on January 21, 2001
George R.R. Martin is certainly one of the most skilled writers in the genre today, and "A Storm of Swords" unfailingly continues to uphold the rigorous standard he set for himself in "A Game of Thrones". The enormous cast of complex characters, combined with complicated intrigue and a riveting plot make the book almost impossible to put down.
The world of the Seven Kingdoms is richly detailed, but more impressive is Martin's facility to create an atmosphere through detail. From the way he writes, it would seem that he knows what every tankard in every inn looks like, and what every one of the thousands of warriors, knights, and aristocrats is wearing down to the last buckle, even if these details are not always included. In short, Martin clearly knows his world inside-out, and thus is able to convey even more than is usual an atmosphere of reality in a fantasy world. He also excels in scene-painting, and every sensual nuance comes alive--sometimes, in violent scenes, more than one might like.
Another feature that sets Martin apart is his unpredictability. Even the most jaded reader will be surprised by something in the plot, which hurtles along in a speeding fury, killing nearly everyone in its path. There are no indestructible characters, which is rare for any genre.
Martin is also unique in that there is very little good and evil; even the Lannisters, who were pure evil in the beginning, are starting to morph into more complex characters. The reverse is also true, and most of the sympathetic or neutral characters reveal traits that are downright nasty. Nice people don't last long in Martin's world, as Eddard was first to learn; and sometimes the cruelty of even the most sympathetic characters can be jarring.
As for the characters themselves, Tyrion is just amazing. 'Nuff said.
However, I am disturbed by all the comparisons to Tolkien, as well as the widespread assertion that there is no fantasy out there better or on a level with this. Martin's approach, which is to develop multiple threads and follow each (for the most part) separately, has the upside in that it contributes to the overall complexity of the story. However, this approach also has a very distinctive downside, which is that character development and the reader's emotional involvement with the characters must take a permanent back seat. This plot is so immense, so sprawling, that ultimately it leaves no opportunity for the reader to become deeply absorbed in it--there are too many things which require the reader's attention for this to be possible. Each plotline skims the surface of an idea and a character's development, but because of the limited time slot is not able to explore them in greater depth.
For example, Jon's plotline in "A Game of Thrones", when he was making friends and enemies in Castle Black, was vaguely reminiscent of "Ender's Game" in the challenges that were presented to the character. Unfortunately, because Martin had so many other threads to take care of, most of the development in this thread went on behind the scenes: in one chapter Jon would be on bad terms with most of the boys. Then the plot switches away from him, and by the time it returns, Jon has managed to adjust and make some friends. The transition occurred while we were following Dany and Eddard--and while we certainly wanted to know about them, the fact that this major transition happened without us automatically means that Jon has become more distant from the reader than he otherwise might have been.
There is nothing wrong with this approach to the genre; it is a certain style that appeals more to some and less to others. Its main advantage is that it gives Martin a huge canvas upon which to use the many colors in his palette, an opportunity to create an endless array of dramatic events and atmospheric settings. But the disadvantage cannot be ignored, which is that although the broad and complex storyline is "a mile wide", it is also "an inch deep".
Another thing which makes this different from most fantasies is the absence of a sense of the magical, of quests and the inevitable destiny of some few great ones. This is a tale that is mainly of political intrigue and war. As such, it bears almost no resemblance to epic fantasy, and shares closer ties with military fantasy. Thus there is very little sense in comparing this work to Tolkien's, for there is very little resemblance beyond the fact that they share the same bookshelf. It is also ridiculous to say that it is better than various epic fantasies, because the strengths of Martin's work are the weaknesses in most epic fantasy--and vice versa. Both have valuable elements to impart to the reader, and both should be considered separately.