Top positive review
Too long by half but still draws you in
Reviewed in the United States on October 8, 2018
I was pleasantly surprised by this fourth installment of the “Game of Thrones” series. It picks up the pace after previous installments dragged with various characters’ endless wanderings.
The story line deviates from that of the TV series enough to make it fresh even if you watch the latter. I spent time checking maps and websites to firm up my understanding of what went by in a blur on TV.
This series is too long by half. Martin unnecessarily draws out scenes involving minor characters, and constantly introduces avoidable new ones. The cast of characters is so long it occupies nearly 10 percent of this volume. Martin has managed, though, to create a whole world, one even wider and more developed than Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and in its many shades of gray more realistic and adult than the latter. I must credit him.
I found, say, a chapter on Arya’s wandering through Braavos, selling shellfish to many as she gathers information, to be quite evocative and beautiful. Martin could have covered this episode in her saga in a few paragraphs, but instead took a longer and more artistic option, and the result is quite lovely.
This story begins after Tyrion Lannister murders his father Tywin and flees. His sister Cersei Lannister, still Regent but now in charge with her powerful father gone, needs a new Hand to replace him. Her brother Jaime won’t take it, earning her resentment, and catalyzing a growing rift between the two.
For Jaime’s own part he’s jealous over the infidelities of his twin, whom he incestuously loves. Others turn her down too. Cersei is fun to read, but truly an evil queen. We don’t dismiss her, though, because the theme of this vicious game is what it takes to seize power and hold it, and what happens to those who lose. Our world isn’t that different, and we have to ask ourselves, if we were in Cersei’s place, might we make the same choices?
Not wanting Jaime around, Cersei sends him north to secure the huge, strategic Harrenhal castle and to take Riverrun, where the last Tully brother holds out. The TV series didn’t develop the siblings’ growing alienation as much, or Jaime’s realization of the monster his sister is becoming.
Sansa and Littlefinger hole up at the Eyrie. Sansa must keep a secret - that Littlefinger murdered his bride Lisa Arryn - and deceive Arryn bannermen, suspicious of this newly arrived usurper. Sansa sees the depth of Littlefinger’s corruption: he murdered Lisa to protect Sansa, but had planned to all along to seize power over the fief.
Arya arrives in Braavos, finds the House of Black and White, and finally wins their trust enough to begin training as an assassin. She is ordered to eradicate every trace of her former self, but nurtures deep down her secret dream of revenge.
Sam endures a harrowing voyage south to shelter Gilly and her baby with Sam’s family. They lay over in Braavos, where Sam encounters Arya without either realizing their connection through Jon Snow. They are stranded when the Night Watch’s aged maester they accompany - one of the last of the royal Targaryens - is too sick to go on. Sam gloms to Gilly’s tragic secret as he searches desperately to get to Oldtown and the Citadel.
In the Iron Islands, with Balon Greyjoy dead, a new king must be chosen by the people. Balon’s niece Asha throws her hat in, but too few ironborn will accept a woman leader. Another of Balon’s brothers, now high priest, desperately tries to stop another brother, the wicked Euron - whom readers know murdered Balon - from becoming king. A third brother contends but doesn’t have Euron’s ability to sway a crowd. The TV show had Asha’s brother Theon involved here, but in the book he’s been MIA for a couple of volumes.
Brienne roams the riverlands searching for Sansa, trying not to name and thus endanger her. Brienne must endure men resentful of a woman knight, including Sam’s nasty father Randyll Tarly, who’s scouring outlaws from the war-ravaged land. It’s a lot easier when it comes to blows, since the towering Brienne can vanquish almost any man she fights.
The book develops, much further than the TV show, the Sand Snakes plotting in Dorne against their crippled and cautious uncle. They want revenge against the Lannisters for their father’s death. Cersei’s daughter Myrcella is a Martell hostage and a pawn in the game. The focus on TV is the prince’s colorfully violent bastard nieces, but here it’s on his more conventional daughter Arienne, who plays a high-stakes game using her feminine wiles on Myrcella’s bodyguard, Arys Oakheart of Jaime’s officially celibate King’s Guard.
Back in King’s Landing, Cersei surrounds herself with mediocrities after alienating those few good people who might have helped her. She wants to eliminate her young son’s bride, Margaery Tyrell, as a rival. She fears the latter aims to depose Cersei through the boy king she increasingly influences.
We don’t see Tyrion, Daenarys, Jon, Stannis, the Onion Lord, or Bran (I don’t miss him, he bores me, along with his frog-gigging companions), but the story still drew me in.
Westeros is a chaotic mess after years of civil war. Much of it, particularly the central Riverlands, is a smoking, corpse-choked ruin, full of orphans, broken people and bandits. There are rumors of dragons across the sea.