Monday, July 23, 2012

A Clash of Kings, by George R. R. Martin (1998)

If you look at the history of real civilizations, you'll find that they all go through periods of dark ages, when chaos rules and rulers find their grasp on power tenuous and the people don't feel safe. By the end of George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, that is exactly where the the Seven Kingdoms finds itself. As you might guess from the title, there is more than one king, and they're not exactly friendly with one another. Some are willing to share the kingdom; others aren't. The desire for power is stronger than the need for peace. What Martin does in A Clash of Kings, the second installment of his A Song of Ice and Fire series, is create the sense that nobody is safe, that anything can change on a whim, and that the crown is guaranteed for none.

*For those who have not read the series at all, you might want to skip to the last paragraph, or just skip this review entirely, unless you're not afraid of spoilers. I certainly wouldn't recommend reading this if you have not read the first book in the series.*

Stannis Barratheon from the HBO series
The death of King Robert Barratheon was the spark that set the Seven Kingdoms into chaos. The Lannisters took power, claiming Joffrey as king, despite his dubious birth. Joffrey makes an awful king. He acts like a little kid who drops an army of black ants at a red ant mound just to watch them kill each other. His first major decision, beheading Ned Stark, goes against the advice of all of his counselors and all but ensures Robb Stark, now King of the North, will not accept any peace offerings. This is where we find ourselves at the start of book two. One of the main characters is dead, but two new have joined: Davos Seaworth and Theon Greyjoy.

Through Davos we meet Stannis Barratheon, brother to Robert and the rightful heir to the king. Stannis is cold-hearted, admirable only in his distaste for lavish parties and tournaments, but otherwise inflexible and unforgiving. He finds no love amongst his people. Davos is a better choice to follow. Named the Onion Knight, he's the only advisor who Stannis fully trusts, because when Stannis held Storm's End years ago, Davos came to the rescue with a ship full of onions while the castle was under siege. Davos, a smuggler, was knighted, but at the cost of the fingers on one hand, under Stannis' brand of justice. Stannis relies on Davos because Davos is not deceitful. He doesn't sugarcoat his words. He speaks his mind and is loyal. His loyalty, his kindness, and his frankness make him a lot like Ned Stark, and he is one of the few truly likeable characters in the novel.

Davos Seaworth from the HBO series
Theon you will recognize from the first book, though you learn much more about him in the second. Interestingly, in the first season of the HBO series he plays a much more prominent role than he does in the first book. We learn that Theon was a ward to the Starks in name, but in actuality he was a hostage. Ten years before, Theon's father, Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands, rebelled against King Robert, but his rebellion was crushed and the Starks took Theon as a ward to prevent them from rebelling again. Theon was ten years a Greyjoy and ten years a Stark, and ends up a confused, despicable character. Part of me wants to pity Theon. Growing up in Winterfell meant he would no longer be viewed by his father as being "Ironborn," and at Winterfell he felt loved only by Robb, but lived with the reminder that he didn't belong there. We get glimpses of Theon's torment. He's a lot like Viserys, though perhaps a little more competent. I wanted to pity Theon, but couldn't.
Theon Greyjoy from the HBO series

There are certainly improvements in some of the storylines this time around. I think Arya's story is much more interesting, as is Bran's. Arya finds herself in some interesting places, and at one point has the potential to cripple one of the major contenders for power if only she could have looked beyond her own selfish concerns. And Bran seems to have some sort of connection with his direwolf, Summer. Two children, Jojen and Meera, visit Winterfell to help provide a lift to Bran's chapters. Jojen seems to have some magical abilities, and magic has started to become a major player in the realm, despite the skepticism of the maesters. One gets the feeling things of the old world are making a return.

Renly Barratheon from the HBO series
From Jon's point of view we learn about the goings-on beyond the wall, and the developments there are troubling, as are some of the decisions Jon is forced to make. Through Catelyn we get to know Renly, the fourth king of the realm. The youngest Barratheon is very likeable, and would perhaps make the best king of the bunch, except he shares in his oldest brother's extravagance. We also meet a new character, Brienne, a woman warrior promoted to Renly's Rainbow Guard. Interestingly, the HBO series has a very surprising behind-the-scenes look at Renly.

Dany's story is mostly put on the back burner. Last we saw her she cracked open her dragon eggs and now has three young dragons. She travels through the Red Waste in search of civilization with Ser Jorah Mormont and 100 Dothraki. Despite how little a role she plays in the overall story, the novel ends with some promising developments for her.

Sansa Stark from the HBO series
Sansa Stark remains a prisoner of the Lannisters, betrothed to King Joffrey. Poor Sansa. She made some horrible mistakes at the end of the first book, but how can you really blame a young girl blinded by thoughts of love? Sansa no longer loves her betrothed, for obvious reasons, but she must pretend to love him or face his wrath. She's a sweet girl, and sympathetic. When a knight, Ser Dontos, makes a fool of himself at a small tournament, Sansa saves him from execution by Joffrey, asking that he be made their fool. For this, Ser Dontos is in her debt. We also get to know the Hound better. He's a terrifying man and difficult to like, but his presence provides an undeniable sense of security. It's clear that he loves Sansa, as he refuses Joffrey's commands to hit her and calls "little bird." It hurts him that his burnt face frightens her, though the only way he shows hurt is through anger. He makes for an interesting contrast to his brother, Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain. Ser Gregor has absolutely no honor, despite his status as a knight. The Hound despises titles, but he has more honor than most of the knights in the novel. It takes more than an oath to have honor.

Sandor Clegane, aka The Hound, from the HBO series
Tyrion, as you might recall, was my favorite character from the first book, and that doesn't change in this one. He is the kindest member of the Lannister family, and as Hand of the King he tries his best to undo the damages Joffrey has done, while ensuring the Lannisters hold onto their power. Of course, because I don't much care for the Lannisters in general, I find it difficult to cheer for Tyrion's aims, though I like him as a character. It's very entertaining watching the way he handles Varys and Littlefinger and Grand Maester Pycelle, and as always he has a sharp wit that's good for plenty of laughs. I'm not sure I much care for the way the plot develops with his whore, Shae, but that's only a minor part of the plot.

One of the critiques I have for the first book, though I didn't mention it in my review, is that very little attention is spent on religion. That is not the case here. We get to know the religion of the Stark's religion better, which has something to do with praying the godswood. Catelyn's family, and many others, prays to the new gods, seven in all, with the likes of the Mother and the Warrior. The Greyjoys pray to the Drowned Gods, perhaps because they are situated on an island. Stannis has formed an alliance with a priestess named Melisandre, who prays to the God of Light, her religion being the only monotheistic one in the novel. I find it difficult to imagine an epic series like this to play out with little reference to religion, but Martin fortunately devotes a little more time to it here.

A Clash of Kings starts off faster than A Game of Thrones. The prologue is better and we already know most of the main players and events. We learn more about some of the characters, such as Theon, though others like Dany fall under the radar. There is more sex and more violence this time around, or at least it seems more graphic, not that this is an improvement. I think Martin goes too far at times, but the HBO series takes it even further, sometimes including scenes that add nothing to the development of the plot or characters. I think the end of the novel falters in comparison to the first book. Where A Game of Thrones left off with several jaw-dropping cliffhangers, A Clash of Kings ends less climatically. There is an epic battle at the end, but how it concludes feels a little too convenient. A few characters have unknown fates, some stake off on adventures, but mostly nothing so impressive happens that I feel I can't wait to start the next book. I don't mean to say this is not a great novel, as it really is, and it still leaves me clamoring for more. The series truly is one of a kind, and I can't think of any other fantasy world that feels so real and is so well-developed and full of surprises. In a way, I wish it never ended.

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