If you’re reading this review, I presume that you have an interest in the George R.R. Martin “A Song of Ice and Fire” series of novels and preferably you’ve read at least the first two (or at least watched the HBO television series up to season 2). I have become a big fan myself, and in preparation for season 3 of the TV show (which returns the end of March), I wanted to get one book further in reading ahead (though I am sure many of you have read the entire series). I’ve heard that season 3 will only cover half of this novel (which is understandable given its thousand-page length).
At first I thought that it was going to be kind of a ho-hum instalment in the series. The War of Five Kings, which had embroiled the kingdom of Westeros in bloody conflict for most of the previous novel, seems to have come to a lull. King Stannis (brother to the dead king Robert Baratheon and uncle to the illegitimate King Joffrey) was licking his wounds after a major defeat. King in the North, Robb Stark, also had more pressing issues to contend with after King Balon Greyjoy’s “iron men” (including his father’s ward Theon Greyjoy) led a successful coup in the North and burned down Winterfell, his home. Lots of little bands of characters seem to be criss-crossing the map, including Robb’s youngest sister Arya, still trying to make her way back home from the capital city of King’s Landing, and Jaime Lannister (King Joffrey’s uncle/father) and Brienne of Tarth were still trekking their way down to King’s Landing by order of Catelyn Stark to be exchanged for her daughters Arya and Sansa. I imagined this would be all about the journeys these characters were taking and not much else. Martin’s format jumps from one character’s story thread to the next, and this time only a few of the storylines actually met at certain points. Yet surprisingly, a lot of things still managed to occur despite the lack of a major conflict or unifying event.
By the third novel, it’s obvious that Martin is a world-builder extraordinaire. I don’t think I have ever read a more comprehensive fantasy world that feels like the author is telling the histories and events of real people’s lives. Starting with the various kingdoms and houses, he has come up with sigils and words (i.e. slogans) for not just the key and most major ones, but even the most incidental ones as well. They each have their allegiances and histories of their own. One of my favourite touches is that there are protocols for naming one’s illegitimate children based on the region that they’re born in: bastards from the North are given the surname of Snow, and from the river lands the surname of Rivers, etc. If those elaborate fictional politics were not fascinating enough, Martin has even created a backstory about the conflicts that led to the kingdom that existed before the current conflict (i.e. when Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark overthrew the mad Targaryen King Agon). Those fictional past events continue to have rippling impacts on the characters even in the current storylines. Taking it even further back, Martin has included legends of the Andals (a precursor civilization to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros) and before them, the First Men (an even more primal and primitive civilization that predated the Andals). So much of this detail doesn’t even factor into the plot, but adds such amazing, geeky detail to the story. That doesn’t even begin to touch on the various religions and beliefs held by groups in the story: The Seven, the Old Gods, the Drowned God, the Lord of Light are all different deities prayed to by various people groups and they each have fascinating mythologies and rituals associated with them — I could totally go on and on, but I believe I have made my point about how amazingly creative Martin’s work is.
Getting back to the specifics of this book, the part that I enjoyed the most was not really a large part, but it’s the story of Daenerys Targaryen and her quest to return to Westeros as conquering queen. In this instalment, she leads her growing band through the “free cities” and conquers them one by one. In the process she gains an army of slave eunuchs known as The Unsullied and her power continues to grow even as she struggles with the burden of leadership. Her story is somewhat separate from the rest of the stories in Westeros, but I really liked reading about other places outside the Seven Kingdoms and it was exciting to watch as Martin’s own female version of Alexander the Great comes into her own.
On the flipside, the part that interested me the least unfortunately seems poised to dominate the next book. I had very little interest in following Jon Snow beyond the Wall to the wild lands of the far north. Throughout the first two books there was talk of wildlings (i.e. savages) and of white walkers (i.e. the undead) but I never really found that very interesting. The Night’s Watch who guard the Seven Kingdoms from everything beyond the Wall always seemed kind of brutish and unsophisticated, so their stories never interested me, plus I don’t like zombies. Nevertheless, the exploits of Stark bastard Jon Snow took up a significant portion of the book and he definitely becomes someone with a lot of influence and impact on those around him.
One other flaw of this third book was that a lot of time was spent with lower-brow characters such as the Night’s Watch, as well as the many brigands, pirates, and ne’er do wells encountered by the various travelling characters on the road. These unsavoury characters often had various colourful nicknames, but they all shared similar bad and selfish intentions, so it was very difficult to keep them straight in my mind — hopefully it will be easier on the TV screen.
Lastly, the title does not really capture what this book is about. There is a lot of blood in this novel — blood and death. I kept trying to think of a B word so I could come up with a better title: A ???? of Blood, but in the end I lacked the imagination and it probably would have sounded more like a matinee horror film anyway. I can’t reveal much of what happens to get the book this characterization, but if I say that the death of Ned Stark in book one was a papercut by comparison, I think you get my drift. There are many surprising and wonderful twists in A Storm of Swords, and the ending (not to mention the epilogue) came out of nowhere. Many things are revealed, including some deceptions that I didn’t even think to question going back to the first novel. As we’ve grown to expect (though we secretly hope for reprieve), the good guys are applauded for the nobility of their goodness, but are not rewarded by anything good happening to them. In fact, they are clearly sitting ducks for all the bad guys whose lack of virtue seem to get them everything.
Martin’s novel continues to build on the exciting and vivid world and characters he created and they feel so real and fleshed-in that even though I’ve finished this third novel, part of me thinks that the kings and queens, rogues and knights are all still playing out the events of their stories while I’m not reading. It makes me want to revisit them that much sooner. (4.5 out of 5)