I have to admit. It is very funny to me to watch folks on the Facebook or friends I know follow HBO’s Game of Thrones series, which is currently in its second season and following the track of George RR Martin’s second book. (if you have not read that book and just follow the show on television, do not click on the recap link here) The lurid detail, the action, the shocking twists – I empathize with folks smitten, but seriously, they ain’t seen nothin’ yet. It’s all really an appetizer.
First things first, let’s get this out of the way. A Storm of Swords, the third in George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, is a thrilling, exciting, powerful tome – epic in scale, full of important story threads and compelling storylines and somehow manages to be over 1100 pages long without any real down moments. It was easy to just tear through it. Now, I hesitate to call it the best of the first three books – after all it works with the advantage of not having a ton of exposition to deal with. The Battle of Blackwater which ended the second novel, left lots of things in tatters and a lot of reconfiguring. That Tywin has taken the seat as Hand of the King, that Tyrion was tossed aside, that the Lannisters held on against Stannis’ attempt to usurp regal power, that Arya and company were on the lam, that Jon Snow had suddenly joined the Wildlings – all of the threads left a lot to mine. Let’s put it this way, there was one hell of a foundation. But Martin does not waste it, and over 1100 pages creates a compulsively readable tome, which builds upon the strong foundation of the first two books – and actually holds up quite well on its own as a book. While some of the more comic touches were less prevalent here than in other places – we are dealing with a lot of plot and action here, there is a lot of payoff and setup as the gameboard is reconstituted. As far as covering the story, as usual plot points abound, so read no further if you have not kept up with the saga through this edition. (the plot points for the first book are discussed here):
- Above all, justice is an overriding theme in Martin’s tome, but justice from a tactical sense more than from a moral one. One of the things that Martin has successfully wrought in the first three books is an exploding of the usual cliches of the swashbuckling and fantasy ilk. Indeed, in the first novel readers were shocked (even more in the television program ) when Eddard – the erstwhile protagonist was killed. In virtually any other narrative, he would have climbed from rock bottom. However, along with his virtue and honor, Martin gives him some deficiencies in a tactical sense, and those deficiencies kill him. In this sort of way, Tywin Lannister’s turn as Hand of the King (a position which frankly competes with Spinal Tap’s drummer for job security) is a neat little counterpoint. If Eddard’s problem was a devotion to honor and “heart” that others lacked, Tywin in his own dealings shows a pure cold, calculating nature that while tactically sound, creates undeniable rifts in the family. He is not a loved father – as separate histories with Tyrion, Cersei and Jaime all show. When he meets his end, really it was entirely appropriate.
- Of course, before this, Tywin had taken over as hand from Tyrion – essentially the star of the previous book – who tried desperately to hold the kingdom together while exacting a sense of justice. His plans were entirely sound, but like I said earlier, it was striking how little sentiment there was for his children. The resentment of Tyrion was fairly easy to understand – I’m not defending it, but in such a macho ethos, siring an imp while his one true love died in the process can build ill will. He saw his children as pawns and as we know in this sort of deal, marriage is an important tool in order to secure territory and alliances and such. Tyrion’s own treatment of his marriage to Sansa was admirable relatively, but for him doing the right thing has continued to be a bane. It was almost inevitable that he’d be fingered for Joffrey’s death – really the forces inside of him were building, so much that he left his conscience at the door with Shae – but his ending in the book was operatic in its scale.
- Wait, did I just mention Joffrey’s death? Well it is obviously one of the biggest plot elements in the entire series so far (not the biggest, but just wait). Tyrion was fingered sure, and we are pretty sure that Sansa did not do it. But then, who has motive? Tyrion had mentioned that Tommen would make a far better puppet as boy king than the truly loathesome Joffrey (the casting and performance of the character in the TV series is really one of the HBO program’s great virtues). However, there is also the Tyrells to consider. Margaery of course, was pledged to be Joffrey’s bride (after being pledged to be Renly’s wife – clearly men should be running scared here) – but her serious battle axe of a grandmother – the Queen of Thorns, was told by Sansa the unvarnished truth of Joffrey’s awfulness. Is that enough motive to kill? I don’t know – but the Tyrells in the book showed a lot more savvy than other families. It helps to be a smooth operator for a clean regicide.
- It’s funny. I had heard so much about the Red Wedding, that I had thought it was JOFFREY’S, seeing as what a big deal it was gonna be, and how early it was brought up. But instead, we turn to the North. Robb Stark had been doing so well, and despite Catelyn’s bizarre move to free Jaime (well not bizarre, but short sighted), he was winning battles on the field. But then, Robb ends up marrying Jayne Westerling instead of the Frey he was betrothed to. This creates a serious problem of course – a man who followed his penis and heart instead of his tactical mind. The Freys obviously are displeased. Martin is very skilled at the foreboding here, and the way he works, when Robb seemed to have a chance to apologize and make amends with the Freys, it felt like it could not have been that easy. Even knowing this, the full impact of the massacre was mind blowing. Catelyn’s death, Robb’s death and humiliating finish were especially gruesome. The Freys end up making a claim for the North complete with Brynden Tully. I’m not sure where this is headed – but just like the first book, tactical mistakes and Starks missing an angle cost them very very dearly.
- What made the second book fascinating in a lot of ways is not just that the story has all of this courtly intrigue, but the presence of forces – real forces – on the outer limits that have the possibility of making all these concerns silly. On one hand, we have the Dragons, which Daenerys has used to start her march towards Westeros to claim the Iron Throne. Dragons have not been factors for a very very long time, so their return has caused quite a ruckus – including her as this emancipator (particularly ironic given why Jorah Mormont has been along her side). We also have the Red Magic. This is shown in a few places, whether it be Melisssandre with Stannis, the Maester who is somehow keeping Beric Dondarion alive. We also have Green Magic, or whatever the hell those Wolf Dreams are. We know that this exists. Bran DOES get inside of his direwolf – or maybe he doesn’t, but have to take this at Martin’s word for now – and so does Arya, though she does not connect with it quite yet. And then there are the Others, who may or may not be different from the Red Magic folks. Yes, Melissandre indicates that the real stakes are between Red and Black Magic, but what is main manifestation of the Others for now? Zombified people – essentially what the Red can do. Are they materially different? It is hard to say – since at least Dondarrion speaks. But it is interesting to ponder.
- Of course everything above The Wall gets particular notice this time around. Meeting the Wildlings for the first time is pretty neat. The Wall essentially has served as an artificial border separating two groups of Northmen, and as such – the similarities between the two are striking. That said, the Wildlings and Mance Rayder have much more of a freewheeling, punk rock sort of style in their going with the non matching helms and talkin sass and whatnot. Jon Snow’s fascination with them and eventual relationship with one of the ladies is one the neat arcs here. His loyalties seem legitimately tested, and when he does go back to his side, it feels conflicted. Somehow though, when he leads the defense of Castle Black and the Wall from Mance’s invasion he proves much. One of the weird details that rang false though to me was how easily his team took him at his word after he left. Sure there were some skeptics, but not nearly as many as I’d have expected. But Jon’s ascent to the potential head of the Night Watch was one of the nicest moments of the entire saga so far.
- But Martin leaves so many questions open on Jon’s story. In his time with the Wildlings and Ygritte, there is some indication that they knew his mother, and that maybe Eddard was not his father. Certainly the version of events surrounding his birth are disputed. Also while he ends up doing so well with the Watch, how did they take him back so quickly? And anyway, Stannis has made him quite an offer regarding Lordship? Martin seems to leave an impression that Jon will stand by his men, but by no means is that a guarantee. My wife notes that the TV series which in previews show Jon on the Iron Throne is playing a cruel fanboy trick.
It is very hard to cover all the territory in the book. There is just so much there. But it plays as a terrific action thriller, one of the best I’ve read in fiction. While it is brilliant as part of this Song of Martin’s, it is just one hell of an exciting read period.