A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the second book in the A Song of Fire and Ice cycle. Therefore, this review will contain some spoilers if you haven't read the first book, A Game of Thrones or watched the finale of the season. You have been warned.
Martin delivers another epic masterpiece, advancing the saga by leaps and bounds. The characters are deep and invoking, particularly the ones we never got to know very well the first time through. Martin's style has improved as well: there are far more battles in this one that are described in action, not merely in passing. Still, there are places where Martin's attention to detail is curious. For example, there is a harrowing escape plot by the Kingslayer that we don't get to see: only hear about after it has been foiled. I think most readers would have preferred to read that, rather than be subjected to an entire chapter of Theon Greyjoy unknowingly trying to nail his sister. In the first book, I began to suspect that Martin was obsessed with food: meals are described in lavish (often unnecessary) detail, fights and love scenes are usually told in passing dialog. This suspicion was confirmed during my reading of A Clash of Kings: every meal gets a the royal treatment. I realize that Martin is doing what he does best here: world building, and the "flavor" of a culture is often expressed best by it's food. But, still...I would have loved to have read more fights. I like fights. I like food, too, but I can eat anytime. I can't always put on armor and get into a fight.
As for the world-building, Martin is a master. He hints at a rich, ancient world that compels the reader, often just mentioning a people or nation with a simple line or two; it's enough. Daenerys and Jorah are off exploring another continent, one where magic is a little less dead than on Westeros, and we get to see a lot of exoticness. And food...Martin describes the food. A lot. He likes food. But he also likes creating entire cultures that we barely get a taste of, just enough to make us keep reading to see if there is more.
There are good battles, though. More than in the first book. We get a melee between knights competing for the honor of being a king's guard. We also get Tyrion, one of my favorite characters, leading a charge against a sortie of Stannis Baratheon's men. He also gets one of the best lines in the book: "What brave men...let's go kill them."
I will say this: something will happen near the end of the book that will probably piss you off so much you might stop reading. I almost did. DON'T. It isn't what you're thinking, I promise. Just keep going. Martin established in the first book that he'll kill pretty much anyone, no matter how invested the reader has become. He killed Ned and Drogo in the first one, before either of those characters got to live out what you were sure was going to be a spectacular destiny. This unpredictability ads to the excitement of the book: anyone could die at any point and in any way, but this also inserts an element of capriciousness, and makes it feel authentic when the unthinkable seems to occur near the end of the book. I assure you: keep reading. I did and I wasn't sorry.
This epic requires a commitment from the reader. This is no casual read, and it would be impossible to pick up this book without having read the first. You might even want to take notes. And once you've read the first two, you'll need to get the rest to see what it's going. Some characters are so complex that you have no idea what their ultimate goal might be. One example of this is Littlefinger, who has been scheming since the beginning for...who the hell knows? He winds up achieving something notable by the end, but it's an odd victory and it's difficult to see where it ultimately ends (note, you get a hint of his great scheme not far into the third book). And then there is Tyrion: the only Lannister over the age of 12 that you don't want to brain with a mace. Tyrion continues to be my favorite, and this book does him as much justice as the first.
One minor complaint: names. Martin is generally uncreative with naming characters, and it creates a some problems. He has a lot of characters with very similar names, most notably in the D range of the alphabet: Ser Davos, Devas, Daenerys, Devan...it's difficult to get straight sometimes, especially for such a long book where minor characters may have five or more chapters between them. For a fast reader like me, this isn't such a big deal. If you only have time to read once or twice a week, this could get exhausting. Fortunately, most of the important characters have nicknames to help identify them, like The Onion Knight or the Knight of Roses.
And there were some characters that I desperately wanted to see in the first book and hoped to see in this one...like the Red Priest with the flaming sword. He gets mentioned, and his flaming sword explained (he doesn't just light it on fire, it's way cooler than that) but we don't ever get to see him. Martin makes up for this by introducing even more intruiging characters, like the two Crannogmen and the wildlings north of the wall...most notably Craster of Crasterly Keep.
So, keep it up, George. I'm into this one until this series till the end! I have my theories and dreams about where it's going, but you never cease to surprise me...even when I'm right. Four stars, easily. Four and a half, if Goodreads only let me give ratings in half-stars.
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