The explosive third entry in the awe-inspiring 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series, 'A Storm of Swords is truly a paragon of modern fantasy. The novel is an exercise in compulsive page turning. Filled with vivid characters and a gripping storyline, Martin continues to prove why he's one of the masters of fantasy. The book is unquestionably a titan of the genre, and raises the bar not only for the rest of the series, but for the world of fantasy literature as a whole.
The opening of 'A Storm of Swords' overlaps with the end of 'A Clash of Kings', as Martin mentions in an opening note. North of the Wall, the situation is uneasy. Jon Snow has left on a ranging with Qhorin Halfhand to discover where the wildlings have gathered, and why. Meanwhile, on the Fist of the First Men, Lord Commander Mormont and the Night's Watch prepare for an attack they believe inevitable.
Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, accompanied by Ser Cleos Frey, are working their way towards King's Landing, as part of Catelyn Stark's scheme to win freedom for her daughters. Her acts are declared just short of treasonous, and Brienne and Jaime are hounded by the northmen as they make their perilous journey south.
Jaime's brother, the dwarf Tyrion, is recovering from the greivous wound taken on the Blackwater. He awakes to find his father has assumed his position as Hand, and all the strength of Highgarden is camped within the city.
Robb has returned to Riverrun from his raiding in the west. Although he's been victorious in battle, it's possible he may have lost the war. With his alliance with the Frey's in danger, and his vassals threatening desertion over Catelyn freeing Jaime, his position is precarious to say the least.
Meanwhile, the remaning Stark children are scattered across the kingdoms. Bran is finding his way north towards destiny, accompanied by his litter brother, Jojen, Meera, and Hodor. Sansa remains a resigned prisoner in King's Landing, and dreams sadly of home. Arya continues to travel the riverlands, desperate to reach Riverrun and safety.
Across the ocean, Daenarys Stormborn and her dragons search for the means to raise an army to reclaim the birthright denied her. With Jorah Mormont and Arstan Whitebeard at her side, Daenarys begins to plan her return, and learns much about being a Queen.
Martin puts his skills at creating amazingly realistic characters to excellent use in the third volume. Heroes and villains continue to straddle the line between good and evil, and we're given deeper insights into characters such as Jaime Lannister and Sandor Clegane. Martin is unequalled when it comes to making the reader feel sympathy for the bad guys, or unease with the good. Characters from the earlier volumes are expertly developed, and we're introduced to a few new ones as well. Don't get too comfortable with your favourite ones though. As Martin's demonstarted earlier, he has absolutely no qualms about killing off the 'good guys', often without any warning at all. Just when you're certain everything's going to turn out ok... it doesn't.
The entire volume is laced with tension and suspense. Aside from not knowing if a character's going to make it to the next page, events in the novel move at a breakneck pace. Major plot events occur throughout the book, yet in no way diminish the pacing of the novel as a whole. There's never a slow minute in the book, as all the main characters are faced with life-changing events. Martin crafts these expertly, and many of them are a surprise to the reader. Especially near the end of the novel, there's literally a flood of major developments. Each one of these is a joy to read, and the switching of POV's leads to a frantic tempo as the novel comes to an explosive finish. The epilogue itself does nothing to tie events together. Instead, its foreboding tone hints at the direction of the next novels, and leaves the reader panting for more.
In spite of the book's unquestionably dark atmosphere, Martin manages to inject a good amount of humor into the proceedings. Jaime Lannister's dry wit, for instance, is guaranteed for a few laughs. It's a welcome release from the darkening atmosphere of the series. This includes plenty of graphic violence - one scene in particular may be troublesome for some readers. There's a plethora of dirty and vulgar language as well. In most novels, this could be a notable stumbling point. In 'A Storm of Swords' however, it suits the characters and setting perfectly. Both the violence and language help to immerse the reader in an environment of tangible realism. Well, as real as one can expect when there's dragon's involved.
'A Storm of Swords' is a masterpiece of a novel. With over 900 pages (hardcover edition) of spectacular characters, intense plot development, and plenty of jaw-dropping action sequences, this book is a must read. 'A Storm of Swords' makes an epic series even better.