Monday, 21 May 2012

Review: A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book Three by George R R Martin (2000)

In the third volume of Martin's multi-volume epic, the war continues as the surviving kings battle for control of Westeros, Danerys works to build an army, the scattered Stark family members try to find their way and an ancient evil gathers its forces in the far north.

A Storm of Swords is essentially a place keeper of a story, which is unfortunate because it's also a giant doorstop of a novel that takes many manhours to plough through.  It took me three weeks, though to be fair I did take time off to read three other books along the way because this one was such a slog.

Nothing really happens here except in the final few chapters and the rest of the book boils down to long, long accounts of people going from here to there, people getting killed horribly, people getting mutilated horribly, being threatened, getting married, getting married against their will and getting threatened with getting married against their will.  Rinse and repeat each step so often that it gets tedious.  Martin's philosophy is that if it works once, use the same plot device 273,964 times.  I think he's trying to avoid having his books turned into a drinking game by making it unwinnable.  Worse, he keeps adding in more and more characters for no very good reason and he insists on doling out everyone's life story down to the last detail so that the reader ends up completely confused as to who is who, what is of importance and why we had to learn so much about a person who just gets slaughtered horribly five pages later.

As usual, Martin's book is a curate's egg.  Some parts of it are excellent.  The only problem is that he insists on mixing the good bits with too much filler.  He continues to jump between the stories of various main characters who almost never meet each other except briefly and the Danerys plot is so completely disconnected that you could cut out every word from all the books up until now and never notice.  I often feel that instead of writing these interminable bricks Martin would have been better served by breaking them into a series of smaller books so that instead of five volumes and counting we'd have 20 or 30 and counting. Besides, I think a thin volume titled "The Slavers of Astapor" or "Attack of the Wildings" has a lot more zing to it.  Though I don't know that a novel exclusively about the Sansa character would be much of a read.  200 pages of someone repeatedly kicking a human puppy isn't very entertaining

My greatest complaint about Storm is the brutality of it.  Some readers claim that this adds to the authenticity, but that only holds true if you know next to nothing about the real Middle Ages, which were no where near as violent and treacherous as depicted in this fantasy.  People are being betrayed, ambushed, beheaded and generally mistreated so often and so casually by their lords that in the real world the "nobility" that acted this way would in short order be ostricised, excommunicated, deposed and seriously dead within a week.  And further more, people in real feudal societies don't go around burning villages and slaughtering peasants left, right and centre.  With 13th century technology that very soon becomes too much like hard work and, more importantly, you're burning the crops and slaughtering the workforce that are supposed to make your conquest worth the effort.  It's like robbing a bank and setting fire to the money.

More to the point, it was established that before the first book Westeros enjoyed fifteen years of peace and prosperity, so where did all these noseless, earless, one-eyed bandits who'd sooner kill you as look at you come from?  Where did they learn their murdering?  Under whom did they apprentice their thugism?  Correspondence courses, presumably.

And here's a tip for Martin: If you're going to have Machiavellian characters, read Machiavelli.  The first lesson of The Prince isn't "make yourself completely unreliable".

So, it's on to volume four.  Let's hope the plot starts to move and Martin starts shedding characters or I may need to solicit help for reading some of the chapters.

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