Archive for September 6th, 2011

Realpolitik, Westeros-style — George R.R. Martin’s “A Clash of Kings”

George R.R. Martin’s A CLASH OF KINGS takes up where the previously reviewed A GAME OF THRONES left off.   Ned Stark, erstwhile Hand of the King, is dead, and his children are scattered all over the place.   Among the most important of Ned Stark’s children is his eldest son Robb, who now styles himself “the King in the North” as he cannot abide taking orders from the teenage king Joffrey Baratheon (who styles himself “King of Houses Baratheon and Lannister”) after King Joffrey gave the order to put Robb’s father to death.  There is a precedent for a King in the North, because in the fairly recent past (within the past several hundred years) there used to be Kings who held Winterfell, not merely Lords.

But Robb Stark is not the only new King to worry about, here; there’s Stannis Baratheon, the eldest brother of the previous King, Robert Baratheon (who was believed to be King Joffrey’s father, but really wasn’t).  Stannis knows that Joffrey is not Robert’s true-born heir (Ned Stark, and the Hand of the King before him, Jon Arryn, had found this out and were murdered, but Ned managed to smuggle a note out to Stannis before he ended up dead).  Stannis styles himself the true King of Westeros, though everyone else calls him “The King on the Narrow Sea” as there’s obviously more than one King to worry about. 

Another new King is Renly Baratheon, the younger brother of Robert and Stannis, who’s a much more charismatic figure than any of the other kings including the odious Joffrey, and has a large and well-trained army behind him.  Renly is styled “The King in Highgarden” by others, though as is true of all but Robb Stark, Renly believes himself to be the one, true Heir to the Iron Throne and the best able to wield the power that entails.  Renly, too, knows that Joffrey is not Robert’s true heir as Ned Stark told him before Ned was taken prisoner, though even if Joffrey were legitimate, Renly had told Ned near the end of the previous book that a child on the throne had never been good for Westeros in the past and wouldn’t be now, either.  This made me believe that no matter what Joffrey’s parentage had been, Renly would’ve raised his standard anyway while the other kings taking part in this new Westeros Civil War probably wouldn’t have, providing Joffrey had just sent Ned Stark to the Wall in the first place.

Now, you may be asking, “What on Earth is the Wall?”  The Wall is a very important part of Westeros; while it’s a dark, depressing place at the furthest of civilization in the North, it’s the last line of defense against outlaws and changelings.  Note that it’s further North than Winterfell, and the old Kings in the North knew the Night’s Watch very well.  (The Night’s Watch are those who man the wall.  They wear black, do not marry, and do not raise sons.)  Deposed Lords, like Ned Stark, have often been sent to the Wall before; service there is honorable, as the Wall protects the rest of Westeros from the previously-mentioned outlaws and changelings, much less other threats.  And, normally, a Lord like Ned Stark would be sent to the Wall as a matter of course in order to rehabilitate his besmirched name.  But King Joffrey, being young and stupid, overruled his mother Queen Cersei’s wise counsel to send Ned Stark there, and instead had Ned beheaded in a garish outdoor ceremony.

Confused yet?  Well, in case you aren’t, there’s also the only remaining true-born Targaryen heir to worry about — that’s Daenerys Stormborn, who lost her husband near the end of A GAME OF THRONES but hasn’t lost any of her power.  She somehow raised from her husband’s funeral pyre three living dragons after everyone else in the world felt that dragons were extinct (she had been given some dragon eggs that everyone felt were inert as wedding presents, as the Targaryens had an ancient kinship with dragons and used to brandish dragon skulls in their throne room to point that out).  Daenerys is beautiful, young (fourteen in the books, about eighteen in the HBO series based off the whole Song of Ice and Fire series, which is called GAME OF THRONES), and lives on a wholly different continent across a great sea, but is still the only legitimate claimant left to the Iron Throne and she well knows it.

And there’s one, final King in this new “game” — that’s Balon Greyjoy, who styles himself “King of the Iron Islands.”  Greyjoy is a hard man who believes in hard work, self-sacrifice, and discipline — all good things, in moderation — but takes it way too far and is demanding at best, abusive at worst.  He has two children, a daughter, Asha, whom he wants to be his heir against all tradition, and Theon, who’s been raised by Ned Stark and is Robb Stark’s blood brother.  Balon Greyjoy has a plan, you see, to upset Robb Stark’s applecart and his son, Theon, had best carry it off — or else.

And lest I forget, the other Stark children (who are all important in different ways) are situated thusly: Arya is running from King Joffrey and his minions and has been taken in by a man from the Night’s Watch and is hoping to be reunited with her bastard brother Jon Snow, who now serves on the Wall.  Sansa is still engaged to be married to King Joffrey, though she now hates him and will intrigue against him if she ever gets a chance.  Bran, the second-youngest son, is still at Winterfell, exploring his psychic gifts (that awakened after he became a paraplegic due to the horrible accident that starts A GAME OF THRONES), while Rickon is still a very young child of four whose talents and abilities have yet to be determined.

So now that you know all the Kings, and where all the Starks are, you need to know that the most important and interesting person in A CLASH OF KINGS is none of these people — instead, it’s Tyrion Lannister, called “the Imp,” who’s been sent by his father Tywin to become the Hand of the King as Tywin’s needed more in the field due to his grasp of military strategy.  (In other words, if Tywin leaves the field, Joffrey could lose his seat on the Iron throne quite easily, which would cause the entire Lannister family extreme distress.  Tywin, by the way, is Joffrey’s grandfather, and Tyrion is Joffrey’s uncle.)  It’s Tyrion who must somehow keep those in King’s Landing who haven’t deserted King Joffrey together, and it’s up to Tyrion as to how the defense of King’s Landing will be handled.

Everything else, and everyone else, is much less important than whatever Tyrion can do to hold everything together; Tyrion is the unlikely key to this newest “game of thrones” in that he, alone, knows all the players very well.  And while his sympathies are often with the other claimants (especially Robb Stark, who is the one King who is mostly fighting to be left alone rather than to take King’s Landing for himself — though make no mistake, Robb Stark will gladly take and sack King’s Landing due to what King Joffrey did to his father, Ned), Tyrion knows he has a job to do and does it, which is probably why the resolute, determined and witty Tyrion remained my favorite character two books running.

There are a few other storylines of interest, though; first, Jaime Lannister’s “growth and story arc” has started, and we can now see him for the first time as a man in love who’s made bad decisions rather than the irresponsible blackguard he seemed in A GAME OF THRONES.  We also meet Brienne the Warrior-Maid, one of King Renly’s Rainbow Guard; she’s well over six feet, very much less than dainty, and has never felt like she fit in well before she became part of Renly’s guard.   Brienne was one of my new favorite characters, and her story is well worth watching and appreciating.  And we see Cersei Lannister trying her best, but mostly failing, to give King Joffrey some mother-wit lest his kingdom implode due to Joffrey’s inexperienced truculence.

Once again, Martin has delivered an epic fantasy that is engrossing from beginning to end.  There’s a great deal of intrigue, some nice fantasy elements with Bran Stark’s psychic gifts and of course Daenerys’s bond with her three young dragons, and lots of realistic battle scenes.  There are people to root for (Robb, Tyrion, Brienne); there are people to root against (Queen Cersei, King Joffrey, Tywin Lannister, and many others).  And there’s an excellent sense of place, and purpose, that sets off the whole Song of Ice and Fire like no other fantasy series I’ve ever seen.

In other words, why are you still reading this review?  Go grab A CLASH OF KINGS right now!

Grade: A-plus. 

— reviewed by Barb

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