Friday, August 05, 2011

shades of grey — a storm of swords

I am continuing to enjoy George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. A Storm of Swords is the third book, and as brilliant as the first two were, this one is even better. Martin manages to foreshadow without being obvious, so even if you guess an upcoming plot twist correctly, you don't feel superior or bored, but just caught up in the overwhelming inevitability of how his characters' lives and fates are intertwined. Throughout the book Martin has readers on their toes. Not knowing what is coming on the next page, he is daring you to turn it, even if you are afraid that a favorite character might do something stupid or die. But the story and the compelling characters are irresistible, even when you know that in Westeros and in Martin's books no one is safe.

"You know nothing Jon Snow" (from Jon Snow Caps)

The main action centers around the forces that are marshaling in the seven kingdoms of Westeros. War, the War of the Five Kings, came to the land in the last book, A Clash of Kings, when young and horrible King Joffrey Baratheon took the throne in King's Landing. In A Storm of Swords Joffrey's grandfather Tywin Lannister is the real power behind the throne and doesn't trust that the war is over. Young Robb Stark is still King in the North. Joffrey's uncle, Stannis Baratheon, backed by a powerful sorceress, Melisandre, suffered a major defeat, but his belief that he should rule is as strong as ever. Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands holds Winterfell and much of the North. In the East, Daenerys Targaryen is slowly making her way west, to reclaim Westeros for her family, which was deposed and annihilated by King Robert Baratheon and the Lannisters years ago.

Tywin Lannister and his son Jaime don't see eye-to-eye on Jaime's future (from  The Inner Bean)
While all the political wrangling continues, a more dangerous foe gathers its strength in the North. Wildlings, or the free folk, as they call themselves, are about to attack the Wall, led by Night's Watch deserter Mance Rayder. The motto of the Starks', Martin's epic's family of focus, is "Winter is Coming," and no one has had closer evidence of that than Eddard "Ned" Stark's bastard son Jon Snow and his friend Samwell Tarley, who are among the few left to guard the North at the Wall. Wildlings of all shapes and sizes — men, giants, mammoths — join forces to take down the Wall and invade the kingdom. But are they on a path of conquest or are they fleeing something too terrible to face — wights (zombies who rise as the temperature drops) and the Others, extremely lethal creatures, thought to be the stuff of legend, but proving themselves to be real and on the move.

Life in Westeros and its surrounding lands is bloody and brutal and oh-so-entertaining to read. Martin's characters are well-drawn. In A Storm of Swords previously "bad" characters like Jaime Lannister, whose nickname, aptly earned, "Kingslayer," and Sandor Clegane, or "The Hound," as he is more commonly known, become sympathetic, as the world they live in is composed of myriad shades of grey. Favorite "good" characters like Tyrion Lannister, a clever dwarf who has never been appreciated by his family, and Arya Stark, a young girl who has had to see her father die and is shuttled from one group of brutes to another as a hostage to ransom, see the world in black and white, which may not be the wisest of courses. Arya has been through so much that it is easy to forget that she is still a child, and children do not see in shades of grey. Tyrion has been so abused by his family and everyone around him that he is soon unable to see anything but revenge. Still, it is troubling to see favorite characters head down dangerous paths.

Sansa is just a kid, a pawn being buffeted and manipulated from one house to another (from gameofthronescaptures)
As much as there are swords and duels and men fighting aplenty in A Storm of Swords, the female characters are as interesting and complex and certainly as ruthless (Queen Cersei) as many of the males. Sansa Stark is a character that many readers have trouble with, considering her weak or uninteresting. She can certainly be spoiled and silly and meek and whiny. It is easy to forget that she is just a girl of twelve and has been trained from birth to mind her elders and behave like a young Lady. Not everyone can be a surperhero, but that doesn't make Sansa a negative character. She had to watch her dreams of handsome knights be crushed in the person of Joffrey and stand and watch her father die. Part of Sansa's inherent weakness is that she lost her direwolf, Lady (in the first book, A Game of Thrones). Her brothers and sisters have at times been separated from their wolves, but are still inexorably connected. But not Sansa, who must make do with trying to commune with a tired old dog one evening.

Some of my favorite aspects of the book, while not giving away any major plot points, are still a bit SPOILERY, so be warned. New and interesting alliances are formed in A Storm of Swords, between characters, mostly unwillingly, but creating great tension and even at times, teamwork:

Jon Snow and the wildling girl Ygritte
Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth
Arya Stark and The Hound
Sansa Stark and Littlefinger
Sansa Stark and Tyrion (if she had given him a chance to even be just her friend or protector)
Tyrion Lannister and Oberyn Martell

There were also some vividly rendered scenes, featuring the Moon Door at the Eyrie, the Brotherhood Without Banners utilizing the power of R'hllor, Jon and his fellow Night's Watch brothers and their defense of the Wall, Bran Stark the warg (shapeshifter) seeing the world through his direwolf Summer.

Martin has drawn his characters and their countryside so well that like Sansa and Jon and Arya I wanted to go back to their childhood home of Winterfell, too. Hopefully they will get their chance. The passage where Sansa built a snow castle of Winterfell was beautiful and sad. Less convincing or sympathetic in this book was Daenerys Targaryen, who seems to be developing quite a bloodlust. But her wondering who to trust and her handling of advisors Arstan Whitebeard and Ser Jorah Mormont was realistic for a teenage Queen, a bit out of her league.

But the most impressive and shattering chapter in the book was the Red Wedding. According to an interview, Martin put off "writing the Red Wedding until the very last," which I was interested to read, because it was truly one of the most unforgettable, disturbing scenes I've ever read, in any book. It was also hold-your-breath-as-you're-reading-it brilliant, as if it occurred in slow motion. It occurs about halfway through the book, and haunts the rest of it, with the repercussions echoing.

A Storm of Swords is a wonderful read and Martin a wonderful storyteller. There are truly haunting passages that may give the reader nightmares, but they will still be glad they have continued on this journey. Everyone in the book is in motion, although not necessarily bound for the destination they originally intended. Will all roads lead to the Wall, or King's Landing, or an early death? As we learn from the wights, death is not necessarily the end. We can only wait and see, and thankfully, it's possible to grab the next book in the series, A Feast of Crows and get reading.

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