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Review: A Clash of Kings

I can’t believe it’s finally happening. Four years after starting George R. R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series, I’m finally continuing. I’ve read A Game of Thrones twice now, but this was my first time through book two, A Clash of Kings. No spoilers ahead.

“If half an onion is black with rot, it is a rotten onion. A man is good, or he is evil.”

About the Book: There’s a new king onaclashofkings the Iron Throne, but he’s a cruel boy. There’s also a new King in the North, a usurping king coming up from the South, one coming in from the sea, one with no real claim at all beyond a grudge at his last smothered attempt of rebellion, and one who is not a king at all, but a queen, a khaleesi, a young girl in the East fighting to win back her birthright with what little (but growing) power remains to her. With six claimants to parts or all of the Seven Kingdoms, treasons and turncoats abound. No one can be trusted, and yet no one can win the war without trusting outside help. While the major players in the Seven Kingdoms are watching their backs for enemies disguised as friends, no one’s watching the mounting trouble on the Wall. The Night’s Watch has ventured out to face the king-beyond-the-Wall, but a rebellious wildling army breaking through the Wall’s defenses isn’t their only concern– the old magics are coming back, waking from a long slumber to threaten the realm anew. And the worst of it is that no one below the wall believes in the danger; they’re so busy deciding who will rule the realm that they aren’t defending the realm against the wildling invadors– and worse.

“Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”

“It is all a game to them still, a tourney writ large, and all they see is the chance for glory and honor and spoils. They are boys drunk on songs and story, and like all boys, they think themselves immortal.”

In A Clash of Kings, we see familiar characters back again (the ones who survived), as well as a closer look at a few we only glimpsed in A Game of Thrones, but we also have some all-new characters, too. There are two new regular POVs, in addition to a new prologue character. But the biggest surprise, I think, comes from the fact that you can root for entirely different characters to win than you did in book one. I’m still not sure who I want to see win the iron throne, but my opinions have definitely changed. For the first time in the series I could name characters that I really hate, but I’ve also grown fond of others that I didn’t expect to become so important. That is my favorite aspect of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series– the perspectives are shown with equal import, so each character feels human and the reader can choose his/her own side in the battle for the throne.

“So long as there was magic, anything could happen. Ghosts could walk, trees could talk, and broken boys could grow up to be knights.”

The magic is done well in this book. There’s so little of it, and so few characters take it seriously, that when it does crop up it’s acceptable to feel doubtful at first, and then easy to embrace it. There’s one major instance of… magic? sorcery? something out of the ordinary in a seemingly ordinary scene, and when I read that scene I was shocked, and certain that there must be some other explanation. But in the end it folded neatly into the story and I loved the possibility of something so fantastic in A Clash of Kings— it was just as entertaining as the wights of book one.

“There are no shadows in the dark. Shadows are the servants of light, the children of fire. The brightest flame casts the darkest shadows.”

It’s also growing increasingly hard to know what to believe. Each of the chapters is narrated through a close third-person perspective, which gives us the thoughts, actions, and emotions of one character at a time, but it also allows for bias. In this book so much more than the first of the series, the reader starts to see conflicting details– two characters hold different beliefs about certain events or people. Someone says one thing, another says something entirely else. Sometimes it’s easily explained by the fact that news is slow to reach certain characters or locations, but other times the reader is left to wonder which version is truth, if any. We see characters lying to each other, also. I think it’s going to be more important, going forward, to be wary of trusting any of the characters too fully. The narration is not completely omniscient, which leaves room for deception. The fact that we start to see discrepancies in this book feels like a hint that the characters are fallible. Sometimes they’re wrong. They make assumptions, in the more innocent cases, but sometimes they’re scheming. Everyone’s up to something, and the narrator is not entirely reliable either. How much of it is “true”?

“There are no true knights, no more than there are gods. If you can’t protect yourself, die and get out of the way of those who can. Sharp steel and strong arms rule this world, don’t ever believe any different.”

For a series in which Houses are so significant, I also want to note that it’s hard to pick a whole house that I want to see win. It’s not unusual to hate the Lannisters and love the Starks, but there are Lannisters that don’t seem completely evil in this book, and Starks that I wouldn’t want to see on the throne. It’s interesting that the Lannisters are so commonly loathed, but there are so few POV chapters from within that house that we have to see them through secondary eyes, through already-skewed perspectives. On the other hand, almost every Stark from that House gets POV chapters, though most of them are children who don’t really know what they’re doing. It’s just as important to pay attention to the medium as the message, so I’ve been taking note of the distribution of chapters as well as the plot, though I think I need to read a bit farther before I can draw any conclusions from the combination of them.

“I will hurt you for this. I don’t know how yet, but give me time. A day will come when you think yourself safe and happy, and suddenly your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth, and you’ll know the debt is paid.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I love this series, but I didn’t fly through this second book with quite the same level of excitement I had for book one. The focus is largely on the politics in King’s Landing, but that was my least favorite part of this volume. I need to read onward ASAP, but first, a break. I know these books just keep getting longer, which is great, but I’m on new-information-overload and I need to let A Clash of Kings settle for a bit. I’ve got three episodes left to watch of Game of Thrones season 2, and then I’m putting the series down until September.

“Perhaps we are doomed if we press on… but I know for a certainty we are doomed if we turn back.”

Further recommendations:

  1. Erika Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling (first book in an NA fantasy trilogy) is another great choice for fantasy readers who like a lot of politics, a little magic, and an intricate plot. In this one, an unsuspecting young woman ascends to the throne, only to realize that there are powerful others who will do anything to take it from her.
  2. If you’re looking for even more magic and unpredictability, try Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (first book in an adult fantasy trilogy). This one’s very Narnia-esque, with shocking plot twists and all-too-human characters who see the world on a grander scale.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Jodi Lynn Anderson’s new YA historical/science fiction novel, Midnight at the Electric. I’ve just started, so I don’t know much about it other than it follows three time lines, one of which takes place in the Dust Bowl. I’m expecting a quick, easy read that’s also going to impress me.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

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Review: A Game of Thrones

I’ve embarked on a fantastical journey. This is not the first time I’ve read the first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, nor, I hope, will it be the last, because there are many things to love about it. But it’s been four years since my first trek through A Game of Thrones, and since I intend to continue onward this time, I figured I was due to revisit book one.

About the book: The Hand of the King gameofthronesis dead. Some might say he was murdered. Either way, Winterfell’s Lord Eddard Stark sets things in motion when he accepts the position offered by his friend, the king. While he’s away at King’s Landing, the rest of his family must step up to leadership roles on behalf of the north and Winterfell, but other houses in the Seven Kingdoms want to use the Stark family’s new vulnerability to gain more power for themselves. Some wish to be the Hand of the King–and some, with secrets and schemes laid years ago, want to be king (or queen). The slippery and ambitious Lannisters, loathed by many, seem to have the closest claim to the throne if only they can get the king out of the way. But while allegiances shift and families grapple for the throne, there’s new trouble beyond the Wall–the white walkers are closer than ever before, killing men and raising wights from the dead. If ever there was a time the Seven Kingdoms needed to band together, the growing threat past the Wall is proof that this is it. And yet all the major houses of the Seven Kingdoms are too busy at war over the Iron Throne…

“Every noble house had its words. Family mottoes, touchstones, prayers of sorts, they boasted of honor and glory, promised loyalty and truth, swore faith and courage. All but the Starks. Winter is coming, said the Stark words.”

A Game of Thrones is the first in a seven book series (five published so far, with no news on which decade the sixth book might eventually appear in). It’s high fantasy, but there’s not a lot of magic. There are old stories of the magic that used to be in the lands, but very few characters brush anywhere close to it in this first novel. There are hints of the supernatural. Some might argue there’s a bit of romance. But first and foremost, this is a political series, an exploration of characters and their alliances and the powers they wield or lose.

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

About the writing: you don’t read A Game of Thrones for the writing. You just don’t. George R. R. Martin’s writing style is competent. It’s wise in its choice of detail and in the seamless flow of present action and backstory. It includes some great lines. But the narration is primarily matter-of-fact, concerned with the inclusion of every necessary detail in its proper place rather than beauty of metaphor. There are some clunky sentences, moments when the pronoun doesn’t refer to the last name mentioned and other little issues that are not indecipherable but do cause occasional confusion. But it’s okay, because you don’t read A Game of Thrones for its pretty sentences.

You read it for the characters.

“Never forget who you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”

The best part of A Game of Thrones is that it’s not a tale full of “good guys” vs. “bad guys.” Who even are the good guys? There’s not even a main character. Everyone in A Game of Thrones is (arguably) as important as everyone else, be they man, woman, or child. Readers can choose a different favorite for the throne every hundred pages. Even just on my second time through the same first novel, I have different favorites than I did the first time, though my most-hated characters haven’t changed. In this first novel, the reader follows nine POVs, all in the third person. The chapters are titled only with their lead character’s name. But it’s all connected. The major players appear in each other’s chapters, or their relatives do, or their friends, or their secrets. Martin is a master of plucking individual story lines out of the whole, making each of them distinct and compelling without losing sight of the bigger picture and its interconnectedness.

“I swear to you, I was never so alive as when I was winning this throne, or so dead as now that I’ve won it.”

This was an interesting book to reread. There’s a bit of mystery, some questions that are answered within this first volume and some left for future novels. That made it fascinating to read back through, with some idea of what was coming ahead but gaps still left to motivate reading on. There’s so much detail packed into this one shortest novel of the series that I felt the reread was completely worthwhile, even though I did recall the big reveals that took place. I was able to look more closely at the little hidden truths that are folded into the writing, but I don’t know enough yet to see through everyone’s secrets.

“The heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes see true. Look with your eyes. Hear with your ears. Taste with your mouth. Smell with your nose. Feel with your skin. Then comes the thinking, afterward, and in that way knowing the truth.”

I don’t want to talk too much more about plot, but I will say it’s intense. You need to have a strong stomach to read through some of the details in this book. There’s rape. Murder. Battle scenes. Direwolves. Humans reanimated after death. Harsh punishments and cruelty. Incest. Betrayal. A child pushed off a tower. And you never know who’s going to live or die. I learned my first time through this book not to get too attached to any one character, because Martin likes to build sympathy for them just to lead them to their deaths. If this was a spoiler review, I’d talk about some of my theories, but it’s not, so I’ll just say (for anyone who’s read this already or watched the first season) that Tyrion is my favorite Lannister, Arya is my favorite Stark, and Daenerys is currently my favorite character. I thought Jon’s chapters were most fun to read, and Catelyn’s the least. But no matter who you favor, A Game of Thrones is utterly captivating and 100% worth the time it takes to read an 800-page book.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Same as last time. I still find politics a little exhausting to read about so extensively, so I’m aiming to take about a week’s break before starting the next book. But I will watch season one of the TV series in that time. My plan is to read the five books published so far, and then watch the corresponding episodes for each book as I complete them. I suppose when I reach the end of the fifth book I’ll carry on with the episodes and just read the remaining two novels when they’re eventually published. (Please, George R. R. Martin, publish those last two books.) Waiting for the series to be finished is one of the reasons it has taken me so long to dedicate myself to reading it.

Further recommendations:

  1. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is not really the same as Martin’s books at all, but I think there’ll be some overlap between the two fan bases. Outlander is a sci-fi/romance/historical fiction/fantasy mishmash about a time-traveling woman who falls through a circle of standing stones in Scotland and stands up in the same circle two hundred years in the past. And it has a phenomenal TV series that’s about to get really good in September, so now’s the time to read it.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare, the final book in the Infernal Devices trilogy. Because as fun as it is to start a new series with 1000+ page books, it’s also a relief to finish what I’ve already started. Clockwork Princess is a Shadowhunter novel set in Victorian London, featuring an evil mastermind with an army of mechanical monsters and a tragic love triangle.

Are you a series reader? Which one’s your favorite?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: You can now read my complete review of the next book in this series, A Clash of Kings!