Review of George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings
A Song of Ice and Fire Continues
George R. R. Martin chronicles the violence and uncertainty that follows the death of King Robert Baratheon and the fragmenting of the Seven Kingdoms.
Seat of Power
Robert’s brothers, Renly and Stannis, each press a claim to the Iron Throne by calling armies and in the case of the latter, by accepting a new religion that predicts his victory with the appearance of a red comet. Robert’s young son, Joffrey, holds the throne through the vicious protectiveness of his mother and the strategy and ruthless calculation of his misshapen uncle, Tyrion “the Imp” Lannister. The North, in the mean time, has declared itself free with Robb Stark as king, but he leaves his capital of Winterfell to press his war of vengeance against the Lannisters. Robb hopes to entice the Greyjoys of the Iron Islands to his cause with promises of independence and wealth, but Balon Greyjoy wants to win glory the way his piratical ancestors did and sets his sights on conquering lands left undefended by the war. Waiting across the sea is Daenerys Targaryen searching for a way to return and with her three infant dragons and reclaim the Iron Throne that Robert stole from her family years ago.
The Way of Heroes
A pleasure of the book, and of much of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, is watching the way he sets up standard fantasy tropes and stereotypes only to pick them apart or play them in ways to build his own setting and style. For instance, the bulk of fantasy writing deals with the slow retreat of magic from the world—Tolkien helped establish this hallmark in The Lord of the Rings as it adds to the underlying tragedy of the known world disappearing into history. In A Clash of Kings, however, readers see this process happen backwards as magic slowly leaks back into the world with the birth of Daenerys’s dragons (not to mention the grotesque warlocks who offer to aid her at one point), Bran Stark’s dreams where he sees through the eyes of his wolf, the undead Others north of the Wall, and the Red Woman who converts Stannis and uses secret arts belonging to her foreign religion. As such, the setting of Westeros has a different atmosphere that keeps the traditional fantasy readers off-balance as the novel develops.
In similar fashion, Martin does not dwell on the battles raging across the Seven Kingdoms. Part of this development stems from his use of third person limited point of view, and few of the narrative voices come from knights of soldiers who fight in the war. Instead, the author tends to focus on the horror and devastation that comes in the aftermath of battles for both the victor and the vanquished such as what Arya witnesses as she flees King's Landing. In this way the participants are humanized, and the reader sympathizes with them and their losses. For instance, Bran Stark watches a feast at Winterfell, realizing how many people are gone through violence and treachery. After a quick litany of the departed—several of whom the reader will remember from the previous book—Bran “looked up and down the benches at all the faces happy and sad, and wondered who would be missing next year and the year after. He might have cried then, but he couldn’t” (247). In a novel the spends so much time circling a massive civil war, Martin makes sure the human cost is remembered by focusing the reader’s gaze more on what is lost than whatever glory comes from combat.
There is one major, pitched battle at the climax of the book that succeeds for two main reasons. First, the readers know and care about many of the people involved—such as Stannis, Tyrion and Sana—whose lives hinge on the outcome. Second, the novel has been suitably paced, so a substantial portion of the book is spent in fear of and building up to this single event that could annihilate a good number of characters the reader has followed for nearly two thousand pages across two books. As even a casual reader of these books knows, Martin is not shy about killing his characters—another element that keeps the reader wary of what will happen.
Cracks in the Seven Kingdoms
There are a few stumbling stones in the novel. Some of the newer characters do not come across particularly strong. Davos, Balon, and Asha seem to only have a few personality markers, but they don’t seem as alive as others, which is problematic when they are on the page for any length of time. Similarly, some of the chapters with Daenerys lack direction, so a character that has grown and become her own woman and a confident leader frustratingly does not have much to do other than grasp a straws as she tries to put together a plan to restore herself to the Iron Throne.
Another smaller issue is the lack of a “man-on-the-street” so to speak. As could be guessed from the title, most of the novel deals with the nobles positioning themselves to take a throne through force or deceit. As such there is little room given from a point of view for someone who is not engaged in the main struggles the shape events in the Seven Kingdoms. Even dispossessed Stark children like Arya are still of noble blood—though she has to hide it—and Tyrion, who many readers will begrudgingly admire for his cunning, is still of the noble house of Lannister even if he is treated with fear and scorn because of his appearance. It would help round out the world and its inhabitants to have a voice that came from someone who was not from the high and mighty.
The Game Continues
A Clash of Kings is a worthy successor to The Game of Thrones and continues to showcase Martin’s remarkable talent and unique voice as a fantasy author. While it is possible to start her in A Song of Ice and Fire, this novel is best enjoyed in context. It is a rewarding novel that clearly has genre and mass appeal as the success of Martin’s HBO series can attest.
Martin, George R. R. A Clash of Kings . New York: Bantam Books, 1999.
- George R. R. Martin\'s Official Website
George R. R. Martin, author of the NYT Bestselling fantasy series, A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. Buy the author's books (personal inscriptions included!), view a gallery of cover art, read biography and interviews, get news about signings and appearances,
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- Game of Thrones (TV Series 2011) - IMDb
Created by David Benioff, D.B. Weiss. With Sean Bean, Lena Headey, Jack Gleeson, Emilia Clarke.
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