Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin, 1999

Silent, Davos tended to his course. The shore was a snarl of rocks, so he was taking them well out across the bay. He would wait for the tide to turn before coming about. Storm's End dwindled behind them, but the red woman seemed unconcerned. "Are you a good man, Davos Seaworth?" she asked.

Would a good man be doing this? "I am a man," he said. "I am kind to my wife, but I have known other women. I have tried to be a father to my sons, to help make them a place in this world. Aye, I've broken laws, but I've never felt evil until tonight. I would say my parts are mixed, m'lady. Good and bad."

"A grey man," she said. "Neither white nor black, but partaking of both. Is that what you are, Ser Davos?"

"What if I am? It seems to me that most men are grey."

"If half of an onion is black with rot, it is a rotten onion. A man is good, or he is evil."
--- (page 620)

A Game of Thrones was an astonishingly wonderful novel, one of the finest fantasy novels I've ever read. The sequel, A Clash of Kings, had an incredibly tall order ahead of it. The story that the first novel had begun was so incredibly intricate and such an intoxicating mixture of the sweepingly epic and the deeply personal. I honestly wasn't sure if the series could keep up with the incredible amount of momentum that it had built up.

I shouldn't have worried. Clash, like Game, is bowl-you-over good. So sweeping in scope that it makes the first book's perspective look narrow, Clash is a whole lotta novel. There are no less than nine separate character perspectives and even though the book is nearly a thousand pages, there's barely enough space to cram in all the betrayals, battles, politics, assassinations, magic and sex.

The Seven Kingdoms is in complete disarray after the events of Game. Robb Stark has named himself King of the North and is rallying his fellow northmen against King Joffrey, a puppet of the powerful Lannister family. The former king's two brothers Renly and Stannis have also amassed separate armies in dual bids to take the throne. None of these combatants are even aware of Daenerys Targaryen, who is using her three newborn dragons to find military support across the sea.

Meanwhile, Jon Snow accompanies the Night's Watch beyond the Wall in search of a rumored army of wildlings, Catelyn Stark struggles to keep her splintered family safe, Tyrion Lannister braves the complex world of royal politics, Arya goes on the run, Sansa attempts to escape from King's Landing and former Stark ward Theon Greyjoy plots revenge against the Stark family. And that's just the Cliff Notes version, believe me.

The nature of Martin's storytelling unfortunately requires some characters to get slightly less compelling storylines. For instance, in this book, Tyrion and Arya get absolutely fantastic narratives, while characters like Jon and Daenerys get a bit shortchanged. The sheer volume of the storytelling necessitates a slightly choppier flow than in the first novel, which is one of the few small problems that detract from the book's overall effect.

Another of these small problems is the staggering amount of information dumped on the reader. There are quite literally hundreds of characters to remember, dozens of houses and families, some of them long-dead. I'm usually pretty adept at remembering details, but even I was sometimes confused by the intricacies of this family or that group. Martin piles on perhaps a few too many extraneous elements, which wasn't nearly as much of a problem in Game.

The plotting is also a bit of an issue. Martin is very good at suddenly turning everything we thought we knew on its head, but compared to Game, Clash maintains the status quo for most of its length and events move a bit more slowly. This is more a symptom of the series' growing complexity and interconnectivity than anything else, but it did make for some occasional, brief moments of tediousness.

Okay, the rest of this review will be devoted to praise, because Clash is still staggeringly wonderful. Martin really does have the ability to generate nearly unbearable suspense, and then suddenly twist everything so that it's either moving or funny as hell. He wears a lot of hats. He can be gut-wrenchingly brutal or hair-raisingly thrilling, but his true gift is the sharp, subtle little insights he provides into his characters and his refusal to provide the reader with anything simple or one-dimensional.

Despite all of the epic struggles and larger-than-life conflict, I'm starting to see this series as more of a stealthy morality play. Is anyone in the series doing the right thing? Is good and evil something that can be defined? Do good intentions matter in the end? These are questions that are not posed outright, but are slipped in with cunning. What are we to make of these people? Are they heroes to be cheered, villains to be booed, or are they all a bit of both?

I don't know whether I should love or hate everyone in the book, but I do know that Martin has a genius for creating riveting characters. Tyrion, my favorite character from Game, is shooting up my list of all-time favorite literary characters ever (seriously, where does he get his quips?). Arya is also incredible--imagine Scout Finch, but with a sword. The minor characters that lurk around the edges of the story have some real standouts among them as well: Varys, Bronn, Ser Jorah Mormont, Brienne, Shae, Samwell Tarly, Sandor Clegane, Asha, Renly, Littlefinger. Martin is so good at filling out his world with fascinating people.

He also, without a doubt, has the best villains. Cersei is just so utterly poisonous, Stannis so cold, Joffrey so damn annoying, Gregor Clegane so cruel. Theon Greyjoy, a small character in Game also steps up in this volume, and his storyline is one of my favorites. His descent into evil is not punctuated by melodramatic flashes of remorse, but Martin shows us those small flickers of doubt and mercy that elevate him to the status of a three-dimensional character.

Like its predecessor, Clash concludes on a frustrating note because Martin ends literally every storyline with a cliffhanger, although not before giving us the Battle of the Blackwater, the most spectacular sequence in the series so far. This isn't just good fantasy writing, this is excellent war fiction. And the juxtaposition of the furious, pyrotechnic battle on the river with Cersei and Sansa, waiting with a headsman to kill them should that battle go awry? Brilliant.

Clash is, without a doubt, a fantastic novel, exciting and addictive and shocking. It might not be quite as all-around fabulous as Game, but it also has a much harder role to play in the overall scheme of the series. It's not the very beginning, but a lot of the content is cleverly disguised set-up for what's to come.

And if a novel this good is Martin's version of set-up, I can only imagine what his payoff is going to be like.

Must. Not. Order. A Storm of Swords.

NEXT UP: A return to the classics, with Brideshead Revisited.

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