A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin

<em class="BookTitle">A Clash of Kings</em>, George R.R. Martin

Bantam Spectra, 2012 reprint of 1998 original, 1040 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-553-57990-1

Reading a long and tightly-plotted series of books isn’t like other kinds of reading experiences.  Unlike loose series of novels, a fantasy saga spread over five books (so far) with dozens of characters and almost as many subplots demands commitment, patience and indulgence.  In fact, considering the experience of reading a fantasy series like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice like a long-term relationship makes a whole lot of sense, especially in considering what to say about the second volume in a series. 

The first volume is all about boundless expectations, the thrills of seeing something new and the giddiness at what’s going right.  A Game of Thrones spent so much time introducing its gigantic cast of characters, discussing eight thousand years of back-story, establishing its harsh and unforgiving tone (most notably in getting rid of its most honorable character) that readers couldn’t help but be enthralled at the result.  With second volume A Clash of Kings, however, the long-term relationship is starting to set and some of the charm is becoming an established pattern.

If nothing else, the novel does deliver on the mayhem promised at the end of the first volume.  The king is dead, there’s considerable turmoil surrounding his succession and no less than five kings are proposing themselves as the rightful heir to the throne.  (How complex is this series’ plot?  Well, consider that one of the self-designated heirs is on another continent and remains unknown to the other four.)  After a first section in which it becomes clear that there will be no gentle alliances, the remainder of the book sees the four pretenders fight it out.  Westeros is scoured (peasants don’t have a good time during wars), various dirty tricks take place, fortresses fall and Martin once again presents his battles in an elliptical, highly subjective point of view.  One major battle midway through the book is averted through a shocking death that still remains unexplained by the end of the book (one of the hallmarks of the series are its longstanding mysteries), whereas the results of the second half of another major battle late in the book is announced through an unreliable character’s ranting.  Fans of battle action may want to confirm their impression that the series is not meant to wallow in lengthy fight sequences (although there’s a rather good naval engagement near the end of the book.)

But never mind the broad strokes of the war of succession: What about the characters?  Long-form series such as this one live or die based on their cast of characters and whether we want to follow them along.  With nine viewpoint characters and about ten times that number of secondary speaking characters (and who knows how many named ones), there’s a lot of ground of cover.  Poor Arya gets hauled from one part of the continent to another, gradually regaining agency in the second half of the book.  Jon Snow goes trekking in the Great White North.  Tyrion Lannister gets the chance to prove how clever he actually is.  Theon Greyjoy gets less and less likable.  Mom-and-daughter Catelyn and Sansa Stark don’t do much but look on as other people do interesting things around them.  Meanwhile, far away, Daenerys Targaryen solidifies her power base and plots her return.  There are, mind you, a few significant plot developments.  Another king dies in mysterious circumstances; a mighty safe haven is burned down; two pretenders to the throne clash leaving one triumphant; and the Starks lose one major engagement, with several supporting characters killed in the process.

More significantly, the series’ mostly hands-off approach to magic gets a bit less hands-off in this volume.  Characters comment that magic spells are becoming more effective; the best-informed of them suspect that dragons have something to do with it.  Reading between the lines, a red priestess seems to be raising all kinds of hell in the parts of the story our viewpoint characters can’t see, whereas the North’s zoo of bad critters seems to be poised to bring even more misery to the Seven Kingdoms.  Slowly, the action is reaching a boiling point.

And “slowly” is a key word in this case.  One of the particularities of long-form series is that they favor depth and scope over pacing and intensity.  We do not experience these stories as a series of events as much as we live with the characters as the events occur around them.  The difference is as significant as watching a long-running TV show over a feature film: The ten-twenty hours of a series make up for a radically different pace from the energy of a two-hour film, and so Martin’s series is meant to be read leisurely.  There’s little instant gratification as plot threads and unanswered questions multiply: there is, however, a far stronger sense of identification with characters and sympathy at their odyssey.  This is a different kind of reading experience, and Martin’s better at building up the atmosphere required for this kind of narrative than most of his contemporaries. 

If it means that readers have to be patient and enjoy the trip rather than being in a hurry to get to destination, then so be it.  The sequels will tell if the journey is worth the trip –in the meantime, it’s best to be swept along with the plot and make frequent reference to the cast of characters at the end of the book.  Because, as in any relationship, you get as much from Martins’ series are you’re willing to invest in it.  With A Song of Ice and Fire so far, Martin’s achievement has been to present a hugely detailed universe that rewards intense attention.  Even small characters can live fully and die (dis)honorably in the back-pages.  Such depth isn’t common, nor can it be found easily in smaller narratives.

While even the kindest reviewers will note that A Clash of King may not carry the same punch as its predecessor (fewer set-pieces, repetition of effects, a sense of languid rhythm are all fair charges against this second volume), it does an effective job at carrying the story forward, delivering on a few promises and setting up further mayhem later during the series.  That’s good enough for most middle-volumes of series, and when it’s done as skillfully on a chapter-by-chapter basis as it is here, there’s little cause to complain.  A long and complex series is what readers asked for in reading this sequel, and A Clash of Kings delivers in that regard.

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