A Clash of Kings: No one will escape

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review: A Clash of Kings George R.R. Martin A Song of Ice and FireA Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Renly Baratheon explains, “I have it in me to be a great king, strong yet generous, clever, just, diligent, loyal to my friends and terrible to my enemies, yet capable of forgiveness, patient…” Renly’s only problem, besides arrogance, is that he has no legal claim to the Iron Throne of Westeros — excepting the strength of his army. Luckily for Renly, Westeros’ leaders no longer seem to require any legitimacy beyond the power of their armies and the ruthlessness of their bannermen. Perhaps the laws of the realm were always a whitewash, but now even Sansa Stark has begun to realize that the laws of the state are twisted to strengthen the powerful rather than enforced to protect the powerless.

In a realm like this, it should come as no surprise that Renly is only one of many men to have raised an army, forged a crown, and claimed a throne. Renly’s older brother Stannis has declared himself king of the realm, Balon Greyjoy has declared himself the iron king, Robb Stark claims to be king of the north, and Mance Rayder styles himself the king beyond the wall. Meanwhile, Joffrey Baratheon actually sits on the Iron Throne of Westeros, but he is only the heir of the usurper, Robert Baratheon, who stole the crown from the Targaryens. The last of the Targaryens, Daenerys, may be in exile, but she is doing her best to amass an army in preparation for her return. If ever a book was aptly named, it must surely be George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings.

Sadly, no one will escape the horrors and atrocities of this civil war. Lords and knights are supposed to provide the weak with protection, but the “common people” suffer rape, pain and death more than any other class in this war. So although most people in Westeros think monsters are just “grumkins” and children’s tales, we know the truth: there are plenty of monsters in the Seven Kingdoms, all of them fighting for just a little more power.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsArya Stark, the youngest daughter of Lord Eddard Stark, is especially surrounded by monsters. Without her father to protect her, Arya becomes a commoner and flees King’s Landing to return north to her family. Each night before bed, she recites a list of enemies she hopes to slay. Arya’s list of monsters includes the Mountain That Rides, a knight who preys upon the weak in service of the Lannisters; Rorge, a murderer and rapist who has been freed from the Red Keep’s dungeons; and even Joffrey Baratheon, a murderer of children but king of the realm nevertheless. Arya’s plucky story is by far the most charming part of A Clash of Kings. She is brave and clever, but young and alone. Fortunately, Arya is a fast learner and Martin consistently offers Arya charismatic teachers and protectors, including swordsmen, grizzled members of the Night’s Watch, and even a warlock.

Actually, every character in the A Song of Ice and Fire series is charismatic. They might not all be leaders, but they each command the reader’s sympathy and devotion. Martin has an uncanny ability to create larger than life heroes (and villains) with little more than a nickname or a sigil. Roose Bolton, Lord of the Dreadfort, uses leeches to keep his blood fresh and his house is known for its unusual sigil: a flayed man. Of the minor characters, my favorite may well be Jaqen H’ghar, a foreigner and prisoner who explains that “a man does not choose his companions in the black cells… these two, they have no courtesy. A man must ask forgiveness.” Jaqen H’ghar is more than he seems and a good reminder that any character in this series, hero or villain, can change the course of events in Westeros.

This is especially true for Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf known as the “Imp” and who serves as the Hand of the King. The armorer Salloreon recommends that Tyrion wear the helm of a demon, but Tyrion is determined to offer the people of Westeros justice while also defeating all of his nephew Joffrey’s rival kings, even the ones whose cause we sympathize with. Is Tyrion a hero, a villain, or a monster? Many readers will find themselves convinced that Tyrion is all of the above, which may well be Martin’s greatest achievement.

A Clash of Kings is a fast-paced and intriguing fantasy, one that delivers on every promise made in A Game of Thrones. It is also a violent, brutal novel, and few readers will want to live in Westeros. However, nearly every reader will return to it and to Martin’s third novel, A Storm of Swords.

~Ryan Skardal (2011)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review: A Clash of Kings George R.R. Martin A Song of Ice and FireMany editorial reviews of book (or movie) sequels claim that the second is as good as, or better than, the original. I read the same thing about A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin’s sequel to A Game of Thrones. I was a bit skeptical, I mean… how can one not question whether Martin could duplicate what he accomplished in the first novel, let alone better it. “Thrones” is magnificently expansive and epic… how could book 2 match the energy and intensity?

Martin absolutely knocked the ball out of the park with A Clash of Kings. I don’t know if it’s better than A Game of Thrones, but it’s easily its equal. He takes the core set of surviving characters (Arya, Sansa, Bran, Catelyn, Jon, Cersei and the wonderfully rich Tyrion), and picks up almost immediately where A Game of Thrones left off. And I don’t just mean in terms of plot, but also in building out his fantastic world of intrigue, adventure and politics.

A Clash of Kings is complicated, intense and absolutely epic. It sprawls majestically over a widely varied physical and literary landscape. The politics within the plot, focused on four Kings battling over a land that’s used to having only one, are intricate, but not difficult to follow. Martin’s writing is clear, his dialogue is smooth and the interplay between characters is enjoyable and completely in sync with the overall tone and ‘place’ of the story. The book is very serious and heavy — at about 1,000 pages, the book is actually heavy, but I love the weightiness, with corresponding depth, of the story.

Like A Game of Thrones, there’s not a ton of fantasy in A Clash of Kings. It’s very middle-ages-historical-fiction with a tinge of supernatural. There’s more fantasy in this book than in the first, though, and it feels like it’ll build into much more for the third book. There are dragons, but they set up a certain tone and act more as a plot device than anything else. There’s no fire-breathing and attacking and destroying. There’s further development around Bran’s supernatural connection with his direwolf Summer, and we see that the bastard Stark, Jon, has a bit of the gift as well. There are a few more fantastical devices scattered throughout the book, which Martin develops slowly through his world’s mythology rather than hammering in a slew of de facto dungeons & dragons.

The characters are Martin’s true accomplishment. He feeds off a character’s strengths and deficiencies, and each one is perfectly human and in some way relate-able. Individuals-as-‘outsiders’, is the base upon which the best characters are built. And he uses that foundation frequently. Tyrion, the dwarf prince, has become one of my favorite and most memorable characters in the series, and perhaps one of the most well-developed characters in any popular fiction. He’s witty and smart, and sometimes obnoxiously flip. But his deep-seated insecurities which evolve slowly over the course of both of the first books make his chapters the most anticipated. Arya develops into a wonderfully three dimensional character as the tomboy princess cut off from her family, trying to survive and find a way back home. Sansa’s princessly arrogance dissipates under the strain of trying to survive as a hostage, and finds friends in very unprincessly places.

There’s no reason to read this book before the first. There’s a wealth of back story upon which A Clash of Kings is built. Some of which Martin explains, most of which he doesn’t, which I found enjoyably and surprisingly subtle. I would’ve been more lost if I’d not read the books back-to-back. And yes, they’re that good that I was willing to invest over a month of precious reading time in two 1,000-page books.

~Jason Golomb (2015)

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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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JASON GOLOMB, who joined us in September 2015, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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  1. I was PO-ed at GRRM.
    As frustrating as the long wait between books is what got to me is; his whole attitude about it. He comes across as really arrogant, almost like he was puttin’ out a big F-U to his fans. (Granted, sometimes things easily get mistranslated over the internet.)
    And its as if he’s so caught-up in making ASoIaF into a fanchise (again, can’t really hold it against him for seizing the opportunity to make money) instead of writing the books.
    But now that A Dance of Dragons is almost out, I’m anxiously excited. And I have to respect the fact that this series really took my love of the genre to the next level.

  2. While reading A Clash of Kings for the second time, it struck me that George R.R. Martin makes writing fantasy seem insultingly effortless. At first glance, Martin hardly bothers to do more than sketch his characters, yet they become legends so quickly.

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