ASOIAF Re-read – RE: A Storm of Swords

There are all kinds of spoilers beyond the current season of Game of Thrones discussed herein. Read at your own risk.

It’s A Storm of Swords, the book where everything officially goes sideways and you realize you know nothing about where this plot is going, Jon Snow. This book serves as the series’ first major transition, the end of act one and beginning of act two. After book two, the shit is in mid-air on its way to the fan, and you don’t have to wait the whole book for it to hit the blades. So, to recap the first 3/5 of book three, roughly adapted as Game of Thrones season three:

The War of the Five Kings: The (faux-Baratheon) Lannister boy-king Joffrey rules in King’s Landing, with the Tyrells of Highgarden offering a marriage alliance and the Martells of Dorne pledging fealty. Renly Baratheon is dead; his brother Stannis is licking his wounds and second-guessing himself and his red sorceress, though when Davos comes to Dragonstone looking to kill Melisandre he’s swept directly to jail without passing Go. Balon Greyjoy dies off-screen, supposedly blown off a rope bridge by a gust of wind (though his brother Euron “Crow’s Eye” just happens to return from years of banishment the next day). Robb famously wins every battle but loses the war by marrying Jeyne Westerling, drawing the ire of the Freys. Behind the scenes, Tywin Lannister (now acting as Hand of the King) and his army of ravens hammers out a deal with Roose Bolton and Walder Frey to stab shoot Robb in the back (and other places). Catelyn, who largely started the war by nabbing Tyrion in book one and has served as our POV in the Stark warcamp since, dies as well, and so does Grey Wind, Robb’s direwolf (again, the wolves share the Stark kids’ fates).

In the North: The Others slaughter the Night’s Watch at the Fist of the First Men, and the survivors limp back to Craster’s homestead, where Lord Commander Mormont is betrayed and murdered. Sam, Gilly and her unnamed newborn son get lost trying to find the Wall and run into an undead figure in black riding an elk. Bran’s group takes a long time getting to the Wall from the south, but the two POVs run into each other when Sam & Gilly sneak through the Wall, and it’s Sam who gets Bran through the Wall and introduces him to Coldhands, his guide to the three-eyed crow. Meanwhile, Jon poses as a turncloak among the wildlings, having crazy guilt complexes about fucking Ygritte. Once back across the Wall, he defects and helps hold the Wall against the wilding sneak attack from the south. Elsewhere, vikings ironborn seize undefended chunks of the North while most of the northern strength is trapped in the riverlands.

Fire and Blood: The last scion of Targaryen (well… cough), Dany, turns Illyrio’s ship from Pentos to Slaver’s Bay, hoping to purchase a slave army. She outsmarts the slavetraders and uses her new army of Unsullied to take the city, then frees them, but asks them to fight with her in a crusade to end the slave trade. A couple sacked cities later, she’s gone from “beggar queen” to conqueror, though she’s amassed a train of empty mouths following her. But the city of Meereen taunts Dany with mutilated and crucified slave children, and she bulls onward heedless. Now that Dany has some power, it seems she’s determined to do some “good” with it.

Act one’s focus is the War of the Five Kings, andthe Red Wedding, which takes place maybe 3/5 through ASoS, is act one’s climax. The first act’s apparent “heroes,” the Starks, are broken and scattered. Reactions to news of the Red Wedding around Westeros are varied, but the general consensus is: the Freys are dicks, the Boltons are creepy, and no one fucks with Tywin Lannister. The Lannisters, the apparent “villains” of the first act, come out smelling like a rose–or maybe that’s just the Tyrells getting up in their manes.

When I was reading the chapters leading to the Red Wedding, I found myself nodding along and enjoying the build to the climax, but knowing what was coming, I was anxious for the aftermath. Still, a few of the storylines stood out for me. I like Jaime and Brienne’s story. Jaime is a great example of how the use of different POVs colors the telling of ASOIAF. When you read a chapter, you read it as a character’s experience, with all his or her feelings and biases on display. Even after how Jaime comes across in the first two books, all his swagger and bullying, the knowledge of his incest with his sister, you still can’t help but identify with him once you spend some time in his head. Of course, once Jaime loses his hand (“the best part of him”) he regains his honor and sense of self-worth; he becomes a person again, and even if it’s cliche, Martin does a great job with it. The pairing with Brienne (a POV in book four) makes both characters come alive and is probably the main reason his sequence of chapters works so well. I’ll be interested to see what the show does with Jaime in season four since he’s already back in King’s Landing with Joffrey still alive. In the book, Jaime arrives at King’s Landing after the Purple Wedding, and he realizes how little Joffrey’s death means to him as he played no role in raising the little tyrant.

The highlight of Arya’s early misadventures is the Brotherhood Without Banners, Westeros’ spin on fables of honorable bandits like Robin Hood and his merry men. This being a re-read, I caught the references to Beric and Thoros in AGoT so it feels like Ned and Robert still have a ragged legacy running loose in the war-torn riverlands. I like how Martin gives us another example of a follower of R’hllor besides Miss Crazytits, and poor Thoros is as surprised as anyone that the traditional resurrection rite he used on Beric actually worked. There is no visit with Melisandre in the book, however, nor does the Brotherhood give Gendry over to Stannis. I’m curious how those differences will resolve themselves. In the book, Gendry stays on as the Brotherhood’s smith. I kind of doubt show-Gendry is going to want to make armor for the same group of outlaws who sold him to Stannis. Who knows, maybe the show’s done with the character; I don’t remember him playing much part in the books after he and Arya separate.

Daenerys III remains one of my favorite chapters in the series. With a little subterfuge from “a girl who knows nothing of the ways of war,” Dany nabs herself an army and goes to war against the very concept of slavery. I still get a big smile on my face when I read that part; maybe it gives my messiah complex a happy. There are fans who think Dany a waste of time because she’s in Essos instead of taking part in what those readers think of as the “main” story, the wars in Westeros. I think that misses the point of Dany as a character in the frame of the larger story. Like it or not, Dany is one of the central protagonists–she obviously ties into the series climax, but she has her own path to follow there. The first two books focus on the north and central regions of Westeros, but later books give us more insight into Dorne, the Free Cities, Slaver’s Bay, the Iron Islands; this is a big stage, and Martin’s taking us on a tour of the place and letting us see what’s going on around the world leading up to the big finale. Even if she doesn’t get to Westeros until book seven, Dany isn’t a side-plot to some main story centered on King’s Landing. Once the Others breach the Wall, a Targaryen queen with practice burninating armies and ruling the survivors might come in handy later.

(The song starts around 2:30. You’re welcome.)

As to all the stuff in the north–well, what is there to say? Jon and Bran are two of the most traditional fantasy characters in the series. When the Reeds tell the story of the Knight of the Laughing Tree, they stoke the fires of R+L=J theorists, and I could speculate on who Coldhands is, but I think I’d rather talk about those stories next time in conjunction with material from books four and five. Book three does a great job of making it clear the threat is coming from the north, even if most of the characters aren’t paying attention. Stannis and Melisandre’s arrival at the Wall in Jon’s later chapters reinforces that idea of separate secondary storylines converging toward a knock-down-drag-out fight against the Others coming in act three. Winter is coming, but not quite yet.

There are all kinds of other differences between the show and book, but the last big one that stands out is the substitution of Talisa for Jeyne, and the changing of Robb’s motivation for breaking the Frey pact from “honor” to “love.” Tragic love makes for decent copy and all, but the book’s version of Robb’s blunder feels truer to the world and character; Robb is trying to be his father’s son in the book, and in doing what he thinks is the “right thing,” Robb shares his father’s fate. The other change in the show that bugs me is Catelyn’s bit about the war being a punishment for her not being able to love Jon Snow. Book Catelyn never makes any such claim, and frankly I don’t think she would–I don’t get the feeling there’s an ounce of guilt in Cat about the way she’s treated Jon.


Anyway, I don’t want to drag on about the pre-RW stuff because most of it’s just a matter of the surviving characters from the first two books being set up for the war’s end. If it seemed to take forever to reach the Red Wedding, the post-RW pages flew by. Jon and Dany both rise to power–Jon is elected the new Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Dany conquers Meereen and chooses to stay and rule as queen instead of letting the former slave city devolve into anarchy–but the threats to their stations are coming in books four and five. The remainder of ASoS focuses on the Lannisters, who seem to have come out unscathed until the Purple Wedding.

I said in the last piece that the first two books seem to focus on the volumes’ respective Hands of the King, and having re-read ASoS, I’d say it fits the pattern too. Though Tywin is never a POV character, he’s the one who orchestrates the Stark downfall, and as soon as he arrives in King’s Landing, the other Lannisters know he’s the one running the show regardless of anyone’s official titles. Tywin Lannister is a man who puts kings to bed without their supper. Under his leadership, the Lannisters rise to the height of their power as the second act begins–and of course they immediately peak; the downfall of House Lannister is a central theme in act two. When Joffrey dies the family tears itself apart–and Tyrion, whom I’d call the best of the Lannisters, finally turns against his kin.

I can’t wait to see Tyrion’s trial on the show next year; let’s hope the show’s battle between the Red Viper and the Mountain is half as epic as Jeff McComsey’s comic version. The betrayal from Bronn will probably play harder in the show than it does in the book; book-Bronn isn’t so buddy-buddy with Tyrion. But it’s the betrayal of family that puts Tyrion over the edge. When Tyrion murders Shae and Tywin, he’s killing his devotion to his family, chosen and blood. That devotion was one of his defining traits in act one–no matter how much Tyrion’s family shat on him, he worked in their best interest–until he had cause to know if Tywin really shat gold. At the conclusion, Tyrion is faced with the new prospect of finding a life beyond devotion to his backstabbing kin–though first he’ll do some drinking and ask a few thousand people where whores go.

Speaking of plots to murder Lannisters, Tyrion’s POVs introduce the Martells, Dorne’s ruling house and the last of Westeros’ major powers to appear onscreen. When the Martells showed up as POVs in book four I was originally distraught and confused (“Who are these people again and why do I care?”), but coming off a fresh read, it feels like a natural progression. The Martells blame Tywin and his family for the death of Elia Martell and the children she bore Rhaegar Targaryen, and the Red Viper may be the boldest of the Martells still out for blood, but he’s not alone.

Then there’s Littlefinger, who conspired with the Tyrells (or at least the Queen of Thorns) to off Joffrey, and who scoops Sansa from King’s Landing in the confusion and takes her under his wing. You have to love the revelation that Cersei’s precious Kettleblacks are all Littlefinger’s agents, and god is it satisfying when Lysa goes out the Moon Door (what do you think, closing scene of next season’s finale?). While I like the idea of Sansa mentoring under Littlefinger and becoming a player in the game, the vibe I get from the way Petyr treats “Alayne” is all kinds of creepy. I think I know what Littlefinger is doing–he’s creating chaos and war to provide himself opportunities to become more and more powerful. He essentially orchestrated the war with the north, and he’s plotted against the Lannisters with the Tyrells. For now he seems content to sit in the Eyrie and watch the various other survivors wrestle for leftovers. My guess is he’ll make a big grab for power in act three once the Targaryens land, and I wonder what role Sansa might play (especially in his potential downfall). He might regret having taught her anything.

But that’s not the big question at the end of book three. The big question as act two begins is, “What are Varys and Illyrio up to?”

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