Monday, March 19, 2012

"You know nothing, Jon Snow."

I have now completed A Storm of Swords, being the third book in George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Perhaps undertaking this re-read in so short a time frame was not wise, because as I feared (and as I remember from when I read this book the first time), the feeling of the book stops being immersion in a big and fascinating world, and starts being a feeling of being worn down under a tremendous weight. And if that's what it's like to read it, I can only imagine what it's like for GRRM to write it. No wonder he's been having trouble.

My reaction to Storm is almost schizophrenic, so much so that I can barely determine where to begin. There is an awful lot of good stuff in this book, and there's some stuff that is indisputably great. There's also some stuff that's meh, and a bit of stuff that downright irritated me. But the overall impression is just unrelenting hugeness. Once again I am drawn to my soap opera metaphor for these books. Aside from a very few moments, I get almost no sense that there's a story that's being set up here. I get very little sense of forward momentum from the events of this book. What I get is just a series of events that affect all others, because everyone knows everyone else and lives have that pesky way of crossing. A good read? Absolutely. A fascinating world? Certainly. Interesting characters, both sympathetic and not? Indubitably. A story, though? Well...I'm just not sure.

Part of my problem with Storm is that it's simply too long. I'm sorry, but it just is. I'm not sure what the remedy for that might be, since a strategy of cutting the book in two didn't seem to work out as well as GRRM thought it might for the book immediately following. I'm not sure where the thing should have been cut, but there's just so much that goes on. That sounds whiny, probably, but I can't deny it. Over the course of nearly a thousand pages, most of the characters only manage to move no more than, say, fifty miles. Some go in circles. Some are captured, escape, and are recaptured again. Some make fairly improbable acquaintances along the way. Some characters from the last two books simply drop off the radar screen entirely. And yes, some die.

I am starting to conclude that GRRM is creating a story that is simply too big, if he's even creating a story at all. At this point, it wouldn't surprise me much to eventually learn that there is no ending to the series, no climax we're building to, and that what GRRM simply intends is to just create a series of massive books set in a fantasy realm that just details some marches of some people's lives. Maybe I'm wrong...and on balance, I suspect I am, because there are a few precious hints of a larger story to emerge in Storm...but it wouldn't totally surprise me. If I'm correct, the actual main story is the threat that's taking shape in the North while everyone else is fighting for thrones. But then, what part in that story for each and every one of these characters? I just don't know.

I liked the book. Loved it, even. But I can't deny that there were times when reading it felt like a slog, and not because of any deficiency with the prose – never that, because GRRM can damn well put the words together – but because it's just so big. I'm trying to come up with a metaphor here...maybe trying to have a perfect vacation to Disney World when you know you're only going to be there one day? Nah, that doesn't work...I'm not sure, I guess. But I can't get over the feeling with this series that it's not unlike that third slice of cake, the one that's just as good as the first two, technically speaking, but just isn't satisfying because by now it's just too much.

More random spoiler-iffic thoughts after the break....

:: After two books, I was of the opinion that GRRM's best characters were Tyrion, Jon Snow, Arya Stark, and Daenerys Targeryen. I have not changed that opinion, but I do add to the list: what he did with Jaime Lannister in this book is amazing. I remember that before I read this book the first time, years ago, someone on a newsgroup said that Jaime is portrayed sympathetically here, and I scoffed at that, thinking that he was a loathsome character. What strikes me now is that Jaime actually isn't in A Game of Thrones or A Clash of Kings much at all, so Storm is the first time we really get to know him. He's arrogant, regal, incestuous, and he attempted to kill a child. He's also torn in a number of directions, he is driven by a love of his sister that's creepy but for which he refuses to apologize, and he knows that forever he will be tarnished by the fact that he killed the last Targaryen King. Jaime Lannister is a fascinating, fascinating character – and he was shaping up to be so even before he got his sword hand chopped off.

:: This was apparently the book where GRRM decided that it was time to drag Tyrion through the mud. Nothing good happens to him at all in this book, until the very end, when Varys shows him the way out of the Red Keep. Tyrion goes from acting Hand of the King in the previous book to an afterthought for everyone in this one; he doesn't even get any credit at all for his efforts in the Battle of the Blackwater, in which his side defeated Stannis Baratheon. All the credit, it seems, goes to Lord Tywin Lannister, who arrived just in the nick of time. Eventually Tyrion is forced to marry Sansa Stark, who refuses his touch; it's to his credit that he likewise refuses to force his touch upon her. The poor dwarf is even blamed for the death of King Joffrey, after he figures out that it was Joffrey who sent the brigand to try to finish the job of killing Bran Stark back in the first book.

Tyrion does get his moment in the sun, though – oh, does he ever. In his final confrontation with his father, Tyrion extracts the information he wants, and then he kills Lord Tywin Lannister by shooting him in the crotch with a crossbow while the Lord is having his morning constitutional. It's one of the most memorable scenes in the book, and Tyrion's last exchange with his father is terrific:

..."You shot me," he [Tywin Lannister] said incredulously, his eyes glassy with shock.

"You always were quick to grasp a situation, my lord," Tyrion said. "That must be why you're the Hand of the King."

" are son of mine."

"Now that's where you're wrong, Father. Why, I believe I'm you writ small. Do me a kindness now, and die quickly. I have a ship to catch."

That's great stuff.

::  This book nails down some of the outstanding mysteries from the first couple of books. In addition to revealing that Joffrey is behind the brigand's attack on Bran, we also finally learn who really killed Jon Arryn,  where Robert was getting his information on Daenerys, and Tyrion learns some things about the woman he first loved.

:: GRRM sometimes writes dialogue that is so good it makes me want to cleave my laptop in two with a sword of Valyrian steel. Tyrion gets off the best insult, when he refers to Joffrey as "His Grace, the Royal pustule".

:: I can't figure out Sandor Clegane for the life of me. Am I supposed to hate him? Because I don't. Am I supposed to like him? Because I don't. And given the rest of the people in these books, that might well be what GRRM intended after all. It interests me that Arya Stark owes him her life. Will she realize it, one day?

:: Sansa Stark continues to impress me on this re-read. She's still much more reactive than active, but there's got to be a big moment coming for her, at some point. People around her come and go, people around her come to battle and live and die, and yet...Sansa just keeps on enduring.

:: Daenerys Targaryen's story continues to be one of the best things about this series. In Storm she becomes a full-blown conqueror, securing an army of creepy eunuch warriors called the Unsullied, in a pretty amazing moment when she agrees to terms whereby she gets the warriors in exchange for one of her three dragons. She quickly turns the tables, though, and winds up keeping her dragon and the warriors. I like how she conquers city after city, but has increasing doubts about this activity, until she decides that she will be Queen to the city she's just sacked, proving herself as a ruler instead of just leaving a series of wrecked cities behind her.

Her rejection of Ser Jorah Mormont at the end of the book is interesting, and there's no way this doesn't come back to haunt her in some way. Will Mormont try to prove himself to her? Or will he act in a way that's more consistent with what he's been before, and try to get revenge upon her? He's a mildly interesting character, harboring doomed love for Daenerys, but also having sold information about her to the powers of Westeros for a time after escaping, way back in the first book.

:: Jon Snow's tale was mostly intriguing, although it gets a little much, having this many characters in the book who have lost their first loves. As the book ends, though, he's been voted Lord Commander of the Night's Watch – just after Stannis Baratheon has offered him Winterfell. Hmmmm. Stannis isn't a guy who likes to hear the word no. I really liked his relationship with Ygritte, and the way she kept saying "You know nothing, Jon Snow." I suspect Jon will have a heavy emotional burden to bear in the future; I'm not sure he's really realized what his feelings for her even were.

:: Bran is still wandering around the wilderness with his two saviors and he is still a shapechanger or something. Bran's story is Exhibit A for this book not really going anywhere. As the book ends, he and his friends are now going north of the Wall.

:: Samwell Tarly's continued insistence that he's craven is starting to get a little old. He's a bit like Sansa Stark, but with the lack of self-confidence dialed up to 11. The guy killed a zombie with an obsidian dagger, for God's sake...and he still thinks he's a coward!

:: By the way, who is 'Coldhands', the mysterious elk-riding figure who saves Sam and Gilly, and who takes Bran and friends north? I'm guessing that he's what's left of the long-missing Benjen Stark, but I suppose we'll find out. Maybe. This is GRRM we're talking about.

:: After lots of Theon Greyjoy in Clash, he doesn't appear at all in Storm. Good. He's a crappy character.

:: Lord Tywin Lannister is kind of an odd case. He's a really good villain, and he's fairly complex – the Lannister version of Stannis Baratheon, every bit as unbending – but GRRM tosses him aside when Tyrion kills him. And no, I wouldn't trade that moment...but to paraphrase Captain Renault in Casablanca, "How extravagant you are, throwing villains away like that. Someday they may become scarce." I like how Tywin dies thinking that his sons have both utterly failed him. That's probably the ultimate punishment for a man like him.

:: It's hard to read the Catelyn chapters with any degree of interest when one knows that the Red Wedding is to come. Still, I didn't recall the hints about resurrection from the dead from my earlier re-read, although I certainly remembered Lady Catelyn being, well, only 'mostly dead', I suppose, at the end of the book. I confess that I didn't pay a great deal of attention to those chapters, except to get the main gist of them. I still don't understand why Robb Stark has bothered trying to be King in the North in the first place. Seems to me that he'd have been better served to throw his lot in with Stannis Baratheon in the first place; I suspect that's what Ned Stark might have done, anyway, especially once the rumor got out that Joffrey isn't Robert's son in the first place. And marrying some other girl after he's already pledged to marry the daughter of the notably temperamental Lord Frey? That's just about as stupid a thing to do as Ned's "Now Cersei, I think you should pack up and leave now" bit from Game. I suppose doing dumb stuff runs in the Stark blood?

:: Speaking of Starks, I wonder whatever became of Rickon? It would be funny if he doesn't show up until the very last page of the very last book, wondering what he missed.

:: Of course, I remembered the Red Wedding; it's one of the book's major events. I also remembered the death of Balon Greyjoy and the sad passing of Joffrey. What I did not remember was that their deaths seem to have been magically caused by Stannis and his spiritual counselor, Melisandre. When I read that scene, my jaw dropped. Really. I read that in the middle of my break at work one day, and I said right out loud, "Oh my God!"

:: Brienne of Tarth is certainly interesting, but I just don't have a whole lot to say about her yet. She hasn't developed much, and I can't tell if GRRM is trying to develop some kind of love-thing between her and Jaime.

:: I continue to hate the sex stuff in these books. Do we really need Jaime and Cersei making love on the altar of the church? Do we really need Daenerys figuring out how to masturbate? Do we really need continued scenes in which GRRM's men probe the 'secret sweetnesses' of the women? I hate this stuff. Ugh.

:: Last thing: there's really not a lot of comic relief in these books. Tyrion occasionally says something really funny, but other than that, the only real consistently funny individual in these books is Dolorous Edd of the Night's Watch. Whenever he shows up, read closely, because he'll say something fatalistic and very funny. Yup, I love me some Dolorous Edd! I hope he survives the series.

OK, that's it for this one...but see what I mean? All that stuff I comment on...and I don't even comment on a lot of stuff in the book. Anyway, only two books up, Michael Chabon's Summerland, and then back to Ice and Fire with A Feast for Crows.


MiracleMommy said...

This is sort of how I felt after finishing Game of Thrones, though I don't blame the author as much as the environment in which I was reading.

I didn't have much time to just sit down and become immersed in the story, reading for long stretches or staying up too late. I was really busy and only able to read in short spurts here and there, so even though I loved the theme, settings, characters and plots, by the time I reached the end if felt like it was just going on and on and on.

Now I'm happy to just kick back and watch it on HBO, I'm really pleased with the adaption.

Mimi said...

I'm finally working on this one and am about half way through. It is a slog just by scope, although it reads very quickly and I got bogged in the second one, and this one is not bogging.

But my goodness, I will be reading it forever, and I read quickly.