Chett is a disenfranchised steward of the Night’s Watch, and he has decided to kill his commanders and flee the service. He was sentenced to the Night’s Watch after he murdered a girl named Bessa, who insulted him. Chett watches over the kennels, but he is tired of the cold and hard work, and he has a premonition that the ancient fort where they've set up, called the Fist of the First Men, will be attacked. He has conspired to desert with a number of others, and Chett is specifically assigned the task of killing Samwell Tarly, the clumsy and overweight keeper of the ravens. But before he can execute the plan, he hears three horn blasts, which signal an invasion by the Others. The Others are ghostly corpses that have not been seen for centuries. The Night’s Watch prepares for battle, and Chett’s plan is foiled.
Jaime Lannister is held prisoner in a boat, which is sailing downriver. According to an arrangement, Jaime will be traded for the Stark daughters, Sansa and Arya. Jaime’s guards are Brienne, a woman who wishes to be a knight, and a knight named Ser Cleos. Jaime is manacled and incapable of escape, and he consistently insults Brienne for being ugly and masculine. They find the site of a peasant massacre, and after some debate, decide to bury the corpses. Before they can finish, a warship floats down the river and the trio is forced to row away. Captaining the warship, Ser Robyn Ryger plans to take Jaime and bring him back to the Starks, but Jaime and his captors manage to escape.
Catelyn Stark released Jaime on condition that he send her daughters back when he gets back to King's Landing, but her family did not authorize the deal. Catelyn is dubbed a traitor and placed under house arrest. Catelyn is allowed to care for her sick and dying father, but she does not understand when he mutters “Tansy” over and over. Catelyn’s brother Edmure reveals that he plotted to capture Jaime back, ruining Catelyn’s deal. Catelyn fears she will never see her daughters again.
Arya has just fled the fortress of Harrenhal with her friends Gendry and Hot Pie. As they travel through the open woodland, they are vulnerable to ambush and abduction. The three companions argue about which direction to travel. Arya has a vivid dream about slaughtering members of the Brave Companions, a gang of mercenaries who are likely tailing them. Twelve-year-old Arya already has a list of people she would like to kill for past crimes against her family and friends, and she relishes this dream.
During the epic Battle of Blackwater, the dwarf Tyrion fought bravely for the House of Lannister, but he was critically wounded. His nose is grotesquely damaged, and much of his body is hurt. As he recovers, Tyrion believes he is under surveillance in his own home, and he asks fellow courtiers for updates on the war. Tyrion finally faces his father Tywin and seeks gratitude for his courage and strategy in battle. But Tywin disregards Tyrion, chastising him for his love of prostitutes and only promising Tyrion a vague reward.
After miraculously surviving the Battle of Blackwater, Ser Davos is stranded on a small island, hurt and barely alive. Davos swore to fight for Stannis Baratheon, one of the new kings of the Seven Kingdoms, but because of numerous tactical errors, their fleet was destroyed, and many of Davos’s sons drowned or were burned alive in wildfire. At first Davos expects to die, but then a passing ship rescues him. Luckily, the crew also owes allegiance to King Stannis.
Until recently, Sansa Stark was betrothed to the cruel King Joffrey Baratheon, but due to some political maneuvering, Joffrey will now marry Margaery Tyrell. Sansa receives an invitation to dine with Margaery and the Tyrells, and she is anxious about this meeting, particularly because of the intimidating Olenna Redwyne, or “Queen of Thorns,” who will attend. When they dine, Olenna tells the jester to sing loudly so they can have a private conversation and not be overheard. Sansa reveals that Joffrey is abusive and cruel.
Before he died, Qhorin Halfhand gave a final order to Jon Snow to investigate the wildlings. Jon promised to pretend to abandon the Night’s Watch and join the wildling ranks. Jon already has a wildling prisoner, Ygritte, when he arrives at the massive wildling camp. Here he meets Mance Rayder, a former brother of the Night’s Watch who left to join the wildlings, whom he calls the “Free Folk.” The wildlings are deeply suspicious of Jon’s motives, and when they ask why he has betrayed his people, Jon cites his bastardry and alleges poor treatment by the Stark family.
These first chapters show the immediate aftermath of A Clash of Kings. The previous book ended with an enormous sea battle, Arya’s flight, and Catelyn’s dangerous bargain to trade Jaime for her daughters. The chapters review these events by having characters think or talk about their recent choices and predicaments. Many communicate their plans and motivations through dialogue, but others, because they are uncertain whom to trust, express their thoughts through inner monologues. As a result these chapters rely heavily on italicized “thoughts,” which allow readers to know exactly what the characters are thinking. There is also a deal of authorial exposition. The chapters thus serve more to orient the reader than advance the plot.
The Prologue, meanwhile, provides tone and foreshadowing for the rest of the book. Chett is grim and seditious, and his environment is cold and miserable. His past crime, murdering a girl for not sleeping with him, is repulsive. Throughout the novel, we must address ugly personalities and their unpleasant decisions. At the same time, Chett is a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch, and his mission to protect Westeros from invaders is supposedly selfless. From the first page, we see that this world has two conflicting mentalities, the noble oaths of knights, and the selfish desires of wayward men. A great number of the characters in the book are self-interested and morally reprehensible, even if they're serving noble causes. Chett's thinking reveals this dichotomy. To complicate matters, Chett hears three horn blasts, which signify that the Others have come. The Others are undead warriors that are almost impossible to kill. In a world of nonstop violence, the Others conjure a frightening image of the dead returning from their graves. Chett’s vivid fear communicates to the reader that something far worse than a five-way civil war is coming, and not even a 700-foot wall can stop it.
The use of point-of-view writing is a functional stylistic device, and it also suggests a particular worldview. The events in the book form an endless labyrinth of complications and dead ends, and since readers can only see what the particular character that is the focus of the chapter sees, it allows the novel to build suspense. For instance, Jon has orders to join the wildlings, so he must convince them of his conversion. He's never totally certain whether they believe him though, and if they decide they don't trust him and choose to execute him, there's little he can do about it. Showing the gambit from Jon's point of view allows the reader to experience the same anxiety Jon feels while he wonders whether he has convinced the wildlings. But using limited point of view to tell the story also says something more broad about the way people experience the world. Everyone, the novel suggests, has their own subjective worldview. Jaime doesn't see himself as a villain, for example, though most other people do. To Catelyn, there is nothing more important than getting her daughters back, though to many of the Stark bannermen the girls are less valuable than to their cause than Jaime is. Two characters may see the same situation in very different ways because their understanding of everything is shaped by their personal circumstances and history, suggesting that nobody can know the whole truth about a situation but only what they observe through their own personal keyhole.
The episodic narrative is extremely important to A Song of Ice and Fire, not only in this book, but in all seven volumes. These chapters kickstart A Storm of Swords, but the various plots began nearly 2,000 pages earlier. On the surface, A Storm of Swords simply continues a long-form narrative. The various books conjoin as one long story, interrupted only by covers and copyright pages. The author may also be making a point about the nature of politics and armed conflicts. None of these subplots begin or end, they only morph into additional plots, or combine with other plots. When characters have good fortune, like Davos surviving the Battle of Blackwater, they usually face another problem, such as isolation on a rocky cove. When a passing ship offers to rescue Davos, he is uncertain whether to trust the sailors. When the sailors claim to also serve King Stannis, as Davos does, he is saved but may still die of exhaustion. These opening chapters reiterate a common theme in the Song of Ice and Fire series, that the world is constantly changing and change often brings new challenges.
From the start, the novel also deals with issues of freedom and captivity, a theme that will reappear at times throughout the rest of the book. In some scenarios the captivity is literal, while in others the prison is figurative. Jaime is in manacles as Brienne and Ser Cleos take him back to King's Landing. Catelyn is imprisoned in her home under accusations of treason. Sansa, though she isn't shackled or restricted to a room, is nonetheless a hostage of the Lannisters and she's unable to leave King's Landing. Davos, on the other hand, isn't being held by any captors, but he is stranded on an island in a bay and can't leave of his own volition. Jon Snow, meanwhile, is trapped in a dangerous situation from which there's no clear escape. Lastly, Arya is desperately trying to avoid capture. With the exception of Davos, who is rescued, each character searches for freedom from their situation, and that search is a major motivation to each in the novel.