The OF Blog: SOIAF re-read project: George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords

Thursday, May 06, 2010

SOIAF re-read project: George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords, the third volume in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, generated mixed reactions at best during my first two reads, 2000-2001 and 2002.  I had pre-ordered the book weeks before its October 31, 2000 ship date from Amazon and yet it took me nearly five months to read the first 250 pages (I read the rest while recovering from vertigo induced from riding the Tower of Terror ride at Disneyworld during a vacation in mid-March 2001). 

I just failed to engage with the story during that time (the fact that during this time I had to deal with broken waterpipes in my apartment, then starting the process of resigning my teaching position in TN so I could start getting ready to move to FL in a months probably affected the reads back then, as I'll note later when I write my commentary on the ninth WoT book, Winter's Heart).  Everything just seemed to be overplotted at the time, as if the characters were slowly being locked into position for a few firecracker-like mini-payoffs at the end.  The presumed climactic scenes occurred more toward the 2/3 mark than toward the end, which might be expected, leading to the sense of this novel being but the close to the prelude, rather than an important turning point in the series.

It took over a year before I agreed to re-read it, since I had by that time had openly expressed on wotmania my doubts as to the quality of the series.  It took some convincing, but when I did re-read the series and this book, my impressions improved somewhat.  Still thought it was a very "long" book, with too many expository scenes that felt a bit extraneous.  Although I found the writing as a whole to be well-done and most of the characters to be well-drawn and plotted, there were times that it seemed that events in this novel (to a lesser extent, this occurred in the first two novels) were over-plotted, with so much crammed into nearly 1000 hardcover pages as to make the pace feel somewhat slower than in the first two novels.

Nearly eight years later, these same impressions occurred to me while I was reading the book.  When viewed as chunk-sized portions, each of the PoV chapter subplots were well-written and well-rendered.  Characters gained needed depth and there was a greater sense of dynamism occurring here than is typically the norm for an epic fantasy.  Most of the events in each individual section were plausible (the scenes at the Wall being the more improbable ones of the book, as the Watch doesn't strike me as being akin the Spartans of 300) and there were some amusing quips and comedy scenes.

But when examined in the aggregate, A Storm of Swords is not as large as the sum of its parts.  There is a surfeit of information and plots, which had a deleterious effect on the novel's progression.  While there was none of the PoV sameness that I sense when I am re-reading the WoT books, there was that creeping feeling that plot furtherance was being delayed for a bit too long with all of the sideplots (North, across the Narrow Sea, the Wall, Riverlands, King's Landing, The Red Keep, Dragonstone, the countryside near Harrenhall, etc.) demanding their fair share of attention.  Although eventually there were resolutions in most of these subplots, due to the number of them, there was little in the way of a "true" climax to this novel.  Oh, I'm sure some might argue for the Red Wedding, but that event neither shocked me, nor did it have the feel of being as "important" as it perhaps could have, due to the overabundance of other subplots (the duel between the Mountain and Prince Oberyn, what happens to Arya, the poisoning, and the latter events at the Wall) and due to the fact that one of the two principals involved in the Red Wedding, Robb, never got a PoV chapter and the second, his mother Catelyn, shows up in the epilogue.  All this lessened the power of that scene and in turn lessened the other scenes as well.

This is not to say that A Storm of Swords is a bad or even mediocre novel.  It is not.  Rather, it is a story whose excellent points shine more in isolation than when considering the novel as a whole.  There are just so many subplots here, enough to cause problems when trying to coordinate events, timelines, and other plot developments.  While the prose is never a problem, sometimes there can be too much discussed in too many places.  Martin does a laudable job in trying to present the "common person's" view of the war, mostly through Arya's scenes.  However, his use of ground-level events for her PoV and for a few others, interesting as they are and as useful as they are for advancing the plot, often means that more space is devoted to these scenes than perhaps is necessary.  I found myself wondering if Martin had used a bit of "flash-forward," or summarizing a few days or weeks or even months with just a paragraph or two, if that might have sped up the flow of the narrative, kept the page count lower, and made it easier to cover character developments and events without sacrificing too much detail.

As it stands, this re-reading of A Storm of Swords left me with more positive feelings toward it than I had after my initial two reads.  It is a very good novel and a suitable volume for its series, but there are enough flaws in the narrative approach that keep it from rising any higher than "a very good read" in my opinion.  Some of this is no doubt due to my personal reading preferences, but some of it is also due to sensing just how ambitious this epic fantasy series is and wishing that this novel could have fulfilled all of those ambitions rather than just the majority of them.  That being said, I'm very curious to see how I react to the fourth volume, A Feast for Crows, since I have never completed that novel.


Unknown said...

I agree that the impact of the Red Wedding is cheapened by Catelyn appearing in the epilogue, and unfortunately it gets worse in AFFC. I think it's one of the worst decisions Martin made.

cedunkley said...

I'm about halfway through reading this book. I've been taking my time with this series, reading it in little chunks between other books.

One interesting note about POV. Martin has commented that he has intentionally not made any of the characters directly vying for the Iron Throne - or those looking to be in charge of everyone from a different throne - a POV character.

Other than Dany, of course.

Larry Nolen said...

I feel like pressing fingers on my throat to talk now that I've finished AFfC...yes, that was a seemingly extraneous scene, but I'll reserve judgment until the next novel is out, whenever that might be.

Good point about the regal non-PoVs. Thought about it a bit more while reading AFfC this morning and afternoon. Will write that commentary shortly.

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