A Storm of Swords (Book 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire)
George R. R. Martin
I’ve read the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire now and will read the fourth in January. Spoilers aplenty are ahead, but only up to book three (please keep the comments that way too).
I hesitated for a long time before starting this series, even though it had been highly recommended to me, and even though I love high fantasy in general, and even though it was sitting on a shelf in my house. There were opportunity cost issues, and the fact that it’s an unfinished series, and the overblown rhetoric of the recommendations.
These weren’t the most important things, though. Fans of the books always talk about the author’s willingness to kill off anyone and everyone, which, you know, is important when the story demands it, but shouldn’t be done for its own sake, and it isn’t exactly a draw to the book. After all, I don’t think most of us sit down and say, “You know, I’d really like to read a book where everyone dies!” At least, I haven’t so far. I’d also heard it was based on the Wars of the Roses (and I have nothing against historical fantasy, but let’s look at this in context) and the cover art (different from what is pictured here) seemed to feature a lot of stern, pensive white men with swords in vaguely historic settings. I have no problems with any of these things per se—my love of eurogames should acquit me of a prejudice against pictures of stern white men in vague historical settings—but when you put them together, it creates a certain idea of what the books are like. I feared it would be an endless parade of badass warlords beating each other up on the field of battle and then going home and bragging about it and plotting their next move, and occasionally getting killed. What I imagined was basically similar to Hal’s description of Hotspur in Henry IV:
I am not yet of Percy’s mind, the Hotspur of the North; he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life! I want work.’ ‘O my sweet Harry,’ says she, ‘how many hast thou kill’d to-day?’ ‘Give my roan horse a drench,’ says he, and answers ‘Some fourteen,’ an hour after, ‘a trifle, a trifle.’
(Henry IV, Act 2, Scene 4)
I mean, let’s face it, those guys are boring. (Well, Hotspur is pretty fun, but imagine if there were four or five of him running around?) There’s a reason Lord of the Rings was about Frodo and not Aragorn.
So, I was pretty happy to find out that the books are mostly narrated by people like Tyrion and Arya and Davos, and I suspect this is at least part of the reason that Eddard died in the first book. So I wasn’t all that excited to see Jaime become a narrator in this book. I’m still not that excited about it; the best thing about Jaime is that you get to spend some time with Brienne, who I am hoping will be a narrator in Book 4. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he becomes a narrator just in time to lose his hand.
As far as I can tell, Martin chooses narrators based on a few criteria. Some of them are technical. There are often parts of the world we need to keep track of, and there needs to be a narrator there. A Clash of Kings let Theon narrate so that we could get a first-hand look at what was going on in the Iron Isles, and, more importantly, what happened in Winterfell after Bran left. Davos was brought in, not only for his personal charms, but also in order to expose us to Stannis, who would make little sense otherwise (okay, true, Stannis continues to be fairly incomprehensible. But at least we know exactly what it is we don’t understand.)
But the narrators also seem to be people who are not in control of what is going on. Tyrion gets the upper hand at times, but it’s always a struggle, and by the end of the book he’s been imprisoned and sentenced to death. As for the rest… Arya temporarily becomes the leader of her little group, between stints as a prisoner, but they are travelers who are desperately trying to dodge the larger forces around them. Sansa, too, is a prisoner. Davos is a minor lord in service of a king who is doing things that make no sense to him (though at least he lets him out of prison). Jaime, after spending some time as a prisoner and being tortured and so on, does indeed reclaim his place as the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, but he’s a rather impotent one. Bran’s primary goal is to control his own abilities; in the meantime, having escaped from his ancestral home, he listens to his cousins. Jon’s star is rising, but first he has to spend time going along with the wildlings under close surveillance and then being imprisoned by the Night’s Watch. Catelyn is perhaps the most active of those that I’ve listed; she occasionally attempts to take control, but it always ends disastrously. Of course, she is also imprisoned at Riverrun for sending Jaime off with Brienne. I’m not sure what all this means, aside from indicating that George R. R. Martin really likes the view from prison.
And Daenerys. She seems to be the exception. There’s a lot of focus on the things she cannot fix, but she is, by the third book, very clearly the leader of her group and she has a lot of power (and, while she’s sort of non-free in A Game of Thrones, she isn’t imprisoned in this book at least). The list above makes me wonder why she is the narrator, and not, say, Jorah (though at this point I dislike Jorah so much that I’m certainly not complaining) or possibly one of her maids. But I’m glad she is; nobody else really understands where she is coming from, and it’s really important to understand her motivations. She is perhaps the most earnestly well-meaning person in the entire series. She’s invading and she wants to become queen, but her distance from the action in Westeros allows her a certain idealism wherein she can think about the kind of country she’d like to inhabit and govern. She doesn’t just want power; she wants peace and prosperity and to end rape and slavery. (Compare to Stannis, who throws out a lot of rhetoric to absolve himself of responsibility but never seems to worry about the well-being of people who aren’t named Stannis Baratheon.) Of course, we can spend a few seconds looking at her invading force and feel grave misgivings about the relationship between her goals and her methods. It’s extremely unlikely that things will turn out the way she wants them to, even if she wins, and by the end of ASoS she’s noticed that all her good intentions seem to go terribly wrong somewhere. Still, she’s very different from the rest of the narrators.
This is rather far afield from the observation I wanted to make, though, which had to do with the vulnerability of the narrative characters, which functions to increase the reader’s sympathy with them but also to make the world seem bigger—it’s by far a larger and more unmanageable landscape to Arya than it is to, say, Tywin (who would certainly have been a narrator if it had been based on political importance, and who would very likely have bored all the readers to tears).
Either that, or it’s all just a reference to “Hotel California.” We are all prisoners here, of our own device. (Sometimes that’s a fish, sometimes it’s a black field, sometimes it’s…)