You've got to be strong to read George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy saga "A Song of Ice and Fire." As the story continues in the third installment, A Storm of Swords, violence and heartlessness are as much the rule as loyalty and devotion. Martin is as unflinchingly honest here as ever about the brutal nature at the core of the courtly world he has created. More leading characters die betrayed, even as those who have been despised earn grudging respect bit by bit from constant readers.
The monstrous adolescent Joffrey has been named king of the Seven Kingdoms largely by the strength of his mother's House of Lannister, but his seat is anything but secure. His paternal uncle, aided by a fanatical fire-worshipping sorceress and bolstered by his conviction of Joffrey's incestuous parentage, continues to press his Baratheon claim to the throne. House Stark, led by the teenaged Robb and his mother Catelyn, fight to reestablish the ancient title of King in the North. The Seven Kingdoms are in turmoil, and its denizens aren't even yet aware of the threat from across the sea, where the last surviving member of the deposed Targaryen line is gathering up a fearsome and loyal army and raising the world's last three dragons to reclaim the throne stolen years ago from her family in a murderous coup.
Sansa Stark, still held hostage by the Lannisters, finds her dreams of chivalrous love dashed against the harsh rocks of her marriage to Tyrion, the sardonic dwarf who becomes more and more appealing when measured against the rest of his hard-scheming clan. The tomboy princess Arya Stark forms a reluctant alliance with the ruthless knight Sandor Clegane, known as "The Hound," when her brother Robb and mother Catelyn are murdered by vengeful House Frey. Bran Stark, crippled by a fall from a tower back home at Winterfell, pushes past the protective Wall in search of the man who can teach him to harness the strength of his dreams. And Jon Snow, the Stark children's bastard older brother, becomes the last hope of the Night's Watch on the Wall when it is attacked by wildlings from the wintry forests beyond. The bastard son of a stiff-necked but honorable man, Jon may also be the last hope of House Stark and Winterfell.
"A Song of Ice and Fire" just grows richer as it progresses. Shifting loyalties and betrayed alliances keep the level of intrigue high; characters driven by ambition, fear and love both appall us and excite great sympathy within us as we are carried along by the churning currents of the story. Following a series in progress like this one is as agonizing as it is sweet, but A Storm of Swords will not disappoint George R.R. Martin's eager fans.