Top positive review
Dark and Intriguing - A Perfect Follow Up to Game of Thrones
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on March 12, 2015
After I finished "Game of Thrones," I immediately downloaded "Clash of Kings" and began reading, eager to continue the story that so fully captured my attention. This series is highly addicting, and I'm incredibly late reviewing this because it's impossible to stop reading after finishing a book to compose a review. Also, the second and third book sort of run together, which makes it difficult to review them separately. This is the perfect follow up to the first book - carries the momentum from the events introduced there and sets up its own story. It somehow manages to be darker and grittier than the first installment without stepping into the realm of being gratuitous . In fact, it's probably one of the best second novels I've read. Spoilers follow.
I usually give a brief summary of the novel's story in my review, but with "Clash of Kings," a brief summary simply isn't possible since there's so much going on in the book and a lot of it ties deeply to the events from the first novel. Instead, I'll supply a very brief overview. With Robert Baratheon dead and the legitimacy of his children brought into question, the Iron Throne is up for grabs and Westeros is plunged into civil war as (at least) four different people claim the Throne as theirs. Meanwhile, the Night's Watch in the North begins to investigate the people beyond the Wall, the Wildlings. In the East, Daenerys Targaryen moves forward with her plan to conquer the Seven Kingdoms for herself. Her following has dwindled after the death of her husband, but her three newborn dragons make her notorious. Though she refuses to give them away to secure aid, Daenerys hopes she can use her dragons to her advantage to reclaim what, in her mind, rightfully belongs to her family.
Martin sure knows how to tell a riveting story. I've read a fair bit of fantasy over the years and eventually had to take a break from the genre due to becoming bored with seeing the same clichés and tropes used over and over again. As I read "Clash of Kings," I found myself waiting to see the book fall into the same pattern of predictability that I've seen elsewhere. The first book was great in being unique and unpredictable, but could Martin really maintain that high standard throughout a second book? The joke's on me because he definitely can...and I've learned better than to doubt his originality. There isn't much in the way of resolution in this book, but that's ok since there are several more books that follow it. Instead, "Clash of Kings" serves to propel the ideas established in the first book. We see how events from "Game of Thrones" have unfolded and developed into something bigger and more widespread, and what we see is fascinating. It's also worth mentioning that there are a lot of big players in this war, but Martin manages to make all of them distinct. None are just thrown in to be there and all of them are fleshed out. This isn't a generic world filled with the normal trappings of the genre - Martin's Westeros is unique and fully realized. Reading about the different factions alone would be compelling...combine it with an intriguing plot and you've got one Hell of a good read!
It should also be noted that Martin pulls no punches when describing his dark, gritty world. If you're squeamish and prefer to read about characters that blush when thinking about kissing or battles that are over and done with relatively quickly and cleanly, this probably isn't your book. The big theme in "Clash of Kings" is the huge, ongoing civil war that has erupted across the entirety of Westeros, and no detail is spared. The full horrors of the battlefield - bones being crushed, flesh split, the gruesome results of someone being turned into a bloody pulp via being bludgeoned by a blunt object, soldiers being trampled by their own horses, pretty much any awful battle-related thing you can come up with - are portrayed in graphic detail. These fights aren't glorious; they're long, agonizing, and brutal, and Martin writes them so well that you'll find yourself on the battlefield alongside the characters (for better or worse, in some cases). He's done his research on the tools and tactics of the medieval period, and it definitely shows. He also doesn't hesitate to show us the other not-so-pleasant aspects of humanity. Sex (whether consensual or the spoils of war) is a common occurrence and it isn't portrayed in a nice, chaste manner. Like many other things in the books, it's blunt, realistic, and often uncomfortable...both for the characters and the reader. The people who populate Martin's world drink, curse, and entertain lewd, violent, or otherwise nasty thoughts. Sanitation is what you'd expect it to be in a war torn, medieval country. These things often aren't fun to read about, but they add a level of authenticity to the novel, and I personally find it refreshing to read an author who doesn't sugarcoat the realities of armed conflict. The details characterize the world and the people in it - if you read "Clash of Kings" and think "Wow, this person/event/place is awful!" then you're probably thinking what Martin intended with this characterization. Westeros is not a fun place to be, and Martin's attention to the dark, gritty, unpleasant details bring that into sharp focus.
Much like with "Game of Thrones," this book has several main characters with the point of view changing in each chapter. This continues to work well by providing different viewpoints of big events without becoming repetitive and tiresome. More importantly, it showcases Martin's talent for creating dynamic, three-dimensional, complex, fully realized characters. I've read a lot of novels lately that have been in first person point of view, but have ultimately failed to capture the essence of the character or put the reader in the protagonist's head. "Clash of Kings," though written in third person, doesn't have this problem. Each character's viewpoint is distinctly different with the characters' biases and backgrounds moving prominently to the forefront. Even better, with the figures' biases colouring events, you'll often wonder whose version of events is the correct version or if any of them are truly accurate. It makes of an interesting, unique reading experience, especially with the big events that unfold in this book.
It's also worth mentioning that although there are certain characters who are clearly protagonists and antagonists, whether or not you like them will be largely dependent on how you react to their characterization, not what their role in the story is. Since starting "A Song of Ice and Fire," I've noticed that everyone seems to like and dislike different characters - and what one person may like about a certain character may cause another person to dislike them. I think this demonstrates how realistic Martin has made his characterization. It's a lot like reading about an actual person: very few people are simply classified as good or bad - instead, they have numerous aspects to their personalities that resonate well with some people and act as turn-offs to others. The characters in this book are much the same...and with many of them doing or being witness to darker, nastier things in the second novel, there are plenty of opportunities for your opinions on certain characters to change.
On a random, character-related note, I'm pleased to see that Martin actually has a wide array of female characters. I'll be honest and say that the stereotypical female tropes that pop up in the fantasy genre bug the Hell out of me: women tend to be either delicate damsels or kickass warriors, neither of which has ever struck me as particularly interesting or realistic. In "Clash of Kings," we're treated both to some of our favourite women from the first book as well as new heroines. There are no stereotypes here and each character embodies her own strengths and flaws. Sure, there are women who fall in line with the traditional gender roles of a medieval wife and those who prefer a more warrior-esque life (as well as many who lie somewhere in between), but they're so wonderfully characterized that they never become predictably stereotypical, nor are they overlooked in favour of the male characters. A lot of authors could learn something from Martin: it's possible to write a varied female cast without them becoming stereotypes. Furthermore, it never feels like a character is included to provide "another female perspective" (or another male perspective, for that matter) - they all matter and they all provide valuable insight into Westeros, the war, and their unique situations.
While there isn't a "main character" per se, if I had to pick a point of view character that features most prominently, it would definitely be Tyrion. This is his book: how he rises to the lofty position of the King's Hand and how he uses his intellect and cunning to overcome his lack of physical prowess in a book that's largely about battles, knights, and their consequences. While Tyrion isn't my favourite character, his perspective is always interesting since he has to go about things in a vastly different way than the book's other figures. If you're a fan of Tyrion, this is your book!
"Clash of Kings" is a solid follow up to "Game of Thrones." It manages to be darker and grittier than its predecessor without coming off as gratuitous and continues the story without seeming like it's being unnecessarily dragged out. Martin's writing and characters are just as satisfying as they were in the first book, and I finished the novel feeling like I needed to start the next one immediately (and I did - thank goodness I didn't have to wait!). "A Song of Ice and Fire" is a truly unique and refreshing entry in the fantasy genre...and it's impossible to stop reading after one (or even two) books.