A Clash of Kings
by George R.R. Martin
In the wake of the political intrigues of Game of Thrones, the Realm of Westeros is torn asunder as kings sprout from the various feudal factions. In the meantime, magic begins to seep back into the world as the Mother of Dragons seeks an army to return her to the Iron Throne. The key plot of the novel is that a comet shows up in the sky; three kings contest the Iron Throne, and one very estranged Queen attempts to gather an army of arabian knights.
Take to the Sea
Martin continues his tradition of viewpoint- controlled chapters, with a few new characters sprouting up in this second installment: Davos and Theon Greyjoy (who you might recall from the first books as the ever-smiling companion of Robb Stark). Martin uses these two characters to explore a new aspect of his realm which has formerly left untouched: the sea. Davos is a smuggler turned knight, and Theon is a ward turned sea-raider. Davos chiefly acts as the insight to the workings of the ever-mentioned but seldom seen Stannis Baratheon, and Theon gives light to the actions of the Iron Isles. Martin writes his sea-stories fairly well, I think, and while he’s no Herman Melville, he also doesn’t indulge in chapter long dictionaries of whales (cough cough Moby Dick cough cough). In the first book, he wrote three contrasting narratives: the arabian myths of Daenarys, the high fantasy of Eddard, Sansa, and Arya, and the elder fantasy of Bran and Jon. In the second book, high fantasy journeys into war, arabian fantasy goes from the desert-tales to the wonders of bazaar-cities, and elder fantasy delves further into the wonders of magic, beasts, and death. His new world, that of sea-battling, brings in an element of grand tactics that was undertaken politically in the peace-time of Thrones but now exists in a realm at war.
Martin’s second installment deals with a central key issue: it lacks the chief arc the first book held. Not to spoil anything, but a certain noir story of the first book ends the way many film noirs end: with the death of a detective. In place of our central hero, we have a weave of character narratives that, like a grand twitter feed, reinforce the main events of the world through various eyes.
The strong point of this aspect is that many characters get shown in a new light, and whole worlds are distinguished around each of them. From the lowly life led by Arya to the disillusioned highborn world of Sansa, almost all aspects of the war for the throne are covered. Catelyn, Tyrion, and Davos all give additional views to the various levels of warfare and feudal city-keeping.
Martin and Magic
As in the last book, magic is touched on only in fleeting moments, but whereas in Thrones, magic was a subtle thing, mentioned and suspected more often than shown, Kings features the subtle art more prominently. The book itself begins with a battle of maestery against magic (while the first book began with a clash of ice and steel). The link between dragons and magic is not only implied, but stated.
There are two takes on magic in this fantasy: magic that is seen, and magic that is experienced. Those who see magic see its horrible consequences, while those who experience it are transported and in some ways transformed. As in the first book, Bran and Daenarys are the closest tied to magic, but other characters get to see its effects, and even go through the experience of the stuff, in their own turns.
Like magic, death can be expected, and there’s no sense in counting any major character as safe. Take Harry Potter Book seven as your pretense for the tally.
What I enjoy about this second book is the redefining of Tyrion, who, I feel, is the author’s major mouthpiece. The Imp is sent to rule, and takes on the role that Eddard played in the first book. While Ned ruled by honor, Tyrion rules by wit and courtesy, and his battles within the crumbling city of King’s Landing are marvelous to behold.
I also enjoy the strengthened roles of the female characters in this book. Granted, there’s the same overt sexual abuse of women; the rough and unequal sex is common in Martin’s wartime world, and Theon’s arc is thick with the stuff. However, strong female characters abound in the work, not only in the Stark women and Dany, but also in others who appear throughout the world. As the men of series, the women are each in their own way unique, some clever, some mad, some tricky, some foolish, some brave and some cruel.
Martin has defined his book as a world moving on through a series of events. Even though he has removed the primary ‘hero’ character from the arc, he has replaced this character with a driving series of events, thus creating a plot that drives the actions of a large cast of characters. Even as Martin explores the myriad arcs of his large ensemble, these events provide a kind of continuity for the characters.
Martin ends his work with a sendoff about devils and details. One of his greatest strengths is his attention to detail in a content rich world. Even though each chapter is told only through the third person limited omniscient view (seeing only into the mind of the chapter’s chosen character), Martin uses each point of view to show his reader different aspects of his world. He also makes sure that his world events follow a certain geographic and temporal logic (magic is only Just coming back to the world, after all). He also retains his flair for politics and personality, practically using scriptwriting techniques to help drive his fantasy work.
One weakness of this strategy is that sometimes it interrupts flow. Tolkien had a similar strategy for his works, but would often stay with a set of characters for some time. Martin follows a similar event for several chapters, but will switch perspective on the event with each chapter. This proves the most difficult when dealing with Arya and Jon, who are the most isolated characters in the text (Davos, Tyrion, Sansa, and Catelyn all share similar Southron world events, while Bran and Theon have intermingling arcs).
Overall, I greatly enjoyed the second book of the Song of Ice and Fire. I will say that, at some points, it is best read a chapter at a time, left, and returned to; but then, so was the Hobbit, so I cannot fault the work too much (I’ve already criticized Moby Dick, after all.)