Storm of Swords is widely considered George R.R. Martin’s greatest work in the Song of Ice and Fire saga. After just finishing this massive door stopper fantasy I can easily see why. It’s packed with outstanding action, a sweeping scope, stunningly realized surprises and characters that haunted my dreams after staying up late for yet another night reading until two in the morning. It’s not a short read. Prepare to settle in for a month if you actually have other things going on in your life, but you’ll keep coming back to it. Even knowing the plot ahead of time will not prepare you for much of the emotional turmoil you’ll face within its pages. Beware of spoilers ahead.

It’s by no means a perfect book despite fantastic writing and deeply realized characters that transcend story telling to become real people. It’s safe to say that GRRM didn’t heed the late, great Elmore Leonard’s advice to, “try to skip the parts people skip.” With a single book that’s larger than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy combined, it’s inevitable that you’ll find some characters that you just don’t like seeing that much. The novel uses a limited omniscient, multi-viewpoint structure where each chapter is told from a different person’s perspective and inevitably some people aren’t as compelling as others. Yet what’s most surprising is how little of the work I wanted to speed through. Bran Stark’s story continues to bore me as does Sam Tarly’s but I still read 95% of their chapters, only occasionally pulling the read-the-first-line-of-each-paragraph technique to breeze through yet another inner monologue about how Bran wishes he wasn’t crippled and Sam wishes he had courage. Samwell Tarly reminds me a lot of Samwise in Lord of the Rings, but he just doesn’t have the noble courage and fierce loyalty to the power of friendship that makes Sam one of the most beloved fantasy characters of all time. Instead, he remains a cowardly fat kid and while he’s realistic he’s not unique or memorable. Many of his heroics turn on coincidence. He just happens to be at the right place at the right time. The weakness of Bran’s story stems from its long arc that looks as if it will span the entire seven book series. It’s clear that his main purpose is to confront the Others far beyond the wall, a race of magical humanoid monsters who’ve returned after thousands of years. I suspect his arc will mark a dramatic turning point in the last or second to last book, that are yet to be released, but at this point he just doesn’t have much of anything interesting to do. His entire story up until this point is a lot of him dreaming of being a wolf and escaping various brigands, war factions and outlaws while traveling a long, long way and hiding a lot. It reminds me of the worst parts of Lord of the Rings, a lot of endless walking over rocks and through the trees and through some more trees again.

With all that said, there’s so much to like in this novel. Storm of Swords has a reputation for being a negative book but I felt that reputation unfair. The gruesome death of Catelyn Stark and the boy king Rob in the infamous Red Wedding remains one of the most shocking scenes ever set to paper outside of American Psycho, but it’s more than balanced by the second half of the book that brings the long awaited deaths of some of the most notorious and irredeemable monsters of the series like the hideous sociopath King Joffery, the brutal enforcer Ser Gregor Clegane and the dark father Tywin Lannister, the true power behind the throne of Westeros, as well as some minor villains like the torturer known as the Tickler. For me those deaths more than make up for the horror of the Red Wedding and end the book on a strong, high note that sweeps upward.

Frankly, it’s amazing the Red Wedding scene works so well. Luring people to a supposedly safe meeting ground only to kill them is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but GRRM delivers it in an utterly unique way. Often this type of scene shows up at the beginning of books and serves to fuel the protagonist’s righteous revenge as in Braveheart, when the young William Wallace sees his father killed by a similar ruse. By setting the scene in the middle of the third book and delivering it with little to no warning it strikes hard and fast. The fact that we see the death of a viewpoint character who’s been with us through all three novels makes it even worse. Lastly because it’s Rob’s bannermen and supposed friends who orchestrate the murders it’s even more horrific. GRRM knows that story telling is not about throwing out the fundamental building blocks of fiction, but by twisting them he makes them unique. Just as a house always has a foundation, walls and a roof, but there’s no limit to the endless creative floor plans you can create inside that structure, this story continues to use familiar tropes in incredibly fresh ways.

It’s impossible to think of the book without comparing it to the TV series now. I’m sure that reading the Red Wedding was vastly different for people who read the books years ago, before the show started, but the show’s version of the scene is now impossible to ignore. Both of the works are very similar but they differ in subtle ways. Some things work better in the book. For example, Jaime Lannister’s slow redemption works much better on the printed page for the simple fact that we can see his thoughts. In the early pages Jaime thinks of Brienne of Tarth as “the wench.” Everything he says and thinks about her is a series of insults, but slowly as the story rolls on he begins to call her by her name more and more and the insults begin to get replaced by more caring and concern for her well-being. On the flip side, the Red Wedding worked better for me on the screen. In the books Rob is never a viewpoint character, but we follow him closely in the show. That makes his death all the more devastating. His relationship is also more fully realized on the stage than in the book. In the show, he falls in love with the battlefield surgeon, Talisa Maegyr. She’s a strong woman, not afraid to give him some lip, but at the same time she is strongly loyal to Rob as their love flowers. In the book, he marries Jane Westerling, a petty, immature minor noblewoman who doesn’t like having Rob’s wolf around that makes her almost instantly unlikeable in Catelyn’s and our eyes. On the small screen, a big deal is made of Talisa’s pregnancy and their hopes for the future, a warning sign that drives home the true impact of the scene. One of the strongest differences is that Talisa is brought to the wedding in the show and Jane is not brought in the book. The violence starts when one the party’s assassins stabs her in the stomach repeatedly, killing her and the child in one of the darkest and saddest moments the show had to offer. I sometimes still see the final image of Catelyn Stark’s neck streaming blood in my nightmares.

I knew most of the plot ahead of time, having closely studied this epic fantasy, but it still managed to surprise me at almost every turn. It’s one thing to know the outcome of events and another thing to see them unfold. Many moments in the book moved me at a deep level, particularly the death of Ygritte, Jon’s wildling lover. As she lay dying in the snow I found myself on the verge of tears and I felt Jon’s own internal conflict between his friends, his duties and his loves at that moment more than any other. I also knew the Tyrion strangles Shae, his long time lover and whore. While I knew that Tyrion escaped prison and took a secret tunnel to his father’s tower to find her in his father’s bed I wasn’t sure that would be enough to justify her death fearing it would just be another example of the disposable sex worker. I always liked the way Shae seemed to care for Tyrion in the book and the show, calling him her “giant of Lannister.” The way the book turns us against her is subtle and brilliant. Cersei has Tyrion seized after Joffery’s death believing him responsible for her son’s death. At his trial, she stacks the deck against him, bullying, cajoling and buying witnesses to make up whatever she wants them to say. Many of the dwarf’s enemies gladly stand against him but so do some of his friends who can’t risk the wrath of the Queen Regent. As I’ve said before, Cersei is the true villain of the series and when she strikes out in a rage, she’s a ruthless enemy. Yet it’s clear that Tyrion’s true friends, like Varys, say only what they must to satisfy the queen. This is all done through language and perfect pitch dialogue. We know Varys is holding back, giving the court just enough to make Tyrion look bad and keep his own head on his shoulders, but holding back truly personal details. It’s when Shae takes the stand that everything turns. She betrays everything from their most intimate moments, even telling the court that he forced her to call him her giant of Lannister that makes the crowd at the court roar with laughter. She even repeats it to drive the nail home. It’s safe to say that I absolutely despised this woman after that scene, almost as much as some of the more classical villains like Ser Gregor. When Tyrion finds her in his father’s bed and she has the nerve to call him her giant of Lannister once more, Tyrion strangles her in a deeply satisfying moment while thinking the very same thing that I thought as soon as she said that line, “that was the worst thing she could have said.”

The book also delivers some incredible one-on-one battles, like the Hound’s fight with Beric Dondarrion, a knight who seems immortal, coming back from the dead at least six times. There is also the signature battle between Ser Gregor and the Red Viper of Dorn. Ser Gregor is one of the most terrifying villains ever created. GRRM uses a simple technique to build his legend in the books. We barely see him. Instead, other people talk about him in hushed tones, telling stories of his atrocities that take on the feel of tall tales. Like Moby Dick he towers over the book, a constant threat, despite not showing up until much later. Ser Gregor is Tywin Lannister’s dragon (not a literal dragon but a brutal enforcer for the Big Bad of the story), a vicious, amoral man who likes nothing better than to kill, rape and steal and he takes sadistic pleasure in it. In other words, he’s a complete monster. Again we see the uniqueness of GRRM’s writing not in throwing off conventions completely but in breaking with tradition in new ways. Typically the dragon is killed by the hero or the hero team but not in this instance. Instead the story introduces a new character, the Red Viper of Dorn, a fierce, fast killer, known to use poison on his blades. He’s come to seek justice against Ser Gregor, because the dark knight killed his sister’s children, smashing her son’s head against a rock and then raping her with her son’s brains still on him and then killing her. Of course, the scheming chessmaster Tywin Lannister has no intention of turning over his most valuable weapon to the Red Viper’s justice. Instead, the Red Viper is asked to sit as one of three judges at Tyrion’s trial. Yet when Cersei secures Ser Gregor as her champion in the event that Tyrion asks for a trial by combat, a trick that saved him once in the Vale, the Viper sees an opening and we see the stage set for a fantastic battle when he volunteers as the dwarf’s champion. In other words, it’s got all the makings of a perfect prizefight, with the smaller, faster Red Viper using his speed to jab Ser Gregor with his spear and with the monstrous Gregor using his massive bulk to bludgeon the Viper into submission. Tiny telling details make the characters. Tyrion warns the Viper that Gregor uses a huge, two handed sword but needs only one hand to wield it. It’s perfect details like this that make GRRM a master at character creation. The Red Viper nearly kills the wicked knight, but at the last moment Gregor seizes him and breaks his face and skull, bragging that he’d done the same to his sister, though mortally wounded from the Viper’s poison tipped spear.

Storm of Swords also gives us some of Daenerys Targaryen most epic scenes. She’s come a long way from the uncertain little girl married to a horse lord. She’s a fiercely pragmatic warrior leader, who isn’t afraid to roast people with her dragons or hang them in the streets if necessary. The key is that her justice is balanced. Thus far she’s only delivered brutal deaths to her most pernicious enemies, like the sorceress who sacrificed her baby and the nasty slavers who nail child slaves to stakes along her marching route as a warning to stay away. The scene when she turns the massive slave army of Unsullied against their former masters is incredible both in the books and on screen.

The story reveals some enticing things about Stannis Barratheon. I’ve always thought him a bizarre hero, an uncompromising man who doesn’t make many friends. At first I couldn’t understand why he’d survived when so many others died until I told a friend that the Song of Ice and Fire probably contains every personality type on the planet and he said, “is there a batman in the series?” I thought carefully and finally said “yes, Stannis, a rich, brooding loner, uncompromising and a fierce tactical warrior.” And yet it’s impossible to escape the feeling that he’s not the true hero despite his even hand and longevity in the universe that does not hesitate to cut down the best and brightest along with the worst. That is finally revealed quietly in this book to be the truth. When Stannis takes the wall and saves the black brotherhood the men ask to see his sword, the magical Lightbringer, the name a clue in itself, as this is the name of the devil in Christian mythology. It glows, but afterwards the blind wise man Aemon Targaryen, a Maester who foreswore his family name and the machinations of kings and took the black, asked Sam Tarly if the sword burned the leather it touched or if it smoked? Sam tells him no it didn’t but it did glow. The Maester only nods but offers no explanation. A smart reader knows the answer. Stannis is not the chosen one and that sword may have magic but it’s not Lightbringer.

All and all, this book delivers on so many levels. It surprises, hits you with a huge range of emotions and manages to somehow make even minor characters seem fully realized in just a few pen strokes. I challenge you to read that first introductory scene with the Red Viper and then tell me that you don’t know exactly who he is, what he is like and what he wants, all within the space of a few dozen pages. Some writers go entire books and never develop a character half as well as the minor people who populate Westeros and disappear after only a few chapters. GRRM does this with perfect telling details, chosen carefully and then conveyed to us with the right establishing scene that allows the character to be developed in contrast to already established characters. He uses stories within stories to tell us much about those character’s inner worlds. When we first meet the Red Viper, Tyrion greets him at the edge of the city. The Viper proceeds to insult the dwarf openly and he has no fear in letting him know that he expects justice from his father for Ser Gergor’s crimes, but also tells him a story of how he saw Tyrion as a young man, expecting a monster and a devil from all the stories he’d heard, but instead finding just a dwarf, ugly but no beast. In just a few back and forths we learn the man is practical and unswayed by the weak and ignorant prejudices so common to most people who hate the dwarf and fear him. He is by no means a nice man, but you get the sense that he is clear, sharp and resilient and yet filled with a deep rage and a need for revenge. And we get all this, again, in just a single chapter, a single exchange of dialogue. For me that marks the true genius of GRRM. He is an absolute master of dialogue and it comes across in everything he writes.

This is a book worth its weight though I’m thankful I read it during the Kindle era so I didn’t have to lug it around. Study it closely and you’ll find that it contains hundreds of secrets to spectacular writing. Or just read it and enjoy the ride. Either way, it’s worth the trip.