by George R. R. Martin
Published in 2001
Published by Bantam Spectra
I saw someone describe the overall structure of A Song of Ice and Fire thusly: books 1-3 are a self-contained trilogy with a downer ending, book 4 is intermission, and books 5-7 are a second trilogy.
Spoilers for the downer Book 3 below.
And I wouldn't expect anything but a downer ending from George R. R. Martin. I feel bad for my wife, though. Recently we were watching the final episode of Season 2 of the TV show, and as Bran, Rickon, Osha, and Hodor were grimly trudging away from the smoldering ruin of Winterfell, my wife said, 'PLEASE tell me this story gets a bit less bleak in Book 3.' And I had to reply, in all truthfulness, 'Nope.'
Everyone we care about had a horrific time of it in Book 3. By the book's end, Arya's been stripped of whatever innocence she may have had, Sansa's in a terribly uncomfortable situation, Tyrion's an outlaw, Bran's left behind everything to venture into parts unknown, and the Stark family and all who followed them have been smashed. Alone of all the first-tier protagonists in Westeros, Jon Snow ends the book in a much better position than where he started, but only after going through experiences that are probably enough to give him PTSD for the rest of his life. (And then there's Daenerys, but her story is still independent of everything else that's going on.)
GRRM demonstrates the rising seriousness and bleakness with a deliberate echo. In both book 1 and in book 3 Tyrion finds himself falsely accused of murder by people who would really rather just see him dead regardless of what the truth actually is. Both times, he protests that he's being framed, and then gives a confession-that's-not-really-one, and subsequently requests trial by combat to prove his innocence.
In book 1, when Tyrion is on trial in the Vale for the murder of Jon Arryn, we readers never believe Tyrion is actually in danger of losing his life. On the TV show especially, the whole plotline is played more for laughs than anything else (particularly Tyrion's ridiculous 'confession'). And there's never any doubt about whether Bronn (Tyrion 's champion) or Ser Vardis (The Other Guy) is going to win the trial by combat.
In book 3, Tyrion is on trial for killing Joffrey, and the situation is darker in every way. Not only has GRRM made it clear to us by this point that he's not above killing first-tier major characters like Tyrion, but the trial comes at the culmination of a book that's been a steadily growing pile of despair. Tyrion's 'confession ' in book 1 was amusing; in book 3 it's bitter. And even when it looked like Tyrion's champion, Oberyn Martell, was going to kill Gregor Clegane in the trial by combat, I never really believed that Tyrion was going to win his freedom the same way twice.
Before I read book 3, I saw an online commenter say that GRRM's great achievement as a writer was fooling readers into thinking Tyrion Lannister was basically a good person. I never thought Tyrion was untarnished moral perfection, but he didn't fully cross the line in my head that separates 'ruthless but well-meaning' from 'morally twisted' until he quite unnecessarily murdered Shae on his way out of Kings Landing. I understand Tyrion's motivation, and I think GRRM has done a masterful job with his character. But Tyrion is steadily moving towards actually being the evil, twisted creature everyone takes him for. (I wonder how unspoiled TV audiences are going to react to Shae's eventual death; she's had a lot of screen time and is more of a well-developed character on the TV show than in the books.)
That said, I neither want nor expect my characters to show any sort of unvarnished moral perfection, especially not in this hideous universe that I would never want to live in. So I totally must call out a blatant trick that GRRM uses that became very apparent to me here. In the Cracked.com article 6 Tricks Movies Use to Make Sure You Root for the Right Guy, C. Corville suggests, 'Make Then American, Even When They're Not'. In other words, give your protagonist inexplicably 'modern' ideas about liberty and freedom in stories that take place hundreds of years ago:
Likewise, in Braveheart, Mel Gibson tells the local aristocracy: "You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom!" 2010's Robin Hood featured a Robin fighting for an imaginary version of Magna Carta that guaranteed democracy and equal rights.
I'm sorry, but that's Daenerys Targaryen right there. As of the end of Book 3, GRRM has still never given us a convincing reason for her to be so fair and broad-minded, considering she's been raised her whole life to believe she's better than everyone else. A realistic person with Daenerys's upbringing wouldn't have objected to the Dothraki practice of raping women that they'd captured; she would have considered those women so far below her station that she wouldn't have had any empathy for them at all. And it's never really explained why Daenerys finds slavery so abhorrent -- we know that it's frowned upon in Westerosi culture, but we haven't seen much evidence that Daenerys got her dislike of slavery from the warped and incomplete Westerosi education she received. Besides, Daenerys seems supremely goal-oriented; one would expect her to at least seriously consider whether acquiring a massive slave army might be the most effective way to conquer Westeros.
Compare her to, say Catelyn Stark. GRRM generally portrays Catelyn positively but there's no doubt she's got an odious streak of classist bigotry in her. Not to mention her lifelong coldness toward Jon Snow -- we understand why she treats him as she does, but that doesn't make it right. In her morals and attitudes, Catelyn is a natural product of her culture. Daenerys, by contrast, is an alien dropped in from above.
Overall, though, any gripes I might make are minor compared to the splendid immensity of what GRRM has accomplished here. He finishes the original Song of Ice and Fire trilogy very strongly -- and it is a cohesive trilogy, with a genuine ending, just not one that would satisfy most readers if the story were never taken up again.
But already in Book 3, GRRM's spreading himself rather thin with the number of viewpoint characters. (I got the impression that after the book's first third he ran out of useful things for Davos to do.) This would, of course, cause major problems for him as he continued the series.
I'll just say that I'm happy I finished A Storm of Swords in 2012, rather than when it first came out. It would have been quite unfortunate for it to be 2001 and for me to be anxiously waiting for Book 4 to appear so I could find out whatever happened to Tyrion and Bran.