[I wrote this piece after I had just finished Storm of Swords, the third book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin. Since then I have finished reading all of the five books that have been released so far. Abbreviations used:
ASOIAF – A Song of Ice and Fire
SoS – Storm of Swords
CoK- Clash of Kings
GRRM – George RR Martin]
I just finished reading Storm of Swords on my Kindle. For many reasons, it was the first ASOIAF book that I read that I truly enjoyed. First, and this I think is very important, I read it in a ‘book’ format (I’d read the previous ones on my laptop).This is rather funny as in fact I read it on my Kindle, which is hardly traditional, but I truly believe the Kindle is everything a book is, except the smell. And switching from my laptop got rid of all the eye-irritations and headaches. Then there is the fact that all in all, Storm of Swords is just the best written, most juicy book in this series, full of amazing twists and turns and brilliant character development.
Game of Thrones was the introduction to this world, and as such, almost stands alone; we loved and lost Ned Stark; it was 800 odd pages of introduction to this fantastic world. Clash of Kings was the book where almost every character becomes more interesting and complicated, and Tyrion specifically reveals himself in all his fan-favourite glory as one of the most complex yet lovable characters in the series. Storm of Swords is the book where all your plot and character investment pays off and shit happens. I mean, just wow. The sheer number of deaths! The maiming, the romances, the victories and defeats, not to mention those golden pieces of flashbacks and character expositions that I personally enjoy so much. I loved the introduction of Dorne – I can see this is to be my personal favourite new major house and set of characters in this book. Jaime emerged as a PoV character and took the audience by surprise by actually being likable. GRRM is obviously striving to never paint a single colour painting OR any one side as The Big Bad Villain (except maybe certain supernatural elements). Jaime is pretty well set on the path to redemption. I applaud GRRM’s efforts to make the Lannisters complex, conflicted and cool, never forgetting the actions that earned them the title of unmitigated cunts in the first couple of books. But whether you are Arya or Pycelle on the spectrum of Lannister love-hate, the spectacular fashion in which they self-destruct makes for the stuff of great entertainment.
I think I am finally starting to understand some of the hysteria surrounding the books*. Because I find myself analyzing these characters and their motives, and speculating endlessly about the future, almost as though these were real people. I suppose regular people feel this way about celebrities or sport stars. And sure, I have done this a million times with many different series. But what sets this series apart is the sheer complexity of it. There are so many characters, so many possibilities, so many themes, and yet, it is fantasy and it is a popular novel so there also many twists and turns. Its like a very complicated puzzle, and we have no precedent in solving it.
At first, I was a blind supporter of House Stark. But only with ASOIAF can you face this conundrum: which characters to support, the relatable albeit somewhat boring heroes or the entertaining yet ruthless villains. And only with ASOIAF can this problem be muchly complicated by the fact that the villains and heroes are defined only by their last action, by the blackness or whiteness of their last motivations, and so, nothing is certain. I love Arya, I do – but she can be a little hypocrite sometimes, and whiny in ways her supposedly stupid sister Sansa could never be. Sansa, an all-around lightweight and the least likable Stark, seems to emerge as more and more Stark-like than ever as she is thrust into, and survives, more and more horrid situations. She has terrible things happen to her, and we know that for all Sansa’s much criticized passivity, Arya in the same situation (with her stubborn out of spoken-ness) would have been executed, or worse, a long time ago. If they exchanged places, neither would survive. But where they are showcases their developing personality and latent complexity of emotions well. Again, we never forget that Arya is, in fact, only 10. Robb seems more and more arrogant, but as a King, that is to be expected. This complicates our residual loyalty to him as Ned’s heir. Not only does he inherit his mother’s Tully good looks, he also inherits some of her stuck up sense of pride. Unlike Ned, he has been raised to be the Lord, and therefore his personality and leadership style is obviously very different. Ned Stark was the quintessential hero because he was not only noble and brave, but also down to earth and kind. He was humble. He was a reluctant hero. He was, in today’s terms, the typical no frills family man candidate in politics. His bastard is much more his heir in terms of narrative structure, being a second son and having leadership thrust upon him young.
Jon Snow and Arya have the Stark look and are very similar in a lot of other ways, filled with both dark and light, and a whole lot of frustration and desire to prove a point. Jon’s comparative maturity adds a dimension that enhances his likability, while Arya’s youth makes her penchant for death (as a witness and an executer) both poignant and chilling. And through Catelyn, GRRM seems to want to make a point himself: clichés emerge for a reason. She is a true mother, with all that means: while she would literally do anything for her children, she can find no place in her nurturing heart for Jon Snow, who poses a threat to her oldest son’s future. Her mothering nature doesn’t just, as is usual, lead her to make foolhardy and emotional decisions – it also leads her to be ruthless and cruel in ways contradictory to society’s idea of motherhood and femininity as well her own values. And this perhaps, points to a deeper theme. Catelyn is a Tully and believes in Family, Duty, Honour. But these three are concepts that belong together only in an ideal world. In the real world, they run parallel withand even against each other. Like her husband before her, Catelyn has to make tough choices, and finds herself increasingly powerless. And we feel powerless with her, because, very cleverly, GRRM has manoeuvred his audience to feel a certain way about the Starks. When Ned was around, we felt one of the clan – surely, the Starks were the heroes, and ‘THEY’ ie the Lannisters were the villains, and we would triumph and they would fail. Then he died, and suddenly the Starks were adrift in this crazy world, with no one to protect them, and so the reader feels protective towards the scattered Starks, poor father-less pups. We identify with Catelyn’s horror, grief, and helplessness and this makes her – and her son’s – death scene truly powerful. The sense of outrage and loss is immediate and deafening. What brilliant writing.
And thus we are with the Starks, now truly orphans, each of them believing themselves mostly sibling-less as well. And at this point, the reader can identify with the sense of vengeance all the Starks are feeling. Whether it clear cut and embodied as in UnCat, more subtle and sad as in Sansa, or seemingly twisted as in Arya and Bran – we no longer want them to be safe and cute and happy. We want them to grow, to become powerful, and then exact the terrible vengeance (preferably gory) that would satisfy readers’ hearts.
Ah –but here’s the catch – most of their enemies are dead already. The Lannisters are all but spent. The behind the scenes players have either redeemed themselves or are too complex and useful to be revenged upon. So what purpose, really, do these Stark children serve now, for us readers? I love them, of course, just not in an unstinted kind of way. I am now looking at other clans – the Martells? The Targaryens? – to win this thing. I am looking at individual characters that are so appealing – Asha Greyjoy. Samwell Tarly. Tyrion Lannister. And then I look at the bigger picture, because Winter is Coming, and after all Ice is part of the deal, as is Fire, and I’d really like to know when they are going to clash.
I have much and many more thoughts on the Lannister and others, so I will continue this soon enough.
*Although having starting Feast for Crows, it is not living up to my expectations. Well, except for all the new parts: Dorne, and Oldtown and the Iron Islands sans Balon. Seemingly continuing the trend of lets-redeem-the-Lannisters, Cersei has some great moments so far. On the whole, it’s patchy, like book Clash of Kings and unlike Game of Thrones and especially Storm of Swords.