The Short Version: Winter is on its way – but first comes war. With Robert Baratheon dead, multiple claimants to the throne (or a throne, any throne) pop up across Westeros and civil war immediately tears the land apart. While the Stark children struggle to survive in this harsh new world, a dragon-bearing queen fights across the dead sands of a land across the world – and in the North, a bastard discovers a danger far greater than any of the warring families can fathom. An Imp is a hero, a ward becomes a traitor, and blood is spilled. War has come to Westeros.
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.
The Review: This book is simultaneously better and not-quite-as-good as its predecessor. Let me begin by dispensing with my one problem, namely that everything gets a bit… well, confusing. There are so many goddamn lords and knights and alliances and double-crosses, triple-crosses, sellswords… and while I’m fine keeping track of most of that, I have an issue when it comes to characters I don’t care about. Case in point: Theon Greyjoy. A petulant boy who we certainly aren’t supposed to like, he goes from being a secondary character with interesting characteristics to a downtrodden son of a king to a wily fighter… and yet I never once got a handle on who he was, what the hell his faction had anything to do with, and why George R. R. Martin was wasting his (and my) time. I understand that to see the sack of Winterfell, we couldn’t see it through Bran’s eyes and thus we needed a character who could be part of the sacking – but while I understood Theon’s motivation (he wants to impress his dad!), I didn’t understand how he could be so stupid and why, in the end, it mattered. The town is leveled in the end and Theon hopefully killed… and it doesn’t do much other than get Bran out of the castle and into the wilderness. Big fucking whoop – there were an infinite number of ways to’ve dealt with that and not forced me to spend time with a character so flat, made even more flat by the brilliantly realized characters surrounding him.
Okay, now onto the good stuff. For example, said brilliantly realized characters. I mean, has there been such a fascinating character as Tyrion Lannister in all of fantasy? I argue that the answer is no – he even rivals characters created in any fiction. He is, I say again, fascinating. Incredibly nuanced, certainly not a good person, but not a bad one necessarily either… I would read an entire book set from his perspective because he’s funny, smart, and engaging. His persona as written here sparks the imagination! Coupled with forever imagining him as the wonderful Peter Dinklage, Tyrion becomes a character who surpasses the world he was created for. He is a character, like Gandalf or Darth Vader, who should (and hopefully will) enter the public consciousness so that even non-readers will know exactly who you’re talking about when you mention his name.
The plot moves forward like an army smashing into its foe: there’s a whole lot of momentum and then a big explosion – and then chaos. The battle scenes are well-rendered, although strangely detached. Ser Cleos’ battle at King’s Landing is probably the best-written of the bunch, seen from the water and all the more original for watching the Baratheons discover Tyrion’s brilliant schemes moments too late each time. On the other hand, Tyrion’s decision to ride out and engage in battle, while interesting and developmental, was a lost opportunity – it felt rote, like any other battle sequence in any other fantasy novel. That doesn’t mean it was bad, that just means it was predictable and somewhat ordinary, despite having such a unique character in the hotseat.
The plot itself, I realize, hasn’t actually moved forward all that much. Daenerys doesn’t really get all that much closer to come back to Westeros and while I have to assume the prophecies from the (admittedly very creepy) sequence in the House of the Undying Ones will come into play later in the series… this plot feels a little secondary and my attention was rarely captured on the same level as some of the other plots. Even Arya’s plot this time around, as she pretends to be a boy and tries to evade capture/discovery, was less-than-engaging at times. At the end, as she suddenly grows up in the face of her plight, I realized the mirror between the two sisters – both of them hit a major developmental milestone (womanhood for both of them, although in very different ways) – but I found that Arya’s was quite a bit of biding time until she could ‘level up’, in a way. Sansa’s plot was interesting in the way that it’s interesting to watch your bratty sibling have to grow up – and for the insight we gained into Cersei’s head.
Of course, for my money, the best plot (next to Tyrion’s, of course) has been Jon’s. Ranging far North of the Wall, trying to discover just what the hell is going on, Jon’s got the most mysterious plot. Are there giants? What the hell is up with this Mance guy? And the wights? And does any of this make any sense to anyone else? WHAM captured by wildlings. It’s all very engaging in a journeyman mystery sort of way and I dig that.
In the end, though, the general scope of the story hasn’t changed. Towns and castles have been traded, blood has been shed… but really there isn’t much of a difference in the scope of things. There’s a war on – and there seems to be no end in sight. Perhaps with a few of the outliers dead, the next books will be a little more manageable in terms of who is who and why they are important to this person or that person. I hope, anyway.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Mostly, this book suffers a bit from second-book syndrome. It has all the same awesome of the first novel, but it’s a little longer and a little fatter at times. The characters are becoming incredibly realized, which is a wonderful thing to experience, but there’s a limit to how deep you can go into such a sprawling world before you start to lose your audience a little. Feeling a little lost isn’t a bad thing – in fact, it’s sort of exciting to be swept up in it all – but I worry about Martin’s ability to hold the reins together. The next book is going to need to have some serious further developments instead of being another The Empire Strikes Back. Development is fun but even a little resolution goes a long way…