A Storm of Swords
or, so loud you can't speak
Spoilers ahead, though this should go without saying.
If you want to catch up:
Now that we’re at The Novel that definitely made the argument for an adaptation worth considering, I’ll lay down a thesis statement of sorts.
A Storm of Swords speaks for itself.
While A Game of Thrones revolutionized the genre and A Clash of Kings defined the shape of the rest of the series, A Storm of Swords is the true inescapable fulcrum of modern fantasy literature.
The casual beheading of Ned Stark, shocking as it was, foundational as it was, gets obliterated from the memory of readers and viewers when set against the monstrous singularity of The Red Wedding. The Red Wedding lands so loudly, so thunderously that we are deafened to any twists and turns that previously blew our minds.
It is this moment that all fantasy literature continues to chase 22 years later.
Sadly, so many writers are not as capable as George Martin and so many novels collapse under the weight of the author’s desire to shock us with their ruthlessness. In this way many novels become almost parodies of themselves. With such seriousness and earnestness do they attempt to show us that they’re willing to kill off characters that they forget to make us care about the characters in the first place.
A short list of those who fall prey to this:
R Scott Bakker
I actually like two and possibly three of those names above (depending on the day), but the shadow of the Red Wedding is long and dark and, uh, red, I guess. It has, in some ways, defined their careers. Of course, this even extends beyond epic fantasy novels.
As all videogames after Doom must contend with Doom, so it is with all post-Martin fantasy novels.
This has been largely bad for the genre, in my opinion. If I ever decide to talk about the TV show, I’ll get more into this, as I think what’s happened to TV is even more disastrous. I suppose I talked about it a bit when I talked about Star Trek: Discovery and Cowboy Bebop last year.
The rush to shock ignores that The Red Wedding is preceded by about 2,000 pages without Red Weddings.
A quick anecdote:
In 2013, my friend texted me out of the blue with a simple statement: WTF. Then a picture of A Storm of Swords.
She told me she was considering giving up on the series right there. Closing it and never opening it again. This is the impact of the Red Wedding, especially before the show caught up to this moment and let everyone know that such a thing as the Red Wedding even existed.
Of course, she opened the book back up. Had to. Had to know what happens next.
And what does happen next?
Well, Joffrey is murdered and then The Mountain caves in Oberyn Martell’s head and then Tywin is murdered.
In my head, I thought these three moments were paid out over the 1,000+ pages of the novel. On reread, I was shocked by how close all these events happen together. All of this happens within the final 200 or 300 pages.
George Martin lulls us onward through hundreds of pages, telling us over and over again that disaster is coming for Robb Stark. The ways in which this is telegraphed almost make me wonder how it took my breath away all those years ago while my students were taking a test that I had written just minutes before they showed up at school.
I gasped. I gasped loud. I’ve mentioned this in a number of places over the years, but it’s still funny for me to think about. A book had never made me gasp before and there I was almost barking out the gasp causing a room full of 9 year old Korean children to stare at me with levels of confusion I can’t describe.
But Martin is telling you, almost explicitly, that this is going to happen. Yes, you feel the dread when they show up at the Frey’s castle and expect something to go awry, but never this.
Which is sort of funny. Even though Martin demonstrated in the very first book that no one was safe, including narrators, we sort of didn’t believe it would happen again.
This is what Martin’s playing with here. This is the best version of a fan taking the helm of a genre. If not for the massive body of fantasy literature where heroes always make it out all right, where death is a toothless threat, we would know Robb Stark was never walking out of that castle alive.
And yet! Even up until the moment where he is murdered, I still expected something else to happen. Not for him to be saved, no. But for him to become a prisoner. Maybe he’d get saved by someone else in book four or five or six.
And then Catelyn gets murdered too!
In some ways, the series never fully rebounds from this climax. To many, many readers, this is the apex of the series. I don’t really disagree, but I also have a very strong love of the fourth book for reasons that will come up during that review.
But from this huge moment, we run breakneckingly to Joffrey’s grotesque murder at his birthday, and from there to Tyrion killing his father while he shits. A moment that manages to be heartbreaking, chilling, and a little funny.
On reread, I reacted more strongly to this. On my initial read, I did not expect it. For just buckets of reasons, even when Tyrion is pointing his crossbow at Tywin, I expected something else to happen. Some way to keep both of these players on the board.
Mind you, this almost right on the heels of Oberyn Martell—swooping in as a last minute hero to save Tyrion—gets his skull crushed by the Mountain.
The brutality on display in this novel is just bonkers. Honestly, Martin leads us by the hand for hundreds of pages where he tells us all this is going to happen and yet it still comes as a profound shock.
However, despite how large this volume looms, I do think it’s also the first volume in the series with noticeable slack. Part of this, at least on the reread, may be because I was expecting the Red Wedding on page 300 instead of 700. But even on my initial read, I remember taking a break from the book for a few weeks. There’s quite a lot of shuffling players on the board during the first half of the novel.
Even so, the back half of this novel is so jam packed full of wild, shocking, and significant events that the dithering of the first half gets flooded over in your memory.
And so what do I mean when I say the novel speaks for itself?
There is hardly anything to say about the book. The novel is so loudly screaming its importance to the genre that there is no real need for anyone else to ever write a glowing review. Few people have ever conjured a moment as thunderous as Ned Stark’s beheading. Just two books later, George Martin sonic booms this moment into oblivion.
I could write a review detailing everything great about this book. I could highlight the foreshadowing, rub your nose in every moment that made my skin crawl, the ones that filled me, momentarily, with hope. The ones that broadened our understanding of the world, the themes, and the trajectory of the series. I could have even spent 3,000 words just talking about The Brotherhood without Banners—I’ll have more to say about this next time—and how much they mean, specifically, to me as a person, as a reader, and as a writer. There are literally entire books I’ve written that wouldn’t exist without a handful of scenes with Beric Dondarrion.
Can I convince you to read this book?
Buddy, I don’t even have to.
Two things have defined my life. My chronic unhappiness and my idiocy. I am a big dummy often too depressed to feel much hope. But reading this book not only made me feel smart, but it filled me with hope. Smart because the history of this world and the mysteries most relevant to the plot are paid out so judiciously that theories blossomed like fungus on my loaves of bread, and I managed to put enough of these pieces together while ignoring the correct red herrings to eventually be told by the Sixth Season of the TV show that I had been right for years. Hope because all this carnage and chaos showed me that books can be whatever we want. The options are limitless. It’s only a lack of creativity, of imagination that causes so many books to be about young writers in New York or bad marriages in the Midwest or honorable kings and queens or adventurous scientists in space.
If you haven’t read this book, you are simply missing out.
You ignore this book to your own detriment. If you’re interested in fantasy literature at all, then this may as well be on the Required Reading List. If you’re even just interested in understanding what has happened to TV and Film, you have to read this book.
For better or worse, we got here, to 2022, riding a wedding flooded by blood.
This book’s tentacles have wrapped around, woven through, and shaped the way we perceive and understand stories, characters, and even fictional morality. Every novel, TV show, and movie made since contends with A Storm of Swords.
The novel is a leviathan. It bellows so loud I can barely think.
A monster whose gaping beak is so deep and dark that it swallows all media.
We all live inside it.