A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin, is the most-hyped book in the series. Every fan of the series waits for a new reader to get to this book. You are not prepared, they say. You are never prepared.
They were right.
Although a lot of the hype surrounding this book concerns one particular scene—which is one of the most gutting, viscerally distressing scenes I have ever read—to reduce it all to that scene would do it a great injustice. In truth, this book contains a multitude of mind-melting plot twists and revelations, many of them paying off plots or character development from the first book. The world George R.R. Martin has created is so engrossing that it is immensely rewarding when you discover something or someone from a thousand pages ago is suddenly relevant. And, as always, he doesn't do things for shock value: nearly every terrible event in the series can be traced back to a bad decision or mistake a character made. Despite the inevitability of certain events, there are surprises at every turn, some badass and some just bad.
But this series isn't just about drowning in WTFery: it's about characters. And this book makes it clear that there really are two major stories going on. The adults are busy fighting over Westeros, and the children are busy growing up. The characters of the younger generation all have coming-of-age stories, but they're all different and varied. Bran is getting in touch with his inner warg. Arya is developing into a fearsome fighter. Jon must find his place in the world beyond the Wall. Robb is learning what it takes to be a powerful king, and Dany is learning what it takes to be a powerful queen. Sansa is seeing the world for the terrible place it is. And Joffrey? Fuck Joffrey. Meanwhile, Catelyn, Davos, and Tyrion are simply doing what they think is best, even if the people they're advising don't agree. And let's welcome Samwell motherfucking Tarly to the fold, shall we? He's the Neville Longbottom of this series. And then there's Jaime, who is one of the most surprising characters I've ever encountered, as I went from hating him in the first two books to falling madly in love with him in this book. I looked forward to his chapters more than anyone else's—even Arya's, although she remains my favorite character—because he was so entertaining.
All of these plots and characters are handled masterfully by GRRM, who continues to play with perspective and truth, introducing me to the concept of third-person unreliable narrators. He knows just how to manipulate the reader without making the reader feel manipulated. The result is a book that constantly left my mouth agape or my soul destroyed. Screams of joy and screams of agony are equally likely.
The last book felt like a transitional book because it was transitioning to this. There's so much payoff here, but there are also plenty of huge game-changing moments that open up the story to go in new directions, as there are still four massive books to go!