Matt's Reviews > A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
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's review
Jun 05, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy
Read from June 05 to 12, 2011

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a series of books. When I was a kid, my dad read The Hardy Boys before my brother and I went to sleep. That was a nice bedtime ritual; so nice we never had the heart to tell him The Hardy Boys sucked. A little bit later on, I worked my way through The Berenstain Bears, which taught me not to watch too much T.V., get greedy, or talk to strangers. Oddly enough, it taught me to trust bears, which is probably not the best message to impart to an impressionable child. During my elementary school years, I followed the travails of The Boxcar Children, which spoke to the inner desire each of us has to make our home in an abandoned freight train. Sometime around book sixteen, however, I realized that The Boxcar Children had morphed into waspy version of Scooby Doo. Oh, those spoiled rich kids stumbled on another mystery? Joy! Call me up when the mystery centers on Benny’s kidnapping.

In middle school and early high school, I went through a strong techno-thriller phase, mainly centered on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series. I remember a summer vacation in which I wouldn’t leave the car because I wanted to find out what happened next in The Sum of All Fears. Then, inexplicably, Jack Ryan became president of the United States, and my love affair with Tom Clancy ended.

And so did my love of series in general.

The years have come and gone, and with them many popular series. I have ignored them all. I’ve never read of that boy wizard, or that moping teen vampire, or that girl with that tattoo. I’m not against series in general, it’s just that most series sound incredibly dumb. They’re repetitive and formulaic and predictable and generally tiresome.

On the other hand, the small part of me that is still young at heart remembers what it was like to be in the grip of a long, unfolding story, to finish one volume and eagerly dive into the next, to spend countless hours with characters so that you knew them almost as family. It’s a feeling I hadn’t had in a long while: the feeling of being compelled to read. To put aside all the other obligations of life, like my job, or paying bills, or crafting wry Facebook status updates, or drinking heavily, or playing video games, or doing anything else, and I mean that literally: anything. My childhood self would want to beat up my adult self for ignoring all the things that my adult self can do, including the booze, the PS3 video games, and that other stuff; then again, my childhood self never read a book as kickass as A Game of Thrones.

When I picked up George R.R. Martin’s Thrones, the first installment in his Song of Ice and Fire cycle, I had tempered expectations. I’d been tricked by geeks before. The novel, however, lived up to all its hyperbolic billing. As I neared the end, I decided I would order the second book. Eventually, I thought, I’d get around to reading it.

But a strange thing happened. As soon as I actually finished Thrones, I realized I wanted to read A Clash of Kings immediately. Right away. Like, two minutes ago. It was an intense feeling, a strange gripping sensation. I tried to read a novel by Stuart O’Nan, but it was too slim and precise. I tried to read Ron Chernow’s biography on George Washington, but all I wanted to do was learn more about the Mad King Aerys Targaryen.

I was hooked. Obsessed. Addicted. I was a kid again. Except I got to read about incest and eviscerations and there was talk of woman-breasts and turkey legs…Hell, it was better than being a kid.

Unfortunately, Amazon was slower than I anticipated. I started suffering withdrawal symptoms. I started refusing to eat anything that wasn’t skewered. I would only take liquids from a flagon. When I lost a trial, I muttered under my breath that the American court system was nothing but a mummer’s farce. I pulled out a sword that I’d purchased at a long ago renaissance fair (and which had been packed away pursuant to my marriage contract) and pretended that I was Syrio Forel.

I finally understood what all those internet nerds were complaining about: if I had to wait years between books, rather than days, I’d probably go a little crazy too (still, I wouldn’t hole up in my mom’s basement in my pajamas and curse on the internet all day).

Finally, the book came. I started reading. Life returned to normal. I began eating things like spaghetti, which cannot be consumed on a stick. I drank water from the tap, rather than pouring it into a flagon. I stopped saying words like “mummer” and put away my blunt-edged sword. I didn’t have time for swordplay or flagons or anything else. I had A Clash of Kings to read.

At first it was like a wineskin full of ice cold water on my white hot expectations.

A Clash of Kings has a slow, unsteady beginning, partially because its prologue introduces unfamiliar characters in an unfamiliar setting (that setting being the castle of Stannis Baratheon). Even when we get back to our heroes from the first book, it took some time for things to pick up the pace. It was as if Martin needed time to warm up and find his stride.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I levy any criticism, I should say a word on the plot, so that the criticism might make sense. So the plot: there’s a lot of it.

Also, since you’re reading a review of Book II, I’m going to assume you’ve read Book I. Accordingly, there will be spoilers about Book I, while I will do my best to avoid any spoilers about Book II. (On a side note, I’ve managed to spoil the surprises in Book I and III already. The lesson is: stay away from Google. There is a definite downside to having every bit of information in the world at your fingertips).

When A Game of Thrones ended, King Baratheon had died, the Hand of the King Ned Stark was executed, and Joffrey, the bastard son of brother-sister tandem Jaime and Cersei Lannister, was king of Westeros. Soon, everyone else is clamoring to be king as well. Robert’s older brother and younger brother, Stannis and Renly, both claim the throne, as do Robb Stark and Balon Greyjoy. Meanwhile, Ned Stark’s young daughter Arya, the insufferable tomboy from Thrones, is led north by the ranger Yoren, disguised as a boy joining the Night’s Watch. Arya’s dimwitted sister Sansa is held captives by the Lannisters, and is subjected to brutal torments at the hand of Joffrey. In Stannis-land, the smuggler-turned-knight Davos watches uncertainly as his king falls under the spell of a priestess who serves a Lord of Light. Theon Greyjoy, the Stark’s ward from Thrones, returns to the land of his father, in preparation for an invasion of the north. All the while, the widowed wife of Khal Drogo, Daenerys, wanders the desert with her dwindling band of blood-riders and three dragons (yeah, now there are dragons).

I suppose I could also mention that Tyrion Lannister, the crafty dwarf, is sent to King’s Landing to be Joffrey’s Hand, and that he brings his lady friend Shae and his sullen sell-sword Bronn. There’s also goings-on in the far north, where Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch go beyond the Wall on a massive ranging expedition.

I could keep going – literally, that summary barely scratches the surface – but my fingers are starting to tire. Also I’m starting to confuse myself.

Really, you don’t need to remember all this stuff. Martin does a good job reminding you of the importance of the major characters, and gives you little nudges that help you recall all the many ways these people intertwine. Besides, after awhile, the cumulative effect of thousands of pages spent with these characters and on the history of Westeros seeps into your subconscious. I can now recall a surprising amount of information about the bloodlines of the dragon kings. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten how to do calculus.

As with Thrones, Kings is written in the third-person limited style, with alternating chapters from the viewpoint of nine characters, not including the prologue. These nine characters are:

1. Tyrion Lannister, known as the Imp. He is Martin’s star creation, a wry, winking, crafty man with a penchant for wine and women. His many shadings keeps you guessing as to whether he is ultimately hero or villain, and his wryness leavens the pomposity of the proceedings;
2. Catelyn Stark, Ned Stark’s widow. She is predictable, dull, unimaginative, and hopelessly self-righteous, just like her husband. It’s a bit odd, and oddly refreshing, to read a novel in which the putative heroes are actually quite unlikeable;
3. Davos Seaworth, who unsurprisingly spends a lot of time on the sea (some of the surnames in Kings are hilariously on the nose, and I don’t mean that as a compliment). Seaworth serves King Stannis Baratheon and is our entrée into his castle, though he spends a limited time around him;
4. Sansa Stark, the eldest daughter of Ned Stark. She is betrothed to Joffrey and held captive in King’s Landing. Of all Martin’s characters, she is the flimsiest. The low archetype of a damsel in distress, hopelessly out of her depths, waiting for a knight to save her, and without two original thoughts in her head;
5. Arya Stark, Ned Stark’s younger daughter. She spends much of the book making her way north with a band of suspect recruits for the Night’s Watch. I found her character a massive yawn in Thrones; here, however, her adventures actually life Kings out of the doldrums;
6. Bran Stark, the crippled son of Ned. Bran was self-pitying and frankly boring in Thrones. Here, he starts to evolve as his dream life and his real life begin to merge;
7. Jon Snow, the bastard of Ned, who is a brother of the Night’s Watch. He is part of a large ranging expedition to find out what’s going on north of the Wall. I like Jon’s sections because they are stripped of all the tiresome backstabbing and squabbling in the south. Up north, it’s all about wildlings and wolves and the walking dead. In other words, the fun stuff;
8. Theon Greyjoy, former ward of the Stark family, who decides to strike back at Winterfell when his father invades the north. His character is a dread chore to follow. Martin’s decision to make him a central character in Kings is one of the few times I felt that Martin bowed to the exigencies of plot, rather than allowing his plot to flow organically from the characters; and
9. Daenerys, the heir to the Stormborn dynasty, former kings of Westeros. At the end of Thrones, she gave birth to three dragons, in what was a fascinating, over-the-top, what-the-f**k just happened kind of scene. I understand that there are a lot of Daenerys-backers out there; I’m not one of them. Her story seems to take place in an entirely different novel and I find it distracting. It also doesn’t help that with the exception of Theon, who only comes to the fore in Kings, and Sansa, who is a waste of space, Daenerys is the most underwritten character in A Song of Ice and Fire. Nothing about her even hints that she is a human being, with human motivations or human tendencies. Rather, she has a novelistic motivations and novelistic tendencies. (Did Martin really need another person with a centuries-long grudge pining for revenge?)

The alternating viewpoints serve an important purpose by defining the boundaries of the story and limiting its scope. Without confining the novel to nine narrators, the plot would simply explode like an overloaded blender. I totally understand why Martin has chosen to craft A Song of Ice and Fire in such a matter.

That being said, the structure has severe drawbacks. I first noticed these drawbacks in Thrones, but I was so dazzled I didn't really care. In Kings, they become more noticeable. As is often the case, once I started noticing, I couldn’t stop.

First off, let it be said that A Song of Fire and Ice is filled with awesome characters. In Thrones, I loved the bluff and blustery King Robert, the sly, ever-shifting Varys, the charismatic Kingslayer, Jaime Lannister, and the silver-tongued Baelish. In Kings, some of these surviving characters, such as Varys, have important roles. Others, such as Jaime Lannister, almost disappear. Meanwhile, new characters spring up in supporting roles. My favorite was the mysterious shape-shifter named Jaqen H’ghar, who speaks in the third person and is very particular in the promises he makes. Unfortunately, the best characters, the ones who glitter with the most wit and inventiveness, disappear for long periods of time. In their place we are stuck with the nine men, women, and children chosen by Martin to convey his epic tale.

Of these nine, there are some serious liabilities. Sansa, who spends the whole book as a captive, is a cipher. In the first book she was in love with Joffrey because the plot forced her to be in love with Joffrey, so that she would have a motivation to unwittingly betray her father. In the second book, she’s no longer in love, but she’s just as dimwitted. She keeps getting beaten for saying stupid things, but that doesn’t stop her from continually saying stupid things. Of course, you could argue that Sansa is just acting as any thirteen year-old child. In which case, I have to wonder, why did Martin feel the need to overpopulate his narrators with children? It’s like a blood-soaked The Chronicles of Narnia out there. You want to know what’s interesting about kids? Nothing. Nothing is interesting about kids. I don’t want to hear about your kids on Facebook, and I don’t want to read about them in novels. Sansa is every lame teenager you’ve ever met, except here, we’re supposed to care deeply about her fate, and how it will effect Westeros.

I’ve already mentioned my problems with the character of Catelyn Stark. It’s not that she’s poorly written. I just don’t like her. I don’t like her for the same reason that I didn't like Ned Stark. Simply put, self-righteous heroes bore the hell out of me. And then there is Theon. What to say about Theon? Well, there is an extended Oedipal-like sequence in which Theon unknowingly flirts with his sister and entertains detailed sexual fantasies about her while riding with her to his father’s castle. That’s about all there is to say about Theon.

It’s these people, not the Kingslayer or Varys or Jaqen H’ghar, that we spend the bulk of our time with.

These character deficits are underscored by my increasing irritation at Martin’s decision to highlight indirect, rather than direct action. Because his story is told through only nine characters, you end up looking at the wide world of Westeros as though through a pinhole. You only learn what is before the faces of these nine people. Thus, there are huge swatches of the story you never witness firsthand. You never learn much about Renly Baratheon or Tywin Lannister, except when the main characters come into contact with them. Everything you find out about Stannis comes from the perception of Davos, who often as not is not in Stannis’ presence. Martin requires his peripheral characters to do a lot of heavy lifting with regards to storytelling.

The ultimate consequence of Martin’s narrative style is that much of the action in the first two-thirds of Kings is hearsay. It consists of one character telling another character about something that happened. A lot of times, these conversations are really interesting. More often than not, they concern a battle that has been fought off-page. Once this happens three or four times, without any actual battles happening on-page, I started to get pissed. Allegedly, the land of Westeros was engaged in “the War of the Five Kings.” Unfortunately, I wouldn’t know that, because I’m stuck with Sansa in King’s Landing. I kid you not: HBO does not need a $50 million dollar budget for Season 2. They can turn Kings into an off-Broadway play with very little effort.

Things get more supernatural in Kings, which is fine. This is fantasy, after all, and I knew what I was signing onto.

My one caveat is that I don’t think Martin is being consistent in his treatment of the supernatural. How much is Westeros like Medieval England and how much is it like Middle Earth? Does magic exist or not?

In Thrones, the ratio was 90-10 in favor of Medieval England. It could’ve been a Ken Follett historical novel, except with better writing, believable characters, and worse sexual metaphors. Martin’s treatment of religion was very modern. Everyone prayed to the gods, but those gods never gave any sign they existed. There were stories of fantastical creatures, but they were only stories, passed off as children’s fables.

However, at the very end of Thrones, dragons had entered the picture, no longer a myth but real. I suppose that’s when the worm began to turn.

In Kings, things get a lot more wizardly. The gods are still indifferent, but sorcery has entered the picture. For instance, Stannis’ red priestess is able to use the magic of her Lord of Light to turn into a shadow and kill her enemies. What troubled me is the consistency. If there is going to be mumbo-jumbo and potions and such, I need some ground rules. I need to know if the gods exist, or if people are just praying to an empty sky. I need to know why sometimes magic exists and sometimes it doesn’t. If you don’t establish this framework, you lose story integrity, because anytime you write yourself into a corner, you can just say then something magical happened.

By now, you will have noticed that it’s been one complaint after another. This is a reflection of my mounting aggravation throughout much of Kings. There were bright spots, yes. I thought Arya’s storyline was great, and featured most of the action in what is otherwise a very talky book. Despite those moments, I was on the verge of judging Kings a letdown.

And then came the final third of the book.

I won’t spoil anything, other than to say there are unexpected plot development and shocking surprises and twists and turns and some people die and some people don’t and the stakes seem real and there is wildfire and swordplay and a castle siege and a naval battle and enough blood to slake the thirst of any fantasy reader. It is an incredible late-inning surge. When I finished, I was awed by Martin’s genius. All the talking, all the dense plotting, all those wasted pages of Theon receiving oral sex and then hitting on his sister are forgotten as the various storylines collide in an epic manner.

A Song of Ice and Fire was originally conceived as a trilogy; in that sense, Kings is the perfect middle book. It delivers a damn fine action sequence while leaving the main characters in precarious cliffhanger situations. In that way, it’s a bit like The Empire Strikes Back, right down to the weird brother and sister stuff.

I'm on Martin's hook now, and I know that two things are going to have to happen if I am to ever lead a normal life. First, Martin will have to finish this series. Or two, I will have to lose interest. At this point, for the sake of my sanity and my intellectual curiosity, I hope I get bored real soon.

But it just doesn’t seem likely.
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04/26/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-12)

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message 12: by A.J. (new) - rated it 3 stars

A.J. Howard Great review. After I finished the first book I thought I might get to the second one next year. But I found myself staring at Clash of King's Amazon page a couple times a day, and within two weeks I had made the purchase.

Have you been watching the HBO series. I think it's much more well done than the books. It seems more fleshed out and the characters seem more realistic, or at least more sympathetic. I'm not sure if it's the writing or the performances (particularly Sean Bean's), but characters I found self-righteous or unambiguous are more interesting after watching the series.

message 11: by Matt (new) - rated it 4 stars

Matt A.J. wrote: "Great review. After I finished the first book I thought I might get to the second one next year. But I found myself staring at Clash of King's Amazon page a couple times a day, and within two weeks..."

Thanks, AJ!

I have been watching the series. It it wasn't for HBO, I don't think I'd ever have been compelled to read the books, since I just don't read fantasy. I needed Sean Bean and some vivid swordplay to help me move past my ingrained prejudices.

My only concern with Game of Thrones on HBO is budgetary. I read an interview with George R.R. Martin in which he said the reason he left his job writing television scripts to write a novel was that novels had an unlimited budget. Unfortunately, HBO has quite a limited budget; I'm worried that what they put on screen won't live up to Martin's creation (you might have already noticed that battles described in A Game of Thrones did not make it into the television series).

message 10: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday another excellent review on this series. a particularly good point: The ultimate consequence of Martin’s narrative style is that much of the action in the first two-thirds of Kings is hearsay. months after reading it, i don't think that really sunk in with me because of the incredible and incredibly direct action of the last third.

although i'm not sure why you consider Sansa to be a cipher. although she's my least-favorite character easily, she does seem to be pretty transparent, almost simple-minded, in her motivations. i also disagree with your thoughts on Theon (he's one of my favorite characters and i found his chapters riveting - and funny!)...but you are certainly not alone in that, nearly everyone feels his chapters are a waste of time. sigh.

Matt mark wrote: "another excellent review on this series. a particularly good point: The ultimate consequence of Martin’s narrative style is that much of the action in the first two-thirds of Kings is hearsay. mont..."

I don't like Sansa because she's such a lackwit. Four books into the series and I still don't think she's grappled with the fact that she betrayed her father to his death...but the more I turn your comment over in my head, the more I start to realize that her open-mouthed reactions to everything is probably a far more accurate response from a child than Arya's evolution into a cold-blooded assassin.

(I think my ambivalent reaction to Sansa highlights the difficulty in making a child/children the focal point of your drama. See, e.g. The Phantom Menace.)

Stay strong in your support of Theon! Responses to Martin's viewpoint characters are 100% subjective. There is pretty strong consensus that Tyrion is the strongest/best character, but after that, opinions are all over the place. And mine keep changing from book to book.

Sarah I just sent your review to my husband, who got reluctantly sucked in to the TV series and isn't sure if he should read book 2 or not, not being a huge fan of long, plodding fantasy. My original suggestion is that he could just read spoilery synopses of book 2 online, then read book 3 where shit gets REALLY good, but your review reminded me that exciting shit happens in book 2 as the end. Anyway, funniest most accurate GoodReads review ever.

message 7: by Angus (new)

Angus very fun and cool review. Great job. just got done Clash myself. Some great points regarding the somewhat less interesting characters carrying the load of the book for the first 2/3.

Mary Love your review, made me chuckle.

Ladygorekitten amazing review, I did not even read the first book, I was considering to start and I saw your review and I am going to run to a bookstore and find the first one right now. I hope I can find the translated version to my language. You are an amazing reviewer, you really spend your time on this in a very serious way, well done.

Arjun Sivaram very good review... agree totally about the first two thirds being fully hearsay and no direct action. I too liked Theon even more than Arya's portions (which especially in the beginning were boring!) last few chapters compensated and was thorougly enjoyable

Izzy In my case, I stare at the dinner table and wish for a nice pigeon pie washed down with a flagon of good Dornish red.

Misty Weeks Just finished Kings and loved your review! Totally agree and can empathize with getting so wrapped up in the story. When I'm not reading I'm thinking about the characters and what is happening while I'm 'away.' Everyday life seems to be tinged with medieval overlays. I NEED the rest of the books... HAVE to have them. I'm a teacher - school will start back up soon and I won't have the amount of time I do now. Hope to have the series finished by the end of July!! Thanks for a great review! You should be writing novels!

John Matt wrote: …I wanted to read A Clash of Kings immediately. Right away. Like, two minutes ago…I tried to read Ron Chernow’s biography on George Washington, but all I wanted to do was learn more about the Mad King Aerys Targaryen.

Strangely, I am addicted in the same ways: ignoring the other books on the shelf that were already in line as well as now thinking in day-to-day life like the characters.

…stay away from Google. There is a definite downside to having every bit of information in the world at your fingertips

Nice insight. Avoiding spoilers is a constant chore for we who came late. Except for some spoiled facts I have yet to get to, I only know the story through these first two books.

Perhaps you would better appreciate Sansa if you saw her strength. On the road in GoT no child could have been as tactful and knowledgeable of the Realm as she proved to be. Sansa was truly made for court.

Her weaknesses are not out of line with other (not entirely healthy) girls in fiction. Perhaps one would dare add, and in real life? She places too much value on beauty and tries to bring events back to her advantage by being a proper lady as she was taught. If that doesn’t work, she tries again harder. Her fascination with knights and naiveté that, through chivalry, they will set things right is a nod to the classic princess awaiting rescue.

Unlike Arya, Sansa fails to see things as they truly are. This flaw led to her part in getting Lady killed and one must wonder how much her fortunes suffer because she is the only Stark to have lost her direwolf.

Speaking of Arya, I noticed that in your review of GoT you said you wanted the view of a peasant. In this second book, Arya gives us that view.

I enjoyed your review!

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