Thursday 9 August 2012

A Storm of Swords part 2: Blood and Gold - George R R Martin


Seriously, if you plan to read this book, don't read on any further. This will be a very spoilery review. 

Instead, watch this video and try to get the song out of your head afterwards. (Good luck.)

I realise I've probably sent away most of my readers, but I'd like to use this space to talk about what I just read. So if anyone is still reading this: hello.

I put up these warnings, because I was spoiled on some of the details of this book that made me foresee what should otherwise have been a massive shocking incident in A Storm of Swords. I would rather not have even known that there was a massice shocking incident because that knowledge in itself prepared me - and in turn I was not so shocked.

Two weddings and a whole lot of funerals.

All I knew about this book before I read it was that there was a major event known as "The Red Wedding" that was a shocking game-changer for the series. All through volume one, as King's Landing prepared for King Joffrey's wedding, I supposed that this would be the wedding in question - that it may take place in the Red Keep, and would turn to massacre. Then volume 2 opened with the preparations for another wedding, that of Edmure Tully (uncle to King Robb Stark) to a daughter of Walder Frey - to make amends to Frey when Robb married someone else when he ought to have been marrying a Frey girl. And Walder Frey is not someone you want to offend.

The Song of Ice and Fire novels are noted for containing many, many characters' stories, all across the continent of Westeros and beyond. So I noticed when Martin spent a few chapters switching between Catelyn, at the wedding, and Arya, who was travelling towards the wedding venue, and thought this is leading up to something big. And the wedding feast scenes were packed full of foreboding: the bride's evident fear that seemed so much more than of the wedding night, the discordant clashing of badly-played music, the absence of minor characters who ought to be there - all came together to create an atmosphere of something not being quite right. Although I wasn't surprised when it culminated in the murders of two important characters - and a whole host of extras - instead I took time to notice how Martin built up the feeling of dread and horror through everything being a little bit off.

It seemed to me that somehow Robb knew what awaited him - his naming Jon Snow as his heir, and his staying in his seat instead of escorting the bridal couple to the honeymoon suite, and some other things he said and did, all seemed to point towards him preparing for his own death - though why this might be, for a young man still in his teens, I can't say. 

Though unsurprised by the Red Wedding scene, there was so much in this book that did catch me by surprise. Martin has won me over to this series by now - he is a master storyteller by not making the story do what you think it will. Daenerys (she of the dragons) has been mustering an army to take over Westeros and regain the Iron Throne for the House of Targaryen - and instead, after liberating three slave cities, she has decided to stay where she is, and rule there instead. Will she never come to Westeros at all? Her story has always been apart from everyone else's, being on another continent, but it seemed that they would come together. If she stays where she is, how does her part fit into the story as a whole? We shall have to wait and see.

The Red Wedding is not the only wedding of note in this volume, however. King Joffrey's wedding is quite as eventful, if with a lower body count. Still, when the corpse is the groom, it's quite a significant body count nonetheless - and I wonder if anyone will grieve him save his mother? I certainly rejoiced for a moment.

But only for a moment. The times of rejoicing are given only to make the next blow harder - I'd barely caught my breath from Joffrey is dead - and good riddance! before Tyrion, my favourite character, is arrested for the crime. And this storyline is so full of twists and shocks and revelations that I almost got whiplash! Ever since we met the character of Shae, Tyrion's mistress, my best friend and I have been predicting a brutal death for her as a result of her liasons with Tyrion. Yes, and no - but we'll come to that in a moment. Perhaps to others it was obvious, but I wanted to believe in Shae - and she betrayed Tyrion, testifying falsely against him in his trial and breaking his heart, a heart that he tried so hard not to get attached to her. Then, trial by combat (in which Tyrion's champion reminded me of nothing so much as The Princess Bride's Inigo Montoya) turns against him at the last moment - and finally, Tyrion is rescued from his cell by his brother Jaime. But Jaime confesses a cruel lie he told a teenage Tyrion, which reveals a crueler truth. Tyrion responds by taking brutal revenge on those who betrayed him in one tragic and awful scene, followed by one that is both horrible and awesome at the same time. And despite committing terrible acts, I didn't think any less of his character.

In my review of part one, I wondered how Jon would make it back to his post as a Night's Watchman on the Wall, defending the "civilised" world from the attack of the wildlings and "Others." But, after all, he managed it, in between volumes. (One thing that slightly irritates me about this series is how Martin only shows half the story, while the rest happens off the page, and only later does he fill us in about how a character got from A to B.) The Night's Watch has been fighting a seemingly impossible battle while all the kings have been bickering between themselves, oblivious to the danger they're in - that if they don't unite, there will be no kingdom for them to rule even if they do survive. But now one of the kings has come himself: the dour and self-righteous Stannis Baratheon.

I'd had no liking for Stannis before this point. He claimed to have no particular desire for the throne, but would fight for it because it was his "by right." He's either a huge hypocrite, or someone who really, devoutly believes that he is the chosen one and that all he do is what is best all around. His red priestess Melisandre supports this view and butters him up, while Davos (no R) the Onion Knight, is the voice of reason in Stannis's council.

Meanwhile Jon Snow has been offered two great opportunities: to be Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, or to rebuild and rule Winterfell as Ned Stark's son and heir. He doesn't even know that he has also been named Robb's heir. Ever his father's son,* he chooses his duties and oaths with the Night's Watch - but will he, too, be drawn into the game of thrones?

The game continues, but with two major players removed - Robb Stark and Joffrey Baratheon. Joffrey is easily replaced by his small brother Tommen - who will be a mascot king while the Lannisters carry on their merry way plotting and scheming. Others may put forward his sister Myrcella and set the siblings against each other to be their political puppets. And with his march against the Wildlings and Others, Stannis may prove to be a more prominent player. But with Robb out of the picture, Jon oblivious to his potential role and Daenerys staying the other side of the ocean, I don't know whose side I'm supposed to be on any more. It's not straightforward.

Though I thought I was prepared, this story was full of twists I'd never foreseen, and it has been thrilling seeing the story unfold before my eyes wondering just what would happen next. But one thing, the least likely of all my predictions, turned out to be correct - though as with everything else, it did not happen as I had expected.

Catelyn Stark really, truly, came back as a zombie.

* I've been thinking about it, and wondering whether Jon really is Ned Stark's son at all - or his nephew, son of Ned's deceased sister.


  1. Nice review! Totally agree with you. Although you left out what for me was the biggest surprise - Littlefinger killing Lysa and the revelation that he triggered Jon Arryn's death, and thus the whole war.

  2. Ooh, apologies for missing that one. This volume was one shock after another!


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