Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin

I had a bit more time on my hands then I knew what to do with last week so I attempted to write another review. Unfortunately this does not mean I am back. I will try to written another next week but don't expect a resumption of my two reviews a week schedule just yet.

Earlier this year, HBO aired the television adaptation of Martin's A Game of Thrones. It turned out to be huge success. I've only seen a few episodes but they appear to have stuck quite close to the original book, something that, given the scope of the series, can't have been easy. Filming for the second season, based on A Clash of Kings is under way and with the fifth volume in the series, A Dance with Dragons out in July, 2011 is turning into a very good year for Martin. I was about 650 pages into A Dance with Dragons when my girlfriend decided to steal it from me (truth be told, it was a birthday present). It will be a few more days before I can continue that story so in the mean time I consoled myself with a reread of the second book. It was A Clash of Kings that definitively hooked me on this series, the point in the story where the plot just explodes into so many directions that it is almost inconceivable that Martin will be able to pull them all back together again. Still, given what I have read of the fifth book, he may be able to pull it off.

The first book centred around the murder of John Arryn, the Hand of the King and one of the most powerful nobles in the realm, who died taking secret and potentially dangerous information into his grave. In the end, the next hand, Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell figures out what is going on and looses his head in the process. The genie is out of the bottle however, no matter how hard the Lannister family tries to pretend Queen Cercei's son Joffrey is the legitimate heir to the throne of the now departed King Robert, several parties smell blood. In the north, Lord Eddards bannermen scream for revenge and name his son Robb King of the North. Stannis Baratheon, Robert's younger brother feels he is the legitimate heir, now that Cercei's infidelity has been 'proven'. His younger brother Renly feels he'd be a much better king however, and raises support for his own attempt to seize the Iron Throne. On the Iron Islands, Lord Ballon Greyjoy, painfully subjected to the rule of Robert after a bloody rebellion a decade ago, sees an opportunity to become independent once more and proclaims himself King of the Isles. In the blink of an eye, the Seven Kingdoms have five kings instead of one. Blind to the threats massing on their border in the north, the emergence of a new trio of dragons across the sea and even the turning of the season, Robert's once unified Kingdom plunges into war.

Where A Game of Thrones offers a more of less complete story arc, we leave that approach behind us in this second volume. Martin is now fully committed to the series and it is immediately apparent that he is not going to be able to contain it in the originally envisioned trilogy. The first book provides us with the Casus Belli, in this book, things escalate to an incredible mess. Martin masterfully peels back the cultivated mannerisms and the gloss of chivalry of the long years of peace under King Robert and reveals a rawer, wilder and in many cases crueller face of the Seven Kingdom's nobles. Years of prosperity and peace lost in the blink of an eye, as the forces driving the Kingdoms apart are suddenly released. To keep his story from completely running away with him, Martin does not pay as much attention to the story line of Daenerys. If there is any part of the book that could be considered weak, it is probably her tale.

The story is mostly told from the same points of view as the previous book. Martin has lost one (obviously) and adds Theon Greyjoy to cover events on the Iron Islands and Davos Seaworth, who is in the service of Stannis Baratheon. I must admit, neither are favourites of mine. Davos is a fairly stagnant character. A man converted to Stannis' harsh sense of justice, his loyalty appears unshakable. I always thought this conversion a bit strange, Stannis is not a man to inspire such feelings in people, as Martin makes abundantly clear in this book. The author does more with Theon's character later on in the series. In this book, he strikes me as a selfish and spoilt little prick who is about the have a head on collision with the world.

The star of this second volume in the series is without a doubt Tyrion. Every time I read one of his chapters I wonder how much of Henry Munce he put into Tyrion. Born in the snake pit that is the Lannister household Tyrion has no illusion about the world and his place in it whatsoever. A number of painful lessons in the past have taught him what a dwarf, even a high born one, can expect in the world. Deep down inside he still wants justice and despite his open cynicism and self depreciating comments, he feels it is the best policy. His handling of the situation in King's Landing is his chance to put it into practice and it mercilessly exposes his weaknesses. I thought Martin showed the extend of Tyrion's control over the situation in this part of the story very well. Although quite a lot of what Tyrion tries to do appears to be successful, he is walking on eggshells. Could it be that the world wise and well read Tyrion is a bit naive in the ways of governing a nation?

What Martin does not show us in this book is the campaign of Robb Stark against the Lannisters. Although the Lannisters appear to be loosing, Robb wins all of his battles, his strategic position is not getting any better. As his mother Catelyn puts it, he wins all his battles but somehow he is loosing the war. Not that A Clash of Kings is short on battle scenes, the Battle of the Blackwater is one of the largest in the books and certainly a fitting climax to the novel but it is interesting that Martin passes up on the opportunity to show what Robb is up to. It's a clever bit of plotting to keep Robb away from the main story for a bit. Martin uses it to great effect to deliver one of the shocks A Storm of Swords is known for. It made me wonder why Martin decided not to make Robb a point of view character though, except for Rickon and Robb, all of Eddard's children are.

I have always thought of A Clash of Kings as my favourite book. I don't think A Dance With Dragons will change anything about that. Martin is still too busy pulling together the sprawling story to deliver a novel that works very well on it's own. I think I should reread A Storm of Swords again though. After this reread I've seen a lot of things Martin starts in this book that will have major repercussions in the next. I'm not sure I was quite as aware of that when I read A Clash of Kings of the first time in English a number of years back. I may change my mind after a reread of the third book. Still, A Clash of Kings is the book that got me hooked on this series, the book in which Martin unveils his world in all it's complexity and terror, and the book that raises it above the ordinary multi-volume epic fantasy series. It is the second volume in a seven book series however, don't expect a neat ending like A Game of Thrones had.

Book Details
Title: A Clash of Kings
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 741
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-00-647989-8
First published: 1998

1 comment:

  1. The museum is a beautiful building a comfortable walk from the new central train station. No East and West anymore - just east and west. No 'scuses there. clash of kings hack tool