George R.R. Martin’s A STORM OF SWORDS is the third book in his Song of Ice and Fire series, and is impressive, densely-plotted, gruesome, and gory. Because this book does not and cannot stand alone, you should first familiarize yourself with the previous two reviews for A GAME OF THRONES and A CLASH OF KINGS before you go any further.
At the end of A CLASH OF KINGS, the “War of the Five Kings” (AKA the “Westeros Civil War”) was still raging, though one of the pretenders to the Iron Throne of Westeros was dead through treachery (Renly Baratheon, King Robert Baratheon’s younger brother). King Joffrey Baratheon, who is actually the son of Cersei Lannister and her brother, Ser Jaime Lannister (called “the Kingslayer” as he slew Mad King Aerys Targaryen years earlier while a member of Aerys’s personal guard), remains on the Iron Throne even though he is not King Robert’s legitimate and true heir.** But there are several others who believe they have as good or better claims, including King Stannis Baratheon, the eldest brother of Robert and the person to whom the crown should’ve passed once Joffrey’s illegitimacy was proven by Ned Stark, King Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands, and King Robb Stark, Heir to Ned Stark and Winterfell.
Of course, the best King and most interesting person of the lot at the start of A STORM OF SWORDS has to be Robb Stark, King of the North, Ned Stark’s teenage son. Robb has proven himself to be a formidable foe as well as an excellent military tactician, and hasn’t yet lost a battle. Robb is young and headstrong, yes, but has charisma and charm; that his personal seat of Winterfell has been lost due to his foster-brother Theon Greyjoy’s treachery hasn’t stopped his advance on King’s Landing one jot.
But there are plots within plots, wheels within wheels, and once again some of the best men will be killed while evil men still live . . . will Robb Stark succeed in his quest to take King’s Landing, or at least hold the North as his own? Or won’t he? This central question is pivotal to understanding what A STORM OF SWORDS is all about.
But just because that’s the central question doesn’t mean there aren’t other things going on.
First, the main subplot deals with the most-legitimate claimant to the Iron Throne of all — Daenerys Targaryen, sole surviving legitimate heir of Mad King Aerys — who is on another continent entirely, Essos, in a place called Slaver’s Bay. She’s trying to raise an army to return to Westeros and take the throne, and her struggles are absorbing, mostly because aside from Robb Stark, she has the most ability to command men. But she’s very far away, hasn’t completely come into her own power, and her three dragons are not yet fully grown; for the moment, she’s no threat to Westeros.
Next, there’s the whole issue of The Wall, a far-away, dreary place in the North that’s the last defense against Wildings (free men and women who refuse to live under any lords) and changelings, the latter including dead men who have risen again only to fight against the living. (While the term “zombies” is not used, you might want to think of them that way even though pieces of them do not fall off and the dead seemingly think nearly as well as the living.) The Wall is extremely important, even though much of the rest of Westeros doesn’t seem to realize it; it’s only due to the Wall that the Lords and the people who follow them have any peace whatsoever, at least when they’re not fighting civil wars.
The Wall is important partly because Jon Snow, Lord Eddard’s acknowledged bastard son, is stationed there (more on him anon). But any lengthy perusal of this series will show that whoever can hold the Wall has an excellent chance of holding the entirety of Westeros, something King Stannis Baratheon has sense enough to grasp even if the other Kings don’t.
Now onto the rest of the story. We’ll start with the Starks.
Lady Catelyn Stark, Ned’s widow, is Robb’s chief advisor and confidante. She does her best to keep her son safe, but of course Robb doesn’t always listen to her, which is extremely frustrating.
Arya Stark, Robb’s and Jon Snow’s younger sister, is running from the Lannisters. She’s escaped King’s Landing clean, escaped a few other nasty situations, and has shown herself to be a competent fighter with some smarts and heart. However, she’s still only twelve, at best; she is not yet a woman “flowered” (meaning she’s not yet had her menstrual cycle). This gives her a certain amount of protection as she continues to run, as she’s able to easily disguise herself as a boy when needed.
Sansa Stark is still a prisoner in King’s Landing, though early on in A STORM OF SWORDS she finds out that she’ll no longer be marrying King Joffrey. While this pleases her at first, she quickly realizes that Joffrey is still fascinated with her. That’s a bad thing, because Joffrey is vindictive at best and likes to see Sansa humiliated. Sansa has “flowered” and can be wedded and bedded; how can she stop Joffrey when she’s all but powerless? And who might be willing to protect Sansa when her own father has now been dead a year?
Bran Stark is still in the woods, running away from Winterfell. He’s now eight, maybe nine years of age, a paraplegic, and has extra psychic talents which might save or damn him, providing they are trained. His direwolf, Summer, is his constant companion.
Rickon Stark is a lad of four, running away from Winterfell but split off from his brother. His direwolf, Shaggydog, is black and fierce and will protect Rickon, as will a Wilding woman named Osha.
Jon Snow is now about sixteen or seventeen years old and is stationed at the Wall as a member of the Night’s Watch as he’s “taken the Black.” But his duties aren’t exactly what he’d imagined, as he’s become a sort of secret agent for Lord Jeor Mormont, the Commander of the Night’s Watch; Jon’s primary task is to find out exactly how many Wildings there are in order to best plan a defense, while his secondary task is to find out what happened to his uncle, Benjen Stark, the Night Watch’s best Ranger, if at all possible.
Now, let’s get to the other Lannisters.
Queen Dowager Cersei Lannister is still in King’s Landing, plotting and planning. She sees herself as the full equal to a man, but denigrates most other women in the process; this is probably a realistic quasi-feudal attitude considering the few women who obtained any power. She sees Joffrey as perfect and does not attempt to check him in any way, shape or form.
Tyrion Lannister, “the Imp,” is still doing his best to save the realm. However, his exertions at the end of the last book have weakened him, to the point that his father Tywin has come to King’s Landing and has taken up Tyrion’s former duties as Hand of the King. Worse yet, Tyrion’s about to be married off to a young woman who’s terrified of him; how can he possibly get around this, as he will not force anyone who isn’t willing? (This is the main reason Tyrion’s patronized whores his whole life; he knows as a dwarf that he’s not an especially attractive man, but whores won’t care if his gold is good. And that way, he doesn’t have to apologize for who and what he is.)
Ser Jaime Lannister is still a member of the Kingsguard, but has grown more and more frustrated with his sister the Queen. Jaime does not trust Cersei any longer; he does not trust her fidelity, he does not trust what she’s doing, and he doesn’t trust what she’s saying, either. He’s also unpleased with the way King Joffrey, Jaime and Cersei’s son, is acting but can’t check him as Joffrey refuses to be checked by anyone.
About the only good thing in Jaime’s life is the developing friendship he has going with Brienne, the Maid of Tarth; Brienne is a fearsome fighter who’s been teased her whole life due to her lack of feminine virtues, yet she finds that she and the extremely attractive Jaime Lannister have more in common than either one of them had thought.
So, once again, there are good characters to cheer for (Robb, Tyrion, Brienne), characters on the road to redemption (Jaime, Tyrion’s companion Bronn the sell-sword), characters to boo and hiss (Cersei, Joffrey, Roose Bolton and his bastard son Ramsay Snow, the latter two who own the Dreadfort and have taken for their sigil an ugly flayed man because they are torturers and make no bones about it), and a whole lot of realistic, gory fighting scenes. All of this adds up to one absorbing read that resonates long after the last page has been turned.
The one caveat here is this: because Martin is so very good at showing what’s going on, you feel the terror as people’s arms get chopped off. You feel the pain when someone is tortured by the Boltons, which in its way is worse than being killed outright. And when you get to a point you think you can stop and “smell the roses,” such as at a wedding which I will forebear to name, you can’t; instead, it’s just war by any other means.
While this is a very strong book in Martin’s epic fantasy series, I believe this one isn’t quite as absorbing as the first two books. I’d buy it, definitely; it bears many re-reads. But I’d buy it in paperback, as there’s one scene in here that’s so gruesome, gory and violent that you’ll definitely want to throw the book across the room after you’re done — and if you have the book in paperback, you can do so guilt-free without ruining the book in the process.
– reviewed by Barb
** This is something Lord Eddard ”Ned” Stark knew when he was still King Robert’s Hand (or Robert’s second-in-command), all the way back in the first book, A GAME OF THRONES. Ned Stark said this after King Robert was dead, was arrested for treason by King Joffrey, and was eventually beheaded even though he recanted in order to save his daughter Sansa’s life. King Joffrey showed a wide streak of cruelty in refusing to allow Ned Stark to be sent to the Wall as his mother, Queen Cersei, and most of the other major Lords of the Realm, had counseled him to do.