Since the very first page of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series I have been left in awe of his skill as a writer. The scale and grandeur of his world is phenomenal, and his talent is evident in the way he is able to weave so many threads together without once leaving you lost or confused.
So, if A Game of Thrones was the literary equivalent of George R. R. Martin carefully constructing a miniature world with glue and a pair of tweezers to slot everything in place, A Clash of Kings is the point at which he pulls out a baseball bat and begins smashing his creation to pieces, with Avril Lavigne’s song ‘What the Hell’ playing in the background.
Suddenly, the whole world and his squire wants to be the king of Westeros.
Where can I possibly start? While reading A Clash of Kings, the first thing that struck me was that Martin makes writing epic fantasy seem totally effortless. He can create a legendary character in the space of a few paragraphs, which is a godsend in books where the supporting cast of minor characters is vast and ever expanding, meaning that their lives need to be as intricately constructed as those of the main characters. The man also has a real gift for describing architecture. It’s one thing to have grand visions for a castle like Pyke, or a set piece like the Iron Throne, but if you can’t translate the image in your head to something a reader will respond to on paper it makes no difference. Thankfully, Martin doesn’t have that problem.
The scope of the plot is ever-expanding and, as I’ve said before, I give Martin kudos for having such a grand vision and keeping it all straight in both his head and ours. Even things like religion, which can often be overlooked in fantasy, are detailed and complex. And it always means something. I don’t ever feel as though any of the storylines are unnecessary, and I have complete faith that they will culminate in the most amazing revelations at the end of series. Until then he keeps you guessing, constantly in flux about who you think has the upper hand – and who you want to have the upper hand. In this novel alone it occurred to me multiple times that I didn’t really know who I was rooting for. It was not a problem of apathy; Martin craftily drew his characters and the politics of the situation so multi-dimensionally that I just couldn’t decide which outcome would be better. In the end, rather that fret over such things, I sat back and immersed myself in the twists and turns.
A Song of Ice and Fire is, first and foremost, a story about family: family loyalty and family rivalry. This is why you can’t help but try to sympathise with everyone, good or bad, when you know that their motivations are often to protect those they love. Then there’s Martin’s merciless reputation for killing off his characters left, right and centre. No-one is safe, which makes reading the books a delightfully tense experience; and rightly so, because if you do see a light at the end of the tunnel, you shouldn’t trust it. Virtually nothing is off limits here, and I always look forward to seeing just how far the author can push things. Evidence of this is everywhere in this book: major characters aren’t the only ones who get the chop (sometimes literally) in this series – its places too. A place you’ve spent over a thousand pages getting to know can be razed to the ground in a heartbeat. Even if these books aren’t your particular cup of tea, you have to admire Martin’s ruthlessness when it comes to this world he’s created.
Tyrion is without a doubt one of the best parts of this book; his wit is unrivalled and he is the first person I’ve read about that I imagine to be truly cut out for the political chess match that is running Westeros. He was hands down (pun intended!) the best Hand of the King to so far take up the position. New character Jaqen H’ghar is also a standout character, and his unusual friendship with Arya was pretty cool, although I seriously question his decision making skills. Honestly, who wakes up and thinks that essentially telling a ten-year-old “I-O-U three murders” is a bright idea? Sansa Stark also stood out for me this time around. She has fast started maturing into a much more self-aware character, and while she still comes across as a bit useless at times she is nowhere near as irritating as she was in book one. If she continues to develop at the rate she is now I can picture her becoming a serious player in the ‘game of thrones’.
Let’s be honest, length is an issue. Getting through this monster took me several months, partly because of the pressures of school work, but also because it is freaking HUGE. My biggest complaint, though, was that the whole book doesn’t really have much of a plot, when you think about it. This book really feels like most second instalments of a trilogy do, because it was mostly set up for things that will happen later in the series. I was ready for stuff to happen! A Game of Thrones had me on the edge of my seat almost from the word “go”, and A Clash of Kings just didn’t have that same tension for a large part of its 900-odd pages. I know that given the circumstances that’s appropriate here, but I wanted a few more dramatic confrontations. Furthermore, as this is a middle book there are no cliffhangers to agonise over, yet very little is properly resolved. Every door has been left open just a crack so that the author can explore that room again later.
Lastly, it’s inevitable that you will prefer some perspectives over others. Fans of Daenerys be warned: you will have a rather long wait between chapters; and even when you do get there not a lot really happens until the last one. Unfortunately, I discovered that Theon Greyjoy got a lot of page time here, and for reasons I cannot disclose, this irritated me, because I find him to be a massive jerk. Theon’s story feels almost like a separate novella interspersed in amongst the rest of the book and while it was interesting, he did nothing to adhere himself to me and I ended up wishing he would, quite frankly, piss off. One day when I re-read the book, I will probably skim most of his chapters.
I would say that A Clash of Kings has earned itself four out of five stars. I know what you’re thinking – only 4 stars? It’s true that I love the series, but after such a brilliant first instalment there was a lot of setting up to do for the future and as a result the plot was a bit slow in places, hence the loss of a star.
My advice to anyone would be: don’t start this series unless you’re ready to devote yourself to reading every published story. Also, bear in mind that these are BIG books, and they’ll require your complete concentration, so consider taking breaks in between each one to read something lighter. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’ve finished the last one on my shelf and have to sit around waiting for Martin to write and publish the rest. That will certainly be a sad, sad day.