A Clash of Kings, which builds the tension to a clear climax rather than hammer the reader with numerous plot twists. That is more a personal preference than a statement on the quality of the novel though.
The opening moves in the War of the Five Kings have been made and so far the Lannisters appear to have come out on top. Renly Baratheon has been killed, his brother Stannis has lost the bulk of his army and fleet, the Greyjoys are more interested in plundering than conquest and even their strongest enemy, Rob Stark, has managed to get himself in trouble despite winning all his battles. With the north under attack of the Greyjoys and the loyalty of the powerful Lord Frey uncertain, Rob is not in a position to take on the Lannisters just yet. That doesn't mean the Lannisters can rest easy, there is more than enough internal conflict to keep them occupied. In the mean time more trouble is brewing for the men of the Night Watch, as a gathering of Wildlings is spotted heading for the wall. To the south, Daenerys Stormborn is looking to acquire an army capable of winning her the Iron Throne.
Valar Morghulis, all men must die, is certainly the leitmotiv of this novel. And die they do, in large numbers. Where things are still more or less civilized in the first novel of the series, brutal violence erupts in the second, resulting in parts of the Kingdom where law and order are a distant memory at best. Through the point of view of Arya, Martin explores the consequences of war for the common people and what she sees is not pretty. Arya's decent into brutality, which starts in A Clash of Kings, is probably one of the most disturbing elements in the story. Personally it affected me a lot more than the Red Wedding scene, which is one of the dramatic highlights of the novel.
Nobles are not safe either however. Warfare still takes its toll of course, but the court intrigue in Kings Landing and Riverrun is just as bloody in a way. Tyrion, who once had some grip on events at King's Landing, is not sidelined by his father, opening the old wound of his father's contempt for him. Driven by a need to be recognized as a human being, Tyrion is one of Martin's more interesting characters in the previous books. He's not quite as prominent in A Storm of Swords but his story line still contains an upset or two.
Where A Game of Thrones was mostly a story of House Stark, Martin continues to expand the number of point of views. House Lannister, who more or less take the central stage for events within the borders of the Seven Kingdoms, gain a point of view with Jaime Lannister. Once again, Martin shows us what he can do with a character. Jaime, up to this point, is thoroughly unsympathetic. He has tried to kill a small boy, slew his king and committed incest with his sister to pick the highlights of his notorious life. And yet, once you get inside his head, he doesn't appear to be the monster his enemies hold him to be. There is his love for his brother Tyrion, the respect he develops for Brienne of Tarth and his tense relationship with his father. In a few chapters, Martin turns him from a villain to an imperfect man. Not a nice man for sure, those are in short supply in the Seven Kingdoms, but much more human than one would expect.
The two manifestations of ice and fire in the novel also receive quite a bit of attention. In the north, Martin adds a point of view of Samwell, to depict events at the night's watch. Jon Snow is off running with the Wildlings after all, chasing girls kissed by fire. Martin shows us the full extend of the threat to the Kingdom in this novel, but I must admit, Samwell is not one of my favourite characters. His chapters don't reveal much more than that he is basically a good guy and too scared to be much good to anyone most of the time. Which Jon had shown us already.
Further south, Dany is making big strides. Where in the first novel, she was wife and basically property of Khal Drogo, and the second dealt with surviving his demise, Dany is now coming into power and finding out that ruling is a lot more difficult than conquering. Dany's choice in this novel is an interesting one. Without giving too much of the plot away, I think Martin still believed there'd be a five year gap between events in A Storm of Swords and the fourth book. Without that gap, she seems to loose momentum, which may well have contributed to the problems Martin had writing the next two volumes.
A few other challenges show through as well. For one thing the story keeps expanding as Martin adds Dorne to the over all conflict in the Originally, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons were to be one volume but Martin already has trouble fitting all he wants to add between the covers of A Storm of Swords. It is nearly a thousand pages in hardcover and moves the plot forward a lot in all of Martin's may story lines.A Storm of Swords is a fine bit of juggling, I must admit I am impressed that Martin manages to keep all those balls in the air, but it also raises questions of whether it can be sustained in subsequent novels. Reading this book, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the next book ended up being split into two, rather large, volumes.
I guess not all readers will appreciate Martin's tendency to kill off main characters but it does lend to book a level of tension it would not have achieved otherwise. A Storm of Swords buffets the reader with twists and turns in the plot, showing just how little control even the powerful have over the situation in the Seven Kingdoms. A Song of Ice and Fire is firmly rooted in fantasy tropes but this approach, one that basically puts the Seven Kingdoms up as the main character, rather than individual people, is one that you don't see too often. The first three books in this series shows what epic fantasy can be in the hands of a talented writer but I do think that a few cracks are beginning to appear in the story as well. Finishing this series is going to be a huge challenge but if anyone can do it, it is George R.R. Martin.
Title: A Storm of Swords
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Bantam Books
First published: 2000