A Storm of Swords

Written by Matthew Pardue

About midway through last week, I talked with a fan of the A Song of Ice and Fire series who has also read one or two of my reviews of the books. We soon found that we have different opinions about it: she prefers the novels while I, as you know, like the HBO show. At first it seemed like we might just have a generation gap (although I take issue with the idea that I’m impatient and have a short attention span because of my age). As we talked, though, something she said helped me understand the books and George R. R. Martin’s writing style better. She told me that the books were epic, while the show was not. We’re using epic in the sense of literary genre, not of the Internet meme variety. In case it’s been a while since your last English class, epic literature creates stories with huge ambitions and scope. The characters interact on an overwhelming scale, probably over long periods of time. After finally finishing A Storm of Swords on Sunday, I have to agree: the books are definitely epic fantasy.

I say “finally finishing” with mild exasperation. This monster is over 1,100 pages; maybe that doesn’t seem like much if you’re a hardcore fantasy reader, but keep in mind that that’s as long as the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy (if the Internet is to be believed; I don’t have the series on hand). And this is just one book of five so far, with more coming. Call it a generational thing if you must, but I prefer books of 300-400 pages, if not less. If I can fit a paperback into my pocket, that’s ideal for me. That said, I admit that Martin couldn’t get A Storm of Swords down to that length even if he let his editors hack it to pieces and stitch it back together into a Franken-book, minus all the parts I’d consider fluff. Said fluff, by my personal estimation, takes up about the first 700 pages. During that initial almost two-thirds of the book, the characters wander around, meet new minor people, explore fresh (to the audience) territory, explain the political landscape, and generally make the world feel like an actual world.

You see, most people have no concept of scale, me included. It’s hard for us to accurately imagine long distances without travelling them ourselves, and our modern modes of transportation mess with our perceptions. You can’t really understand how long a mile is until you walk one. Similarly, you can’t understand how big the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is without watching the characters creep from one end of a continent to the other. The show cuts out a lot of that travel time because (at least in my opinion, and presumably in the opinion of the HBO producers too) all that isn’t as fun to watch as actual plot progression. I’ve said that in past reviews; the books just have too much fluff between the action for my liking. That doesn’t mean the fluff doesn’t serve a purpose. It does give us that huge, real world sense, which is largely what makes this an epic fantasy series, along with the long list of characters. As I also said in my last review, the fluff is responsible for most of what we know about the setting. A Storm of Swords is particularly big on that; politics and family alliances play important roles in all the novels so far, but here, it really ramps up. We spend hundreds of pages reading about these tangles of minor characters from all across the map, most of which I’m betting will be cut from the third HBO season. Whether or not you approve of those inevitable edits depends on your personal style. If you’re into long, loooong stories with epic scope, then you’ll love the books (and possibly hate me). If you’re more into average novels with faster pacing like I am, then I recommend sticking with Game of Thrones and only reading the books if you want to learn more about Martin’s fantasy world.

So, that’s the first 700 pages: big on setting information, dialogue, and planning, but light on action. The last 400 pages flip the trend. It’s like all the characters realize they’ve spent a lot of time standing around and suddenly have the urge to make up for it with a flurry of activity. Said activity mainly takes the form of murder.

Several main characters die in A Storm of Swords, mostly in that last third of the novel. I’ve got to talk about the deaths; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have much else to say. Significant deaths are the wheels for much of the plot, and without them, those 400 pages of action wouldn’t have taken place. As such, if you’re afraid of spoilers, I’d stop here.

The first big one happens right at the 700 page mark (704 in my copy). People die before that, including one king, but they feel like bumps in the road next to this plot-rocking obstacle. Martin proves again that he has a grudge against the Starks by killing off the second family heir, Robb. The nature of the murder was a bigger surprise than the murder itself, foreshadowed though it was (the remaining Starks need to carve Trust the Direwolves into their skin; I’m tired of the same mistake being repeated over and over). Martin, a fan of kicking people while they’re down, hits the Stark family again shortly after by marrying Sansa in a forced match that I didn’t see coming but probably should have. Her husband is no happier than she is, not that Tyrion has much to be thankful for at any point in the book. While I’m on the subject of him, he again proves that kindness is the fastest route to ruin in this series. He spends a good thousand pages trying to be helpful and gets kicked repeatedly for it; then, right at the end, he listens to the devil on his shoulder and not only escapes his troubles (seemingly; the next book could open with him being caught on his way out of the city) but also gets revenge on two people who wronged him, one of whom is a major character.

I’m gonna miss Tywin. Seeing Joffrey choke to death balances the scale, though.

I’m mostly satisfied with the little jerk’s death. I asked for something humiliating, and I got it. But at the same time, I hoped that he’d die at the hands of a whole mob of the major characters he wronged throughout the books; he probably was murdered, although by whom is still a good question (I don’t exactly trust the guy who claims responsibility). Still, much as I wanted him gone, I also think it happened too soon. Several of Martin’s characters die before they realize their potential, deliberately so; I understand the whole life-is-dangerous-and-unpredictable thing he’s going for. Joffrey is a prime example. I fully expected him to live for books to come and to meet his end as one of the final antagonists. The semi-randomness of his death is kind of satisfying in its own way, though; he’ll never get to be a proper king without his mother and grandfather leaning over his shoulder. He deserves that little insult and more.

Another character dies with an unfulfilled destiny, after a fashion. I felt this death more than the others, even though the character wasn’t one of my top favorites while she was alive. I’ve thought about why that is for the past day, and I think I know: Ygritte died mysterious. We never got to hear her history, see what factors earlier in her life made her the person she was at present, and we never got to see how she’d change by knowing Jon Snow. Or how Jon would change by knowing her; their time together affects him to a degree, but he’s still mostly the same person as before, just with more guilt. I kept wondering if he’d remain so after months or years with Ygritte around. Instead, their subplot ends before it could truly begin, before they could come together again after Jon leaves the wildlings. That sense of lost opportunity strikes me as more depressing than any other death in the book. At least Robb got to prove he was a capable leader and potential king before he died. Tywin showed how brilliant and ruthless he was. Joffrey demonstrated at length that he’d be a horrible king no matter how long he lived. What did Ygritte get to prove, beyond that she was tough and independent, without showing us how she came to be that way, or how deep those qualities really ran? You know nothing, Jon Snow.

I want to cover two more characters before I describe the overall world situation as of the ending to A Storm of Swords. First, I can’t do a review without mentioning Arya. She was kind of disappointing through most of the book; she just bounces from one captor to another with varying degrees of politeness from everyone who kidnaps her. She has no input on where she goes or why. In most cases, she’s more of a valuable item than a person. This changes a little when she gets captured for the last time and learns from her latest owner while also showing more initiative (being filled with a dual desperation to escape and a seething hatred for your kidnapper will do that). And then, at long, long last, she takes her freedom and says the words I’ve been waiting on for a book and a half now: valar morghulis. She’s finally set up to become a Faceless Woman, and if she dies before she can manage that, I’m gonna be furious. My highest hope for the books right now is for Arya to go through whatever training is necessary and then return home to begin a years-long bloodbath of revenge, killing her way through every surviving antagonist who had anything to do with the misery her whole family has suffered. It will be glorious.

Another young girl with a long list of enemies is Daenerys (thankfully she’s older in the HBO show, because all these older men leering at a thirteen-year-old kid is creepy, regardless of fantasy realism). If Arya is an item for most of the book, then Dany is a plot device. She’s a looming, increasingly dangerous force slowly moving closer to the rest of the characters, prepared to crush them all or die trying. One big factor for how I see her is the way she’s off by herself with her own handful of minor characters. The other main names spend the books interacting with one another; Dany, meanwhile, is on a whole different continent where we only see her point of view. We never get a chapter from the perspective of the locals, so she feels isolated to me. That and her goal of sweeping over the Seven Kingdoms make her an antagonistic force all to herself, comparable to the white walkers beyond the Wall. She’s got value as a character, certainly, but since she took control of her own army, I’ve seen her more as a villain than a protagonist. If she makes it to Westeros, especially with grown dragons, a lot of people are going to die. Regardless of Dany’s intentions, that’s got to make her a threatening figure.

At the end of A Storm of Swords, the southern kingdoms are generally stable (if nervous) while the north is a war zone between several grim, worn factions, and it’s only getting worse. I predict that the next book, A Feast for Crows, will keep the same format for at least half the story, with gruesome action in the north and sneaky politics in the south. Then I’m guessing that alliances in the south will fall apart and everyone will once again be at war with whomever they can reach. I hope to start reading tonight or tomorrow, so I’ll find out if I’m right soon enough.

Concerning recommendations, I still suggest the third book under the same conditions as the last two (and probably all the remaining ones). If you’ve got the time and patience for it, read and enjoy. If you don’t, wait for the show. Go to the HBO adaption for the great plot and characters, and the books for a rich, detailed setting. I want both, although I can’t help but wish that the novels had a better mix in the first place. Maybe A Feast for Crows will combine action and fluff more evenly.  I’ll let you know next week.