A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin
It feels a little odd, I have to be honest, to be getting into Martin this late in the game—while I’m getting excited for the HBO adaptation and forcing myself to space out the books, I’ve encountered people who, quite rationally, want to wait until the entire series is finished (or in a position to be finished) and other people who are quite openly hostile about it, such as a gentleman I encountered in a book store who warned me off the books. (I ignored him.) However, I also think I came in at just the right time—I’ve a sneaking suspicion that A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in the series, will be released as a tie-in with the show. (Supporting my theory is Martin claiming he can see the light at the end of the tunnel in this podcast last month. But I’d take that well-salted.) But however it works out, I’m glad I’ve gotten into this series. Spoilers for A Game of Thrones abound, so beware!
A Clash of Kings picks up where A Game of Thrones left off; after the death of King Robert Baratheon and the execution of Eddard Stark, a civil war (later known as The War of the Five Kings) breaks out in Westeros. While Robert’s heir, the thirteen year old Joffrey, sits on the Iron Throne of Westeros, Robb Stark, Eddard’s eldest son, has become the King in the North, while Robert’s brothers, Stannis and Renly, struggle to gain their brother’s throne from a child who is not his royal issue. Across the sea, Daenaerys Targaryen, the last heir of the house Robert Baratheon took the throne from, continues to gather her forces to retake Westeros, aided—and hindered—by her newly hatched dragons. And in the north, on the Wall that defends Westeros’ northern border, the men of the Night’s Watch continue to contend with dark forces and the wild people of the North, without help from a shattered kingdom more concerned with their own struggles.
I’m very impressed by Martin’s use of scope in the novel on two levels. First, there’s simply the sheer amount of people and stories he’s dealing with, although they can be easily herded into three main storylines; as in the acknowledgements for A Game of the Thrones, Martin offers up a smug remark that he’s thoroughly earned—as he says, the devil is in the details. But there’s also the way he plays with scope, zooming in and out at will, showing us this civil war from the perspective of people in all stations of life and in geographic perspective; Daenaerys, living across the sea, learns of Robert’s death halfway through A Clash of Kings, living among vibrant and diverse cultures on an entirely different continent. It shows you just how petty war can be, especially when we’re dealing with Joffrey, a brutally sadistic and gorgeous (the two main traits of House Lannister, of which he is doubly) teenage boy playing at king. There’s a spectacular moment where Joffrey, being the bloodthirsty sadist he is, gets carried away sentencing someone to death—and cuts himself on the Iron Throne, which is infamously composed of half-melted weapons. This is war, in all its horror, violence, and, yes, occasional glory, as Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf known as the Imp, finally experiences battle fever. It’s quite an accomplishment.
Another accomplishment on Martin’s part is rendering every character as utterly human. I found myself growing fond of Stannis Baratheon, the late Robert’s older brother, a stern and stoic man who adheres to a high moral code. While I do admit I have to flip to the House listings in the back to get my bearings, every viewpoint character and most other characters are distinctive, well-written, and complex. Martin particularly succeeds in writing Sansa and Arya Stark, Eddard’s young daughters. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book by a male author that deals with a girl’s menarche, but he does it quite well for Sansa, who realizes that, now that she can bear children, she’s in even more danger from Joffrey, to whom she’s betrothed. I think I’m pulling out Sansa and Arya because they represent the ends of a spectrum; Sansa’s innocence, optimism, and belief in the good of people is slowly being destroyed, while Arya turns brutally practical and bitterly rejecting the gods in the face of all the awful things that happen to her. There’s plenty more where that came from—Theon Greyjoy, a seafarer who seeks to take the Starks’ Winterfell, Ser Davos Seaworth, a smuggler turned knight for Stannis Baratheon, and Catelyn Stark, who is still reeling from the death of her husband.
I do have to say that A Clash of Kings—indeed, any doorstopper fantasy series—can be fatiguing. It’s a well-built story—an assault on the capital forms the solid climax—but it’s so complex (although never too complex) and there’s so much of it that I’d advise readers to pace yourself. (Mostly because I didn’t, spending all day New Year’s Eve with it.) While I’m looking forward to picking up A Storm of Swords, I’m also very happy to pace myself. Perhaps after the show’s first season…
Bottom line: Martin does it again; a thrillingly dark and complex world populating by equally dark and complex characters from all walks of life, organically struggling for power—a struggle that, in the context of the supernatural forces beyond the Wall and the rising threat of Daenaerys Targaryen, is revealed for the petty struggle it is. But remember to pace yourself; it’s complex and there’s a lot of it. (And a lot more where it came from…)
I bought this book from a thrift store.