Review: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

This is the second book of A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin’s giant fantasy series. The books are not self-contained; they’re parts of one giant story, carrying plots, characters, and setup between books. Not only do you not want to read this one before A Game of Thrones; you ideally want to have read A Game of Thrones fairly recently so that you remember all of the plot complexity. Martin avoids any extended recaps, which is quite nice when reading the series but might be confusing if you’re coming back to it after a while.

My reaction after the first book is even stronger with this one. Martin’s story is slow, complex, and sprawling. It’s a treat for those who love detailed plotting, intrigue, and political maneuvering. Martin gives the politics enough time to develop, shows many of the details, and treats you to many POVs, or camera angles. The primary drawback, though, is that many of the viewpoint characters just aren’t interesting.

The plot follows the lives of the characters introduced by Martin in book one, as events spiral headlong into chaos and madness. Martin does a gripping job of putting you squarely into the midst of a realm and an entire people inexorably carried along into war and strife; the characters’ helplessness is palpable, and, in the cases of those who try their best to maintain courage and dignity in spite of everything, they grow more heroic simply because they are so human.

The novel picks up seamlessly where A Game of Thrones left off. The story deepens and becomes more complex as, (at least), four claimants battle for the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms and unimaginable darkness and disaster threaten from the North. This riveting, multi-layered epic saga reads, in part, like superb historical fiction, (the novel is based more on history than on legend or myth), and in part like dark fantasy, with a huge cast of vivid, well-developed human characters — and a few of the supernatural kind also.

In the first book, Dany, Arya, and Tyrion were the most salient characters. A Clash of Kings doesn’t change that, and if anything their separation from the rest of the pack becomes more noticeable. Jon’s story bogs down in an slog through the cold wild north of the Wall, and while I’m sure the people he meets and the things he discovers there are going to be important, they weren’t so much exciting to read about. Catelyn, Sansa, and the newly introduced Davos exist mostly to show additional camera angles on the action and get little characterization of their own (although at least Sansa becomes merely pathetic instead of actively infuriating). Theon (another new viewpoint character) is an idiot. Bran’s story develops in some mildly interesting ways, but he spends rather too much time feeling sorry for himself and not enough time exploring the implications of his abilities.

I loved A Game of Thrones. Seriously, I loved it. For what it’s worth, it shattered all my built-up pessimism — or easy dismissal, or literary snobbishness — towards fantasy and kept me quite addicted in quite a scary way. I had to finish it at all costs. Towards the end I realized that I’d better get the rest of the series quick so when I finish Thrones I can keep on right away. Well I did finish and I did continue on immediately with A Clash of Kings.

But something odd happened. As the first pages flew by in a fever of needing to know what happened next, I started to notice myself reading at a much slower pace. Eventually I started drifting ahead and accidentally skipping passages. I had to put the book down and take a break. So I did for a few days. Then I picked it up again and still found myself moving somewhat sluggishly.

That is A Clash of Kings‘ ultimate curse. There are parts of this book that really drag on. Just about every character can claim more than one slow chapter in the story, and they start to add up too much in the middle. At some points you will have to will yourself through this book. Yes I know it’s over a thousands pages so what did I expect, but did it have to be that long? A Game of Thrones is long, but it moves at a rapid pace and tells a very tight story. There’s much to trim here, or at least to substitute.

That being said, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the last, and despite the intricate plotting, I was quite disappointed in the ending. It lacks the thrill and triumph as the end of A Game of Thrones; in fact, there is barely a climax. Much of the last quarter is a recounting of a confused battle and I don’t find detailed accounts of faux-medieval combat that interesting.

Needless to say, Martin is, admirably, avoiding the standard coming-of-age, growing-power plot structure normally found in fantasy. (There are both coming-of-age stories and growing power, to be sure, but both are just threads of plot, not the center of the tapestry.) This opens the door for a more complex and original work, but it also means that the emotional resonances and dramatic tension that stock fantasy taps into aren’t readily available.

The weight of the story is put on the details of political intrigue and the interactions between the characters. The story (the overall story) is kept lucid and well-paced, but I often don’t find the main characters up to the task of carrying my interest, except perhaps for some handpicked villains. I want more to happen, more of true significance rather than a slow building block to a payoff 500 pages later or in the next volume. I also want more to happen to the characters I care about, and a lesser emphasis to a those characters who just stand there. The result is vaguely frustrating and, despite the long-winded pacing, horribly long. It’s all very exhausting for even the hardiest reader to keep up with — and that was merely scratching the surface. Suffice it to say that, unlike so many epic fantasies, A Clash of Kings merits its length.

I’m still in this series for at least one more book, probably two. It’s staying better than average. But it’s not grabbing me and pulling me into the next book by itself, as it should, and not without the HBO TV series tie-tin.

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