Posts Tagged epic fantasy

Deborah J. Ross’s “The Seven-Petaled Shield” — an Exceptional Epic Fantasy

Sorry about the delay in reviewing, folks. Life hath interrupted again…but I promise to make up for that in the coming days and weeks.

Seven petaled shield 9780756406219_500X500Deborah J. Ross’s THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD is an interesting epic fantasy about a strong, scholarly woman, Tsorreh, and her royal son, Zevaron. But to say just that is like saying chocolate-dipped strawberries are just a fruit…it’s not half as appetizing as it should be.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

Tsorreh is the Te-Ravah of Meklavar, a small but prosperous mountain city. This may not sound like much, but Meklavar has a long and illustrious heritage as defenders against evil, and because she is much more scholarly than your average queenly co-ruler, she well knows it. She’s also the second wife of the much-older Te-Ravot Maharrad, and the stepmother to Shorrenon, the heir (Ravot) to Meklavar, as well as mother to Zevaron.

Why does all this matter? Because there’s an army — a huge one — on its way to obliterate Meklavar unless Meklavar will bow its head in tribute. This army is from the large and sprawling country of Gelon, a place which has gobbled up many other smaller principalities. But because Gelon is headed by a particularly hard-headed and evil-spirited King, Meklavar wants no part of them.

However, the army of Gelon is so big, there’s no way for Meklavar to stand against them. Tsorreh realizes this early on, though she doesn’t exactly put this into words; still, it’s so clearly in subtext that any observant reader can figure it out (almost from the first page). And because Tsorreh knows this, she decides to do her part to keep the true treasure of Meklavar — holy books — well-hidden.

No one can help her do this, except her aged attendant and her even more aged grandfather, a particularly well-known scholar-priest. So she mostly uses her own foot-power, while she continues to offer sparing and thoughtful advice to her husband Maharrad.

Then he dies, and the city falls.

When Meklavar falls, the catastrophe is worsened by one thing: Ravot Shorrenon’s impetuous action. (No, I won’t tell you what it is.) Because of this, Tsorreh must get away fast, and only barely extricates herself and her son Zevaron from the mess. But her grandfather gives her a gift just before he dies that she not only hadn’t expected, but hadn’t even realized existed — the fabled Seven-Petaled Shield, which is tangibly felt but not, strictly speaking, corporeal.

You see, Tsorreh has to take the Seven-Petaled Shield, because if Gelon somehow gained access to it, all would be lost. There’s a legendary evil that Meklavar helped to keep at bay, you see, but time has eroded the how and why of it except for a few scholars like Tsorreh and her late grandfather. And even they know more legend than fact.

But now, she must get used to the idea of being the holder of the Shield. (She’s not the wielder, mind. She’s more of a caretaker, as I read it. Still a very important and vital position.) And she can’t give away to the Gelonese that she has it.

As she flees with her son, they become separated. Zevaron, being younger and even more impetuous in some ways than his half-brother Shorrenon, vows revenge on Gelon for their actions thus far. But he’s captive, for a time, and only breaks free with the help of a very unlikely source.

And when Tsorreh ends up taking refuge in Gelon, of all places, she realizes that not every person in Gelon is her enemy. That realization gives her more strength, even as her body starts to fail her. (Carrying that Shield around is very taxing, especially if you aren’t destined to wield it. Again, this is much more subtextual than not, but if you’re a careful and thorough reader, you should pick this up.)

This episode ends with one question — what will happen when Zevaron and his mother Tsorreh meet up again? (Further reviewer sayeth not…at least, not about this.)

Now, this sounds much less meaty and interesting than it is. (Remember what I said before about chocolate-dipped strawberries being more than a fruit?) So even though it sounds like any other epic fantasy out there, it isn’t.

Instead, THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD is spiritually deep in a way I rarely see in fantasy. Ms. Ross did an outstanding job in rendering a strong and quiet woman who takes comfort in books, and shows just how relevant such a heroine can be. (I could live without Zevaron, quite frankly, but I know he’s needed for the sequels.)

Bottom line? THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD is an exceptional epic fantasy, one that’s deep and broad in ways that I’ve rarely seen. More epic fantasy should be like this. Highly recommended!

Grade: A-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Lackey and Mallory’s “Crown of Vengeance” — One Compelling Epic Fantasy

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s newest novel is CROWN OF VENGEANCE, book one of a new trilogy about the great Elven Queen Vieliessar Farcarinon.  Previous readers of Lackey and Mallory’s work will recognize Vieliessar from a short snippet in a previous novel, WHEN DARKNESS FALLS (book three of the “Obsidian Mountain” trilogy).  She was described as the best queen the Elves ever had.  She was also the best mage, the wisest ruler, skilled with both sword and magery alike.  And of course the legends about her mostly speak of her benevolence, as she’s the one who drove the nasty, vicious Endarkened out of Jer-a-Kaliel.

(A quick note about the Endarkened: They do not see themselves as evil.  They are servants of a God known as He Who Is.  They also are blood mages who enjoy causing pain and death to maximize their own power, and especially enjoy killing Elves.  But the Elves, at first, do not know about the Endarkened.  Thus ends the history lesson.)

If you’ve read the other six books Lackey and Mallory have written about this world, you already know that Vieliessar’s story isn’t going to go exactly the way history has remembered it.  Because of this, you can safely assume that Vieliessar is both more and less than what history gives her credit for.

So yes, she will turn out to be a triumphant Queen.  And a brilliant military tactician.  And a great mage, oh yes.

But she’s also a flawed person, someone the reader can empathize with.  Because her power sets her apart.  And it’s hard for her to find anyone who can relate to her, due to her own amazingly strong abilities.

Having a sympathetic heroine is absolutely essential in a book where most of the character names are at least four syllables in length.  And when a character has hundreds of years to become what she needs to be, for that matter — because Vieliessar isn’t human.  She’s an Elf.  And at this time in Jer-a-Kaliel’s history, because we’re so far back in the past, humans aren’t even in the picture because they haven’t yet evolved enough to matter.

We pick up Vieliessar’s story literally at birth.  Her noble mother, Nataranweiya, has fled to the Sanctuary of the Star — clerics and mages, the equivalent of a nunnery or monastery — as her husband has been slain, along with nearly all of her retainers.  (Those few she had left were the reason she was able to reach the Sanctuary at all.)  Nataranweiya gets there, gives birth, and promptly dies . . . but because Vieliessar’s birth was seen centuries ago by an ancient and possibly mad King, and because Vieliessar is, after all, in a holy Sanctuary, the enemies that brought down the House of Farcarinon are not able to kill Vieliessar outright.

Instead, she’s fostered out.

We pick up the story again when Vieliessar is twelve.  Renamed “Varuthir,” all she wants to do is to become an Elven knight.  She knows nothing of being the last of Farcarinon; she knows nothing of her birth, her mother, her status as “Child of the Prophecy” or anything else.  So when she’s shipped off to the Sanctuary of the Star to become a perpetual servant, she is outraged.

That one of the nobles cruelly tells Vieliessar exactly who she’s supposed to be (minus the Child of the Prophecy part, as the Sanctuary didn’t let on about any of that) before she leaves just adds salt to the wound.

So, Vieliessar goes to the Sanctuary, and becomes a servant.  She’s there for perhaps as many as ten years, learning that servants are people like any other — that the “Landbonds,” who’ve been held as serfs, tied to the land, are perhaps more noble than anyone who’s inherited a title — and that magic has its limits.

Then, one day, she calls fire.

A wise servant tells Vieliessar to hide her new abilities, as if she’s chosen to become a Lightsister (mage and cleric, both), she’ll lose her protected status.  (Only if she stays in the Sanctuary or on its grounds is she safe.  And perhaps not on the grounds, depending on how the other noble houses feel about it.)  But of course Vieliessar isn’t able to do that.

If she had been, it would’ve been a much shorter, and far less interesting, book.  But I digress.

The remainder of the novel deals with how Vieliessar first becomes a mage, then an Elven knight, and finally reclaims her birthright as a noble.  In so doing, she realizes she must unite the Hundred Houses behind her banner, as she firmly believes that evil is approaching, just as that mad King said centuries ago.

But her quest is not an easy one.  Before she’s done, she may alienate every friend she has, all to keep at least some semblance of Elven society alive.  And because she knows this — and knows how rare it is to find a true meeting of the minds, besides — her fate and fame become that much more compelling.

There’s some really good characterization here.  The problems of the Landbonds and servants are well-drawn.  The nobles — Higher and Lesser — are also well-drawn, though their petty politicking grows tiring even to those Highborns willing to partake in such.  And despite her immense powers in a wide variety of spheres, Vieliessar is a likable, winning heroine that most readers will be willing to cheer for — even as they wish the Endarkened would just go away and leave her alone already.

Because this is book one of a new trilogy, you may safely assume that the scenes with the Endarkened are more like an appetizer than an actual main course.  This is fine, as far as it goes, especially if you’ve read the previous six books.

But even if you haven’t, there’s more than enough here to show that the Endarkened are nasty pieces of work that you definitely wouldn’t want to invite to dinner.  (Or anywhere else, either.  Because they’d probably have you as the main course, and smile while they killed you, as slowly and painfully as they possibly could.)

Bottom line?  This is a fine epic fantasy, a quest story with heart, and a compelling read from beginning to end.

If you love epic fantasy, loved any of Lackey and Mallory’s previous six books in this world, or have enjoyed any of the two authors’ solo efforts, you will enjoy this book.

And if you love all of the above, plus appreciate seeing that legends aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be (they might be more, might be less, but are assuredly different), you will adore CROWN OF VENGEANCE.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Dave Freer’s “Dog and Dragon” — Cute Sequel

Dave Freer’s DOG AND DRAGON is a sequel to DRAGON’S RING (reviewed here).  As such, it’s about the further adventures of Fionn, the black, shapechanging dragon (also called Finn), his lover, Meb (née Anghared), and their devoted sheepdog, Dileas.

At the end of DRAGON’S RING, everything was thrown into flux.  You see, Meb believed that if she stayed with Finn, something awful would happen to the universes — the various planes of existence — and that Finn, in trying to save them (as that is, indeed, his job), would end up dead.  That’s why she leaves Tamarind and ends up in Lyonesse, the place of her birth; while she hadn’t intended to go there, her magic tends to send her wherever she’s most needed.  And Lyonesse, it turns out, is in major need of a heroine.

Meanwhile, Finn and Dileas are searching for Meb.  Searching the various planes isn’t as easy as it sounds, even for a shapechanging dragon like Fionn/Finn; fortunately, Dileas is an excellent tracker, and despite the fact that Meb’s translation from Tamarind to Lyonesse was nearly instantaneous and didn’t go by way of the planar travel Finn and Dileas are forced to endure, Dileas ends up getting them in the right direction.

Back in Lyonesse, Meb makes common cause with the only decent people around, the formidable Lady Vivien, a widow, and the young noblewoman sent to become Meb’s maid, Lady Neve.   But both women are being blackmailed — more or less — by Mage Aberinn, a man who’s kept Lyonesse in thrall for the past fifty years.  And because of this, Meb has difficulty figuring out how to become Lyonesse’s predestined “Defender” — who, as it might be expected via prophecy, will defend the land from villains such as Aberinn.

Now, why is Aberinn such a bad guy?  Simple — he’s kept Lyonesse at war with six or seven other planes of existence by way of something he calls “the Changer” for most of the past fifty years.  And when people can’t grow crops due to the constant warring — when people can’t be safe in their own homes — well, it’s a situation that’s good for Aberinn because the people are scared and cowed.  But it’s an appalling situation for everyone else.

Worse yet, there’s another figure — a shadowy presence — encouraging the constant warring in Lyonesse.  So between this shadow-person and Aberinn, Lyonesse is in bad, bad shape, which is one reason why it’s such a depressing place to live.

To Meb’s credit, she understands that the constant warring has caused major problems nearly immediately and vows to do something about it.  But she has few allies; Vivien feels compelled to stay where she is due to her two young sons, while Neve just can’t do much.

Never fear, however; there are other allies on Lyonesse, such as the knockyan (called “knockers” by humans), a type of dwarf akin to the previous book’s dvergar, there are the ant-like muryan, there are spriggans, and of course there are pixies.  All of them eventually end up aiding Meb in repelling any number of invaders, merely because Meb can’t help being what she is — a very powerful mage who comes from this odd world and has strange links to it by birth — and while it’s good that Meb gets aid, perhaps some of that aid comes to her a bit too easily.

Really, the better part of the story here lies with Finn and Dileas; they have all sorts of adventures.  Bad things happen to them, or at least are attempted, and most of them are rebuffed with humor and/or forethought — but despite Finn’s near-immortality and near-invulnerability, I never got the sense that things happened too easily for Finn and Dileas, especially as they had to work really hard to find Meb in the first place.

Overall, DOG AND DRAGON is a really cute story, and the adventures Finn and Dileas have are fine and funny.  But is it up to the rousing action-adventure of DRAGON’S RING?  No. 

And are Meb’s adventures as interesting as the ones experienced by Finn and Dileas?  No, they aren’t, precisely because everything seems to come just a bit too easily for her — something that did not happen in DRAGON’S RING — and because I couldn’t help but get the sense that despite all of her Defending, she really was there for one plot purpose and one plot purpose only: to wait for Finn and Dileas to find her.

Granted, had DRAGON’S RING not been so outstanding, I may have been happier with this adventure.  But DRAGON’S RING was and is outstanding, which is why I really expected more here — and I didn’t quite get it.

That said, this is still a cute story and I enjoyed Finn and Dileas’s adventures.  Meb’s a good character, too — I liked her, even though I thought Lyonesse was a rather depressing place and that most of the people there were obnoxious at absolute best — and I’d like to see more adventures for all three of them.

In other words, DOG AND DRAGON is a strong B-plus — nothing to sneeze at, mind you, and a book that I enjoyed quite a bit (especially when Finn and Dileas were “on stage”) — but not quite up to the standard set by DRAGON’S RING.

— reviewed by Barb

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George R.R. Martin’s “A Storm of Swords” — Realistic, Gruesome Fantasy

George R.R. Martin’s A STORM OF SWORDS is the third book in his Song of Ice and Fire series, and is impressive, densely-plotted, gruesome, and gory.   Because this book does not and cannot stand alone, you should first familiarize yourself with the previous two reviews for A GAME OF THRONES and A CLASH OF KINGS before you go any further.

At the end of A CLASH OF KINGS, the “War of the Five Kings” (AKA the “Westeros Civil War”) was still raging, though one of the pretenders to the Iron Throne of Westeros was dead through treachery (Renly Baratheon, King Robert Baratheon’s younger brother).  King Joffrey Baratheon, who is actually the son of Cersei Lannister and her brother, Ser Jaime Lannister (called “the Kingslayer” as he slew Mad King Aerys Targaryen years earlier while a member of Aerys’s personal guard), remains on the Iron Throne even though he is not King Robert’s legitimate and true heir.**  But there are several others who believe they have as good or better claims, including King Stannis Baratheon, the eldest brother of Robert and the person to whom the crown should’ve passed once Joffrey’s illegitimacy was proven by Ned Stark, King Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands, and King Robb Stark, Heir to Ned Stark and Winterfell. 

Of course, the best King and most interesting person of the lot at the start of A STORM OF SWORDS has to be Robb Stark, King of the North, Ned Stark’s teenage son.  Robb has proven himself to be a formidable foe as well as an excellent military tactician, and hasn’t yet lost a battle.  Robb is young and headstrong, yes, but has charisma and charm; that his personal seat of Winterfell has been lost due to his foster-brother Theon Greyjoy’s treachery hasn’t stopped his advance on King’s Landing one jot.

But there are plots within plots, wheels within wheels, and once again some of the best men will be killed while evil men still live . . . will Robb Stark succeed in his quest to take King’s Landing, or at least hold the North as his own?  Or won’t he?  This central question is pivotal to understanding what A STORM OF SWORDS is all about.

But just because that’s the central question doesn’t mean there aren’t other things going on. 

First, the main subplot deals with the most-legitimate claimant to the Iron Throne of all — Daenerys Targaryen, sole surviving legitimate heir of Mad King Aerys — who is on another continent entirely, Essos, in a place called Slaver’s Bay.  She’s trying to raise an army to return to Westeros and take the throne, and her struggles are absorbing, mostly because aside from Robb Stark, she has the most ability to command men.  But she’s very far away, hasn’t completely come into her own power, and her three dragons are not yet fully grown; for the moment, she’s no threat to Westeros.

Next, there’s the whole issue of The Wall, a far-away, dreary place in the North that’s the last defense against Wildings (free men and women who refuse to live under any lords) and changelings, the latter including dead men who have risen again only to fight against the living.  (While the term “zombies” is not used, you might want to think of them that way even though pieces of them do not fall off and the dead seemingly think nearly as well as the living.)  The Wall is extremely important, even though much of the rest of Westeros doesn’t seem to realize it; it’s only due to the Wall that the Lords and the people who follow them have any peace whatsoever, at least when they’re not fighting civil wars. 

The Wall is important partly because Jon Snow, Lord Eddard’s acknowledged bastard son, is stationed there (more on him anon).  But any lengthy perusal of this series will show that whoever can hold the Wall has an excellent chance of holding the entirety of Westeros, something King Stannis Baratheon has sense enough to grasp even if the other Kings don’t.

Now onto the rest of the story.  We’ll start with the Starks.

Lady Catelyn Stark, Ned’s widow, is Robb’s chief advisor and confidante.  She does her best to keep her son safe, but of course Robb doesn’t always listen to her, which is extremely frustrating.

Arya Stark, Robb’s and Jon Snow’s younger sister, is running from the Lannisters.  She’s escaped King’s Landing clean, escaped a few other nasty situations, and has shown herself to be a competent fighter with some smarts and heart.  However, she’s still only twelve, at best; she is not yet a woman “flowered” (meaning she’s not yet had her menstrual cycle).  This gives her a certain amount of protection as she continues to run, as she’s able to easily disguise herself as a boy when needed.

Sansa Stark is still a prisoner in King’s Landing, though early on in A STORM OF SWORDS she finds out that she’ll no longer be marrying King Joffrey.  While this pleases her at first, she quickly realizes that Joffrey is still fascinated with her. That’s a bad thing, because Joffrey is vindictive at best and likes to see Sansa humiliated.  Sansa has “flowered” and can be wedded and bedded; how can she stop Joffrey when she’s all but powerless?  And who might be willing to protect Sansa when her own father has now been dead a year?

Bran Stark is still in the woods, running away from Winterfell.  He’s now eight, maybe nine years of age, a paraplegic, and has extra psychic talents which might save or damn him, providing they are trained.  His direwolf, Summer, is his constant companion.

Rickon Stark is a lad of four, running away from Winterfell but split off from his brother.  His direwolf, Shaggydog, is black and fierce and will protect Rickon, as will a Wilding woman named Osha.

Jon Snow is now about sixteen or seventeen years old and is stationed at the Wall as a member of the Night’s Watch as he’s “taken the Black.”  But his duties aren’t exactly what he’d imagined, as he’s become a sort of secret agent for Lord Jeor Mormont, the Commander of the Night’s Watch; Jon’s primary task is to find out exactly how many Wildings there are in order to best plan a defense, while his secondary task is to find out what happened to his uncle, Benjen Stark, the Night Watch’s best Ranger, if at all possible.

Now, let’s get to the other Lannisters. 

Queen Dowager Cersei Lannister is still in King’s Landing, plotting and planning.  She sees herself as the full equal to a man, but denigrates most other women in the process; this is probably a realistic quasi-feudal attitude considering the few women who obtained any power.  She sees Joffrey as perfect and does not attempt to check him in any way, shape or form.

Tyrion Lannister, “the Imp,” is still doing his best to save the realm.  However, his exertions at the end of the last book have weakened him, to the point that his father Tywin has come to King’s Landing and has taken up Tyrion’s former duties as Hand of the King.  Worse yet, Tyrion’s about to be married off to a young woman who’s terrified of him; how can he possibly get around this, as he will not force anyone who isn’t willing?  (This is the main reason Tyrion’s patronized whores his whole life; he knows as a dwarf that he’s not an especially attractive man, but whores won’t care if his gold is good.  And that way, he doesn’t have to apologize for who and what he is.)

Ser Jaime Lannister is still a member of the Kingsguard, but has grown more and more frustrated with his sister the Queen.  Jaime does not trust Cersei any longer; he does not trust her fidelity, he does not trust what she’s doing, and he doesn’t trust what she’s saying, either.  He’s also unpleased with the way King Joffrey, Jaime and Cersei’s son, is acting but can’t check him as Joffrey refuses to be checked by anyone.

About the only good thing in Jaime’s life is the developing friendship he has going with Brienne, the Maid of Tarth; Brienne is a fearsome fighter who’s been teased her whole life due to her lack of feminine virtues, yet she finds that she and the extremely attractive Jaime Lannister have more in common than either one of them had thought.

So, once again, there are good characters to cheer for (Robb, Tyrion, Brienne), characters on the road to redemption (Jaime, Tyrion’s companion Bronn the sell-sword), characters to boo and hiss (Cersei, Joffrey, Roose Bolton and his bastard son Ramsay Snow, the latter two who own the Dreadfort and have taken for their sigil an ugly flayed man because they are torturers and make no bones about it), and a whole lot of realistic, gory fighting scenes.  All of this adds up to one absorbing read that resonates long after the last page has been turned.

The one caveat here is this: because Martin is so very good at showing what’s going on, you feel the terror as people’s arms get chopped off.  You feel the pain when someone is tortured by the Boltons, which in its way is worse than being killed outright.  And when you get to a point you think you can stop and “smell the roses,” such as at a wedding which I will forebear to name, you can’t; instead, it’s just war by any other means.

While this is a very strong book in Martin’s epic fantasy series, I believe this one isn’t quite as absorbing as the first two books.  I’d buy it, definitely; it bears many re-reads.  But I’d buy it in paperback, as there’s one scene in here that’s so gruesome, gory and violent that you’ll definitely want to throw the book across the room after you’re done — and if you have the book in paperback, you can do so guilt-free without ruining the book in the process.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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** This is something Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark knew when he was still King Robert’s Hand (or Robert’s second-in-command), all the way back in the first book, A GAME OF THRONES.  Ned Stark said this after King Robert was dead, was arrested for treason by King Joffrey, and was eventually beheaded even though he recanted in order to save his daughter Sansa’s life.  King Joffrey showed a wide streak of cruelty in refusing to allow Ned Stark to be sent to the Wall as his mother, Queen Cersei, and most of the other major Lords of the Realm, had counseled him to do. 

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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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