Thursday, July 28, 2011

a clash of kings

All my intentions to avoid diving right into George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series went right out the window about a week after I finished the first book, A Game of Thrones. I caught a rebroadcast of the first three episodes of the HBO Game of Thrones series (the new season based on second book, A Clash of Kingsstarts on April 17, 2012) and then saw the paperback of A Clash of Kings at our local non-big-box bookstore and just went for it. Got to support independent bookstores, right? I couldn't help it. I wanted to find out what happened next to Tyrion and Arya and Daenerys and Bran and Jon Snow and those amazing direwolves and ravens. That large pile of to-read books that have been haunting me all summer would just have to wait.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in HBO's Game of Thrones
A Clash of Kings picks up right where A Game of Thrones left off. Everyone wants to rule in the land of Westeros, home of the Seven Kingdoms. King Joffrey Baratheon currently rules in the capital, King's Landing. Brothers Stannis (aided by a witch, Melisandre) and Renly Baratheon are massing their forces, and Robb Stark has been proclaimed King in the North. Unbeknownst to those four, Balon Greyjoy, who has been joined by his son Theon, is calling himself King of the Iron Islands, and is about to invade the North, and in the East, Daenerys Targaryen wants to sail west, with her Dothraki warriors and three dragons, and reclaim her family's rightful throne.

I don't really want to do a total recap and spoil it for anyone who has yet to read the book, so I'll try to focus on aspects of Martin's storytelling that I like. His characterization is phenomenal, from the large "leading cast" who provide alternate third-person narratives throughout the novel, to the many, many supporting characters, each drawn in exquisite detail, whether they last throughout the story or disappear after just a page or two.

As blood-and-gutsy as it gets at times, I never feel like Martin as an author has a bloodlust. War is hell, and the Seven Kingdoms are involved in a fierce war, with multiple kings vying for control. Violence is realistic and inevitable. Medieval weaponry delivers brutal wounds and deaths, and then when you throw magic into the mix ... Martin does frequently up the ante by having children like Arya, Sansa, and Bran Stark bear witness to some of the most savage behavior that soldiers indulge in — and not just against other soldiers, but civilians, or as they are called in the series, smallfolk.

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark
Sometimes it feels like there are no good guys. We are made to root for the Starks, but depending on whose point of view is telling the story at the time, the colors quickly fade to gray, which makes for very interesting reading. Catelyn Stark is the mother of many beloved and "good" characters — Robb, Arya, Sansa, Bran, Rickon. She frequently gets things the wrong way around, and some of her stupid actions have put her family in danger and contributed, not in a good way, to the wars they are waging. The Lannisters are the resident bad guys in King's Landing and elsewhere, but the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, called insultingly the "Imp," is put in charge of the city (and his nephew, rogue King Joffrey) by his father, pater familias Tywin Lannister, and it is impossible not to cheer his plans and hope that his wits can save him and the city. Theon Greyjoy is a character easy to hate, but he brings to the story a whole new angle, giving readers a glance at the Iron Men and their quest for the throne.

Just when you think that Martin has introduced more than enough people to keep track of, new and wonderful characters like the brother and sister Meera and Jojen Reed from the swamp lands of Greywater Watch appear at Winterfell to help young Bran Stark find his third eye. Martin also fleshes out familiar characters — we get to know better some previously subsidiary people like Osha, Varys, and Shae.

One of the most complicated characters that I can't help but like is the Hound. I wouldn't call him the Severus Snape of this book, but he is definitely not simply a bad guy, either. As the horrible King Joffrey's right hand he can be brutal and frequently evil-acting — but at other times he is wounded and gentle and even protective of someone like Sansa Stark. No matter what harsh words he may use when he is around her, he is most definitely looking out for Sansa's best interests. Arya Stark has an equally dangerous and creepy but also oddly likable champion, Jaqen H'ghar. These are two characters that I hope to see again in the series.

Rory McCann as The Hound
A Clash of Kings is a full-tilt adventure, plunging everyone into deeper danger, without respite. It is also beautifully written. Luckily, the library had my reserve copy of the next book in the series, A Storm of Swords, ready just as I was finishing this one. I have a few things to read first, and then I'll be diving back in. Oh who am I kidding? As dense as Martin's books are, it's impossible to just read one chapter and set it down. Excuse me ...
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