Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

A Song of Fire and Ice: Book Three

Last summer I got the first four books of the A Song of Fire and Ice series, and four months ago, I reviewed the first two. I went back to reading history books and comics for a while, but after seeing the first season of the TV series, I got excited about reading the third book and just finished that today. So with that in mind, let’s see how the third book, A Storm of Swords, stacks up with the first two.

WARNING: Extremely vague discussions that may spoil things will follow.

Let’s start off as blunt as possible: A Storm of Swords is my favorite book in the Song of Fire and Ice series so far. And that’s saying a lot, saying how lackluster I felt the previous book was (A Clash of Kings). In many ways, A Storm of Swords is the very opposite of A Clash of Kings, despite the similar sounding titles and presentation. But let’s break it down like it’s a game of chess, which I think is a decent enough metaphor. In A Game of Thrones, you’re just learning what all the different chess pieces are and what they do. It’s the first time you’re seeing them, and boy does it seem like there are a ton of pieces that all do similar-ish things but are quite different on the particulars. There’s a lot of potential depth and you get a taste of it when a single main character dies at the end of the book.

Next up is A Clash of Kings. Continuing with our metaphor, the opening moves of the game are being played and there really aren’t that many pieces being captured – and pieces that do get captured are pawns that we have no emotional attachment to anyways. It seems like there is still potential but since there are two expert players in this game, the maneuvering could go on for a while.

After finishing A Clash of Kings I was a bit troubled. I knew that if I was really into fantasy novels, I would be excited to see more and more maneuvering, and more depth, but I had two big concerns:

  1. I was liking how the backstory (everything chronologically before the first book) was being established, but was afraid of recons showing up.
  2. I thought that there was a lot of faffing about going on in the second book, and was afraid that the rest of the books would basically be the same thing.

Talking to friends on the internet (and Ikai Lan in particular) alleviated concern number one for me, but I was still troubled by concern number two. Let me stop to justify that concern a bit more first. Throughout the whole second book, all the characters are engaging in non-stop political maneuvering, and while it is interesting, it doesn’t seem to have any real consequences for anyone. No major characters die, they just get promoted or demoted or move to a different location. This made it hard for me to keep caring about the characters, as it makes it look like they’re not in any real danger – they’re just dicking around, and while all the chess pieces are in different spots at the end of the book than the beginning, the big picture looks pretty much the same.

Yet after reading the extremely dense The Wars of the Roses, I needed something to read that required a lot less brainpower on my part. So I picked up A Storm of Swords hoping that we’d finally get to some action. This was ultimately ironic, since A Storm of Swords has a lot more action but a lot less action / battle scenes. What I mean by this is that A Storm of Swords was exactly what I wanted A Clash of Kings to be – political maneuvering that actually has a heavy price for those who lose, and sometimes a heavy price for those who win. Now I care a lot more about the characters involved because they actually are in danger, instead of just the false sense of danger that comes up in A Clash of Kings.

It also changes the characters it focuses on dramatically. In A Clash of Kings, it basically seemed to focus on a ton of second-tier characters that I couldn’t care less about (like Theon, who looks like he had potential but then didn’t seem to go anywhere interesting) and one or two first-tier characters that I did like (Tyrion and Jon Snow). The problem, again, was that even for the characters I did like, they’re just moving around on the chessboard, not actually doing anything that exciting. A Storm of Swords seems to reverse this formula, to great success. Here, it’s almost all first-tier characters and really only one or two second-tier characters, and a lot of serious shit is going down with the first-tier characters unfortunately, not too much for Sansa and Arya Stark. Also, while we still don’t get a first-person view of Littlefinger or Varys, they are still holding their ground as top-tier characters who are not to be trifled with.

Also, much thanks to Ikai on my first concern about this book – the backstory gets a substantial amount of info filled in, and does so in a non-retcon way that still leaves me hanging, and at every point where somebody reminisces about the past, I actually do want to know more about it.

So I’ve already pre-emptively bought the fifth book in the series, A Dance with Dragons, and will start the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, relatively soon (but probably not immediately). Now the bar has been set high – don’t let me down!