A Storm of Swords (Song of Fire and Ice, book III)

Back with the third installment in the Song of Fire and Ice series! By the end of book II, A Clash of Kings, a number of interesting developments took place. Stannis Baratheon’s attack on King’s Landing ended in failure, Robb Stark’s campaign south began to suffer some setbacks, and John Snow had taken up with the Wildlings. In addition, Theon Greyjoy was killed, Winterfell was burned to the ground, Arya escaped and began heading north once again, and young Bran began to head for the Wall with his companions, pursuing a prescient dream.

A Storm of Swords:
The third novel picks up where all these strands left off, with the War of the Five Kings, the war beyond the Wall, and with Daenerys Targaryen’s ongoing efforts to secure an army and return to Westeros. Much like book II, Storm contained a sort of climax where a major battle takes place, this time at the Wall. John’s time spent amongst the Wildlings also gives the reader insight into the lives of the Wildlings and what is driving them south.

At the same time, there is a great deal of detail given to the world of the East, where Daenerys is travelling to the ancient slaver cities of Astapor, Yunkai and Mereen. Much like Qarth in book II, these eastern cities are clearly inspired by the ancient cities of Asia Minor and the Middle East (aka. Babylon, Antioch, Jerusalem, etc). However, there were also some rather dire developments as well. Like I said in my previous post, George RR Martin is never one to shy away from killing off main characters or devastating his readers. Whereas he kind of shied away from that in Clash, this book got right into it! But more on that in a bit. First, I’d like to get into the overall plot of the novel…

Plot Synopsis:
Starting at the Riverlands, where Robb Stark and his armies are gathered, we learn that the Wolf has suffered from some serious errors in judgement. For starters, his uncle, contrary to Robb’s orders, threw off his long-term strategy by engaging Tywin Lannister’s armies at the river crossings. Though they were victorious in thwarting them, this move upset Robb’s plans to lure Tywin closer to his home town of Casterly Rock, where Robb hoped to outflank him and end the Lannister’s involvement in the war.

However, Tywin instead deployed the bulk of his forces to attack Riverrun once Bolton began beating him. Tywin failed to take Riverrun, but deploying his forces here instead of further east meant that he was in a better position to redeploy south once he learned that King’s Landing was threatened. Their victory over Stannis also led to an alliance between House Tyrell and the Lannisters, which meant they would be doubly hard to beat.

In addition, while he was campaigning in Lannister country, Robb fell in love with a young woman from a smaller House and married her. This decision was an insult to the honor of House Frey, the Lord that controls the Twins (the river crossing to the north) and one of Robb’s most powerful allies. Now it was necessary for him to travel to the Twins and make amends, promising his uncle’s hand to one of Frey’s oldest daughters in order to salvage their relationship.

And last, but not least, he also has the defiance of his mother to deal with. It seems that while he was away campaigning, she set Jaime Lannister free and told Brienne to escort him to King’s Landing. On his honor, she made Jaime swear that he would return her daughters to her as soon as he arrived at the capitol. A desperate hope, but given what happened to her boys (she believes them both to have perished at Winterfell at his point) she was both desperate and distraught.

Naturally, Jaime has plans of his own and attempts to escape at the first opportunity. Unfortunately for him and Brienne, his escape attempt alerts some marauders to their presence. As soon as he obtains a sword, he attacks Brienne, the two fight for some time and the noise alerts a band of Bloody Mummers. These men are now in the employ of Lord Roose Bolton of Harrenhal, and they are taken captive. To ensure Jaime’s cooperation, Vargo Hoat, the leader of the pack, slices off Jaime’s hand. Without his sword hand, Jaime becomes a depressed shell of his former self, and begins to contemplate his choices and allegiances.

When Robb and his host arrive at the Twins, they are pleasantly surprised. Despite Lord Walder Frey’s reputation for being a bitter and vengeful man, he seems committed to making this new marriage happen. And his uncle is even pleasantly surprised when he sets eyes on the Frey girl, who doesn’t appear to be as hideous as his other offspring! Everything goes well on the wedding night as well. Though the food is not so good, the wine is plentiful and people begin to get soused. However, once the bride and groom are hauled off, Frey has another surprise in store. Crossbowmen emerge from the gallery and begin firing on them! Robb and his banner men are quickly surrounded, and Robb and his mother are killed!

Back at King’s Landing, celebrations are being held! With their victory over Stannis’ forces, the people are jubilant and welcoming House Tyrell as liberators. In addition, Lord Tywin has taken the role as Hand of the King since Tyrion has been bed-ridden with injuries and is suspected of trying to harm Joffrey. Also, it seems that the new hand has made some changes to Joffrey’s wedding arrangements. Instead of marrying Sansa, as was arranged under King Robert, he now wishes to cement the Lannister’s new alliance with the Tyrell’s by marrying Joffrey to Lady Margaery Tyrell. Sansa is relieved, until she is informed that she will be wedding Tyrion instead, who isn’t particularly happy about it either.

Now two weddings must be held. The first, of Sansa and Tyrion, is a sham affair that is rushed through with minimal pomp and ceremony. For the second wedding though, much time and effort are spent and no expense is being spared. In addition, Sansa finds herself being taken into the confidences of the matriarch of House Tyrell. As Joffrey’s previous betrothal, she would like to know just what kind of man her granddaughter is marrying. After learning that the old lady is an honest and gentle person, Sansa tells her the truth: Joffrey is a monster, she says, and her granddaughter should be afraid. The old lady thanks her for her honesty, and begins plotting…

The wedding festivities are lavish and Joffrey appears to be taking well to his new wife, which leaves Sansa fearing for her life. Tyrion is similarly worried, knowing that Joffrey hates him and Cersei and their father both suspect him of treachery. He worries that the boy will try to kill him and his new wife, but they are both saved when something unexpected occurs. In the midst of eating from a massive pigeon pie that was prepared for the event, Joffrey chokes and dies horribly. More to the point, the girl Sansa disappears in the midst of his death. All eyes go to Tyrion, who is promptly arrested for the boy’s death.

After suffering in the dungeons of King’s Landing for a time, Tyrion is brought forth and put on trial. He is forsaken by everyone, including his mistress Shae, who appears to have been threatened into giving him up. All hope appears to be lost for Tyrion, but he then receives an offer from an unlikely source: Lord Oberyn Martell, the Prince of Dorne. It seems that the people of Sunspear still hold the Lannister’s accountable for the deaths of two Martell children who were murdered during Robert’s revolt. The one responsible was Sir Gregor Clegane (“The Mountain”), but they suspect Lord Tywin was the one who gave the order. He agrees to fight for Tyrion if he requests a trial by combat as part of a plot to kill Gregor and eventually put a Martell on the throne.

Without options, Tywin agrees, and as expected, Cersei chooses Gregor as her champion. The fight goes well for Oberyn, who employs cunning and speed to defeat Gregor with a poisoned spear. However, before he can deliver the final blow, Gregor takes Oberyn by the throat and kills him with his bare hands. Tyrion is once again doomed, and Gregor is destined to die a slow and terrible death. However, Tyrion finds help from an unlikely source once again, this time from his brother who has returned.

After hearing of Robb Stark’s death, Harrenhal once again changed hands and Jaime was set free. Having undergone a change of heart, he decided to bring Brienne back with her. Upon his arrival, he and Cersei have a falling out over his brother’s supposed guilt, and he decides to set Tyrion free. This consists of showing him a secret stairway that will take him to the coast, but Tyrion decides to head up instead. Having served as the Hand, he knows the secret stairs lead to the Tower of the Hand, where his father currently resides…

When he enters, he finds Shae warming his bed. She pleads and offers him the usual denials, telling him she was threatened and had no choice. Tyrion, sick of betrayal, decides to strangle her with her own jewelry and then sets out to find his father. After grabbing a crossbow from the bedroom wall, he finds his father in the privy and corners him there. After some harsh words are exchanged, he fires a bolt into Tywin’s stomach and leaves him there for dead.

With both Joffrey and Tywin dead, Cersei takes up the role of Hand and crowns her youngest son, Tommen, as king. In addition, she charges her newly-estranged brother with finding and killing Tyrion. As the new Lord Commander of the Kingsgaurd, it is his duty to track down the assassin, but he is obviously conflicted given the fact that he played a rolein his father’s death. Once the funeral is over, he decides to sets Brienne free and gives her a new sword named Oathkeeper. This was apparently Joffrey’s wedding gift from Tywin, which was reforged from the Valyrian steel of Ned Stark’s old sword. He then tells her to go forth and keep her oath to Catelyn to find Arya and Sansa.

Also, it should be noted, Cersei begins to go nuts as a result of recent events. In addition to losing her son and her father, it is also clear that her incest has become common knowledge. The Tyrells also appear to be positioning themselves to take the throne down the line. It is even intimated that the Tyrell matriarch was the one who poisoned Joffrey because of what Stansa told her about him. Now that Tommen is king, it is he who must marry Lady Margaery Tyrell, but since he’s so young, she believes she must be the power behind the throne.

Sansa is meanwhile ferried away with the help of Lord Donton, a disgraced ex-knight who Joffrey was in the habit of abusing, but whom Sansa was kind to. For some time, they were planning her escape, and when she learned that she would be wed to Tyrion instead of a Tyrell, she agreed to his plans. After helping her escape on the night of the big wedding, she is transferred to a ship waiting for them down by the water. Her rescuer, it seems, is Lord Petyr Baelish, who plans to take her to The Eyrie where he is about to wed her aunt (Catelyn’s sister). After delivering her aboard, Donton is killed to cover their tracks.

She is then brought to the coast of the Vale of Arryn where she meets Petyr and her aunt. While it is clear that Lady Lysa loves Petyr, it is also clear that he doesn’t love her, but instead is carrying a torch for Sansa. After arriving at the Eyrie, he kisses Sansa in the courtyard, sending Lysa into a jealous rage. Later on, she invites Sansa up to the throne room and threatens to throw her out the Moon Door, but Petyr intervenes. After talking Lysa down, he confesses to her that he only ever loved her sister, and then tosses her out the door! He then moves quickly to blame the minstrel and bribes Lysa’s bannermen to ensure their loyalty to his rule.

Meanwhile, Arya’s trip north brings her and her companions into some strange company. Having escaped Harrenhal, she now comes into contact with a group of men known as the Brotherhood without Banners. These were the men whom Ned Stark had sent out to deal with the raids in the Riverlands, but who now are protecting the countryfolk from raiders and Lannisters. Leading them is Lord Beric Dondarrion who has picked up an usual companion, the red priest Thoros of Myr. Here too is another worshiper of R’hllor, who has apparently used his magic to resurrect Beric, a couple of times!

Having been taken in by the company, they soon find Sandore Clegane, who fled King’s Landing during the siege, and put him on trial for his many crimes. Sandore request a trial by combat and narrowly wins when Beric’s sword breaks and he dies. However, Thoros is able to resurrect him yet again, and Sandore is free to go. But before he leaves, he is sure to take a hostage – Arya Stark! The two then travel north together since Sandore is hoping to ransom her to her brother. This journey takes them to the Twins, just in time for Lord Bolton’s supposed wedding. When the pandemonium strikes, Arya is forced to flee and is only saved by the intervention of Sandor himself.

In time, Sandor is critically wounded and Arya leaves him behind. She makes for the Vale of Arryn where she decides to board a ship and head for Braavos. She does this because Jaqen H’ghar, the killer she helped free, gave her a coin before departing which he claimed was from Braavos. The coin contained the inscription “Valar Morghulis”. When she arrives at the port, she speaks these words to a Braavosi Captain, who replies “Valar Dohaeris” and agrees to take her aboard. They set sail for the free city of Braavos and Arya bids farewell to her past life.

To the East, Daenerys and her companions are still busy trying to recruit an army. On the recommendations of Lord Mormont, they set course for Slaver’s Bay believing that they will be able to recruit an army from the Unsullied. These are apparently warrior-slaves who have been raised from birth to fight, feel no pain, and obey any and all orders from their commander. With her new-found friends, Arstan and Strong Belwas, they arrive at Astapor where she agrees to surrender one of her dragons in exchange for a large host. However, she then tricks the slavers by ordering the Unsullied, once they are transferred to her ownership, to kill all the city’s slave masters.

With her new army and a host of freed slaves, Daenerys sets course for the city of Yunkai next. Here, she finds another slave stronghold that is protected by a host of mercenaries. After meeting the enemy’s mercenary brigades, she is aided by the defection of one of their Captains. With his help, they attack the mercenary encampents at night and this city falls shortly thereafter. Finally, she and her host move on to Mereen, the last of the slave cities, but find it walled and heavily defended. They set camp and begin the long process of besieging it.

But first, some revelations are made. On the one hand, she discovers that Arstan is in fact Ser Barristan Selmy, the former Lord Commander of the Kingsguard who Joffrey dismissed. His true purpose, it seems, was to find the heir of the Targaryen line and bring her home. At the same time, she learns that Jorah Mormont was originally sent to spy on her for Robert. However, when the order came that she was to be assassinated, he changed his mind and enlisted with her. Daenerys is outraged. It seems that the prophecy told to her by the Undying of Qarth is coming true. She has been betrayed twice now, which means she will betrayed once more before the end.

To have them make amends, she orders Barristan and Mormont to sneak into the city  through its sewers with a host of Unsullied at night and open the gates. They succeed, and the city is taken shortly thereafter. She forgives Selmy and makes him the Lord Commander of her Queensguard, but decides to banish Lord Mormont. In the meantime, she decides to set up camp at Mereen and contemplate how she will become the ruler that Westeros needs.

Finally, things to the north are also proceeding apace. Having been captured by the Wildlings, John Snow is brought before Mance Rayder. He is asked to explain why he would defect, and wanting to be convincing, John tells him something approximating the truth. He says he defected because he is sick and tired of being “the bastard son” and wants to be free. Rayder believes him, and John is soon reunited with the young Wildling woman he met earlier and spared.

Her name is Ygritte, and she is clearly taken with John. As time goes on, they become close and claim each other, Wildling-style! As a result of all this, John’s feelings of betrayal deepen, but he made an oath to Qorin to learn all he could, so he continues. In time, this bears fruit when he learns that the Others are what is driving the Wildlings south. Hence why they are determined to take the Wall and claim the northern lands of Westeros for themselves.

He also learns that Rayder had been desperately searching for the Horn of Winter which the Wildlings believe is magic. By sounding this horn, he believes he can melt the Wall and take out the Night’s Watch easily. However, in the meantime, he must commit his forces to attacking the Wall conventionally and sends John and Ygritte with an advance party to scale it and do reconnaissance on the other side. Once over, John escapes from the Wildlings once more and rejoins his brothers at Castle Black.

His loyalties are heavily suspect and few believe his story about Qorin orders, but his loyalty is proven when Ygritte and the advance party attack Castle Black. They manage to defeat the Wildling party, and Ygritte is killed by a stray arrow. John is torn by the loss, but there is little time to mourn. On the other side of the Wall, Rayder has over forty-thousand Wildlings, giants, mammoths and seige engines prepared, and begins his assault. John is given leave to command the defense of the Wall against this first assault, and things go relatively well.

Outnumbered but not outclassed, John and his brothers manage to thwart the first wave. John is then invited to parlay with Rayder, who reveals that he has found the horn after all. He tells John that he cold destroy the Wall with a single blast of the instrument, but he would rather capture it intact since it is the only thing that will keep the Others at bay. John considers his offer of a negotiated truce, but their parlay is cut short when Stannis’ surviving armies take to the field and destroy the Wildling encampment.

For months, the Night’s Watch had been pleading for aid and soldiers to be sent north to the Wall, and now it seems that only Stannis has chosen to answer. He tells John what the priestess Melissandre believes, how the return of the Others is just a prelude to the return of her god’s sworn enemy – the dark one. Stannis asks for John’s support and promises him Winterfell in exchange, but John is chosen by the Night’s Watch as their new commander and must refuse.

In the epilogue, we see how the Brothers Without Banners have taken one of the Frey men prisoner. After interrogating him about the massacre that happened at the wedding, the reanimated body of Catelyn Stark arrives and orders his death. It seems that the priest Thoros has used his magic to resurrect her as well, and now she is intent on revenge!

Strengths/Weaknesses:
Book III was, in my opinion, a step down from books I and II. On the one hand, there was plenty of action and plot developments to keep the reader interested, and plenty of surprises besides. However, not all of them were welcome to this humble reader. For starters, when Robb Stark is murdered at the court of Walder Frey, I was incensed! I very nearly put the book and the series down for good! Was it not enough that Martin had to kill off Ned Stark? No, he had to kill his son and Catelyn too? The Starks are supposed to be the heroes of this series, dammit! You can’t just keep killing them off! Yes, I was mad…

But it was not just the fact that sympathetic characters kept getting murdered. It was the confusion it caused. Basically, every story has a set of main characters, people that help drive the story forward. When a character dies off, it naturally falls to another to keep the story going. Now we all know that Martin uses many characters and perspectives in his novels, but most of these are secondary and rarely heard from. It’s the main perspectives that tell things of the greatest importance, and usually there are only a few of them. When these people die, it has the effect of making the reader think that they weren’t so important after all. And if it keeps happening, the reader can become cynical and will not form the usual emotional attachments to characters. When that happens, a story dies, at least from the point of view of the person reading it. It’s all about emotional attachments Martin, you can’t keep traumatizing us!

More than that, I was beginning to feel tedious and depressed by the way Arya and Sansa’s sad stories kept going on and on. For two books now, Arya has been trying to get home, only to be waylayed, taken prisoner, get free, taken prisoner again, get free once again, then only to find out that her family is dead. Thus she decides to go to Braavos because she thinks she’s the only Stark left. And she’s just a kid! How depressing! Sansa, on the other hand, has to endure Joffrey’s constant abuse, the prospect of sex with Tyrion, and then is set free only to find herself a prisoner again, just under different circumstances. As if the rapacious and cruel Lannisters weren’t enough, now she has to deal with the murderous and creepy Lord Baelish!

And even before Robb was murdered, the setbacks he was been forced to endure were beginning to get tedious. In spite of all his early successes, its becoming abundantly clear that he’s going to lose the war. First his strategic plans get interrupted, the Lannisters succeed in the south and make a new alliance, Theon stabs him in the back by seizing Winterfell, his attempts to liberate it fail, Winterfell is then burned to the ground and his brothers killed (presumably). Then, on top of all that, he learns that his alliance is likely to fall apart because he chose to follow his heart. And just when it seems like things are going to be okay on that front, he’s and his mother are betrayed and murdered! It’s like, we get it! War is hell, especially this war, and the bad guys are winning! But can’t you give us some happy news for a change?

But like I said, the book had plenty of things to keep the prospective reader interested. After picking it back up (after about a week or so of stewing), I found plenty of good things to keep me interested in the series. For starters, Joffrey finally got what was coming to him, Lord Tywin also bought it while sitting on the privy, and Catelyn was revealed to be alive (albeit in a somewhat hideous form). This was all nice to read, mainly because I was getting so sick of Joffrey that I was just waiting for someone to give him a “golden crown” as well! His and Tywin’s death also brightened Tyrion’s storyline a lot, seeing as how his constant struggle with his cruel family was also beginning to get Kafka-esque. Given that he is one of the few sympathetic characters from that thread, it was nice to see him get a little payback! Now if someone would just whack Cersei we’d be in business!

And of course there were all the plot developments that kept satisfying my curiosity. Much like in book II, there were plenty of things that I was just waiting to hear about that finally got revealed. For instance, I was dying to know what would become of the Others invasion, of the civil war, of Daenerys’ plans to return to Westeros, and of Bran’s visions. After so much build-up, set-backs and plot twists, I was dying for some resolutions! And as usual, George RR Martin gives it out sparingly, providing clues, some answers, and a few interesting tidbits, all the while ensuring that things keeps rolling into the next book.

All in all, I liked this book. It was a very decent follow-up to A Clash of Kings and maintained the commitment to realism, detail and world-building that the series is famous for. My problems really only stem from the fact that at times, the books are too realistic, too detailed, and contain far too many plot twists. However, it would be unfair to say that any one book fails in this regard when its really a cumulative effect. Anything bad that I can say about this particular novel always begins with “at this point in the series…” Mainly, I was just hoping that things would be close to some kind of resolution. That’s another thing that’s important when writing. When audiences wait too long for a resolution, they’ll also lose interest. I hope Mr. Martin is writing this down 😉

Speaking of which, I am currently nose-deep in A Feast For Crows. See you soon with the review for that one!

2 thoughts on “A Storm of Swords (Song of Fire and Ice, book III)

  1. Love this. I am currently rereading Clash and blogging my way through at http://www.unnecessarywords.com as well as posting some short fantasy. I’d love any feedback you could give (obviously I am no George Martin so I need it). Enjoy Feast, a lot of people have trouble because Jon, Tyrion and Dany are either not in the book or just barely so. I really liked it though and it gives the Lannisters a certain sympathetic quality (specifically Cersei who plays the villain through most of the series).

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