(Game of Thrones, Fantasy, High Fantasy)
Grade: Β — (Beta) Fantastic book within the genre, probably worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that may not appeal to individuals who are not fans of a given genre.
A Clash of Kings is the second volume in George R.R. Martins’ Song of Ice and Fire series (better known as Game of Throne Series), which continues the epic saga of political intrigue introduced in the first volume. Picking up after the devastating events of the first novel, it carries the story forward, continuing to build both a fascinating world and characters that we come to care about. This is a ‘can’t put it down’ book that has changed the face of the Fantasy genre, but as a series it has issues with being told in a serial manner with extended periods between dates of publication.
Set in a High Fantasy world with a magic system that does not include D&D style spell casters (i.e. wizards who throw fireballs) or Tolkienesque non-humans (i.e. no elves, dwarves, orcs or other demi-human creatures), but does include dragons, the undead and hints of more fae-like creatures. The story follows the political complexities between the multiple power factions that exist in a medievalesque kingdom that very vaguely resembles the geography of the UK (in that it is divided into three sections: The South, the North and Scotland… er… sorry: Beyond the Wall). The personal and nasty actions of some characters set in motion a series of events that result in a very violent civil war and an epic story.
Wing as I do about George R. R. Martin from time to time, his internal world logic is superb.
Also of great importance are the seasons of the world, for while every year has four seasons, there are also great seasons that last for years at a time, suggesting the planet has an irregular elliptical orbit. In this, the first book of the series, there has been an unusually long Great Summer, and no Great Winter… but as the Stark family motto decrees, it is clear that Winter is Coming.
As the second installment in the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Clash of Kings really does build the world, politics, story and characters introduced by Martin in Game of Thrones. Indeed, it is in this volume that we see Martin’s uncanny ability to write truly deep characters and setting come to fruition. Individuals we hated in the first book develop depth and sympathy, while poor choices by previously admired characters begin to drive us mad.
What is more, it becomes clear in this novel that Martin has done something truly new in the Fantasy genre: he has created a situation where anyone can die at any time, and made it clear that the good and noble characters might very well not triumph. To this end, he has broken the archetypes of fantasy, creating a realistic setting where characters do not just win because they are heroic and where it really is uncertain who will triumph. In part, he has done this through creating very realistic characters whose motivations are deep and complex. Even “villains” such as Jamie Lannister (who is sleeping with his sister, defenestrates a little boy and murdered the king he was sworn to protect) begin to become truly sympathetic. He does this in part by giving them complex motivations, but also by constantly shifting perspective in the books so that it is difficult to determine who the “Main Character” is.
This creates a very welcome change in the genre, even if it does tend to make for a very, very long story. Indeed, though in my first read of this novel back in 1999 I was completely enraptured with the book, when I compare this time through to the recent television series I cannot help but note how HBO told the same story in ten hours (as compared to the 708 pages of tiny font that is the paperback I own).
That having been said, while listening to the audiobook, I still found myself totally enthralled by each narrative line the book follows. Indeed, it amazed me the vast number of very subtle bits of foreshadowing of events in later books that Martin managed to put in this volume – especially considering it was written over ten years before the more recent volumes.
As for the storyline (and with no spoilers) A Clash of Kings opens with the fracturing of the Kingdom of Westeros after the events of the first novel. Jofforoy sits on the Iron Throne in King’s Landing, but both of his uncles, Stannis and Renly, have put forth competing claims to the Kingship. Meanwhile, Ned’s eldest son, Robb Stark is declared King of the North, which effectively means he has seceded from the rest of the Kingdom. What is more, he has not only declared independence, but is marching towards the South. Thus, at the start of the book there are no less than four factions in Westeros, all claiming Kingship in one form of another.
Meanwhile, on the Eastern Continent, Daenerys Targaryen has emerged from the fires with three baby dragons; creatures that when full grown could wipe out armies on their own, but as babies are valuable liabilities that others will want to steal. She and the rag-tag remnants of her nomadic followers are lost in a horrible wasteland, with no food, shelter or water. Together they must make their way across the deserts to a location from which she might hope to succor the needs of her people while building an army to retake her stolen birthright: the Iron Throne of Westeros (in case four would-be Kings weren’t complex enough).
Meanwhile, on the Wall, Jon Snow (Robb’s illegitimate bother) still serves with the Black Watch. There, it is clear that the Scottish… err… sorry, Wyldings… who live Beyond the Wall, are massing for an attack. What is more, it becomes very clear in this volume that the Others are returning. The Others are a deep magic snow people, not quite human, who raise zombie armies and threaten to destroy all living things. Though they have not been heard of for centuries, it seems that as WINTER APPROACHES, they are rising once again.
Within this complex web of narratives we also see beautiful characters develop that make their poor choices seem natural, if no less infuriating. We see Catelyn Stark try to advise her son on how to rule while desperately attempting to save her daughters from captivity. We see Tyrion Lannister attempting to advise his insane and immature nephew, as Joffory ignores him and makes impulsive and destructive choices. Beyond that, we see how the war is effecting the population as a whole through the eyes of the tremendously well written Arya Stark and her crippled brother Bran.
Yet, at the same time, I have now become aware of how seeds of problems in this narrative became issues for Martin’s writing later in the series. There are interesting, very interesting, sidelines that get followed but which really lead to more or less pointless complications later on. There are large portions of the text that tell you what one character is doing during a given period, but don’t add to the story at all.
Even so, re-reading the series at this stage has reminded me of why I enjoyed it so much – and why the last two volumes irritated me to such end.
End result? This is a great series, but suffers from the extremely slow release between volumes and some tediously long side stories later in the books. To that end, you may wish to wait until the series is finished (which Martin promises will happen), or just watch the TV series, which is an excellent adaptation and does in 10 or so episodes what Martin takes big-fat-giant volumes of books to accomplish.
Notes about the Audio Edition:
Random House Audio does a brilliant job of producing this Audio-book, and Roy Dotrice does a wonderful job of narrating it. Indeed, his plumby, highly educated English accent is the perfect choice for the reading of this book, and his regional accents are pretty much spot on (well… totally spot on to my ear).
What is more, his gravelly, mature voice in particular plays well to the post-modern nature of the book, for it is a very calm, traditional voice akin to those one might hope for in a reading of Tolkien or traditional versions of the Arthurian legends. To that end, where the books veer suddenly from the more formulaic natures of fantasy, Dotrice’s adds to the literary surprise without being taken out of the story. In short, a brilliant read for a brilliant listen.
A Game of Thrones Series 2, the Television Series:
Grade: Α – (Alpha) Great book, must read regardless of what Genres you enjoy. Makes you think of things beyond the scope of the book
Yes, indeed, I am once more giving the TV series an Alpha grade while giving the book on which it is based a Beta. Go and read my grading system. An Alpha, a Beta, a Gamma and a Delta Prime are all basically the same grade, but note the degree to which a consumer (be it reader, listener or watcher) would enjoy the series based on whether or not they like the genre.
Having said that, there were several things I preferred in the series starting with their ability to summarize the same material in a much shorter format. Additionally, I really liked the way in which Rose Leselie played Ygrette, giving her much more life and fever than I felt Martin reflected in the book. I also liked the changes they made in the TV series to the interactions between Robb Stark and his love interest. Perhaps the biggest change, however, that I truly feel added to the whole story was earlier addition of Tywyn Lannister to the narrative as an actual character and his interactions with Arya. There were never in the books at this stage, but in the series build up both Arya and Tywin beautifully as characters.
 The series is often called The Game of Thrones after the first book, and indeed the popular television series based on the books has taken the title of the first novel as it’s name. This is always a problem for authors, because what serves as a title for a first book may not be the best title for the series. In this case, it certainly works, but there are some very serious hints about the final outcome of the series (not a spoiler… I don’t know how the series will turn out) and the events that predate the books (and indeed Jon Snow’s true identity) included in the title Song of Ice and Fire.
 In fact, I don’t think there is one. I think the plot is the main character, and everyone else is just caught in its’ tide (OK, I know… that was cheesy… but its true. This truly is postmodern in that there is no single character whose tale this is).
 Really, I do wonder if in the next volume to be published, if he will somehow make the Others sympathetic.