Due to some problems with Netflix (by which I mean my sister forgot to return her DVDs while I was away in Ann Arbor), Part 6 of Pixar-thon (The Incredibles) will be shortly delayed. In the meantime, enjoy my long awaited (I assume) review of A Storm of Swords, the third installment of George RR Martin’s epic Song of Ice and Fire series.
The War of the Five Kings wages on and continues to tear the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros apart. Renly Baratheon of Storm’s End is dead, leaving his allegiance with the Tyrells of Highgarden in the hands of his enemies. His brother Stannis of Dragonstone lies defeated and remains under the influence of a fanatical sorceress whose grip on him grows stronger every day. Robb Stark of Winterfell has put himself in an uneasy position, finding himself at odds with his own men and struggling to fight both the Lannisters of Casterly Rock and the Ironborn who hold his kingdom under siege. And King Joffrey, a boy born from incest who has proven to be more monster than man, remains on the Iron Throne in King’s Landing and will stop at nothing to keep it that way. Alliances are forged and broken, lords and ladies rise and fall, knights and outlaws alike prepare for battle, and as the war reaches a boiling point, no one is safe when they play the game of thrones, where the only rule is you win or you die.
But as kings fight amongst themselves, other battles are being fought elsewhere. Jon Snow of the Night’s Watch is forced to go undercover and join forces with Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, breaking several of his vows in the process. When he sees the massive army of wildlings, skinchangers and giants that he has assembled, along with the sudden return of the Others and their armies of the dead, he realizes that the Wall is in greater danger than anyone could ever imagine. Far to the east, Daenerys Targaryen assembles an army of her own, turning to the cities of Slaver’s Bay to purchase a legendary group of slave warriors to assist in her own conquest. But as her actions force her to take drastic measures, she learns that being a queen is not quite the same as being a conqueror.
924 pages. This beast is 924 pages long, probably the longest book I’ll ever read. Needless to say, I was so intimidated by the sheer size of it that I questioned whether or not this was where my journey ended. But every time I thought I might drop out, I found myself getting pulled back in by the next chapter. It’s best to pace yourself with this one, but believe me when I say that even though this book can be a chore at times, it’s also one of the most rewarding reading experiences you’ll ever have.
As usual, there are several ongoing plots happening all at once, each one told from the perspective of a different character. We’re reunited with some of our old friends like Tryion Lannister, Arya Stark and Jon Snow, but some familiar faces that were gone for a while are brought back into the picture as well. One such face is Jaime Lannister, brother and lover of Queen Cersei, who spent the entirety of Clash of Kings as Robb Stark’s prisoner. Yeah, you remember Jaime Lannister, right? You know, the tall handsome fellow who pushed a kid out of a window after he saw him bang his own sister? Guess what. Turns out he’s not such a bad guy. Now I’m not saying he’s Ned Stark reborn because, you know, he pushed a kid out of a window when he saw him do it with his sister, but he has done some heroic deeds and I was surprised by how quickly I became attached to him, especially since he was one of the most hated characters in the first book. Looking into his psyche really turned the tables for my perspective of his character. (After all, he killed the Mad King, so you could say that he saved Westeros… sort of.) But then you remember he pushed a kid out of a window after he spotted him banging his sister and that’s where the confusion sets in.
But the yang to this yin in turn of events comes in the form of other characters. For Tyrion, the most popular character in the series and my personal favorite, things take a turn for the worst in the wake of certain events. Since he spent the entirety of Clash of Kings making everyone in King’s Landing his bitch, it only makes this downfall much more tragic and harder to watch, especially when shit really starts to hit the fan. But it doesn’t end there. I think I made it clear in my review of the first book that I find Catelyn Stark to be the most frustrating character in the series. She’s a good person and everything she does is done with the best of intentions, but I had to trudge through watching her make bad decision after bad decision, and this time around it really comes back to bite her in the ass. Even compared to Sansa’s suffering, I just found Catelyn’s chapters to just be an endless dirge of sadness. Every time I saw her name on the top of the page, all I could think to myself was “Oh for the love of the Seven, somebody slit this brood’s throat and put her out of her misery!”
Twists and turns are abundant here. Just like the first two books, Storm of Swords is loaded with surprises that defy you to predict what will happen next, and trump you every time. Some will delight you, others will make your heart race and your jaw drop, and a few will leave you so enraged that you’ll throw the book at the wall and vow to never read it again, only to break that embargo 24 hours later. For example, there is one particularly notorious chapter which fans to this day consider to be the most shocking and unexpected moment in the series thus far. Just when you think that George RR Martin is finally going to give someone a happy ending, he takes those hopes and expectations, drags them by the hair into a dark alley, stabs them to death and makes you look at the corpse when he’s done. I heard several readers gave up at this specific point, and even though I sort of had it spoiled for me, it still shook me up when it inevitably came. It reminded me that Martin doesn’t fuck around, and to not expect things to go down a certain road. If you read this already, you know which chapter I’m talking about. If you haven’t, let’s just say Ned Stark got off easy and leave it at that.
While the book never ceases to shock you every chance you get, it definitely requires a bit of patience. Don’t forget, this thing is over 900 pages long, and like I said before, it’s best to pace yourself, but if you stick with it, your patience will eventually pay off. There were a few story lines that I felt served no purpose or went nowhere, but after I persisted, I found out that there was a reason for so much build-up. Each chapter, even the more mundane and tedious ones, serve a picture and are just pieces of the big picture.
Another thing that I really liked about this volume is that they finally started focusing on the fantasy elements more. Sure, there’s the Wall, Daenerys’s dragons and whatnot, but for the most part those elements were pushed to the wayside in favor of political maneuvering, sexual escapades and complex relations; all things you don’t expect to be the focus for something in this genre. For a while, I nearly forgot this was actually a fantasy series and not a history on ancient European warfare. Half the time I felt like I was reading a modernized version of War and Peace (but maybe that was just because it was so damn long), but reading about giants riding on wooly mammoths, dragons burning cities to the ground, or armies of the undead emerging from the frozen north and a merry band of outlaws led by a homunculus, proved to be a welcome escape from the overwhelming, complex web of intrigue going on down south.
So what it all comes down to is that while A Storm of Swords may be a daunting task, the payoff will be well worth it for those who see it through to the end. While the pacing is a little uneven, the stories themselves serve a good balance of engaging action, well rounded and complex characters, and a plot that doubles as the ultimate guessing game. George RR Martin sends you spinning headfirst into the wild world of Westeros, and while it may decide to take the scenic route from time to time, it’s a ride you don’t want to get off of any time soon.