In which I suggest that there’s no such thing as good or evil, since every person is the hero of their own life
Title: A Storm of Swords
Author: George R. R. Martin
Warning: The following book is the review of a third book in a series. Do not read ahead if you want to avoid spoilers!
What it’s about: George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy continues with A Storm of Swords, probably the most unrelenting of the three books I’ve read so far. Things go badly and not just for a few characters. As with the startling deaths of the first book—Ned Stark, Viserys, and Khal Drogo–—we again see major storylines cut short and pieces rearranged. Just when you think you know how the story goes, you realize you don’t. This can be rewarding at times, but also frustrating. I found myself wondering if anything would ever go right for anyone. Life can certainly be bleak, but I felt a lack of levity and moments of play. A Storm of Swords also further develops an idea that has been taking shape throughout the novels: that every person is a hero in his or her own eyes and that there’s no such thing as “good” and “evil.” This comes through most in the addition of Jaime Lannister as a narrator. Previously I had said there was no redeeming quality in Jaime, but viewing the world from his eyes must by nature change that perspective. He is still rude, haughty, and cruel, but we also see moments of kindness. While the love affair with his twin sister had always seemed perverted, we now see that Jaime experiences true love for his sister and has sacrificed everything to be near her. We also see his own awareness of how small his life has become. As he reviews the deeds he’s accomplished since joining the Kingsguard at fifteen, he finds a pitiful record. He lays bare the deeper reasons that he put the last Targaryen king to the sword, his choice between family and duty, and his knowledge that the king’s madness could have meant death to many. I give credit to Martin for bringing some sympathy to a man I thought completely irredeemable. If there can be good in Jaime Lanniester, he seems to say, no one can be defined as black or white.
This idea makes the Lord of Light, the god Stannis Baratheon worships, all the more sinister. I’m troubled by this deity because by all signs I see, we aren’t meant to believe that one religion is more true than the other. The old gods of the forest, the Seven, and the Lord of Light all command passionate followings. But the Lord of Light excludes all other gods and demands that all things must be good or evil. On top of this, his priests seem to exude some very real and very dark power. Stannis’s sorceress, Melisandre, demands blood in the forms of human sacrifices and promises the death of Stannis’s rival kings in exchange. And Lord Beric’s attendant priest seems to have circumvented death itself to keep the Robin Hood–figure alive. But the stark duality of the Lord of Light and the Other directly contrasts with the paradigms Martin has set up with his characters. The Starks are not all good, the Lannisters are not all evil. No cause is completely just or unjust.
A Storm of Swords is nominally about the end of one war and the beginning of a new. While the War of Five Kings begins to fizzle (but in no way can be said to have ended quite yet), a new war against a different enemy begins in the North, as Mance Ryder, King Beyond the Wall, leads an army of wildlings, mammoths, giants, and wargs on the Night’s Watch. Jon Snow finds his loyalty tested again and again, as he falls in with the wildlings in an attempt to learn more about their goal, only to find he is more like them than he realized. Ultimately Jon’s journey has always been about self-knowledge and place. As a bastard, he’s never felt secure anywhere, never had any place that was truly his. He had hoped the Watch would be his new family, so breaking his bonds to them feels an ultimate betrayal, a confirmation that he’ll always be unwelcome and out of place. Jon seems to make the greatest strides as a character in Storm of Swords, his piece seeming to fall into place as the novel progresses.
It would be impossible to detail the many character arcs in this installment, but I’ll say that Martin has certainly set a lot of pieces in motion. As the twists and turns become more complex and more players continue to be added to the board, I hope A Song of Fire and Ice is able to balance the affection we have for the characters we’ve known from the start with the necessity of adding new voices and layers. As a reader, I think I’ll always feel that this was meant to be a story about the Starks, but as the books progress, it’s becoming evident that may not be the case. I certainly can’t wait to see how things develop.
Would I recommend? Of course! Once you’re in, you’re in. If you’ve made it to book 3, consider yourself committed and continue to A Feast for Crows (such an ominous title!).