Sunday, October 17, 2010

Book Review -- A STORM OF SWORDS by George R.R. Martin

Backdropped against the torrential rains and falling leaves of a year-long autumn, the War of the Five Kings grinds to a halt and most of the plot threads are, if not resolved, then placed in a sort of stasis for the coming winter. George R. R. Martin closes the first part of his cycle with shocking brutality, bitter revelations, and broken promises--and its a stupendous and tragic vision of a war-torn medieval kingdom.

Martin follows his usual pattern in this novel. Whereas A Game of Thrones (review) detailed the events that lead up to (and caused) the War of the Five Kings, and A Clash of Kings (review) described the first half of the war, A Storm of Swords describes the final stages of the war after its turning-point at the Battle of the Blackwater. As in previous novels, each viewpoint character is given a specific story arc, and Martin draws them through a sequence of events which irrevocably change who and what they are by the end of the novel. Each story arc is a formative experience to his characters, and by the end of the novel, they have learned and grown as characters. Perhaps in A Storm of Swords we can see the most transition from Martin's perspective characters.

The book follows the viewpoints of Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Sansa Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Jaime Lannister, Davos Seaworth, and Samwell Tarly--a total of ten characters, as compared to eight in A Game of Thrones and nine in A Storm of Swords. What is especially exciting is we are given the perspective of Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer, which goes an incredibly long way in illuminating his personality, motivation, and especially the reasoning behind the famous betrayal that earned him his moniker. A Storm of Swords is a lengthy 1,177 pages in length, but the plethora of points-of-view means that many of the main characters only get a few chapters (such as Davos and Samwell) while others get a great many (Jon, Arya, Tyrion, Sansa, and Jaime having the most chapters dedicated to them). Again, the action in the book is mainly divided between the main thrust of the war in the Riverlands, Daenerys' activities across the sea, and the wildling invasion against the Wall. Through it all, Martin slowly begins to reveal something sinister at work in the darkness of the cold northern wastes, ominously forshadowed by the onset of autumn and the promise of winter. Against this, a mysterious foreign deity, the Lord of Light, has begun to make its presence felt in Westeros.

Not all things are as they seem.

Martin has proven himself to be a master storyteller. I've written before that A Song of Ice and Fire is a primarily character-driven tale. Martin establishes situations around his characters that force them to change and grow as people--or die. This doesn't always mean they grow in good ways. By the end of the book, Arya Stark and Tyrion Lannister may have embarked upon paths that will make them extremely brutal and callous individuals, for example.

Again, Martin's prose is quite plain and unassuming. It's not turgid, clinical, or florid. My only critique is that he has made a habit of spending too much time in flashbacks, ripping us from the current situation and into the past in a lengthy side-story. Although flashbacks are a useful technique, he uses them too often to recount long and lengthy sequences of events that had already taken place off-stage (or, perhaps, off-page), and it would be much simpler to just include those events as they happened as briefer, earlier chapters.

Many have said that A Clash of Kings was the high-point of the series. While I can understand what they mean, I don't necessarily agree. A Storm of Swords is a difficult book, but it is also much more complex. Its themes don't jump out at the reader quite so easily.

Weddings play a huge role in this novel, as does the backdrop of autumn. Throughout the novel, rains cause rivers to swell and become powerful barriers against the passage of armies. The marriages and childbirths that are featured throughout this book--each an event that is supposed to be joyous--is shrouded in pain and misery. A Storm of Swords is about pain and loss. It is about things falling apart. It is about lies and betrayal at the hands of those one had trusted most.

Autumn is symbolic of decay, death, and entropy. It is the season in which the warmth and life of summer begins to fade and harvests are collected. A Storm of Swords is a chronicle of the grim harvests that many reap as a result of their actions. Weddings, which usually take place in springtime, are held throughout this novel and their aspects are clouded with the decay and death that is foreshadowed by the approaching winter and the changing of the leaves. Life and death are in juxtaposition throughout this novel as well. The war of opposites, between the cold and the ice of the Others and the warmth and the light of R'hillor, the Lord of Light, is ironically marked with the use of sacrifice and undeath as a tool. Is Berric Dondarrion much different from the wights that the Others deploy throughout the novel? Childbirth, weddings, and funerals all are a mash of emotions and themes that aren't easy to untangle, and Martin challenges both the readers and his characters with events that spiral out of control, and by the end of the book, everything that the Starks and Lannisters have built seems to have fallen irreparably apart.

I can't be more specific without giving away too much of the story. Suffice it to say, Martin suffuses the pages of his novel with these themes. Betrayal and accusations of betrayal (as well as innocence) are ubiquitous. Vengeance is served, justice is dealt and abused, and many, many people die horrible deaths.

Nonetheless, this book is rife with spectacularly powerful scenes. The emotional weight they carry is stupendous. One of the highest points in the book for me was the duel between Gregor Clegane and Prince Oberyn Martell. Arya Stark earns the grudging respect of Sandor Clegane, but at the cost of her innocence and a piece of her humanity in an incredible scene in the taproom of an inn near the book's conclusion. The Night's Watch defend the Wall in a sequence of battles that can only exhilarate the reader, especially after the trauma of the other story-arcs. Robb Stark, the Young Wolf, the boy king who never lost a battle in the field and even took Jaime Lannister captive, makes a disastrous decision that has unspeakable consequences, all due to his youth and innocence. The horror and heartbreak of the Red Wedding and the fact that the reader knows that it is coming was one of the final and most difficult parts of the novel Martin had written.

In my opinion, through all the pain and suffering, betrayal and vengeance, Martin has actually topped his effort in A Clash of Kings, though I know many people will disagree with me. This book is more complex than its predecessors. Its themes are nowhere near as simple as A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. Actions have consequences in this series, and Martin's characters are human and have human foibles. The author is unapologetic with the grittiness and realism of his world. This is not Tolkien's Middle-Earth, where all men are noble and good. Even the good guys make bad choices sometimes. Choices in A Song of Ice and Fire have always had repercussions, and, as Daenerys Targargyen learns throughout the book, responsibility for one's decisions must be taken, especially when the fate of thousands (maybe millions) of lives are placed in one's hands.

A Storm of Swords is the best novel yet in A Song of Ice and Fire. I'm currently awaiting the arrival of A Feast for Crows in the mail, and then I imagine I'll be eagerly anticipating A Dance with Dragons alongside the rest of Martin's fanbase.

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
Style B+
Substance A+
Overall A


Chris Cesarano said...

I want to go back and reread the visions Daenarys has in A Clash of Kings, because there were a couple things that stuck out in my mind, one of which played out in A Storm of Swords. Similarly, while I wasn't completely accurate on the one dream Theon had (mostly in Theon's part in the dream), I was pretty accurate.

It is very clear that Martin used dreams and visions very much like Williams had in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. They are important and a hint at things to come, if you can figure them out.

I agree that Storm of Swords is the best in the series thus far. I've started the first couple chapters of A Feast for Crows, which is tough. I've always found the prologues in these books to be the most tough to get through since you are dropped into the place of characters that you don't experience any other time, but Feast for Crows has the prologue AND first two chapters begin this way.

A lot of people on the Gamers With Jobs forum seem to not be too happy with A Feast for Crows, but I read that it and A Dance of Dragons were never meant to be books at all, but instead retold in flashbacks. Martin felt that there was too much to tell and in the end telling them in books would be better. As a result I feel we will have two books that aren't exactly filler, but basically play the same role as Game of Thrones: they set up for all of the important events to come. After all, Game of Thrones felt like a book where nothing happened and yet so much happened as well, all because you saw how screwed the kingdom was now.

Now we have to go through that for two more books.

Hopefully, once A Dance of Dragons is complete (Martin mentioned having just 5 chapters left, so the publisher is hoping to announce a release date at the start of 2011) he'll be able to just jump right in and finish the final two books more quickly than Feast for Crows and A Storm of Swords. But I am not one to rush him. Don't want this to end like Dark Tower, after all.

Dave Cesarano said...

I, for one, am more willing to wait. You don't realize that A Game of Thrones isn't the main story, but rather prologue or set-up, until your pretty much into A Storm of Swords. Lots happens in A Game of Thrones. It moves pretty rapidly, and each chapter something goes down that develops events or characters in a pretty solid manner.

I keep wanting to compare to Robert Jordan's tendency to have chapter after chapter of people talking and going through situations. For example, in one book, the characters spent half the novel with a traveling circus, and it was actually incredibly... dull.

Martin never just lets things hang. Each chapter goes somewhere or develops something. If the characters or plot don't advance, then the setting is developed further. Basically, Martin uses each chapter to go somewhere with something. That, at least, I like.

As for the "filler" books, I figure that the reason they are taking so long is because he isn't as interested writing about the gap between books 3 and 6 as he is about writing 6 itself. Martin himself has said that certain things were very difficult for him to write, like the Red Wedding.