Friday, July 22, 2011

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

This is the third book in a long series so I’m not going to conceal any spoilers of events which happened in the first two novels.  Be warned.

I was a late arrival to this series, which is strange because it’s generally the sort of thing that I’d be into.  A Storm of Swords was nominated for a Hugo in 2001 (losing to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, surprisingly) and I know a lot of fans of the series.  Many of the fans I don’t personally know-and there are many- are vocal.  I’m not afraid of lengthy books, or dark and depressing books, or long series, but perhaps some combination of all three put a chill into my heart.  I don’t know.  And then there were the complaints that I’d heard that he wasn’t ever going to finish the novels, as indicated by the fact that the fifth book out of a planned seven just came out now, eleven years after the publication date of this third novel in the series (and which I’m rapidly working my way up to).  But when I heard that HBO was making a series based on it I decided to suck it up and get started on A Game of Thrones, and then promptly put it away again for a while.

For some reason it was reminding me of Dune, and not in a good way.  In that book the heroes are the House Atreides and the villains are the House Harkonnen.  However, they’re both involved in a quasi-feudal land rush and their tactics aren’t all that different, so Frank Herbert introduces Vladimir Harkonnen as a homosexual (scandalous enough in 1965) and a pederast to boot, who engages in casual cruelties and whose advisers are a succession of drugged-out freaks, just in case you don’t know who to root for.  Dune is one of my all-time favorite novels, but at the same time it’s sort of a cheap shot to make your heroes heroic by not necessarily showing them doing good deeds but just making your villains extra depraved.  And what had just happened in A Game of Thrones when I set it aside was that a seven year old boy had been thrown off a tower for witnessing the queen committing incest with her brother.  I think we can probably all agree that it’s hard to get behind incestuous child murderers regardless of what other fine qualities they may have.  I felt that Ned Stark, who was being built up as the hero here, was also pretty unlikable and chilly (being introduced personally committing an execution), and that this was just to make him look better by comparison.  I thought, I don’t need this, and moved on to other things.

But then I was advised to give it another shot and I got through it this time.  I think that I will say I have a grudging respect for this series now rather than love for it.  You get used to the somewhat stilted diction and language and weird social mores and just sort of go with it.  The POV writing style lets you know what everyone’s thinking, often in somewhat excessive detail as they have conversations, but it does give good insight as to everyone’s motivations, which are many and varied.  And that’s what I was missing the first time through, I think.  This book is a lot like real life, there aren’t any “good guys”, but there sure are a lot of really bad ones.

Anyway, in this book the series really hits its stride.  The so called War of the Five Kings is starting to enter its endgame, although perhaps that’s something of a misnomer.  Only three of the five kings asserted their right to rule the entire kingdom; two just wanted to have their own fiefdoms without feudal obligations, and Renly Baratheon (one of the former) didn’t make it this far.  Robb Stark (one of the latter) is still in the game but is in the unfortunate position of having his home base taken by the other non-universal claiming king at the same time he pissed off one of his major allies by breaking a marriage contract, so he’s in the unfortunate position of never losing a battle but steadily going down in the world.  Stannis Baratheon’s power is broken but he’s still got a basically unconquerable fortress and a sorceress who has apparently legitimate supernatural powers.  Still, things are looking up for Joffrey Baratheon, who is not actually the son of the former king but inherited like he is, and his family, the powerful and rich Lannister clan.

One of the things that the series does really well is deconstruct this genre right down to its toenails.  In The Lord of the Rings the bad guys are actually nightmarish orcs, literally non-human enemies who there’s no point in talking peace with.  You’ve got those sort of enemies in Westeros too, but amazingly enough all the humans are ignoring them in favor of wearing their strength down in their own petty quarrels.  You understand that Robb Stark won’t make peace with the Lannisters because they had his father killed, but for the peasants on the field it doesn’t make too much difference what allegiance is owed by the riders who come through and mess up their village.  The women may have been safe around Aragorn but most of the foot soldiers in this world appear to be pretty awful and the bandits and starvation that follow behind serve no man.  It’s also nice to see poor medical care make an appearance in a fantasy novel – they’ve got somewhat more medical knowledge than you might expect given the technology, but any cut can get infected and people do die of disease, even strong and battle-tested important characters.

For that matter, all the main characters agree on most of the important parts, such as that there will be feudal obligations of some sort and probably a king of some kind, the only question is to who will be playing what roles.  This leads to interesting questions about who you’d actually want in charge in a world like this.  You’d rather go drinking with Robert Baratheon than Tywin Lannister, but Tywin is actually pretty good at administrating and Robert was a weak king if not a bad one.   But there are plenty of contenders who are both unpleasant and ineffective.  And you’ve got fairly noble idealists like Robb Stark who are pretty decent people and yet get outmaneuvered by people more unscrupulous than they are.  I guess it’s a Stark family trait.  Then there are a vast number of minor lords who, depending on ambition, want to either keep what they’ve got or become major lords, and their rapidly shifting allegiances drive the main plot since they are the ones with the men that make up the armies that are ravaging the land.

Then in the exotic eastern continent you’ve got Daenarys Targaryen, who has the best claim to the throne of a kingdom she can’t even remember seeing, and who is building an army to retake it . . . for some reason.  Honor, mostly, possibly pride.  Maybe she won’t even get around to it after all since she’s out conquering in the east, but she experiences firsthand how difficult it is to assert rule over people while not getting a little dirt under the fingernails or occasionally having your pet dragons burn people’s faces off.

The dragons aren’t the only thing kicking up the supernatural elements either, there are a couple of instances of folks getting raised from the dead either as zombies by the evil Others or as something else by mysterious means.  There isn’t a whole lot but it is clearly going to be important to the series going forward.

My favorite character of the bunch is Davos, who is an ordinary guy who is doing the best he can with what he has, which is something we can all relate to.  His sworn lord is Stannis Baratheon, who actually has the best claim to the throne behind Daenarys but doesn’t really have enough charisma or imagination to be really effective.  It’s probably too bad, Westeros could do a lot worse than have him as king.  And they probably will. 

Anyway, I’m sold on this so now it’s on to the fourth book.  I can’t say it’s the most fun I’ve had reading lately, but it’s certainly involving enough and, like Stannis, you could certainly do a whole lot worse.

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