War rages across Westeros. After Stannis Baratheon's defeat the Lannisters control the South, with Tywin Lannister ruling King's Landing in the name of his cruel grandson Joffrey. But the fragile peace in the capital is threatened by the tension brewing between the lions and their uncertain allies - the haughty Tyrells from Highgarden, family to the young king's future wife, and the proud Martells from Dorne who seek vengeance for the brutal murder of princess Elia, the wife of Raegar Targaryen - a murder commanded by none other than Tywin Lannister.
Meanwhile the Ironmen are rampaging throughout the North. Winterfell is a burnt ruin and the two Stark children Bran and Rickon are separated and hidden, with Bran heading on a journey to find the three-eyed crow - a journey that will eventually lead him beyond the borders of the realm. In the Riverlands, Robb Stark, the King of the North, has won every battle he's engaged in, yet it seems he is still losing the war. After his alliance with the Freys is shattered by a terrible mistake, he is trying to find a way to repair the damage his own honor has done.
At Dragonstone, Stannis Baratheon is licking his wounds while still listening to the advice of the deadly priestess Melisandre. But his one true servant Davos Seaworth has survived the battle that destroyed his army and comes back to his king, trying to save him from the path he has taken.
Beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder is marching his vast wildling horde towards Westeros, bent on conquest. Jon Snow plays the turncloak, conflicted by the dishonor he brings his oath with the pretense, as well as by the feelings he is beginning to develop for the wildling woman Ygritte. Yet he needs to find a way to get back to his brothers and warn them of the host, and quickly, because the Wall is not impossible to get across for a small raiding party, and the castles of the Night's Watch have no defense of their own. But there is an even greater danger coming from the north - the Others are roaming the wilderness, and the world has forgotten how to stop them.
In the east, Daenerys Targaryen has traveled to Slaver's Bay to buy herself an army. But events there turn her in a different direction, and she begins a conquest of liberation, creating a following and slowly beginning to realize her destiny. Yet she is surrounded by uncertain loyalties and desires, and even her closest advisers keep secrets from her. And she is constantly haunted by the prophecy that she is yet to be betrayed again. Twice.
A Storm of Swords paints by far the broadest picture so far of the wars that began in the first book of the series. The cast of characters is immense, the events unfolding are epic, and the plot moves to an entirely new level on all fronts. The realm is in ruin, yet nobody sees the danger coming from beyond the Wall, preoccupied as they are with their greed for power. The Stark children are scattered to the winds, each one suffering in a different way. Arya's journey to find her mother in particular seems to be cursed, as she is constantly deterred and diverted from her path. Sansa is the greatest victim of course, as the Lannisters keep using her for their games of politics with her only allies the drunken fool Dontos, the violent Sandor Clegane and the Imp Tyrion who has lost all of his power in the capital with the arrival of his cold father.
There are a couple of new PoVs, the most interesting of course being that of Jaime Lannister. We slowly come to realize there is more hiding behind his devil-may-care attitude, than meets the eye, and his journey from Riverrun to King's Landing changes him in more ways than even he realizes. The other new addition is Sam Tarly - another "helpless" character who suffers terribly in the north. It is always enjoyable for me to read the PoV's of the likes of him or Sansa, as they give an almost outside perspective on the strife that most of the others are a part of.
Yet, even as the story unfolds in its epic scale, and dramatic events follow one after another, A Storm of Swords is not without its flaws. Martin's prose is as always absolutely superb, yet the narrative keeps slowing down. While A Game of Thrones was almost bare-bones straight to the point, the third book in the series sometimes takes way too much time on way too insignificant details. Meals are described in painstaking fashion, as well as the surrounding environment - hills, forests, castles and general geography. Unlike the previous books, now a good part of every PoV's chapters is dedicated to just traveling and thinking about stuff, which brings us dangerously close to Robert Jordan Land. Of course, there is no real comparison, and the third part of A Song of Ice and Fire feels in no way like a filler. Yet the slowing down is palpable, and makes for a much slower reading.
Then there is the Stark issue of course. It is becoming funny how horribly that family suffers all the time. Each and every one of them gets screwed again and again, in more and more violent and horrible ways. And as much as I appreciate tragedy, it is becoming funny in its purposefulness, and funny is definitely not what Martin is going for here, or should be. The Starks need a break, especially after this book, and they better get one soon...
That said, practically everything else in the book is love-worthy. The many plot-lines are filled with shocking revelations and unexpected turns, and meanwhile magic becomes more and more important. I mean, don't misunderstand - I love a magicless fantasy as much as the next very weird person, but it a beautiful contrast to the very human power struggle that rages at the center of the series' story. Speaking of contrast, the way in which the three major lines - Westeros, the Wall and the East - are written is amazing. Even though Martin's style does not change noticeably, the atmosphere of each is distinctly its own, as if an entirely different palette is used to paint each one. ASoIF could easily have been three separate fantasy series and they would still work (in fact, a couple of storylines - Daenerys' for example - have been published in an isolated novella form, thus proving my point).
Yet it is exactly this diversity that makes A Song of Ice and Fire the masterpiece that it is. Even with the tempo slowing down, there is still so much happening, that it is impossible to put A Storm of Swords down. And as this was the last book in the series that I have previously read, what's left now is entirely new territory, which makes it all the more exciting. On to A Feast for Crows!