Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Clash of Kings (book) by George R.R. Martin

A Clash of Kings is the second book in Martin's epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire.

I'm pretty sure I managed to avoid major spoilers for this book, but there are a few spoilers for A Game of Thrones. You've been warned. 

Synopsis:

Now that King Robert is dead, it seems like just about everyone wants to be the next ruler. As far as I can remember, there are at least four potential kings and one potential queen:
  • Joffrey Baratheon – He loves to kill people. Almost no one likes him, but, as King Robert's son (supposedly), he has a pretty good claim to the throne.
  • Stannis Baratheon – He's a hard man and also not well liked, but, as the older of King Robert's brothers, he has the next best claim to the throne. He also knows Queen Cersei's dark secret, even if he can't prove it: all of her children were fathered by her brother Jaime, not King Robert.
  • Renly Baratheon – The younger of King Robert's brothers. Although he's younger than Stannis, he's more loved by his people and has a much better chance of convincing others to support him.
  • Robb Stark – The only one who's not aiming for King Robert's throne. Instead, he has been named the King in the North. If I remember correctly, Renly was fine with this. All the others, however, are not nearly as happy with this arrangement.
  • Daenerys Targaryen – Technically, King Robert stole the throne from her family. Now, as the Mother of Dragons, she plans to take it back.
The result is a highly volatile situation often filled with raping, maiming, and killing. Jon Snow, as a member of the Night's Watch, is one of the few characters who's as much outside all the battles over the throne as possible. He's not exactly safe, though, considering the horrors beyond the Wall that need investigating.

Review:

I probably would have waited longer before reading this if it hadn't been for all the fan shock/horror after the TV series' third season finale. I've stalled on the first season (the changes to Daenerys' part made me mad enough that I couldn't make it past the second episode) and I didn't want to look up spoilers, so I figured I'd read the next book in the series instead. I hope I'll manage to make it to the most recent book in the series, but things aren't looking good so far. Sadly, I did not think A Clash of Kings was as good and as gripping as A Game of Thrones.

I had hoped that, by this point in the series, most of my confusion would be over and done with. Right from the start, it was clear that this wasn't going to be the case, as Martin introduced a whole new set of characters. I swear, for each named character that died in A Game of Thrones, at least two or three new named characters appeared in this book. The same was true for the POV characters – one major POV character died in the first book, and so we're given two new POV characters, Theon and Davos, in this one. If this really is a pattern, the third book is going to make my brain bleed.

The thing was, whereas the first book became less confusing the further into it I got, this book actually became more confusing. Part of the problem was all the big battles, especially near the end. They were, by their nature, messy and confusing. I'm honestly not sure whether a couple of the POV characters died or not, which feels strange, since in the past GRRM made it crystal clear that a character had died (usually because the death scene was on-page, and then the character's head was mounted on a stick).

The bits where GRRM intentionally misled (or tried to mislead) readers also helped make this book less clear than the first one. For example, one character was killed, bloodily and on-page...and then later he was reported as having been seen riding into battle. The truth wasn't revealed until five chapters later, in a somewhat offhand mention.

You'd think I wouldn't have needed confirmation that that character was truly dead, what with him having gushed blood all over the place on-page. However, this book included quite a bit more magic than the first one did (the blanket explanation for this being that dragons have been born into the world again), and I wasn't at all sure what sorts of rules that magic followed. Several characters had magic that could kill people who should have been relatively safe. One character could, in an instant, completely change his appearance. Who's to say a dead character couldn't be brought back to life? I hope the magical bits are either reined in some or given clearly stated rules/drawbacks in the next book, because they made things a little too easy for some characters in this one. I felt cheated when one fairly major character was killed via magic halfway through.

If I can manage to finish the first season of the TV series, good, but I'm thinking I probably shouldn't watch beyond that. This book had lots more background violence (raping, killing, maiming) than the first one. On the plus side, I don't remember any of it directly happening to POV characters. I don't think I've ever been so horrified at a character getting her first period as I was when Sansa got hers. There's no guarantee Joffrey won't get hold of her in the next book, but I can at least say she made it through this one without being raped by that nasty little monster.

On the minus side, all the background violence meant that this book was super-bleak. The characters who just died had it easy. Some characters were tortured. Some of them survived what they saw and/or what was done to them, but it broke them. I was a wee bit worried that would happen to Arya, and I'm still not convinced I'm going to like what the world of this series will force her to become. In the first book, she reminded me an awful lot of a Tamora Pierce heroine, a strong girl who, with determination and good guidance, would likely become awesome. This book sent her off on her own and killed or imprisoned anyone who could have helped her. Then she was given what I came to think of a “Light Yagami powers” (see Death Note).

Another character told her that he owed her three lives. All she had to do was give him three names, and he would kill those people, whoever they were. Considering her situation, she had way more than just three people she wanted dead. I couldn't blame her for that, but it made me a little uncomfortable to think that she'd have ordered a nice, cleansing killing spree if she could have. After all, Joffrey was pretty fond of killing sprees too.

It probably sounds like I hated this book, and I really didn't – it just took more work for me to get through it than the first one did. Davos, one of the new POV characters, had so few chapters I had to struggle even to remember who he was. Theon, another new POV character, was probably the most unlikeable POV character in this series so far. After having been fostered with the Starks for 10 years, he returned to the Greyjoys, sure he'd be welcomed back as a beloved young lord, with women and praise and everything. Things did not go at all as he had planned (I cheered a bit when his sister gave his ego a good whack). In my review of the first book in the series, I mentioned that watching the characters chug towards their doom was spellbinding. Well, Theon took that and then sped it way up. In an effort to prove himself, he did something massively stupid. Then, when it went bad, he tried to fix things and only made it all worse. It was horrifyingly amazing.

As excited as I was about Daenerys after I finished the first book, it was disappointing how little page-time she had in this one. Happily, Tyrion, another one of my favorite characters in the series, had lots of opportunities to be awesome. His primary job in this book was to clean up the mess Cersei and Joffrey made of King's Landing, and he hit the ground running. Up to a point, he was able to outmaneuver Cersei, put his own people in place wherever possible, and figure out who he could trust (pretty much nobody). The one thing that had me cringing was his enormous and incredibly obvious weakness: prostitutes he'd taken a liking to. Every time his POV chapters came up, I held my breath, wondering if this would be the moment one of his enemies used his weakness against him.

I'll cross my fingers and hope that my dissatisfaction with the second half of this book isn't a sign that I'm already losing steam on this series. I recently found the third and fourth books in a used bookstore, so I'd like to at least be able to make it through those.

Extras:

A few maps, plus an appendix that lists all the characters. 

Read-alikes:
  • The Eye of the World (book) by Robert Jordan - I think this was the first epic fiction I ever tried. I remember it being kind of a slog, although a slog that I somehow also enjoyed. I can barely recall any of the characters or what happened in the books, though. What I do remember of the series, I remember in relation to Terry Goodkind's books. Which leads me to Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series...
  • Wizard's First Rule (book) by Terry Goodkind - Again, as with Robert Jordan's book, I can barely remember any of the characters or what happened, and what I do remember might involve some cross-over with Jordan's stuff. I remember thinking that this series seemed an awful lot like Jordan's, only more enjoyable. The writing wasn't so much of a slog.
  • Lord Foul's Bane (book) by Stephen R. Donaldson - Another epic fantasy series. I haven't read it, although it's sitting on my TBR pile. From what I can tell, you either love it or hate it. The big sticking point seems to be whether readers can accept a main character is absolutely, positively not a hero. As in, he rapes someone and is generally unpleasant.
  • Tigana (book) by Guy Gavriel Kay - This one sounds like it might be a good fit for those who'd like lots of characters, political strife, and characters who are less black and white and more shades of gray. I think it's a standalone, but it's a long one, and one four-star review I saw said that the first 200 pages were kind of boring.

2 comments:

  1. Congrats on sticking with it. I watched the first episode of GoT on TV when HBO had a "free weekend" promotion. Then I checked Wikipedia and discovered every single character I liked was going to die, and decided not to engage, I can see killing off a character or two when the plot demands it, but GRRM seems to take it to extremes. So does Stephen King, which is one reason I rarely read his books (the other is I wake up screaming).

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    1. I don't know that I would have ever gotten into GoT if I had started with the TV series. With the books, it's different - somehow, with most of the characters, I'm able to retain enough emotional distance to (probably) not be wrecked when/if they die. We'll see how I do if GRRM kills one of the Stark children, though. Also, I don't know how long I'd last if he killed Tyrion, considering how much I tend to like his chapters.

      I quit Stephen King after finishing Cujo. I just couldn't stand that he killed BOTH the kid and the dog. Too many rules broken in one book for my tastes.

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