As I typically do, I read books to prepare for movies and tv seasons, so I was eager to catch up with our friends in Westeros before Game of Thrones season 5 returns in a couple of weeks. However, as I read/listened, I also started to worry because I was becoming kind of bored. Thankfully, the world that Martin has created in his “Song of Ice and Fire” series is rich and full of really great details, however, I was really craving more story about some of my favourite characters (like Tyrion and Daenerys) and they weren’t anywhere in the narrative of this book (at the end you find out that Martin’s split the stories of the characters into two books, so if I want those other characters, I’ll have to read the next book, A Dance With Dragons).
In this book, we continue with the story of Brienne of Tarth (who just seems to be wandering around Westeros looking for the Stark girls, stumbling upon every unsavoury band of brigands in the seven kingdoms); Samwell Tarly (who is escaping the wall with wildling girlfriend Gilly and ancient Maester Aemon); Sansa Stark (who is stuck in the Eyrie with cousin Robert, pretending to be Petyr Baelish’s daughter). Even though some of them move a long way geographically, their stories aren’t super-interesting. They seem to have the kinds of stories reserved for second-string characters rather than main characters (I guess Martin’s killed off so many main characters that there aren’t enough good places for the spotlight to fall).
I did really enjoy the shift of spotlight that allowed us to see a lot more of two cultures that we’d only experienced in passing so far: The Iron Islands, and Dorne. Eddard Stark’s ward Theon Greyjoy was from the Iron Islands and when he went home to his cold rock of a father, we got to see some of their seafaring culture (and I’m especially fascinated by their religion of The Drowned God) but this time around, their king, Balon Greyjoy has died so they need to find a new king. Not only was that whole kingsmoot process interesting (they seem a lot like vikings) but also it shows how the culture of the Iron Islands is chauvinistic and built on fighting and war. (I love their term “the iron price” which means that they pay for things with bloodshed.) Even newer to the readership is a closer look at Dornish culture. In the last book, a contingent from the kingdom of Dorne went to King’s Landing, including the tragic Oberyn Martell, who faced Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane in battle and literally got squished like a grape. So now a group of warrior daughters (aka “the Sand Snakes”) want to get revenge on the Lannisters for their father’s death. Dorne is interesting because it also struggles with chauvinism, but it at least seems to be open to female warriors. I imagine Dorne as a kind of Arabic nation with a dry climate.
One more interesting new place that we get to see is Braavos, where unlucky Arya Stark headed to after escaping from Westeros altogether. After having met fencing instructor Syrio Forel and enigmatic assassin Jaquen H’ghar, it makes sense that she would want to go to Braavos where they both came from. I am curious to learn more about this exotic place which sounds like a cross between a Tunisian city and a 19th century Caribbean pirate port. Unfortunately, the story there is pretty narrowly focused on Arya’s own adventures rather than the broader Braavosi culture.
Last but far-from-least is the central story line of the Lannisters — in particular, Cersei and Jaime. After their father Tywin’s murder by Tyrion, Cersei is in a rage to find and punish her younger brother. However, she has enough anger for her twin-brother Jaime and for new daughter-in-law Margaery Tyrell. As you’d expect, Cersei is busy plotting, playing the “Game of Thrones” in order to secure power (in the wake of her father’s murder) for her son, King Tommen, and herself as queen regent. Her unscrupulousness reaches new heights, but a lot of those scenes of scheming conversations and fictional politics dragged down the plot (since it’s a huge mental task to keep straight all the third, fourth, and fifth level characters being mentioned). It wasn’t until near the end of the book that something really exciting started to happen.
As I’ve said, the true saving grace of this novel (and the whole “Song of Ice and Fire” series) is the incredible detail put into creating this world. My favourite aspect of that (which again comes across very clearly in this book) are the religions and belief systems that have been created for the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. I’ve mentioned the Drowned God of the Iron Islands, but in Braavos they have a “Many-faced God” and in Westeros they have “The Seven” (who are a pantheon of archetypal aspects, such as “The Father”, “The Warrior”, “The Maiden”, etc., who represent aspects of humanity). It’s wonderful how not only do these fictional religions each have their customs and beliefs, they even have their prayers and their slang (just like real religions in our world). All these “nitty gritty” details make this world seem so vividly real that it really adds to the enjoyment of the narrative (even a relatively slow narrative like the one in this book).
I was happy to make it through this instalment, but I’m probably more interested in the characters in the next book (unfortunately, I don’t have enough time read it before the new episodes start airing). Oh well, I guess I’ll be spoiling some of the stuff for myself. (3.5 out of 5)