A Storm of Swords is the third book in George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire‘. When delivered to his US publishers the book weighed in at over 1,000 pages so the decision was taken to publish it in the UK in two parts or volumes. So this is the third book, part two, titled, ‘Blood and Gold’. Ie the fourth physical book in the series.
Why are these books so compelling?
Epic Martin has brought into existence an absolutely vast new world, fully imagined in every detail, from the sound of the horses to the names of the continents, from the theology and practice of not one but several religions to the decorations on each knight’s shield. It is an awesome achievement, and a joy and delight for readers with a taste for this sort of thing to be drawn into this wonderfully complete and encyclopedic realm of the imagination. Returning after a break reading some books about music, I was immediately back there, in Westeros, in the world of fear and violence, conspiracies and sorcery, and on tenterhooks awaiting the next shocking surprise.
Number of characters A big feature of the books is the hundreds of characters. Each part of Westeros is dominated by a handful of big name families – the Baratheons, Greyjoys, Starks, Lannisters, Freys come immediately to mind – each of these Houses has scores of subsidiary branches which intertwine as dynastic marriages are arranged – and between all the Big Families are minor noble houses, the so-called bannermen who owe allegiance to a Major House, and these in turn have countless intertwined genealogies. The result is that in his five books to date Martin has named over 1,000 characters, as well as innumerable unnamed smallfolk who generally meet a grisly end. Charles Dickens created just short of a thousand named characters in his 14 novels. Martin has bested him in just five.
Cult Martin’s world is so big it’s spawned a host of secondary contributors – wikis and fanclubs, conventions and merchandise, the hit HBO TV series, cookery books and board games, and a number of fantasy illustrators who’ve given visual life to Martin’s stunning imaginings. Artist and musician Ted Nasmith has made some wonderful pictures of key locations in the Ice and Fire saga, like the one below, of the great Ice Wall which separates the kingdom of Westeros from the frozen North, home to wildlings, cannibals, wargs and the terrifying ‘Others’.
Thriller Though filed under Fantasy, these books deploy the techniques of a thriller: each chapter doesn’t so much move the narrative on as deliver a punch. New and shocking things are continually occurring leaving you on continual tenterhooks as to the next outrageous event. These shocks are part of the larger worldview of stunning brutality, where characters are routinely raped, murdered, tortured, eviscerated or cynically betrayed – and all they themselves think about is scheming, sex or murder.
Multiple POVs Each chapter follows a specific character: the complicated action of ‘Blood and Gold’ is seen from about ten different viewpoints. This allows Martin to move the reader at great speed, very effectively, to completely disparate parts of the fantasy world of Westeros, to allow the reader to witness key developments taking place in the five or so major strands of plot. Like cuts in a TV series, the technique makes for speed of events, and for suspense. You are whisked away from one character just as something vital occurs – and it might be 50 or 100 pages before you return to their part of the plotline.
In this book, the chapter characters are:
- Jaime Lannister, Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Sansa Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Bran Stark, Samwell Tarly.
Style The default setting of the style is clear and spare and functional:
“When morning came, none of them quite realised it at first. The world was still dark, but the black had turned to grey and shapes were beginning to emerge half-seen from the gloom. Jon lowered his bow to stare at the mass of heavy clouds that covered the eastern sky. He could see a glow behind them, but perhaps he was only dreaming. He notched another bow.” (p.301)
There are a few nods in the direction of cod-medievalism, a few stylistic gestures towards the books’ fantasy setting: the most persistent and slightly irritating one is removing the -ly suffix from adverbs. He is like to be angry. He has near finished the task. Sometimes entire paragraphs or chunks of dialogue will use these and other tame medievalisms to create a style closer to Victorian pastiches of medieval prose than the real thing. But these tics don’t conceal the fundamental modernity of the prose and the worldview it conveys.
“Bran was too frightened to shout. The fire had burned down to a few bright embers and his friends were all asleep. He almost slipped his skin and reached out for his wolf, but Summer might be miles away. He couldn’t leave his friends helpless in the dark to face whatever was coming up out of the well.” (p.195)
Coinages Matching and echoing the epic scope of his imagination, Martin has coined completely new, medieval-sounding words to fit the fantasy medievalism of the story. These are a creative and enjoyable aspect of his style:
- New words sept and septon and septa (shrine and priest and priestess to the seven gods), maester (doctor/alchemist), wildlings (wild men from north of the Great Wall), pyromancer (makers of wildfire, a kind of napalm), holdfast.
- New combinations sellsword (mercenary), smallfolk (ordinary people), strongwine, westermen, weirwood (ancient holy woods), ironborn (inhabitant of the western Iron isles), woodharp, stumbletongue, firewine, greensick (seasick), kingsmoot, skinchanger, godswood.
English (like its parent German) allows its users to combine words to make new ones. Martin uses this facility to coin scores of neologisms, just one of the verbal techniques he uses to reinforce the otherness of his fantasy world. And the more there are, the more frequently you encounter them on each page, the greater the sense of moving into his otherworld, the greater the sense of the completeness of the fantasy world.
Another is the slight deformation of existing standard words or phrases. A frequent example is that knights (warriors in armour riding horses) are called ‘Ser’, an obvious distortion of the traditional Sir, which starts out sounding silly, but by sheer repetition comes to seem the natural term.
Names The names of the hundreds and hundreds of characters partake of the alienation affect mentioned above, of being nearly recognisable but bent or distorted. Thus Jon Snow’s fat friend in the Night Watch is Samwell Tarly. Jamie Lannister’s name is almost English. Tywin is definitely foreign and so is Tyrion. Bronn sounds as if it should be English. Joffrey is an English name, distorted. Ditto Margaery, Dorna, Cleos and Kevan, Eddard and Robb, Tommen or Lyonel. Others are entirely alien like Tygett, Darlessa, Gerion, Emmon, Lancel, Arya, Hodder, Mace or Loras.
In these and related ways the text works on a purely verbal level to draw you into a parallel universe, whisperingly close to our English history and culture, and yet bracingly alien and explosive.
The Worldview is shockingly brutal. These books have more in common with Hannibal Lecter than JRR Tolkien. Key characters who we’ve grown to like or at least sympathise with over the previous 2,000 pages of text are brutally snuffed out in a few lines: the young hero stabbed through the heart, the mother whose throat is cut and body thrown naked into the river, the young girl who learns to stab bandits in the belly, the friendly whore who is whipped through the streets, the hero whose sword hand is unceremoniously chopped off, the gallant knight whose face is punched in by a giant, the noble father who is abruptly beheaded, the bard whose tongue is cut out. And these are the leading characters. The secondary characters are killed in scores of ways and by the thousand, burned to death or drowned in the Battle of Blackwater Bay, crushed by mammoths, stabbed by wildlings, shot through the throat with arrows, cut down, hacked to pieces, on almost every page.
Intrigue Allegedly Martin was inspired by the Wars of the Roses with its complicated intriguing and politicking, backstabbing and machiavellianism. Maybe. But the characters in the Song demonstrate depths of cynical manipulation which owe more to the 21st century than the 15th. Also, I can’t make up my mind whether it’s a drawback or a strength, but they are all cynical and manipulative in the same kind of way. The trouble with real life is people are strange and hard to read. Whether you’re chatting up a guest at a party or hiring a new chief executive it’s the hardest thing in the world to read other people, who are continually surprising with their unpredictable combinations of acuteness and obtuseness. Lord Tywin, Cersei, Danaerys, Robb Stark, Catelin, Theon Greyjoy, Lord Mormont, Varys, Petyr Littlefinger, Bronn the sellsword – they all think the same – they are all playing the same game, the Game of Thrones.
Killing off Most of the key players in the Wars of the Roses which, apparently, was one of Martin’s inspirations, lived reasonably long lives. I think the events of the Song have covered a year, during which half of the key players – and a lot of the ones I really liked – have been killed off. I begin to wonder whether Martin will run out of characters before the series ends. On the other hand, these surprise executions very effectively add to the tension. After he’s bumped off a few real favourites, you realise no-one is safe. It makes the books all the more gripping.
Sex The brutality includes the attitude to sex. Both men and women share an essentially male view of sex – functional and brutal and phallocentric. Men routinely get hard and immediately enter their women with no foreplay. Martin makes all the characters use the f word with abandon and on a few occasions the c word. And these are the royal families ie the most highly bred people in this world. Morality starts cruel and brutal at the top of this society and gets worse as you descend. Every woman is permanently at risk of rape. Any man can be murdered at any point, by his lord and master, his brother, his father, his son. No-one is safe.
Pagan In a way these books are a massive advert for Christianity. Though three or four religions are described in Westeros (the religion of the first men, the religion of the children of the forests, the religion of the Seven gods, and the new religion of Light), none of them at all restrain their adherents from astronomical cruelty and barbarism. At the end of his hugely enjoyable and politically savvy History of Christianity (1976), the (Roman Catholic) historian, Paul Johnson, makes the case that human history of the past 2,000 years has been pretty bloodthirsty and appalling – but without the restraining influence of Christianity it would have been a whole lot worse. Whatever you think of that as a defence of Christianity, George RR Martin’s Westeros could be said to be an unflinching depiction of what Europe would have looked like without any restraining religious or cultural influences at all. It is in many (OK, most) ways a vision of Hell.
Check out George RR Martin’s blog.
The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and is now out on dvd. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.