Many books in my book queue are waiting to be read, and a common theme among is that they’re all part of a series, trilogy or saga. Each Sunday, I’ll share a book from a series. You can read along with me, or add the books to your own reading list. This week, I read “A Clash of Kings,” the second book in the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin.
I expected some serious king-clashing when I picked up “A Clash of Kings.” My expectations were high after reading “A Game of Thrones.” I love George R.R. Martin’s storytelling style, his wordplay and his characters and their choices. Even when some of the raping, pillaging, incest, child slaughter and general violence was at its absolute worst, I happily plowed ahead. I was grateful for the story’s depth and complexity, which is so rare in most novels.
“A Clash of Kings” follows a handful of main characters and their interactions with dozens of minor characters, as well as each other. It’s the same structure as “A Game of Thrones,” and it still works well with a few new characters to replace the ones that died in “A Game of Thrones.” The structure reminds me a little of “Anna Karenina,” with the narrative following several characters, but one character at a time. One flaw in the structure is that it kind of leaves plotlines out to dry. By the time the story circles back around to a particular plot, you have to remember what was going on with that particular character.
“A Clash of Kings” was about a bunch of men who want to be king, and then they fight about it. The two brothers of the former (and now dead) King Robert Baratheon fight over his throne. Stannis, the older brother, approaches it like he’s running for student council president by spreading rumors and tooting his own horn. Renly, the younger brother, is arrogant and treats the whole thing like a joke. He toys with Stannis, and then horrible things happen to him. There’s a big, fiery, gory battle at the end, but for most of the book, a bunch of men run around claiming they’re the rightful king of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. It’s a lot of politics, which gets tedious, but it’s exciting at the same time.
George R.R. Martin has a gift for making readers learn about characters through actions and events without outwardly, vapidly narrating the character’s moral code. There’s a hint of mystery about all the characters, as though they’re real human beings who we have to get to know by asking questions about them and reading further. They still have parts of them they’re not willing to divulge, even when their thoughts are clear in the narrative.
My favorite character, Tyrion Lannister, is a highly educated and clever dwarf who hires mercenaries to protect his home. He conspires to ruin his family, but at the same time takes measures to protect them. He’s in love with a prostitute named Shae, whom he keeps in a mansion with guards who are either terribly ugly or gay, so she won’t be tempted to be unfaithful to him. He’s a complete cockroach of a human being, only interested in self-preservation, bribing and manipulating people to his advantage. In the final battle of the book, Tyrion is severely wounded. When he wakes up, he refuses painkillers and unbandages his wounds, convinced his conniving sister, Cersei, is trying to kill him, or at least keep him disabled. For as many cold and calculating choices he makes, there’s a soft and kind side to him too, that develops more in “A Clash of Kings” than I saw in “A Game of Thrones.” Compared to his vibrant and multi-faceted personality, all of the other characters seem slightly duller. Yet, if I were to try to describe all of them, this review would be miles long.
“A Clash of Kings” was more laborious than “A Game of Thrones.” While George R.R. Martin narrates a massive, epic naval battle at the end, he also names all of the ships. It reminded me of the tedious description of the French sewer system in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” Completely unnecessary — especially since every single one of the ships Martin names burns and sinks. So what was the point of naming them? The same sort of tedium happens a few chapters later when King Joffrey bestows titles and rewards to those who survive the battle. It was a nonstop listing of characters I would never hope to care about, but Martin listed them nonetheless. Part of me thinks he just wanted to brag to everyone that he had written a book that was more than 1,000 pages long.
Those with a weak stomach might not want to read this series. I think I gave that warning in my last review. There were graphic depictions of violence, rape and general grossness, some of it as unnecessary as the tedious list of ships and minor nobility.
Martin is still heavy-handed with his foreshadowing, but I think it’s almost purposeful. It fills the characters with dread and the reader with suspense. When you’re reading the series, keep an eye on the things the characters see, because they’re probably all symbols of things to come.
I caught strong whiffs of other literary works, mostly some of Shakespeare’s history plays such as “Richard III” and “Henry V.” Jaime Lannister and Joffrey Baratheon seem like they’re modeled after Cesare Borgia, the guy who inspired Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”
Overall, the book was fantastic, and next week I’ll be moving on to “Storm of Swords,” which I hear is even more awesome.