Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Storm of Swords, by George R. R. Martin (2000)

*Spoiler alert for those who have not read at least the first two books*

The third book in George R. R. Martin's monstrous A Song of Ice and Fire series has one less king than its predecessor, but that still leaves five, by my count, and it's the Lannisters who are sitting pretty in the seat that matters most of all - the Iron Throne. A Storm of Swords covers a much wider range of Martin's world than either of the previous two books. With an exception of Tyrion and Sansa, no two character perspectives are in the same place, and where they are in the world varies widely. From Jon beyond the wall to Daenerys across the sea we have a glimpse of everything, except for the Iron Islands where Balon Greyjoy has crowned himself king. And not only is the scope of book three much larger, its storylines are better developed and it is much more emotionally resonant than the previous two. It's almost impossible to know what to expect from this roller coaster of a novel.

Jaime Lannister from the HBO series
The only perspective missing this time around is Theon Greyjoy's, whose quest to conquer Winterfell left him in an unknown condition. But in his place pop up two more: Jaime Lannister and Samwell Tarly. Jaime is the biggest surprise here, though I guess after Theon it's only appropriate. So far Theon has been the only unlikable perspective, even after you include Jaime. Villainous as he may be, Jaime is very entertaining, and he does have a certain sense of Lannister honor that Theon was lacking. I find it interesting to note that the Lannisters have the two funniest characters in the series, though that family is not one I'm rooting for to win King's Landing. It seems that Tyrion inherited his wit from his oldest brother, though not Jaime's ability with a sword. The end of A Clash of Kings left Jaime's fate unknown, but we learn in the opening chapter that Catelyn left him in the capable hands of Brienne of Tarth in order to deliver him to the Lannisters in return for the two Stark girls. Jaime realizes that Catelyn is banking on the goodness of Tyrion to make this happen, because in no way would Cersei or Joffrey consent to the trade. They would merely keep Jaime and the girls, or, well, girl. No one knows where Arya is.

Samwell Tarly from the HBO series
The other new perspective comes from the Samwell Tarly, a cowardly man of the Night's Watch. When we last saw him, Jon had left him with 300 men of the Night's Watch to defend against Mance Rayder's massive wildling army. Sam's no warrior, but he is required to tend to the ravens and send out messages. However, things have gone awry since then. In the prologue we learn what it means when the warhorn is sounded three times. Through the course of the novel Sam learns to be brave, though not in ways you would expect. He doesn't become a bold and brave warrior, but he does make brave decisions. And he does survive the onslaught of wights and Others, which is saying something. I'm not sure where Sam's story will take him in the next book, but he does make some bold and surprising decisions at the end of this one.

I'll go briefly into the stories of the rest of the characters:

- Tyrion wakes up to recover from a nasty head wound and learns to his disappointment that his father has taken his place as King's Hand. The progress Tyrion made to remove his sister's power has all but been undone. His father does reward him for his efforts at fighting off Stannis Baratheon's forces, but the reward is not exactly something Tyrion wants.

- Sansa as well remains at King's Landing, no longer betrothed to King Joffrey. She finds this as a relief at first, until Joffrey lets it be known he still hopes she will serve as his concubine after he's married Margaery Tyrell, the widow of Renly. Sansa secretly has two potential methods of escape, however. One through Ser Dontos, and another through a marriage offer from the Queen of Thorns to her oldest grandson, Willas, a cripple who will inherit Highgarden. Young Sansa doesn't seem to care that the Tyrells are only after her Winterfell title and she never wonders who Ser Dontos is conspiring with to get her out.

- Through Catelyn we find the welcome return of Robb Stark, who has brought a surprise with him.

- Arya's adventures lead her to some surprising places and we meet a lot of new characters through her.

The actor who will play Mance Rayder in the HBO series
- Jon has a girlfriend, though he's having a very difficult time playing the turncloak. He does meet Mance Rayder, but he's hardly under the radar of suspicion. It's Ygritte who saves him, though he's reluctant to break certain vows.

-Bran travels with Jojen, Meera, Hodor, and Summer to find the three-eyed crow, which resides beyond the wall. Bran's sections are the least interesting, still, though his warg ability does develop.

- Davos has barely survived the battle at the end of the second book, and finds himself returned to Dragonstone with Stannis. He wants nothing more than to see Melisandre dead because he fears her dark powers from the Lord of Light and believes she's tainting his king.

- Last but not least is Dany, whose parts are a huge improvement over those in the second book and are some of the best in the book. Dany travels with two new friends, Arstan Whitewater and Strong Belwas, who have been asked to return her to Magister Illyrio. Ser Jorah Mormont is suspicious, and he insists that Dany test the loyalty of these two and Illyrio, and she does, with some exciting results.

Werner Herzog, just because
In his documentary, Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog says, "I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder." Martin's series seems to follow that line of thought as well. Robert Barratheon's death after being king for nearly 20 years has left his old position in a tenuous state, as armies have risen to support six kings, now five with the death of one of them. Honor is an admirable characteristic to have, but as we've seen with Ned Stark, treachery wins the day in Martin's chaotic world. Even the disciplined and orderly Night's Watch falls prey to the chaos of the undead, though their discipline is the trait that would serve them best against Mance Rayder's undisciplined army. Martin doesn't create a world where good will inevitably triumph over evil. We don't know what will happen. This is where Martin's fantasy series departs from many other stories of heroes and villains. In those stories we know who is the hero and who is the villain, and thus we know who will win, but in Martin's series there is no clear-cut good or evil. There are good acts and evil acts, and any character is just as capable of committing one as the other.

Ygritte from the HBO series
I would argue this is the best of the series so far. It has more warmth than the second novel, with some romance between Jon and Ygritte, among others, and the bonds of friendship developed between Arya and Gendry. Though at the same time events in the book had me very upset and despairing over the situation of characters I liked. There was much more feeling in this book than there was in the second book. It does help that we don't have the perspective of someone like Theon, who was immensely unlikeable, and even sickening. As mean as Jaime Lannister can be, at least he's funny. And what he has to say about Brienne does have some truth. She's not a very interesting character. Each individual story is much better developed this time around. There are more surprises along the way here, where A Clash of Kings relied on momentum from the end of the first book, the surprise assassination of Renly halfway through, and an exciting battle at the end of the novel. The events in A Storm of Swords are more personal to each character and I felt more deeply for them because of this. I'm very curious to see what Martin does in his next, A Feast of Crows.

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