If I’m honest, the first two books in the Ice and Fire series erred on the side of *meh* for me. Poor plotting and unrealized potential let them down. So it was heartening to find that A Storm of Swords is a massive improvement.
The plotting is much tauter (although George RR Martin’s scene construction continues to drive me crazy*), and the set pieces are more vivid and shocking. The various story threads are still wildly disparate, but Martin finally seems to grasp the importance of creating parallels and recurrent themes.
(*I swear, every single chapter begins with a character staring off into middle distance and brooding about their emotional state. Then we get a lengthy description of the landscape. And then, finally, after about 5 pages, the action resumes. Do I have to point out that this isn’t good scene construction?)
Daenerys’s storyline resumes its rightful place as the BEST EVER OMG, and it’s clear that part of the reason it succeeds is that Martin’s real skill lies in world-building details. By contrast, it’s no surprise that King’s Landing, of which there is so little new to say, became the least interesting story strand.
I often see Martin criticized in fandom for being a harsh puppet-master, but I actually think he’s best when he’s ruthless. There were a lot of overdue deaths in Swords and, honestly, I thought there should have been more. Despite its fantasy setting, bracing realism is what gives this series weight.