BY ARTHUR MCCULLOCH

Author: George R.R. Martin

2000, Bantam Spectra

Filed Under: Fantasy

On March 6, HBO is going to release the first season of  “A Game of Thrones” on disc. As Sean stated, the book was better. I’d like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that there is so much more to be had from this author than a derivative film depiction. The books are a phenomenal series and in A Clash of Kings Martin does a terrific job of picking up where he left off in the original installment.

A Game of Thrones is in many ways an introduction to Martin’s world and a vehicle to set the plots in motion; A Clash of Kings is a continuation of introductions. This is by no means a negative criticism though, despite the two books together representing 1,600 pages of “introduction,” there is a broadening of our understanding of the characters and the world they inhabit. More resolution is afoot in this second book than the first, but by the end of A Clash of Kings, the stage is set for what promises to be some very exciting plot closures.

Right from the get-go we get a greater sense of the broadest conflict. Much like Tolkien’s best sense of magic (not the wizards, elves and dwarves, magical weapons, or even Sauron), the forces of ice and fire are ancient: at once remote and yet always looming and influencing the world.

True to its title, the thrust of this story centers on the conflicting kings that seek to rule and govern the realm. While clearly portraying one of the factions as more evil than the rest, he does a great job of establishing a level of legitimacy to each of the claims, and attaches that legitimacy nicely to the drives and motivations of his characters.

Nearly all of the characters are complicated. Martin may not render each character sympathetic, but he makes them empathetic. Given the number of characters the reader is asked to follow, this makes for great storytelling.

But Martin is not perfect in this regard. A handful of the characters are flatter than the others, particularly amongst the Lannisters (the more evil faction). A pattern I observed about Martin is that he sometimes starts his characters purposefully flat and then fleshes them out slowly over time. One can only hope that characters such as Joffrey, Tywin, and Cersei will be rounded out in the next installment.

Martin’s world is dark, dangerous, and rife with political–as well as physical–dangers. Honor is often at odds with survival and the quest for power. And any sense of future, whether from the point of view of the victor or the loser is often bleak. Beauty and hope are not absent in this story, they are simply fragile and too often fleeting things. Frankly, this is one my favorite aspects of this series.

The writing style fits the nature of the world. The writing is simple and straight-forward and it compliments the gritty and dark setting. The wording is not often embellished and the only aspect that approaches the lyrical is the bardic reference: A Song of Ice and Fire.

While I applaud Martin’s dedication to successfully immerse his readers in the world and characters he has created, there are some drawbacks. In an effort to establish a deep culture and long history, he sometimes lingers a bit too long on names and history. His penchant for this is showcased in the appendices, where he shows family lines and provides character guides. This is tedious and frustrating because you can’t skim ahead. There is a chance a significant character may be introduced in these detail ridden passages.

The same level of excessive detail goes into the description of the characters, in particular the male ones. Martin’s attention to crests, sigils, armament, and clothing of his male characters borders on the bit obsessive. One feels like he’s employing the blazon to introduce them. For me, this approach results in a more muddled conjuration of character.

The narrative style the author employs is part of the sagas success. The chapters are organized by character. Each section is brief and advances each plot and sub-plot forward. Tangents have no place in this form of storytelling and Martin does an admirable job of not including any substantial superfluity. The pacing works well to keep the reader engaged throughout the entire installment, which is very impressive given the number of pages in his books.

Since the story has moved along in increments like this from the onset, the reader gets used to these small steps. It makes the pacing feel masterful.  You never know when he’s going to move the story forward significantly. These changes in pace heighten the drama; and when he chooses to introduce a turning point or a cliffhanger, he defies the reader to try and put the book down.

Much like the first volume, Martin keeps the reader guessing at what is going to happen next and who is going to survive or perish. No one is safe and, without giving anything away, he drives this point home (yet again) in A Clash of Kings. These moments are deeply affecting–the impressions left on the reader unforgettable. Martin readily embraces Faulker’s famous advice: “kill your darlings,” and his stories are better for it.

Similar Reads: A Game of Thrones and A Storm of Swords (Martin); The Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien); Eye of the World (Robert Jordan)