Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review of "A Clash of Kings" by George R.R. Martin

(Warning: do not read this review unless you want parts of A Game of Thrones spoiled.)

Picking up slightly after the final events of A Game ofThrones, George R.R. Martin’s second novel in the Song of Ice and Fires series, A Clash of Kings (1998), continues to build story, pushing matters across Westeros and beyond toward a larger climax.  Events in the east, at the Wall, and especially in the heartland of Westeros are all taken to the next level.  Suffering no sequel blues, readers who loved the former will feast on the latter as the reads like a pure extension of A Game of Thrones.

The title apt, A Clash of Kings is referred to internally in the novel as the War of Five Kings.   Houses Stark, Lannister, Greyjoy, and Barratheon (both Stannis and Renly) are vying for the throne of swords at King’s Landing.  New characters introduced and viewpoints added, the majority of the plots encompass this larger group at war.  Favorites and hated each being put through the wringer by Martin, once again nobody’s fate is certain, yet all shifts and moves organically.

Having secured their position in the north at the end of A Game of Thrones, Robb and those supporting House Stark move south toward Riverrun and plot to overthrow those who killed Eddard.  The Lannisters, firmly entrenched at King’s Landing and Lannisport, fight back, trying to drive the last remnants of the Starks and their allies from the land.  But from two other sides the Barratheons threaten.  Each believing the throne to be theirs, Stannis and Renly gather troops for an assault on the capital.  And lastly, a new story thread is introduced to vie for the throne.  Long awaiting their moment to retake power, the Greyjoys declare independence and push their raiders into the fray from the sea.  A multi-sided fight resulting where alliances change by the minute, the throne is up for grabs.  Who will win the clash of kings, Martin asks.

To witness events transpiring in new settings, Martin adds a couple new characters viewpoints.  Theon Greyjoy, House Stark’s erstwhile steward in A Game of Thrones, is a glass through which events on the Iron Islands are viewed.  Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight, is a soft and therefore sympathetic character with an eye on things happening in Stannis' world.  And of course, the prologue of death, which we will let readers encounter on their own. 

Along with the introduction of additional viewpoints, most old ones return.  House Stark continues to be well represented by Bran, Arya, Sansa, and Catelyn.  Across the sea, Daenerys continues gathering power and forces for a return to Westeros, her dragons growing each day.  At the wall, Jon continues fighting to keep his place while things beyond the wall grow in threat.  And Tyrion maintains his view to all things Lannister in the capital.  Nothing lost in the break between novels, each returning character’s story develops in surprising yet fitting turns.  Martin continues to show he has a firm grip on the overall plot’s direction.  

Despite the control Martin exhibits, there are some minor weak points appearing in the story.  Without spoiling matters, there is a particular use of fantasy that, if it is as it appears, has the potential to be a major deal breaker should the character survive to use their powers in the future.  The equivalent of giving a Roman soldier a machine gun, anything seems possible—an idea which doesn’t fit in with the relatively realist fantasy motifs used thus far in the series.  However, I will wait to see how it pans out before criticizing further.  Secondly, there is a recurring visual throughout the story, a red comet, which likewise seems out of place.  Having no effect on the plot, one wonders why Martin included it other than for literary reasons.  Similar symbols not threading the narratives of any of the other installments of A Song of Ice and Fire, the comet only distracts from rather than develops the story.

In the end, A Clash of Kings, along with establishing a naming pattern for the series, is a very strong sequel.  Those who enjoyed A Game of Thrones will find few faults, the story picking up seamlessly where things left off.  Gray characterization, which was a strong suit of the first novel, remains at the fore of Martin’s storytelling.  And the gears within gears within gears of plot, the other strong suit of A Game of Thrones, continue spinning effortlessly and enjoyably.  Likewise, the motif of interweaving Westeros legend with current events continues; the happenings at the climax of A Gameof Thrones play an important role in determining allegiance and opinion among the various factions left vying for power in the War of Five Kings.  Like the battle which culminates the novel, A Clash of Kings proves A Song of Ice and Fire has power to stay - at least through a sequel.

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