Tuesday, 27 August 2013

George R. R. Martin - A Song Of Ice And Fire Book Two: A Clash Of Kings (1998)

"What good was it to take a kingdom if you could not hold it?" Theon Greyjoy

"You should have learned by now, none of us get the things we want." Cersei Lannister

   At the end of book one, the Seven Kingdoms teetered on the edge of chaos as five kings laid claim to the Iron Throne. 'A Clash Of Kings' picks up pretty much directly where 'A Game Of Thrones' left off, but as well as focusing on all the pieces already in motion, George R. R. Martin continues to expand the world of Westeros, adding more characters and more viewpoints. So while Tyrion Lannister becomes the King's Hand and sets about trying to fortify King's Landing and minimise the havoc caused by King Joffrey, Robb Stark cements his position as King of the North by leading more battles against the Lannisters and Arya tries to escape to the North with Yoren and the Night's Watch, the late Robert Baratheon's brothers Stannis and Renly gather their forces to make their claim to the throne. If that sounds like it would make for a narrative even more packed and complex than that of 'A Game Of Thrones', well, it does. Astonishingly Martin just about manages to keep all the juggling balls still in the air, though perhaps inevitably the strain does show at times. For all that, it's a thoroughly satisfying sequel, and the action-packed siege of King's Landing is even more exciting than anything in the first book. 

Another book, another map
      As Theon neatly points out at the top of the page, one of the main themes of the book is that being able to achieve power doesn't necessarily mean you are fit to rule. Robert Baratheon became king because he was a great warrior, the one who defeated Rhaegar Targaryen at the Trident. However the very characteristics that made him a great warrior made him a lousy king. Renly shares Robert's easy charisma, but is similarly blase about the practicalities of running a kingdom. Stannis, with his strong sense of justice and serious mind, is much better suited to rule, but his lack of charisma means he is unable to get the popular support necessary to support his claim. In his desperation he winds up allying himself with Lady Melisandra of Asshai, a member of a creepy cult built around the creepy Lord of Light and possessed of sinister dark powers. We see Stannis mainly through the eyes of Davos, a former smuggler knighted by Stannis for single-handedly allowing Stannis to last through the siege of Storm's End. At the same time Stannis also cut off Davos' fingers to punish him for smuggling, which tells you all you need to know about Stannis' sense of justice. Davos is staunchly supportive of Stannis, and his story arc, where he sees the man he respects and loves making worse and worse decisions and heading further and further into the abyss, are grim and powerful.
   Arya Stark also finds herself allying with dubious powers. Yoren's attempt to save her and one of King Robert's bastards by smuggling them north with the new recruits for the Night's Watch is quickly and brutally punished in the way only Martin does. In the ensuing chaos, Arya assists dangerous Lothari madman Jaqen H'ghar, and so when Arya is captured by Gregor Clegane and forced to work as a servant at Harrenhal, he pays her back by offering to kill three people of her choice. She uses this new power to free the Lannister's Northern prisoners and help them take over the castle, but it is a tribute to Martin's gritty cynicism that the servants and workers are no better under the Northern bannermen's control than under the Lannisters. 
   While Arya and Stannis struggle with morality and fight to retain their souls, Theon Greyjoy cheerfully jumps right past the moral event horizon. Nothing more than a minor annoyance in the first book, in 'A Clash Of Kings' Theon becomes a viewpoint character and we get to find out what a toxic environment the inside of his head is. Much like Joffrey, he is revealed to be a twat before his villainy is revealed. Writing for Theon must be a delicate balancing act - he gets enough of a sympathetic backstory that we know exactly where he's coming from and why he is the way he is, whilst his actions always keep us from feeling any actual sympathy towards the character. The Greyjoys as a whole are just awful - parasites who smugly announce 'We Do Not Sow' because they get everything they need by thievery. Desperate to prove his worth, Theon betrays the Starks and takes over Winterfell. His absolute lowest moment comes when he tries to kill Bran and Rickon, and failing to do that murders two similarly aged children to prove he will not be screwed with. As the quote at the top of the page shows, he has moments where he is quite savvy, but because he's an idiot he makes a series of spectacularly poor decisions and gets his thoroughly earned comeuppance. 

The Greyjoy words are "We're going to try our darndest to be worse than the Lannisters! Wish us luck!"
   If the main storyline of 'A Game Of Thrones' was Ned Stark investigating the circumstances surrounding John Arryn's death, the main plot in 'A Clash Of Kings' follows Tyrion's attempts to rule in Joffrey's stead. Tyrion is probably the only character in the book with both the moral fibre to rule justly and the cunning to survive in the cutthroat environment of the King's court. Much of the book involves Tyrion, Varys and Littlefinger snarking at and manipulating each other. It's thoroughly entertaining, and I would happily watch a TV show that was only that. Tyrion has enough awareness that in order to survive and keep the peace in an increasingly fractious environment he is going to have to do some fairly unpleasant things. At one point in the book he comforts himself with the thought that "It is not what we do, so much as why we do it." Really he should know better. Like Ned Stark he is surprised when he discovers that his idealism has alienated people; in fact he winds up the most hated Lannister. Some of this is discrimination, and some of it is that people don't realise the work he does to undermine all the damage Joffrey does, but some of it - that he's filled the city with murderous sellswords - is actually fair enough. For all his careful planning, in the siege of King's Landing at the end Tyrion leads the battle, which winds up getting him grievously injured.    
   'A Clash Of Kings' is also a great book for Sansa and Catelyn. Sansa continues to grow and develop as a character, showing remarkable fortitude in the face of adversity, for what good it does her. At least by the end of the book she is no longer betrothed to Joffrey, though how much good this does her in the long run is debatable. She also acts as the audience's viewpoint on Cersei Lannister for much of the book. Cersei herself gets a fair bit of character development as well, even having a couple of humanising moments as well as neatly summing up how Martin's universe works. Jaime only appears for one scene, but it's a good one, as he baits Catelyn in his cell at Riverrun. Catelyn continues to exemplify the Tully family motto: 'Family. Duty. Honor." Whilst dealing with her grief, she frequently winds up being the only sane man in a world with more than its fair share of hotheads and idiots. Martin's cheap trick of making her believe that Bran and Rickon are dead really stings; the poor woman has enough on her plate already. Meanwhile the threat beyond the Wall grows ever greater as Mance Rayder gathers the forces of the wildlings together for a massive assault; Jon Snow winds up having to seemingly betray his oath as a brother of the Night Watch and joins the wildlings in order to become a double agent.
   The only major character I've not mentioned so far is Daenerys. There's a reason for that. While Martin finds plenty to keep her busy with over the course of the book - she leads her Dothraki raiders through a desert, meets a warlock and has a dream quest - her story is noticeably separate from everyone else's. While all the other characters' actions have impacts on the other characters' stories, creating a complex, interweaving narrative, nothing Daenerys has done so far has had an impact on this, nor has any of it effected her. Hopefully that will change in the next book, as at the end Illyrio Mopatis makes himself known again and provides her with the means to get her forces to Westeros. Hopefully next time round she will have more interaction with the main plot.
  Oh, and yes, Tyrion does get to slap Joffrey again. I really hope this happens in every book. 

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