I struggle a bit with writing the reviews for these books, cos they’re so good I feel like I really need to do them justice ya know? Like, yesterday I put out a review for one of The Witcher books and I always enjoy writing those reviews and don’t worry too much about the ‘quality’ cos that series is really fun, but ultimately not very good haha. With ASoIaF though, they’re so good and there’s so much for me to sink my teeth into that I never feel fully satisfied with what I’ve written. So I’m gonna try and chill out with this review, go with the flow and hope I still manage to convey just how much I love these books. Be warned, there’ll probs be some spoilers for the previous books; reviews this far into a series can end up being a bit of a contextless mess without mention of at least some stuff that’s already happened. So with that, what’s going on at the start of book three? Well, the War of the Five Kings is still raging, though one of the claimants is now a little bit deceased. At the behest of Catelyn Stark, Brienne of Tarth has just set out with the recently-freed Jaime Lannister, with the intention of returning him to King’s Landing as part of a hostage exchange in return for Sansa and Arya. Arya isn’t there of course, having escaped King’s Landing, and is now in the ‘care’ of the outlaw band calling themselves The Brotherhood Without Banners, led by Beric Dondarrion. Catelyn is still at Riverrun, awaiting Robb’s return (and gets a bit of a shock at what he’s gone and done when he does get back). Davos Seaworth finds himself stranded on a rock in Blackwater Bay after the routing of the navy at the Battle of the Blackwater, soon to be rescued by Salladhor Saan’s men and returned to Stannis’ court at Dragonstone, where the Red Priestess Melisandre is causing no end of trouble. In King’s Landing proper, Tyrion is removed from his role as acting Hand of the King following his father’s return and the arrival of Houses Tyrell and Martell is causing tensions to rise, as old enmities between the families refuse to settle. Back up north, Bran is fleeing the sacking of Winterfell with Hodor and his guides Jojen and Meera Reed. North of the Wall Jon Snow persuades the Wildlings he’s turned traitor to the Night’s Watch and joins them as a spy, as Qorin Halfhand ordered. Finally, across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys returns to Pentos in search of the army she’ll need to reconquer the Iron Throne of Westeros. Aaaaaand breathe. There’s a lot going on here man and it’s part of what makes these books such immersive reads, but damn is it hard to summarise concisely.
Finally we get a Jaime Lannister POV! This was incredibly exciting to me. So far Jaime has largely been off screen, apart from a few scenes in A Game of Thrones, but his personality has still loomed large in the politics of Westeros. Now that he’s no longer wallowing in a dungeon we get to see his story play out first hand. His changing relationship with Brienne over the course of this book is just masterful to watch unfold and shows just how much adept Martin is at writing character-driven fiction. There’s a very slow burn sort of ‘redemption arc’ with Jaime across the course of this book too, and I put that in air quotes cos, as with most people in Martin’s incredible shades of grey world, he’s still done some despicable stuff, but we also get to see another side of him in A Storm of Swords that makes you question everything you thought you knew about him. Brienne is a great character too; in some ways she mimics elements of Sansa’s naivete in her expectation of the chivalric behaviour she expects of knights, and this is displayed very clearly at when she and Jaime come across the mutilated bodies of soldiers and civilians alike in the course of their journey. When they find one such example of murdered civilians she even exclaims to Jaime that “This was not chivalrously done. No true knight would condone such wanton butchery”, to which Jaime only replies “True knights see worse every time they ride to war. And do worse”. One thing I started thinking during the course of this book is that I think Brienne is actually trans. There are some very illuminating scenes where she and Jaime get to talking and he asks if she has any siblings, to which she replies “No. I was my father’s only s-child”. After which she turns away from him, her knuckles tight on her sword hilt. And later, there’s a period where she’s forced to dress ‘like a woman’, in an ill-fitting dress and as soon as she is able to she reverts back to her knights garb and Jaime observes how much more comfortable she is dressed as a man.
During the course of this story we get to see much more of the brutality of the northmen too; so far they’ve largely been presented as ‘the good guys’, as much as it’s possible to be in this series anyway. After all, they are the armies of the honourable Eddard Stark and now of his noble son King Robb, and they’re fighting a just war against the tyrannical rule of Joffrey Baratheon and House Lannister are they not? Well, in the scene I mentioned above where Brienne and Jaime happen across a group of murdered civilians, Brienne is dismayed to learn that it was in fact ‘her side’, the northmen, who had committed ‘such acts of wanton butchery’. We’ve so far had glimpses of the cruelty of people like Lord Roose Bolton, one of the Stark’s high-ranking bannermen, whose sigil is a man with his skin flayed off and whose castle is ominously called the Dreadfort, but either his excesses were only kept in check by the authority of Lord Eddard or we simply haven’t seen enough of what the marauding northern armies have been getting up to. I think elements of both are true, and now that Eddard isn’t around to hold his vassals in check, and some have ambitions of their own, we start to see the cruelty and disdain for human life the ‘good guys’ are also capable of. This is also true of the Brotherhood Without Banners, the outlaws lead by the remnants of Beric Dondarrion’s men Lord Eddard dispatched to bring Gregor Clegane to justice back in A Game of Thrones, but who now find themselves on the wrong side of a much-changed political situation following the death of Robert and Eddard. In my review of A Game of Thrones I actually talked about how a group of roaming Wildling bandits brought to mind a bastardised version of Robin Hood and his outlaws; well the Brotherhood Without Banners are much more akin to a gritty, bloody and brutal band of Merry Men. They consciously see themselves as defenders of the common folk against the marauding armies of the highborn lords, and indeed they do have a lot of support among the peasants who shelter and feed them. Yet for all that, they’re not simply the romanticised and gallant outlaw band of legend; they can be merciless when it comes to killing those they perceive as committing crimes against the people and honestly, I’m wholeheartedly on side with their brand of people’s justice and these guys are as close to heroes as this story gets.
Specific characters aside for a moment, the plot of A Storm of Swords is incredible. Robb Stark makes some choices that throws his entire campaign into disarray and threatens his newly-claimed title as King of the North, as his allies and bannermen begin to question his leadership and the alliance begins to fray. The trouble Melisandre is causing on Dragonstone stems from her desire to see Stannis crowned king and the sorcery she claims to wield has profound consequences in the Iron Isles, in the north and in King’s Landing. As an aside I think Stannis is a very clever inversion of ‘the chosen one’ trope of classic fantasy. He’s a canny old dude for one thing, not the young farm boy of The Belgariad for sure, but also his position as ‘the chosen one’ isn’t presented as objective fact, as it is in much of the works of classic fantasy. Rather, Melisandre proclaims him the chosen one of R’hllor, a foreign god who very few people in Westeros actually follow, and it’s not at all clear where Melisandre’s power actually comes from. Are the gods real? It’s not exactly clear and Stannis’ position as the chosen one is much more a subjective social construct in this book and that makes it so much more interesting. Returning to the political situation though, if you add to all that the tensions between the powerful Tyrells and Martells reaching boiling point, the looming Wildling invasion, the return of the Others and Daenerys making headway in assembling an army of invasion, at the end of this book the political situation is so unstable the whole continent is a tinderbox ready to go up in flames. Which is a truly impressive impression to give, seeing as how unstable it already was beforehand, but Martin somehow makes things so much worse!
As always with these books, I simply don’t have time to delve into every specific character arc and plotline, but in closing I do just want to say I think this is the book where we finally see Sansa overcome her naivete. She finally begins to see and accept the world for how it is and her three book character arc to this point is so masterfully done. We also get POV chapters from Samwell Tarly, who also comes into his own. As a self-confessed coward, he shows some real bravery in this book. Not to say he isn’t still terrified mind you, but I’m reminded of Eddard Stark’s words that it’s only possible to be brave when you’re truly scared. I feel like I haven’t talked about Littlefinger all that much in these reviews, and I guess that’s largely because a lot of his plots and schemes take place off screen and we only get to see the consequences of his meddling play out through the eyes of the other characters. In this book though, Littlefinger’s motivations start to become much clearer and we start to see just how devious and cunning and ambitious a man he really is. A Storm of Swords is another fantastic book in one of my all time favourite series and I loved every minute of this re-read.
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