Tuesday 31 July 2012

A Storm of Swords, part 1: Steel and Snow–George R. R. Martin

s of s 1

Warning: contains spoilers. Also is long.

A Storm of Swords is the third part of George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, and is in itself enough of an epic that the paperback has been split into two volumes, no doubt to save the book from ripping its spine in half on the first read. A Storm of Swords gets going more quickly than the last volume, whose first half, though still interesting from a world-building and character point of view, read more like the set-up for a big climax rather than actual plot development.

In the north, young king Robb Stark continues to fight his battles largely offscreen, and it’s not going well. Though winning his battles, for now, a few foolish moves from Robb and his advisors lose him allies left, right and centre. The Starks seem to be barely staying afloat, and surely their good fortunes can’t last much longer against the might of the Lannisters, as well as all other pretenders to the throne.

Meanwhile, in King’s Landing, the main event is King Joffrey’s upcoming wedding. Twelve-year-old Sansa has been reprieved, for now, and instead the King is to wed with would-be King Renly’s widow, Margaery Tyrell. I enjoyed meeting Margaery, and particularly her formidable grandmother, who befriend Sansa, who needs as many people on her side as possible. But I don’t quite trust them. Although they know what sort of a person Joffrey is, they act too confident about the wedding. Their attitude seems to be, “It’s all under control, don’t worry your pretty little head about a thing.” They’re plotting something – but I’m not convinced that it will benefit Sansa.

Still, she’s safe from marrying our dear Joffers – instead she’s been married off to his uncle Tyrion, a sore blow to the former romantic dreamer. Tyrion is hardly the dashing groom she had hoped for – at least twenty years her senior, malformed and an eyesore. Still, in my opinion Sansa could do much worse: Tyrion may be the one man in Westeros who would actually respect her.

And I have a strong sense of foreboding about the marriage ceremony. The Lannisters have not made themselves universally popular, ruling rather by fear than by love. One of the wedding guests, the representative from Dorne, has not shown up, instead sending his brother who wants revenge for wrongs done his family by the Lannister-Baratheon regime.

This volume shows another side to the scheming Lannisters. So far, Cersei Lannister has been shown rather as the wicked queen, but this volume depicts her as having no more control of her own fate than Sansa, with her father arranging to marry her off to some nobleman or other for political reasons. Similarly, her twin brother Jaime, for the first time given his own point-of-view chapters, is not the big tough knight that he has formerly seemed. Instead, Martin turns our expectations on their heads, showing this golden knight and kingslayer bested at swordfighting by a young woman, and breaking his resolve not to cry out at injury.

Up north of the wall and away from “civilisation,” Jon Snow continues as a spy among the Wildlings. He has been urged to “Do as they bid you… but in your heart remember who you are. Ride with them, eat with them, fight with them, for as long as it takes.” But with his every action aiding the Wildlings to convince them of his loyalty, and with no opportunity presenting itself to rejoin his post at the Night’s Watch, I find myself wondering how far can one act a part before “remembering who you are” becomes meaningless. And now he’s fallen in love, that “remembering” must surely become more and more tricky.

Now the Wildlings have breached the Wall and invaded Westeros, unbeknown to the feuding kings, who would be better off uniting to save their kingdom. Or would they? First portrayed as lawless savages, the ways of the wildlings, or “free folk” as they name themselves, seem more sympathetic now, and quite persuasive.
“In the northern wastes a horde of hungry, savage people steeped in the dark magic of the wilderness is poised to invade the Kingdom of the North […] if the Wall is breached, no king will live to claim [the throne]”,
reads the back blurb, but all in all, imposing as they are, the Wildlings are just another army of men. Even the giants, the monsters of old wives’ tales, when actually seen are not so terrifying. It’s what else lives behind the wall that poses the real threat to mankind: the walking dead, terrifying creatures with ice-blue eyes known only as the Others (or zombies, to the genre-savvy reader.)

Part one of A Storm of Swords ends with reader frustration as two sets of characters who have been parted from early on in the series, come this close to being reunited – but have no idea that who else is near, and pass each other by.

With so much going on, clearly more happens in some plotlines than others, and I can’t write of every character with a point-of-view chapter. Arya has the most chapters, yet they are taken up mostly with travelling, falling in with different people for a little while. But she does overhear an old woman talking of her dreams, which are almost certainly prophetic in nature.
“I dreamt I saw a shadow with a burning heart butchering a golden stag, aye.
I dreamt of a man without a face, waiting on a bridge that swayed and swung. On his shoulder perched a drowned crow with seaweed hanging from his wings.
I dreamt of a roaring river and a woman that was a fish. Dead she drifted, with red tears on her cheeks, but when her eyes did open, oh, I woke with terror.”
Now, as it stands, I can’t make any sense of the middle dream, except that the crows are often used as a symbol for the men of the Night’s Watch, where Jon is based. (They are also symbols of death, and of Bran’s psychic dreams, so that doesn’t narrow it down much.) But I’d like to hazard a guess at what they other two may foretell.

The first dream is fairly straightforward: the burning heart is the symbol of the new religion taken up by King Stannis and his advisor the red priestess – who conjured a shadow assassin – probably – to slay Renly. The stag is the badge of the House of Baratheon. I realise I misremembered it as Lannister and thought that it predicted Jaime’s death, being the golden knight, but the Lannisters are Lions (of course.) – Instead I think it either reveals the truth of Renly’s death, or foretells that Stannis will suffer a similar fate.

The “woman that was a fish” is a more tricky prophecy – but the fish is the sigil of the House of Tully, of which Catelyn Stark, mother of Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran and Rickon, is a daughter. And she has reason to weep tears of blood, believing her sons Bran and Rickon to have been violently murdered. But the fish was dead – and yet opened its eyes with terrifying effect. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that a fate worse than death awaits Catelyn – the Others will get her and she will become a zombie.

Crazy suggestion, I know, with nothing else in the text to support it, but after all, the Wall has been breached, and the north of the kingdom will be the first to fall. Where the Wildlings go first, the Others could follow in their path. I’m not entirely sure where Catelyn, Robb et al are based right now, but surely they will try to reclaim and rebuild their northern home, Winterfell at some point?

Perhaps part two will hold the answers – or, more likely, pose twice as many questions.

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Sunday 29 July 2012

Olympics readathon

Who saw the Olympics opening ceremony Friday night? From the sublime to the ridiculous, I thought it celebrated all the best parts of Britishness: its music, history, sport (of course) children's literature (at which we excel!) and above all, our ability to laugh at ourselves. The highlight of the evening, for me, had to be Her Majesty the Queen participating in a sketch with James Bond and appearing to parachute into the stadium. The Duke of Edinburgh did not parachute. I suppose at over ninety years old, it might be considered a bit dangerous for him... For the Queen, a sprightly eighty-six, it was just part of the job. Bless you, Ma'am, for being such a good sport!

Quite by chance, my two-week summer holiday takes place over the entire duration of the London Games, but I'll let you into a secret: I have zero interest in sport, even the Olympics, even on home soil. Skimming through the next week's TV mag I realised just how much TV coverage the Games were going to get - TV is cancelled! (I exaggerate a little.) So I took very little persuading to sign up to Random House of Canada's Olympics Readathon while the rest of the world has their eyes on the Games. I'm late beginning, but aiming to read 1500 pages between now and Sunday 12th August.  (average: 100 pages per day.) I've been busy book-buying in the last couple of weeks, and want to get through:

A Storm of Swords (both volumes) - George R. R. Martin (both parts read)
Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury (read)
Tipping the Velvet - Sarah Waters (read)
Little Brother - Cory Doctorow
Prep - Curtis Sittenfeld (read)
The Princess Bride - S. Morgenstern*/William Golding (currently rereading)


29th July - 168 pages
30th July - 137 pages
31st July - 176 pages
1st August - 220 pages
2nd August - 102 pages
3rd August - 188 pages
4th August - 154 pages
5th August - 136 pages
6th August - 110 pages
7th August - 42 pages
8th August - 242 pages and hit target of 1500 pages during the Olympics!
9th August - 146 pages
10th August - 45 pages
11th August - 254 pages
12th August - 66 pages

Total: 2186 pages and 5 2/3 books read.

*Yes, I am quite aware that the S. Morgenstern stuff is part of the story, thank you.

Saturday 21 July 2012

A Clash of Kings, George R. R. Martin

Contain spoilers

Apologies for the long delay in writing. I had planned to write this review in two parts, but while drafting it, I got caught up in a rant about the treatment of women in A Song of Ice and Fire, and got stuck. By the time I'd worked out what I really wanted to say, I'd finished reading the book, so sorry for the long post. (Now I've cooled down I've removed the rant, but be warned, it could make a reappearance.)

The story so far

The King is dead - long live the King! But would that be King Joffrey, teenaged son of the old King, Robert Baratheon - or at least, son of Robert's wife? Or King Stannis, or King Renly, Robert's brothers? Or Robb Stark, son of the late Eddard and now setting himself up as King in the North? One thing is certain: there will be no easy resolution to the conflict, and victory will come at a high cost.

A Clash of Kings picks up where A Game of Thrones left off, with the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros split into factions all at war with each other - sometimes forming temporary alliances, more often just putting their enemies in order of who to destroy first, and who next. A Song of Ice and Fire isn't necessarily eight different stories about eight different sets of people whose paths cross every so often: It's one multi-dimensioned epic, and each person's point-of-view chapters bring something different to the story. Jon Snow's chapters, set outside the Seven Kingdoms bring an atmosphere of dread and foreboding, a wildness that's kept out only by a great wall. Catelyn Stark exposes the idiocy of the entire war: a few men (and a couple of women) who would sacrifice their entire nation to the god of their pride. The children's chapters portray a world where there is no place for innocence. I spent the whole of A Game of Thrones feeling impatient with  Sansa for having a naive romanticised view of the world - then I stopped and thought, she's eleven! She's supposed to be innocent and idealistic. But all too soon, she was forced to grow up and survive on her cunning, while her younger sister Arya is living by her wits and her sword, out in the wild. Meanwhile, Tyrion Lannister's chapters provide a snarky commentary to the follies of the Lannister dynasty, and injects some much-needed humour and decency into a bleak setting. Tyrion is probably my favourite character in the saga: he is loyal to his family, for all their faults (and "faults" is a nice way of putting it) but he does his best to keep them in check, especially the awful teenaged king Joffrey and his scheming mother Cersei.

With so much taking place within this story, spread all across the continent of Westeros, it starts quite slowly,
bringing the reader up to speed with what's happening to whom and where, as well as introducing a couple of new characters. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, in a different place, which means that it sometimes took me a moment to remind myself where I'd left them. Martin would leave a chapter on a cliffhanger, then send the story across the country so that by the time something major happened, I'd forgotten about it, and it came as more of a shock, as if out of the blue. (No doubt this was deliberate on Martin's part, the sly dog!) Also, the story continues off the page while other characters are having their moment in the spotlight. Sometimes we don't hear of a major event until after it's happened, and from a third party. I'll admit it, he tricked me good and proper at one point.

Theon Greyjoy, in particular, has much of his story unshown. Introduced in A Game of Thrones as a shifty-looking extra who lived with the Stark family at Winterfell, now he gets his own point-of-view chapters, which reveal him to be a nasty piece of work indeed, if something of an enigma.

As well as the Stark family, on whom the majority of A Game of Thrones was focused, some new characters are introduced: The smuggler-turned-lord Davos (and I keep wanting to take one of George Martin's "R"s and stick it in him...) who serves as the viewpoint for Stannis Baratheon's household and army. We'd only heard of Stannis in passing in A Game of Thrones, and I had a clear image of him in my mind. Stannis was Ned Stark's choice for king, and so I imagined him as someone from the same mould of honour and uprightness, if humourless. Instead we are shown a proud, angry, bitter man who has taken up with the mysterious Red Woman, Melisande, a practitioner of dark arts and generally rather scary lady. There is more magic in this book than the last: more is made of Bran Stark's psychic dreams, and it emerges that he and his siblings have the same mental bond with their pet direwolves. From early on in A Game of Thrones, both I and my friend, who is reading alone with me, independently were reminded of the daemons in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. This likeness has only strengthened as the books have continued.

A Game of Thrones ended with Daenerys, an exiled claimant to the throne having hatched three baby dragons from her husband's funeral pyre - a dramatic end of a book indeed! But in this book, I thought that the practicalities of having three living mascots around her at all times was a little bit ridiculous, and her calling them her children made me think of a mad cat lady.

Daenerys: But look! I have dragons! Marvel at my dragons!
Me: Yes, but what are you going to do with them? One does not simply keep dragons as pets. Have you any idea how to train them for battle? If you go to King's Landing with them, you'll end up Queen of a pile of smoking ruins if you're not careful. 
Daenerys: ... I have dragons!

Though I enjoyed seeing her develop from a timid girl to a wife to a queen and "mother of dragons" in the first book, here she spends her time wandering from deserted desert city to deserted desert city, seeking a ship to take her and her army to Westeros to reclaim the Iron throne. It was quite slow going, although there was an impressive scene where she walks through "The House of the Undying" (which in my mind looks a lot like my imagining of the Department of Mysteries in Harry Potter, just in an ancient desert city) and is shown strange visions and told prophecies that I'm sure will be explained as the events of the next three books unfold. There will be three fires: one of life, one of death, one of love - all of these could refer to Khal Drogo's pyre at the end of A Game of Thrones, which brought life to the dragons, death to the maegi Mirri Maz Duur, and was the pyre of her lover and husband Khal Drogo. But what about the treasons: one of blood, one of gold, one of love? I guess I'll just have to wait and see.

Although slow to begin with (which is not the same as dull) I sped through the last hundred and fifty pages or so of A Clash of Kings, which wrought all kinds of triumphs and devastations across Westeros. Winterfell is a smoking ruin, overthrown first by Theon Greyjoy, who was betrayed in turn, and whether or not he even lives is not made clear. The two youngest Stark boys do live, but are believed dead, and separated, on their way to who knows where. Their tomboyish sister Arya, too, is on the run.

Sansa Stark does not have to marry the ghastly King Joffrey - but I am hesitant to rejoice about this, because I'm pretty sure that Martin only gives his characters good news to make their next bad news hit twice as hard.

Jon Snow, north of the Wall, has surrendered to the "wildlings" who live in the wilderness, on his superior's orders, to spy for the Night's Watch - and I think that the wildling girl, Ygritte, who he had previously taken captive, but released, will be a significant character later on. And Daenerys has found ships at last, and two new companions, and is ready to embark on a voyage to Westeros, to join in the fight for the Iron Throne.

We haven't seen much of Robb Stark in this book, although we've heard that he's been fighting and winning battles - but there were not too many battle scenes, to my relief. The only battle scene of any significance was the siege of King's Landing, which is remarkable for being a sea battle. Though I found the chapter hard to get into at first, with far too many details about the many ships in the fleet, it became something thrilling and terrifying once the magical Wildfire made an appearance. (I still think that if that Wildfire is used again, it will cost the users more than it gains them. It's a nasty substance, engineered by alchemists, and I can only see it ending in a disaster.) In the battle for King's Landing, Tyrion Lannister was seriously wounded - probably as an attempted murder by his sister Cersei, who resented his influence over Joffrey and the King's council, and meddling in her evil plotting.

But there are remarkably few battle sequences for what is, after all, a war epic. Instead, the focus is on the politics: the intrigues and tactics and alliances and treacheries, and the high and lowly people involved. This sounds deadly dull and put me off reading the series for a long time, but in fact it's clever stuff indeed. Clever enough to mastermind one side in such a multi-sided war, but when I think that all this came from the mind of one man, it is staggering!

Even so, perhaps it was a mistake to read a high fantasy epic that takes itself fairly seriously immediately after a Terry Pratchett novel or two, because I could not keep from laughing in a couple of places, when Martin wrote tropes into his story that Pratchett has satirised and deconstructed. When Arya Stark disguised herself as a boy, all I could think of was I hope you have a spare pair of socks. And then, on page 47, I couldn't believe my eyes:
'One peddlar was hawking rats roasted on a skewer. "Fresh rats," he cried loudly. "Fresh rats." '
("Onna stick!" interrupted his companion, a man who looked as rodent-like as the wares he was selling. "Ketchup ten pence extra!")

I have absolutely no idea what to expect from the rest of this series. No idea whatsoever. And that's really exciting.
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