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With the Hugo-nominated third volume of his epic fantasy saga, George R. R. Martin — who has thus far succeeded in practically owning the fantasy genre in toto — faces a bold new challenge: that of keeping his sprawling story from crushing under its own mass. It takes Martin the first hundred pages of A Storm of Swords just to bring us up to speed on his characters, the lives of all of whom have been shattered, some irreparably, by the ravages of war. The mind reels as we are given no fewer than ten story threads to follow. And depending on who your favorite characters are, readers could nitpick like crazy. Should Jon Snow or Daenerys get more chapters than they do, and Jaime and Tyrion fewer? Juggling all this must have given Martin more than one migraine. But with two powerful and spectacular volumes preceding this one, you're more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he'll succeed where so many other writers have fallen on their swords.

Whereas a lot of fantasy novels — too many, really — are awfully long, Martin's are long, wide, and deep. His story, rooted as it is not in the tropes of formula fantasy (noble quests, magical wonders) but in the hearts of real people and their joys and many sorrows, merits the length of its telling and the investment of time and devotion Martin asks of readers. I think these books will be around in a hundred years.

The novels succeed not just because they are thrill-packed adventures rendered in painstaking detail, but because Martin is so good at conveying character that they have a universal human dimension that strikes at something fundamental. The reason Hamlet still has something to say after four centuries is because its hero is a powerfully conflicted individual whose actions, though morally troubling, are motivated by something we can all relate to though none of us is a medieval Danish prince: love for a parent and rage at the violation of something as sacrosanct as family. A Song of Ice and Fire has precisely that understanding of the roots of human experience: family, home, security, trust, love. While Martin's battle scenes are jaw-dropping, what pulls at you from the inside is the tragedy of the Starks, their children separated across miles of war-torn landscape; the dysfunction of the Lannisters, among whom any semblance of familial warmth has been subsumed by avarice, ambition, and the naked lust for power. Martin isn't the heir to Tolkien's throne at all. He's after the Bard's, and he just might get it.

After all, let it never be said Martin doesn't share Shakespeare's fondness for the senselessly tragic. Martin ventures where Tolkien never dared but where Will hung out frequently: smack dab in the heart of darkness. If the ending of A Game of Thrones didn't get your blood boiling — flying in the face as it did of all the reassuring "good will triumph over evil" themes that fantasy fans have come to expect — A Storm of Swords has scenes likely to leave some readers catatonic with shock. Indeed, you might well wonder how the series will continue after this volume, and who will be left alive when the dust settles with a story to tell. The title of book four, A Feast for Crows, doesn't exactly promise any happily-ever-afters either. In this saga, Martin has evidently set himself the task of stripping fantasy of its naive romanticism once and for all. In Martin's world, the old saw that all's fair in love and war is so much bullshit. Nothing is fair in life, especially life in a world as cruel and medieval as this one, where loyalties turn on a dime and true love exists only in songs and dreams — and, most brutally for the reader seeking comfort in escapism, the wrong people die.

That's pretty damn cynical, you might think. And sometimes, reading this book, you may feel like it's just all too much. It wouldn't surprise me if some of the series' readers bailed after this one. This novel exhausts you, leaves you feeling as war-weary as some of its players.

But unlike, say, Terry Goodkind, whose cruelty towards his characters (and his readers) often smacks of sadism for the sake of it, Martin has, believe it or not, an uplifting theme at work underneath it all. You keep reading, just as the series' characters keep fighting, because there's a sense of hope, a feeling that despite all that is wrong with Westeros (read: us) it's worth saving all the same. Each chapter of this book reads so vividly you'd do well to take a short break between each one, just to absorb it to its fullest. There's great tragedy here, but there's also excitement, humor, heroism even in weaklings, nobility even in villians, and, now and then, a taste of justice after all.

It's a rare gift when a writer can invest his story with that much humanity. I know this review hasn't contained much in the way of a plot synopsis — "Everyone's still at war" would suffice, really — but this series is turning into a literary work that is about more than just its plot. Like the best stories in all of world literature (Les Miserables, with its characters inexorably caught up by fate, was another book that I thought of while reading Storm), Martin is holding a mirror up to us. And he's doing it with the consummate skill of a master in complete command of his art.

Followed by A Feast for Crows.