Years before the events of the first book A Game of Thrones, Tywin Lannister became lord of Casterly Rock and inherited a title in shambles. His father had squandered away the family’s fast wealth, leaving them under tremendous debt. It took years for Tywin to restore the family to its prior glory, and during that time he developed a reputation as a cold-hearted, ruthless ruler. One of his “bannermen,” or lesser lords that owe allegiance to the Lannisters, was Lord Reyne of Castamere who, with Lord Tarbeck, rebelled against Tywin. Tywin defeated both, leaving nothing of either the Reynes or Tarbecks alive or standing. A bard immortalized their fall with “The Rains of Castamere,” painting Tywin Lannister in a harsh light. But Tywin took to the song, and it became his anthem for when he wanted to remind enemies and allies alike of what he is capable of.
A Storm of Swords is the strongest book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. It has the most forceful (if not quite “satisfying”) conclusion, with the most significant character development. And it has a curious recurring subtext: the importance of song. People are songs; dynasties are songs; whole lands are songs.
And songs must end.
At the start, Jon Snow has been captured by the wildlings. He was forced to kill his superior in the Night’s Watch and break his vows to spy on the wildlings and their king, Mance Rayder. Soon after Snow’s capture, Rayder interrogates him. Rayder shows a hidden side of himself to Snow, telling of the days he travelled as a minstrel in the lands below the Wall before his campaign. He even played at Winterfell during King Robert Baratheon’s visit at the beginning of Game of Thrones. To convince Rayder of his intentions, Snow asks Rayder if he saw Snow seated at the back of the hall, away from Lord Eddard Stark and his other children, implying his disdain for his social position as a bastard. With this, Rayder warily accepts Snow, keeping him at arm’s length as the wildlings march towards the Wall.
Snow’s character shows the most dramatic change since the start of the series as he falls in love with a wildling woman, Ygritte, and believes himself to have truly forgotten his vows to the Night’s Watch. Snow had escaped sinking into the mire of moral ambiguity until his capture by the wildlings, but here he faces it alone, without the guidance of his friends or mentors in the Watch.
Snow’s trueborn, crippled brother Bran hikes (with the aid of stableboy Hodor) with crannogmen Meera and Jojen to the cold north, in the hopes of learning how to skinwalk (take control of animals) from a three-eyed crow. He learns from Jojen and Meera on their trek, before they meet a dark stranger riding an elk, who takes them far away from the violence surrounding them.
Far to the south at King’s Landing, Tyrion Lannister recovers from the wounds he suffered at the battle of Blackwater. His father Lord Tywin takes charge while Tyrion recovers, ousting him from his position as King’s Hand to the delight of his sister Cersei, King Joffrey’s mother. Tyrion never thought of himself as handsome, but the loss of his nose and half of his face adds to his misery. Worse than that, he has lost hold of the political theater in King’s Landing, which he thought himself master of not long ago. His sister has taken the upper hand in positions where he was comfortable before he was wounded, and his father Tywin remains a constant source of hatred and scorn.
Tyrion’s only solace is with Shae, a prostitute he hired at the end of A Game of Thrones, but even that has been taken from him by his father, who has forced him to marry the lonely, cold Sansa Stark. Meanwhile, another wedding is planned in earnest: King Joffrey is engaged to Margaery Tyrell of the powerful House Florent, whose help the Lannisters need to solidify their rule of Westeros.
To the north, Robb Stark’s reign is in dire straits. He insulted the powerful Freys by marrying an obscure noble, Jeyne Westerling, and his bannermen leave en masse. Catelyn begs him to make amends; he relents, swallowing his pride and offering Lord Walder Frey the marriage of his uncle to one of Frey’s many daughters. He, Catelyn and his retinue travel to the Twins to meet Lord Frey.
Jaime Lannister, older brother of Tyrion (and brother — as well as lover — of Cersei), is released from Riverrun by Catelyn Stark. With the unwanted guard of would-be knight Brienne of Tarth, he travels to King’s Landing to be traded for Catelyn’s two daughters she believes are held captive by the Lannisters (only Sansa remains). He and Brienne are captured by mercenaries working for the frightening Lord Bolton at Harrenhall; one of them cuts off Jaime’s hand. However, Lord Bolton realizes that Jaime would fetch a large ransom, so he sends him and Brienne (but only by Jaime’s insistence, as he’s reluctantly attracted to her) on to King’s Landing. Jaime takes up his old post in the King’s Guard on his arrival, but feels useless without his sword hand.
Another former captive at Harrenhall, Arya Stark, gets lost in Westeros with Gentry and Hot Pie, some of the recruits for the Night’s Watch she travelled with in the last book. They’re captured by the Brotherhood Without Banners, a “Merry Men”-like band of brigands and former bannermen of Eddard Stark. They want to ransom Arya to her aunt, the Lady Lysa Arryn, to pay for needed supplies to help the peasants under their “protection.” Arya doesn’t like this plan, and instead is kidnapped by Sandor Clegane, known as “The Hound,” who fled King’s Landing after the battle of Blackwater. Arya cares nothing for the Hound; and when he is mortally injured, she leaves him to die, departing Westeros for the Free Cities to the east.
Farther to the east, Danaerys sees an opportunity. Her rich benefactor Illyrio (who sold her to Khal Drogo) has sent ships laden with goods to take her back to Pentos. But she decides to use the goods to buy a slave army to conquer Westeros. Counselled by her lovelorn sworn knight Jorah Mormount and the old squire Whitebeard, she buys her army of emotionless eunuch soldiers called the Unsullied, the closest thing to robots we may see in this series. Danaerys then cuts a bloody swath through the eastern lands, conquering every city in her way. But this way of life doesn’t suit her, and after a bloody battle at Meereen, she decides to stay. She learns a distressing truth: both Jorah and Whitebeard (actually Barristan the Bold, former head of the Kingsguard) had betrayed her long ago to the agents of the late King Robert Baratheon. Whitebeard shows humilty and is spared, but Jorah remains smitten and unrepentent, and is banished.
For all the intrigue, bloody battles, and misery in the series, two scenes stand out, placing this book above the first two: the two weddings.
The first happens at the Twins, the hold of house Frey. Robb has given his contrite apology to Lord Walder Frey for not marrying one of his daughters, offering his uncle in his stead. Frey accepts his apology, and the wedding is planned in haste, lest Robb back out again. But as the bannermen for both Stark and Frey gather around the twins, things go horribly, horribly wrong: Robb, Catelyn, and half of his host are slaughtered by the Freys, but not before Catelyn goes insane after seeing the murder of her son Robb. Catelyn suspected something was amiss when she heard one particular song played at the wedding feast: the “Rains of Castamere.”
That same song was also played at the other wedding of Joffrey Baratheon to Margaery Tyrell — once for each of the 77 sumptuous courses served during the feast. But things take an even darker turn: after humiliating his uncle Tyrion in front of the audience, Joffrey chokes on pigeon pie and dies, and Cersei blames innocent Tyrion for the murder.
Sansa flees with the help of the court jester (himself a disgraced drunkard knight) into Petyr Baelish’s protection, a childhood friend of Catelyn Stark who had been in love with her for years. Tyrion is put on trial, where his silver tongue and his hatred of Joffrey make a convincing case for his guilt; the dishonest testimony of his former mistress/prostitute Shae seals the prosecution’s case. As a last resort, Tyrion asks for trial by combat, convincing one of the judges, Oberyn Martell, to fight for him against Gregor Clegane, a massive hulk and monster. Martell dies (but not before mortally stabbing Clegane with a poisoned spear), and Tyrion is pronounced guilty. The day before sentencing, Jaime lets Tyrion out of his cell, believing him innocent. Tyrion kills Shae and his ungrateful father, who gives one last parting insult before Tyrion put an arrow in his chest.
As king after king falls in the south, Jon Snow escapes from the Wildlings in the north and returns to the Wall. There he learns that most of the Watch have been slaughtered by the Others, the zombie-like creatures that everyone in the north fears. But the more immediate threat comes from Mance Rayder, who arrives outside of Castle Black. Snow takes command of the Wall and mounts an impressive defense, but Snow’s resources are limited. Just before the Watch is defeated, the cavalry arrives: Stannis Baratheon, the king defeated at Blackwater, who has marched on the Wall to the aid of the Night’s Watch (at smuggler Davos’s suggestion). He handily defeats Rayder’s forces and settles into an abandoned castle, becoming the new King of the Wall. And in testament to Snow’s bravery, his companions in the Watch name him Lord Commander.
The two last chapters of the book move the series into a chilling, morbid tone. Sansa arrives with Baelish to the hold her Aunt Lysa, whom Baelish has just married. Sansa, friendless, lonely and harrassed by Lysa’s favorite singer, builds a snow castle in a garden: her old home of Winterfell, long since burned down, which she will never see again. Baelish finds her and kisses her; Lysa sees this and threatens to throw her from a cliff, believing Sansa loves Baelish. Baelish insists that Sansa is innocent, comforting Lysa. Then, Baelish pushes Lysa off the cliff, saying the only women he ever loved was Catelyn Stark.
And Catelyn? Her body half-rotted in the river outside the Twins, she is rescued by Arya’s long-lost direwolf and brought back to life. She claims leadership of the Brotherhood Without Banners and seeks bloody revenge on every Frey she can find.
At the end of A Storm of Swords, winter has finally arrived at Westeros. The bloody civil war draws to a close, but a far worse killer has arrived, one even more remorseless than the likes of Tywin Lannister.