoid spoilers for this book but not for previous books.
We had a good thing going back in the beginning of A Game of Thrones. Robert Baratheon was King of Westeros, and while he wasn't a great guy, at least the kingdom was stable. Then he died and it all went to hell. Now we have more kings than castles. Joffrey and Stannis both lay claim to the Iron Throne, and Robb Stark has managed to get himself declared the King in the North and anger both of them in the process—not that Robb has much of the north any more, because Balon Greyjoy, ruler of the Iron Islands, has invaded that while Robb is away fighting Lannisters. Oh, and across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen continues to dream about returning to retake Westeros in a blaze of dragon-assisted glory.
So the situation is a mess, an ugly mess, and it only gets worse. And, having lured you into this review with my friendly assurances that I won't spoil anything about this book, I now betray you. (Please imagine me laughing maniacally and twirling my non-existent moustache as you read the next sentence.)
A lot of characters you probably like die in this book.
Of course, everyone who has read A Game of Thrones knows there are no "safe" characters in these books. Martin will kill off anyone, but the body count does rise considerably in A Storm of Swords. A lot of reviews I've read express disappointment in this, especially when the reviewer considers some of those who die the "protagonists" of the series. There is one comment on a review (which does contain spoilers for this book) that captures this attitude quite nicely, and at the risk of skirting spoilers, I will quote from it:
Maybe that's life. Maybe it's "real life" pure and simple and Martin should be lauded as a genius for injecting that grim reality into his fantasy series: life sometimes sucks and on your way to glory, you just die. But that's not what I personally want to get out of something in which I invest countless hours of reading. I want the payoff. I want to see all the struggles and triumphs of the characters mean something. The Starks were the heroes in this world - they were a family and I wanted to see that family come back together again.
I want that too. It's a reasonable want to have, because regardless of the Starks' status as protagonists, they embody attributes of goodness that make us want to see them succeed. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen, and not just because Martin is dedicated to a grim portrayal of the medieval reality. It's not going to happen because that would not make sense given the political situation in Westeros. And it goes all the way back to A Game of Thrones and the death of King Robert.
Robert's death broke the kingdom, and we cannot put it back together again so everything will be just as it was. None of the claimants for the Iron Throne are going to pick up where Robert left off: Joffrey is a mean-spirited boy controlled by the Lannisters; Stannis is rigid and joyless; and Daenerys is inexperienced. Regardless of whichever faction eventually emerges victorious, the new Westeros will be very different from the Westeros as it was under Robert. And in none of these versions of Westeros do I see much place for a reunited Stark family—certainly not after Robb seceded from the Iron Throne. Perhaps if the series ended with Robb successfully cementing his place as King in the North and leaving the southrons to fight amongst themselves for the Iron Throne—but that once again assumes the conceit that the Starks are the protagonists and that theirs is the central story of this series. I'm not prepared to do that. As much as I like the Starks, viewing them as protagonists severely restricts the scope of this series, at least in my opinion.
I think it's fine to be disappointed with A Song of Ice and Fire for failing to meet that expectation. But there's also a bit of caveat emptor going on here: what did you expect, really? Martin goes to great lengths to point out that his world is not like a fairy tale. We see this in the brutal awakening Sansa receives in A Game of Thrones, and again in A Clash of Kings, and again in this book. She's a little slow on the uptake, but she is finally beginning to grasp that she is a chess piece and life is not like a song, that few knights are truly brave and noble and honourable, and that she cannot trust anyone, not even those who claim kinship with her. Martin has never promised us, explicitly or implicitly, that the Starks were going to get a family "happily-ever-after." He has always been upfront about the "grim reality" of Westeros. So while I understand and empathize with those who want something different, I won't criticize Martin for failing to deliver something he never so much as hinted at giving us. As I concluded in my review of A Game of Thrones,
… a lot of people build up an idea about this book in their minds, and when it fails to conform to that idea, they become disillusioned and kick it to the curb.
Martin's grim approach to his fantasy actually makes finding meaning in "the struggles and the triumphs of the characters" possible. A Song of Ice and Fire has a cast of thousands of characters who are all at odds with one another. With those dynamics, telling a traditional fantasy story with the conventional tropes of heroism would be rather hopeless. And so, in order to make the struggles of his characters meaningful, Martin needs more than a single, symbolic death or a crucial moment of self-sacrifice; he needs to inflict upon each character unique and harrowing hardships. Although these trials often share similar themes, their particulars are always different: e.g., Arya and Sansa both receive a cascading series of reality checks in this book, but each receives them in a different way.
Some of the most interesting developments in A Storm of Swords come not from the Starks but from the Lannisters. There is a new sheriff in King's Landing: Tywin Lannister is now the Hand, and he manages to alienate not one, not two, but all three of his children! He treats Tyrion with nothing but loathing and disgust. He undermines Cersei's position as Queen Regent and Joffrey's adviser, plotting instead to remarry her to anyone he needs as an ally. And he and Jaime come to sharp words after Jaime decides to assert himself. All three Lannister siblings suddenly discover that they are not quite as powerful, as clever, as well-positioned as they thought they were. I liked watching Tyrion come to terms with his treatment at Tywin's hands; I loved watching Jaime. Martin adds depth to the Kingslayer, thanks in part to an intriguing chemistry of honour and duty between him and Brienne of Tarth. While that does not make up for what Jaime has previously done, it lets me sympathize with him. In many ways, he has been as much a pawn his entire life as Sansa has been. A Storm of Swords is a rude awakening for him as well—in more ways than others—and there is a glimmer of hope that he will turn down the path of redemption. It is hard to tell, though, with the chaos in King's Landing at the close of this book. (More moustache-twirling here, muwhahahaha.)
At this point, I am having a difficult time deciding who I want to see win the throne. I am still trying to determine whether Littlefinger is just an opportunist or secretly a Chessmaster manipulating all the events from behind the scenes. If you really want to know, though … I wouldn't mind seeing Daenerys on the Iron Throne.
After a disappointing story in A Clash of Kings, Daenerys returns in A Storm of Swords and kicks ass. In A Game of Thrones we watched Daenerys grow from victim and young, scared girl to the leader of a tribe of Dothraki and mother of dragons. Now she is becoming a queen in her own right, not to mention a pretty savvy general. More importantly, Daenerys is the perfect mix of outsider and familiar face that the kingdom of Westeros needs right now. She is a Targaryen, a member of the family that ruled for hundreds of years until Robert's rebellion. So her claim is pretty solid. Unlike her father Aerys, however, she seems to lack the madness that made a continued Targaryen rule problematic. So far her approach to justice has been a lot easier to stomach than Stannis' troubling religious fervour or Joffrey's … well, everything. So I am officially declaring for Team Daenerys, at least for now—I reserve the right to jump ship at the first sign that Jon Snow decides to be King of Awesomeness and name Sam Tarly his Hand.
Speaking of Jon and Sam, A Storm of Swords finally hearkens back to the threat of the Others. I appreciate Martin returning to this plot after putting it on the backburner for A Clash of Kings. The tension created by his portrayal of a diminished and nearly-beaten Night's Watch reminds me of the sense of foreboding that accompanies Robert's dying days in A Game of Thrones: it is going to get worse before it gets better. After all, winter is coming.
It's true enough that Martin is asking a lot of us. With each book, the lines between protagonist and antagonist blur even more, and it seems less and less clear who we should want to see victorious. That demands a certain level of faith from the reader, faith that Martin will present a resolution that, if not the happily-ever-after we are so trained to expect, at least crystallizes the series into a final, definitive state. I can see why this type of demand would give some readers pause. The fact that Martin makes it while continuing to deliver stories replete with intrigue and plots, promises and betrayal, and love and war means that I am willing to wait and see where he takes us next.