“Wildlings, krakens, and dragons.” Mace Tyrell chuckled. “Why, is there anyone not stirring?”
A Storm of Swords, the third installment of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, continues the disparate threads following the Starks spread far and wide, trying—and in some cases, just almost succeeding—but ultimately failing to make their way back to one another.
This book’s point of view pyrotechnics explode tension like Tyrion’s wildfire in the previous book’s climactic Battle of the Blackwater, and are at least one reason this book is worth investing the time to read instead of just watching the series. The book discards one of the points of view it took up in the second book (Theon is thus presumed dead, but late in the book someone claims he’s actually being held hostage) while continuing the other point of view thread that book added (Davos becomes King’s Hand to Stannis). Two new point of view threads are added—unlike the second book, the third introduces us to the points of view of characters we’re more familiar with—Jaime Lannister and Samwell Tarley. Martin also pulls a new trick with the point-of-view alteration in a pair of climactic sequences—both weddings. While the point of view has generally been a loose A-B-C-D-E-F-G pattern that allows for some variation therein, for the Red Wedding and King Joffrey’s wedding, we get A-B-A-B sequences with Catelyn and Arya in the former and Sansa and Tyrion in the latter. The tension this pattern creates is part of what makes these two the most suspenseful and satisfying in the book and possibly the series thus far.
The prologue documents a rebellion by a handful of Night Watchmen, whose plot to kill Lord Commander Mormont while on the mission outside the Wall is foiled by snowfall, which prevents their fleeing as planned. The rebel leader, Chett, is about to kill Samwell Tarley anyway when a horn sounds three times—the signal that Others are coming. Then we get Jaime Lannister’s POV for the first time: he’s been freed from his cell at Riverrun by Catelyn, who disguises him to get him out the gate and assigns Brienne to get him safely to King’s Landing, where he can be exchanged for Sansa and Arya. Catelyn deals with the consequences of her decision to release Jaime as a prisoner. Arya’s on the road fleeing Harrenhall with Gendry and Hot Pie, attempting to find Riverrun (and dreaming, like Bran and Jon Snow, of being a wolf). Tyrion speaks to his father, who has stolen his job as King’s Hand, seeking Casterly Rock in recompense for what he did in the battle (and which he’s rightfully entitled to as heir since Jaime joined the Night’s Watch), but Tywin declares he’ll never get it and that he’ll hang the next whore Tyrion sleeps with. Davos is found washed up on an island after the Battle of the Blackwater and, taken to Stannis’s court, is arrested when he tries to kill Melisandre, whom he believes he survived to exterminate. Sansa confesses to Joffrey’s betrothed Margaery and her grandmother the Queen of Thorns what a monster Joffrey is. Jon is brought before the wildling king Mance Rayder and accepted as a member after Rayder reveals he saw him at the dinner that opened the series, when King Robert and the Lannisters visited Winterfell, and Jon reminds him he was seated as a bastard. Daenarys and her retinue are sailing for Pentos when Jorah convinces her to change course to buy an army of Unsullied (utterly obedient slave eunuchs), then makes a move on her and tries to convince her to take him as husband. Bran has learned to open his third eye and become his direwolf Summer whenever he wants, but Jojon the green dreamer is worried he’ll want to stay a wolf permanently, and wants to make for the Wall to find the three-eyed crow. Samwell’s first chapter comes late, after a few characters have already been repeated—he struggles to not die in the freezing mass exodus fleeing the Others, and proves himself not so craven when he stabs an Other in the throat with a dragonglass dagger.
While in negotiations to buy the Unsullied, Daenerys pretends she doesn’t speak the language of the scummy Kraznys mo Nakloz, who continuously insults her, thinking she doesn’t understand. The price for all the “men” she needs to take back her kingdom is high, and she finally offers one of her dragons as payment, but not for real: her dragon kills Kraznys as soon as he tries to take him in hand, and Dany seizes the town with the new army who have been informed they’re now under her command. Her army expands when she frees more slaves in other cities, but she struggles to feed them. She eventually finds out Whitebeard, one of the men who’s recently been attending her, and Ser Jorah are spies for men in Westeros, though both claim to be loyal to her now; Dany forgives Whitebeard but Jorah is not contrite enough and she banishes him. She decides to stay in one of the towns she’s taken for the time being to learn how to rule.
Jon Snow travels with the wildlings and, to keep his cover, has to break his vows as a brother by sleeping with Ygritte, the girl he almost killed for being a wildling scout in the second book before he saw she was a girl. He finds out the wildlings were in the Frostfangs seeking the Horn of Winter, rumored to be able to crumble the Wall if blown. As a group of them scale the Wall to take Castle Black from behind, Ygritte claims they didn’t find it. During an attack on their group by a direwolf that turns out to be Bran-as-Summer, Jon escapes from the group and gets back to Castle Black in time to warn them of the coming assault. The huge mass of wildlings, including mammoths and giants attack, and Jon holds the Wall with a small group (the wildlings tricked the rest into spreading out). Then Janos Slynt returns to the Wall insisting Jon is a turncloak for having joined the wildlings. Janos and his retinue force Jon to parley with Mance Rayder, figuring Jon will either be killed or prove himself a traitor, but then Stannis’s forces attack the wildlings and take Mance captive. Stannis wants Jon to become Lord of Winterfell (for which Stannis will absolve his bastardry) and Jon is debating whether to break his vows (again) in order to take what he realizes has been his lifelong dream when, largely due to the maneuverings of Samwell, he ends up elected the new Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.
Catelyn is introduced to Robb’s new wife, the Lady Jeyne Westerling, whom he married while he was away at war, thereby breaking his vow to marry one of the Frey girls, which he’d agreed to do in exchange for Lord Frey granting him passage across some bridge he controlled during one of the earlier wars. In exchange for Robb’s slight, the Freys demand Catelyn’s brother Edmure marry a Frey, and, thinking they have no choice because they need to keep the Freys in their pocket or their forces will no longer be strong enough to win the war, they go to the Freys’ pair of castles, the Twins, for Edmure’s wedding. It turns out to be a setup for the horrible old Lord Walder Frey to slaughter them. Catelyn tries to save Robb by taking a nearby halfwit Frey relative hostage, and slits the halfwit’s throat when they kill Robb anyway. Then the Freys slit her throat.
Arya and Hot Pie and Gendry are picked up by some Kingsmen, arriving at an inn where Arya is recognized and identified by her father’s former man Harwin. His group (outlaws) says they’re taking her to Riverrun to ransom her. A prisoner is brought to them—the Hound, Sandor Clegane, who has to fight a trial by combat for the charges against him, and after defeating Lord Beric Dondarrion, who then comes back to life from what should have been a mortal wound thanks to the power of the Lord of Light, the Hound escapes from the group, kidnapping Arya and taking her with him. Wanting to ransom her, he heads for the Twins, where he hears Robb and Catelyn are. They arrive just as the slaughter is starting inside, and see men running out to attack the camp of Robb’s bannermen. Arya wants to go inside, but the Hound declares her family is already dead. She makes a run for it anyway, but the Hound knocks her out. They travel aimlessly for awhile until the Hound gets in an altercation that leaves him with a mortal wound, and Arya leaves him to die slowly instead of granting him “mercy.” She wants to go to the Wall to find Jon, but can only find securing passage on a ship headed to Bravos, securing passage with the iron coin J’aqen Hgar gave her in the last book, which gets her treated quite nicely.
Sansa is relieved to not be marrying Joffrey, but then ends up married to Tyrion instead. He’s nice enough, however, not to ever make her consummate the marriage. She escapes King’s Landing with Dontos as Joffrey is dying at his wedding; Dontos delivers her to Littlefinger, who’s supposed to be at the Vale wooing Lysa Tully to marry him and who then kills Dontos and declares to Sansa that because he took her mother’s maidenhead, she is like his daughter and he will protect her. He hides her identity by declaring her Alayne Stone, his bastard daughter, but reveals to Lysa who she is when they get to the Vale. Lysa is thrilled to marry Petyr and after they wed she catches Petyr making a move on Sansa and blames Sansa for it, threatening to push her out the Moon Door over a 600-foot drop. Petyr comes in and pushes Lysa out the door instead, blaming it on the singer Lysa loved and everyone else hated.
By luck, Samwell survives the Others’ assault on the Night’s Watch’s main group on the Fist, then almost dies on the walk of the mass exodus, but succeeds in killing an Other. After the Night’s Watch rebellion kills Ser Mormont at Craster’s Keep, Samwell takes charge of Craster’s daughter Gilly and Gilly’s baby, winds up meeting Bran and helping his group outside the Wall through a secret gate, and, after he makes it back to Castle Black, talks the frontrunners for the Lord Commander position into giving up and supporting Jon Snow. He keeps his oath to not tell Jon Snow Bran is alive.
Bran and his group, which includes Jojon the green dreamer and Hodor, are headed for the Wall on a mission to find the three-eyed crow. They hole up in a tower that Jon’s wildling group comes near, facilitating Bran-Summer facilitating Jon’s escape from them. Then Bran’s group holes up in a haunted castle where Jojon insists he dreamed there was a gate and where Samwell comes sneaking up a well with Gilly and her baby to reveal where the secret gate is.
Davos is called from his cell after his attempt on Melisandre and made the King’s Hand for his honesty and loyalty. As hand, he vehemently opposes an effort by Melisandre to kill Edric Storm, Robert Baratheon’s bastard son Stannis has charge of, to use the king’s blood to summon the stone dragon and take the kingdom. Stannis won’t listen to him, however, so Davos has Edric Storm spirited away in the night, an act for which Stannis is about to cut off his head until Davos gives him a letter that someone on the staff gave him that Stannis hasn’t seen—from Castle Black, requesting urgent help against the wildling onslaught.
Jaime tries to escape from Brienne as she leads him back to King’s Landing, but fails to defeat her in an elaborate swordfight—what will turn out to be his last after they’re immediately thereafter captured by Vargo Hoat’s Bloody Mummers, who cut off Jaime’s hand. They’re taken to Roose Bolton at Harrenhall, who sends Jaime back to King’s Landing but says Hoat gets to keep Brienne. Jaime returns and rescues her from a bearfight and takes her with them to King’s Landing, where she’s accused of killing Renley. Jaime reunites with Cersei and wants to give everything up for her and confess their love to the world but Cersei is unwilling to give up the throne. Tywin wants to marry Jaime off but he insists he will remain a member of the Kingsguard and no more. He gives Brienne the sword Tywin gave him that was forged from Eddard Stark’s old sword, and tells her to go uphold her oath to protect Lady Catelyn’s daughters.
Tensions steadily rise between Joffrey and Tyrion, who makes Shae one of Sansa’s attendants, and is thinking he might just take Sansa’s maidenhead the night of Joffrey’s wedding when Joffrey suddenly dies after forcing Tyrion to serve him wine. Sansa vanishes and Tyrion is arrested and put on trial for Joffrey’s murder (not unironic considering his brother Jaime incurred their father’s favor for kingslaying), during which Cersei has arranged a parade of witnesses against him, the finale of which is Shae, who betrays Tyrion with an elaborate made-up story. Tyrion is pressured to confess and told he might take the black instead of die if he does. The night before he’s to be beheaded, Jaime enters his cell and tells him Varys will lead him to a ship and that he’s helping him escape to pay a debt that Tyrion pressures him to admit is lying to him about Tysha, the girl he married that was supposedly a whore Jaime paid to–the story that she was a whore wasn’t true; Tywin made Jaime tell him that to “teach him a lesson.” Enraged, Tyrion stops Varys on their way out and climbs up a ladder that leads to an area behind the King’s Hand’s chambers, which is how Varys gets the info he claims he gets from his “little birds.” Tyrion enters the chamber and finds Shae in Tywin’s bed; she says the queen put her up to the story she told, but Tyrion chokes her with the King’s Hand’s chain anyway. Then he kills Tywin with a crossbow after he asks what he did with Tysha and Tywin calls her a whore again.
The third installment offers something the previous two did not—an epilogue, told from the point of view of a random Frey, Merrett, who’s on his way to some outlaws to ransom another Frey relative, considering his lifelong streak of ill luck. When he meets the outlaws, they take the money and make to hang him as well, as revenge for the Red Wedding. Merrett insists he had no part (though we know from his recent thoughts that he did) and that they have no witness, until the outlaws bring forth a gray-skinned lady who can’t speak because her throat has been slit: Catelyn Stark.
As noted, the climactic wedding sequences, particularly Joffrey’s, are highlights of the series-thus-far. Though Joffrey’s death was initially so satisfying because it appeared utterly brought on by his own horrible self: he was bent on tormenting Tyrion and then choked on Tyrion’s pie when he was trying to make a point by eating it about who was the dominant one. But then it turns out that it wasn’t just that; there was magic at play as well involving the amethyst in Sansa’s hair net. Which at first seems almost disappointing, but in the end Joffrey still likely brought about his own demise with his own awfulness; if he hadn’t been so awful so many people would not have wanted him dead. Martin does a nice job with the details of the feast and its 77 courses and other elaborate glories, eliciting a feeling in the reader of how it must be the very pinnacle of life, to be a king at your wedding feast, where no expense is spared, right before that feast is the very thing that kills him. Everything comes with a price.
This book’s token reference to the literal Iron Throne as objective correlative (talking about the discomfort of the seat itself as a way to get at the discomfort incumbent in the role of king itself) is embedded in a passage that nicely sums up the engine of the series’ whole conflict, the disarray created when a legitimate ruler is killed off with (supposedly) no heirs:
“If you only knew … that was a hard choosing. My blood or my liege. My brother or my king.” [Stannis] grimaced. “Have you ever seen the Iron Throne? The barbs along the back, the ribbons of twisted steel, the jagged ends of swords and knives all tangled up and melted? It is not a comfortable seat, ser. Aerys cut himself so often men took to calling him King Scab, and Maegor the Cruel was murdered in that chair. By that chair, to hear some tell it. It is not a seat where a man can rest at ease. Ofttimes I wonder why my brothers wanted it so desperately.”
“Why would you want it, then?” Davos asked him.
“It is not a question of wanting. The throne is mine, as Robert’s heir. That is law.”