It is hard to sit here and try to tell you that a 969 page book qualifies as fairly taut, but somehow A Clash of Kings, George RR Martin’s sequel to A Game of Thrones – which of course became the HBO series of the same name which launched Peter Dinklage into the lead for now over Warwick Davis in the greatest living little person derby – qualifies. The book takes the virtues of the first novel – and expands the world and the established conflicts. However, it does more than that. One of the normal things with any sort of series I think is trying to figure out how to keep people ready for another novel while not jerking them around. In the movie realm for instance, The Matrix in its secret of the universe or whatever, promised a lot and contained a lot of literate movie psycho-babble. But when it came time to deliver, the movie was not equal to the task. It is hard not to feel screwed. What the book does deftly is provide emotional payoff, a measure of quasi-comic relief and still move the story forward and create more mysteries. As far as the story goes, the various threads have grown, and I have to discuss it freely – we discussed the first book here – spoilers abound …
- Like the previous book, Martin tells his story as snapshots from various points of view. Just like in the first novel, we have Tyrion, Jon, Sansa, Arya, Daenerys, and Catelyn providing viewpoints. But this time we also add Theon, Robb’s former squire who has returned to his folks on the Islands to present an offer of peace, and something more. In these choices – to be discussed a bit further – Martin has continued the practice of showing people who are looking up at the people with real power. Tyrion and Theon here take the place of Eddard in the last novel, he who has a version of nominal power, but almost no actual power.
- Theon’s arc – like Eddard – does not even get out of this volume. In a sense I think his story provides the sort of comic relief of the various story arcs during this stormy time in the kingdom. Theon returns to his family after having been held “hostage” essentially since he was a youth. His delusions of grandeur, his feeling that he will be welcomed as a conquering hero – his feelings about what a stud muffin he is – are all gloriously misaligned with any form of correct thinking. It’s almost touching how silly he is if he wasn’t so boorish. His meeting with his long lost sister is priceless. It is a shame the suffering he unleashed on Winterfell as he tried to conquer his old stomping grounds (where predictably, those who knew him were either appalled or trying to see if he is for real) – but his comeuppance was gotten in spades.
- The split Stark clan show varying signs of awareness. Arya was one of the most loveable characters in the first book, and she continues to show – frankly – that she might actually get through this. She is made of tougher stuff than her male mates – I am not sure if she will survive her escape from Harrenhal, but The Bull did not have the guts to initiate it. Sansa, so clueless and unprepared for the earthquake that was going to take place in her world, at least now recognizes the personalities she is stuck with. Joffrey is still a wholly detestable prick – but she is not at all in the dark. In some ways her knowledge is sad – no child should have to learn about dudes and whatnot this way. As political football takes place, her fate looks ominous – but you never know. There is not a ton of mobility for women being “respectable”.
- Catelyn is worried for her children of course, but she also tries to broker a peace. That springs one of the real genuine surprises – and it is hard to get surprised when you have read enough books in your life. Her father is on his way out, and with her family allied with the Starks – Robb’s exploits are promising, but it is hard to say just HOW promising.
- It’s clear the Red Priestess that Stannis has made a Faustian deal with (well, if those sorts of religious constructs existed) is doing something. We see her power work in a couple of jarring ways. We know she has considerable power, which poor Davos saw – and we know Stannis was tied of not being king or whatever. But who is really driving here, and does he have the ability to manage Melissandre. At some level, she is going to have to cash in the relationship – what does HE offer HER? Davos is the protagonist here, but it feels like Martin does not really see him as any more as a narrative device. He is telling this story from the eyes of the middle … the folks without much pull … so Davos makes sense. However, Davos is the weakest of his main characters, he just seems to exist as a witness to the Stannis side of the plot.
- Tyrion, so close to the titular villains in this story – is one of the more interesting arcs. Like all of the other POV characters, he is trying to prove himself – this time to his dad. He comes in as Hand of the King until his father is able to take over. What is interesting about his turn as Hand is that, unlike Eddard, he is not at all unaware of realpolitik. It just feels like he did not have all the bases covered – and there is just not enough good counsel when everyone else is positioning, and frankly his family doesn’t have his back – at all. Varys the Eunuch seems like the most useful – and Tyrion DOES use him correctly. He gets the city employed and he does try to make things better. Indeed, he does his job – despite how bloody the triumph was – but clearly he ain’t gonna be getting a medal for his role. Only Podrick Payne seems to be in his corner – we’ll see if he gets any shit for that or not.
- Meanwhile, in a land far far away from the main battle, we have Daenerys, fresh from her triumph and rising as queen. However, the Dothraki have largely gotten away from her, and she is trying to take over as queen and avenge the death of her father. She is trying to move full speed ahead with the Dothraki and her ragtag team (picking up more at the end). However, I’m not sure she is doing much planning. She knows the goal and knows she wants it – but it feels like the tactics have been very improvised, just driven by putting out fires. Does she have alliances?
- Finally, we get to the Wall. I am not sure if Martin had terrorism in mind as an allegory or something – probably not though it is interesting – but the events of the Night Watch above the wall feel like a version of what he hear about with the CIA and that sort of double secret Men In Black/Jason Bourne sort of stuff. All these people are fighting their wars down there, but there is a giant force underneath that makes all of our problems not amount to a hill of beans. I don’t know if I am articulating it correctly. At the end, Jon’s fate is particularly fascinating. The threat there feels like the trump card here – but aside from offering a threadbare Night’s Watch of society’s refuse (not that they should be, just sayin’), the resources do not seem sufficient for the scale of the real threat. Do the folks at Casterly Rock or King’s Landing GET the threat? It feels like a no. Aside from punishing deserters, do people really CARE about life beyond the wall?
Overall the stage is set nicely for the next book. In particular, the battle at Blackwater is a great literary scene – and the image of the water being on fire and the hell that the Lannisters must survive to hold the throne is well worth those chapters. The world Martin produces is very rich – and the next book promises much.