The last time I dealt with books this big may have been for the February 1999 column, when my reviews included A Clash of Kings, the previous volume in George R.R. Martin's ''Song of Ice and Fire'' series. The first three hefty tomes -- all fantasies dealing with human woes in times of war and general upheaval -- turned out to be particularly appropriate for the difficulties of my own out-of-state move; if I thought I've had troubles, these characters have them in spades!
Early on in George R.R. Martin's A Storm of Swords, there's a good example. As the point of view (one per chapter) switches to former smuggler Davos, he is stranded on a rock in the middle of the sea, suffering from a fever and living off the muddy puddles from occasional rainfall. When he sees a distant sail, does hope spring up again? No! ''Davos watched the sail grow for a long time, trying to decide whether he would sooner live or die....Dying would be easier, he knew. All he had to do was crawl inside his cave and let the ship pass by, and death would find him.'' Fever, thirst, starvation, exposure to the elements -- he bleakly considers all these options before looking for a happier alternative.
The next chapter's POV character, princess Sansa of Winterfell, suffers from a gentler, more ''feminine'' form of despair as she faces an invitation which could lead to further misery and shame (adding to those in the previous volumes). But this chapter also displays Martin's fine hand at interweaving his material. There are moments of beauty, even hope, amid the fears, and Sansa deals with some people whose perspectives on life and death offer welcome alternatives to her quiet lip-biting. Most notable here is the old woman known as the Queen of Thorns, discussing her kingly ''appalling oaf'' of a husband (who ''managed to ride off a cliff whilst hawking'') and the handsome, warmongering son whom she regards as even more of an oaf. She concludes, ''All these kings would do a deal better if they would put down their swords and listen to their mothers.'' This volume's chronicle of disasters amply demonstrates the truth of that acerbic statement.
The battles at the climax of Book Two, A Clash of Kings, did not end the wars -- hence the title of this volume -- but A Storm of Swords deals extensively with aftermaths, as homeless peasants and maimed aristocrats stumble around following what seems like a terrible defeat even if their side won, kept alive only by a need for vengeance or (in the case of some younger ones) a few remaining dreams. Emotions can become tangled. Those who love the best often kill with the greatest fury, while for all its impurities, love still offers comfort in the worst of times. A book this large can encompass a lot of ruinous territory, both physical and mental. I've already mentioned some of the mental aspects. Their physical equivalents appear in one chapter's ''wide swath of destruction, miles of blackened fields and orchards where the trunks of dead trees jutted into the air like archer's stakes,'' all bridges are burnt, and the nights filled with the howling of wolves . But Martin has a master painter's eye for the beauties to be found amongst these horrors -- witness the chill, Nordic loveliness of this scene: ''The world was grey darkness, smelling of pine and moss and cold. Pale mists rose from the black earth as the riders threaded their way through the scatter of stones and scraggly trees, down toward the welcoming fires strewn like jewels across the floor of the river valley below.''
A Storm of Swords offers more than eloquent descriptions of inner and outer landscapes. Particularly in the second half of the book as the action grows more swift, the complex politics of the warring kingdoms and the fierce religion of a more distant land are lucidly conveyed -- along with some unusually convincing elements of fantasy, ranging from dragons and mammoth-riding giants to assaults by dead men riding their dead horses. And even the fantasy is subject to political analysis; one character notes, ''The Horned Lord once said that sorcery is a sword without a hilt. There is no safe way to grasp it.'' Genre writers have certainly dealt with such things before, but in Martin's hands, none of it seems cliched. Moments of wry wit, and even optimism, enter the vast canvas, and there are plenty of surprises. Where the previous book brought many of its characters together in battle, this time the main events turn out to be two lordly weddings -- not the joyful unions of chivalric fantasy, but not quite the coldly political arrangements their planners intended.
In Martin's world, neither warriors nor schemers may achieve what they expect, but readers hardy enough to make their way through nearly a thousand pages of rich yet unrelenting prose will find their efforts well rewarded. As ''A Song of Ice and Fire'' develops, George R.R. Martin continues to take epic fantasy to new levels of insight and sophistication, resonant with the turmoils and stress of the world we call our own.