07 February 2015

A Storm Of Swords

This is my favorite book of the series thus far. While it’s longer than the last two and sets up even more narrative complexities, its apparent themes make the plot quite straightforward. The biggest theme is given voice by Oberyn of Dorne: “Men are seldom as they appear.” Dany learns that lesson first-hand as do Tyrion and most notably the Starks. (That the greatest revelation in the book is made to Sansa in a quiet fashion is some next-level dark humour on GRRM’s part.) Tyrion does not learn this lesson well at all – especially as it happens to him as a series of cruel jokes on his life. His relationship with his family is quite bad already, but by book’s end it’s utterly decimated. His story in this regard is the book’s best sustained narrative achievement as he watches it all spin out before his eyes. After Tyrion’s strategic planning saves the city in the previous book, he is sidelined by a disfiguring wound and his triumph is quietly forgotten by all around him. Those existing family issues and his state in life only disgust him further and his alienation from it all takes a very dark turn. His bitterness and self-hatred become more intense until they come to the surface at the trial for a murder he didn’t commit. As if that isn’t dramatic enough, he also kills his lover Shae and his father Tywin in cold blood. While this sounds like narrative overkill, GRRM’s skill in making all this quite reasonable to Tyrion and understandable to the reader is a considerable achievement. That he parts by disowning his own beloved brother – who’s been disowned earlier by a disapproving father – only underlines the extent of how bitter Tyrion’s become. Jaime isn’t as he seems, either. While Tyrion is subject to quite a bit of psychological dissolution so is Jaime. He manages to adapt and evolve from it, however. Maimed, rejected, and as equally ironical about his disfigured state as Tyrion is toward his own, he couldn’t be more different. He represents the other path of breaking from his family that Tyrion more violently marched down. That Jaime ends up looking better here than in the previous two books is another achievement on GRRM’s part and indeed another example of the writer’s ability to play with genre conventions. The contrast between Tyrion and Jaime is another one of the many reasons that I find the book so interesting. The greatest example of the book’s theme is the Red Wedding, of course. A setpiece that’s easily the best stretch of writing in the entire series. Creating all that tension just from emphasizing a drum in the background at a feast while a character registers the troubling atmosphere and then pulls it all back for the reader to watch unfold is no mean feat. It’s even more uncomfortable because it’s seen from the eyes of an innocent mother watching her son be killed. This brings to bear the second theme of the book: how much ruthlessness is needed to maintain power? Dany has to consider it closely as she metes out punishment in a city she’s conquered. Robb has to weigh his father’s lessons of justice against the needs of executing a successful military campaign. Tywin easily makes the decision to set in motion the Red Wedding. Varys testifies against Tyrion at the trial. Littlefinger plays that game at numerous points which are revealed in this book. There’s no stopping anyone in this book and GRRM makes it abundantly clear that there are no sacred vows that bind the powerful. Those that do try to act with honor – Tyrion and Jaime – are quickly disillusioned. That Arya and Sansa live on the front lines of a violent and treacherous world to which they’re trying to adapt is an example of this morally mutable situation. Even poor Samwell Tarly has to get his hands dirty with some creative diplomacy to get Jon elected as leader of the Wall. Jon and Sansa face a lot of intrigue which indicate these subtler ways of surviving that GRRM is also adept at portraying. All in all, this book offers a lot on the narrative and thematic front which makes the book such a rewarding reading experience.

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