Publisher: Voyager (HarperCollins)
Pages: 741 including maps and character-lists (Paperback)
Series: A Song of Ice and Fire #2
Warning: This isn’t a series you can just jump into. If you haven’t read/watched the first book, A Game of Thrones, then there will almost certainly be major spoilers in here, it’s just unavoidable. Though the blurb itself isn’t too spoily the blurbs for later books in the series really are so I’m getting in the practice right now of hiding them beneath the ‘read more’ button – I know I certainly regret glancing at the back covers for books three and four before I knew it was a series I actually wanted to read.
From the ancient citadel of Dragonstone to the forbidding shores of Winterfell, chaos reigns as pretenders to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms prepare to stake their claims. As a prophecy of doom cuts across the sky – a come the colour of blood and flame – five factions struggle for control of a divided land. Against a backdrop of incest and fratricide, alchemy and murder, the price of glory is measured in blood.
And this is where I’m beginning to think I need to change my rating system – I certainly liked this book a lot but it also wasn’t as good as A Game of Thrones, which I would also rate at four stars. Oh well, for the moment we’ll leave the rating system how it is and I’ll just get on with talking about the book.
I found A Clash of Kings is surprisingly slow to get into. I raced through the first book last year but for the first few chapters of this one I found the writing rather clunky – a bit ‘this is referring to something in the last book that I will now describe in case you have forgotten’ exposition heavy. Now that I’m sitting here afterwards with the book pretty much in my hands I can’t remember any specific examples to look up but that’s just the general impression I got. I may well be wrong but I spent the first hundred pager or so enjoying the story but finding a lot of the writing a little bit awkward. To be honest though, I don’t think anyone reads George R.R. Martin for the literary quality of his prose – he’s guilty of at least a couple of slightly annoying habits fantasy writers often fall into. The over-description, both of food and clothes, is particularly obvious – whenever a character sits down to eat or enters a room we are treated to a rather list-like paragraph of what they’re wearing/eating. I understand that they’re meant to convey the different class/culture/values of the characters and the desperation/comfort of their situations but it gets old very quickly. How many pages could have been cut just by trimming down the excessive lists of silks, velvets, gold, silver, stuffed mushrooms, chicken etc. etc. I don’t know, but probably quite a lot. Secondly, Martin seems to have a love affair with certain phrases and the repetition does get a little glaring after a while – I almost started a tally of the amount of times Dany’s chapters mentioned ‘fleeing the city just ahead of the usurper’s/Robert’s hired knives’.
Minor quibbles about the writing aside (and they are minor quibbles) let’s get onto what people do read Martin for; the epic story and complex characters. I know it’s been said before but A Song of Ice and Fire really is fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy, or rather don’t know that they like fantasy (and before I get hit by a rabid fantasy fan it’s also fantasy for people who do know that they like fantasy). The covers may be terrible and offputting but what’s inside them has a surprisingly broad appeal – it’s not your stereotypical Tolkienesque good versus evil where all the bad guys are easily distinguishable ugly monsters (this said by someone who actually really likes Tolkien). It might be setting up for that later with the Others/White Walkers, but in A Clash of Kings it’s still very much people versus people with goodness and brutality on all of the many, many sides. The main characters are fleshed out and, whether they’re good, bad, or just a bit stupid, their motivations are very human.
In fact one of my favourite characters would have to be Cersei. She’s unquestionably evil and nasty and vindictive but damn if I ain’t cheering for her when she reminds us why she has every right to be bitter and to have wanted her husband dead. Now it’s got to be admitted that I do love an evil murderess (it’s why I loved studying Agamemnon and Medea so much at A level) but I’m not sure any woman can really argue with Cersei’s right to be angry when she informs Sansa of a noble woman’s role in Westeros ‘I was to be sold to some stranger like a horse, to be ridden whenever my new owner liked, beaten whenever he liked, and cast aside in time for a younger filly’. Robert may have been personable and fun and likable but he treated his wife and his family terribly and not just with indifference and infidelity – even Ned and Catelyn have no doubts at all that he would have had both her and her children executed if he had tought they were the result of adultery. I would certainly want a hyporcritical bastard like that out of the way were I in Cersei’s shoes. There are strong echoes of all the ‘good’ female characters storylines in Cersei’s past – as a child she wanted to learn fight and be one of the boys like Arya, was bought and sold in return for power like Daenerys, had her romantic notions about her betrothed smashed like Sansa, and would do anything to protect her children like Catelyn – it’s all too easy to see how and why she became the twisted person she is. And that’s kinda what’s wonderful about Martin’s writing and why it’s so easy to overlook the stylistic flaws of it.
My love afair with Cersei aside, I’ll move onto the story. It picks up pretty much straight after A Game of Thrones ends. The characters we followed in the first book are scattered every which way; Sansa and Tyrion in King’s Landing, Arya on the run from the Queen’s men, Bran still stuck in Winterfell, Catelyn with Robb’s armies at Riverrun, Jon Snow beyond the Wall, and Daenery’s aimlessly wandering the continent on the far side of the sea. On top of this we get two new point of view characters; Davos – a smuggler turned knight in Stannis Baratheon’s entourage, and Theon Greyjoy – the hostage-ward of the Starks we were introduced to in the first book. As could be expected this makes for pretty disjointed reading at times and there are moments when I was eagerly anticipating what happens next only to be dragged off to some completely different storyline in a different part of the word. For the most part though the differing points of view all link in very well – the Westeros based storylines are all tied together pretty neatly and Daenerys’ and Jon’s, though separate and unconnected to the main action, still feel important. You can tell that they’re being set up for payoff in later books, when hopefully the other characters will surely have to realise that there’s more serious stuff going on than their petty squabbles for the Iron Throne. Personally I could have done with less Dany going on and on about her birthright/dragons and more Jon Snow having adventures beyond the wall, but I think that’s just individual preference – I like Jon and it felt like there was more going on and that the setting was somewhere I wanted to know more about (they have mammoths!) while I’m actually pretty ambivalent about Danny and wasn’t particularly interested in Quarth.
The only chapters I actually dreading appearing next, though, were Theon Greyjoy’s and that’s actually down to Martin’s character-writing skills I was praising earlier. Theon feels like a real person, a very real person in fact – the sort of real person I completely loathe. He’s an evil shit (in my opinion anyway) but he always blames his actions on somebody else ‘oh I was pressured into it’, never takes responsibility for his own fuck ups, acts like he’s entitled to everything, and treats women as objects that are there purely for his own pleasure. He’s the sort of guy who’s too weak to say ‘no’ when people tell him to do reprehensible things but still expects to be respected. The sort of guy who if he was around today would be one of those men who keeps pursuing you in clubs hoping after a few more drinks you’ll be in no fit state to say ‘no’ and who would loudly spout off the ‘hur, hur, she was asking for it’ mentality if a rape victim was wearing a short skirt. By the midway point I was hoping that one of the women he’s so insulting towards would castrate him in his sleep and let him bleed to death because my original dream of having him torn apart by a pack of direwolves was just too epic for such a petty character. My hatred for Theon above true monsters like Gregor Clegane and Joffrey probably means I’m as short-sighted as Arya about who the bad guys with the real power are but well…it’s fiction, I’m allowed to irrationally hate the jerk more than the actual sociopath, especially if he’s the one I’m being exposed to more.
The other new point of view character, Davos, however, was a delight. Whilst Stannis, Melisandre and the whole feud between the Baratheon brothers over who should be king wasn’t the most engrossing storyline, I really enjoyed Davos’ character. He’s one of the few major low-born characters and the only one so far that’s also a point of view character. His practical down to earth personality and views and lack of entitlement were refreshing. I’m not quite sure exactly how that plot thread is going to continue over the next few books but I really hope we get to see more of Davos. In fact, fuck it, lets get rid of all the entitled, murdering, wankers and put Davos on the throne.
The Starks are, as ever, put though misery after misery. So much so that a couple of the twists and turns ended up being fairly predictable for me because just asking myself ‘how could things get worse for this character?’ led me straight to what then happened. The smug feeling I got afterwards though meant that wasn’t entirely a bad thing! Still loving Bran and Arya ridiculously much and very eager to see where both of their plotlines go, how much more misery will be piled on top of them, and how they’ll respond to it. Bran is now evidently a budding seer-type character, while Arya is turning through necessity and exposure from a scrappy young girl into somebody who’s actually quite violent and merciless. Even Sansa, who I got quite annoyed with for her romantic naivety during A Game of Thrones, has seriously grown on me. Poor girl needs a hug. Catelyn, after pretty much starting the whole chain of war and chaos in the last book, is a bit more of an observer than a do-er in this book. Hopefully she’ll be a bit more involved again in the future but at least the stuff she observed was mostly interesting.
So that leaves Tyrion and I’m sorry but I can’t get on board the ‘Tyrion is the best character’ train. I like him more than others, sure, and he certainly has more political skills and is far better at manipulating people than poor old Ned was but I find some of his humourous dialogue a bit overworked, even in the first book. In the second book, though still high on my list of characters, he slips down a couple more places due to his relationship with Shae. I know she’s meant to be his Achilles heel and that the foolishness of his attachment to her is very deliberate but it still annoyed me the fiftymillionth time it was highlighted by having him scold himself for being in love with a ‘whore’. And that was before I had any particular dislike of Shae as a character in her own right. I could very easily have felt for her situation, in fact, but once she commented ‘they only had sex with her’ when talking about a girl who was raped ‘half-a-hundred times’ (another of those repeated phrases Martin likes) and used ‘I want a hand on my titties’ as a come-on line I totally lost patience with the relationship. Is talking like a six year old meant to be sexy? I mean a bit of vulgarity and forwardness is fine, especially for a prostitute but ‘titties’… Just for that line alone I would want to push her into the spike-filled dry-moat. Again this is a dislike that probably says more about me than the characters themselves – I can’t watch ‘I’m totally seductive, lets have sex’ scenes on TV soaps either because the dialogue is so cringe-inducung – but you know what, I’m happy with that. Maybe Shae and the relationship will grow on me, but I don’t think so. To be honest I’m just waiting for her sudden and inevitable betrayal now and hoping Tyrion stops taking up so many pages thinking about her in the next book because, apart from those moments, his chapters were pretty brilliant.
Ok…character thoughts done and I realise I haven’t said much about the actual plot. That’s cause it’s kind of difficult to say much without spoiling something important. It’s also a bit of a plotless ‘in betweeny’ sort of novel rather than a single self-contained story, a lot of building up for future books without too much resolution. There’s some structure to it of course – with most of the Southern-Westeros chapters leading up to a confrontation between Joffrey’s troops and whichever ‘pretender’ makes it, and the Northern-Westeros/Beyond the wall chapters tell a pretty self-contained story with a sequel hook similar to the Dany storyline in the first book – but it’s most definitely a ‘setting the stage’ book. There are themes and elements there that are obviously meant to run through the whole series – Mace Ryder’s army and the threat beyond the wall, the rise of magic following the return of dragons… I thought both these elements were developed pretty well, particularly in the Bran and Jon Snow chapters (though I admit to not thinking much of Dany’s magically-induced acid-trip) but without knowing the payoff I can’t really say how well. Enough that I’ll definitely read the rest of the series to see where it goes though.
I also appreciated the blurring of the good/bad lines in this book. You’d be kind of forgiven in A Game of Thrones for thinking that South equals nasty and corrupt while North equals good and virtuous. Not so in A Clash of Kings where we get introduced to some truly nasty Northmen and learn that Lanister armies aren’t the only ones employing monsters and committing atrocities. The only thing I would say there is that the unpleasant Northman is a bit unsubtle – it’s the one whose family used to be very into torture, has an unpleanantly violent banner, and was one of the last to swear fealty to the Starks thousands of years ago. It makes sense I guess because of that history – but that history is also really old and bad apples can come from any family. Having it be someone who was given ‘clearly wants to be an evil overlord’ trappings from the very start, it still kinda feels like good and bad is predetermined and an inherited family trait rather than an individual one. Nasty people breed nasty people, perhaps, but look at history and it’s not always people from the same noble families doing these things – most noble families with any power with have one or two people who try to abuse it. That’s hopefully a small complaint though as, considering how dark the series is, I’m sure we’ll be getting nasty characters from all walks of life appearing eventually.
So…I’ll bring this to a conclusion now, I’ve been waffling on a lot longer than I intended. A solid book, not quite as good as the first but I think a lot of that is part of the nature of multi-book epics. Although I really don’t like Theon I’m prepared to put up with both him and the odd bit of heavy-handed description because the story really is very good and the other characters (good and bad) more than make up for it. It took a while to get into the right mood for this book – in part because most of the interesting stuff happens towards the end. But by the conclusion I was racing through the pages. Now that I’m done and back into the series it’is going very hard to resist the temptation to pick up the third book and get started straight away.