Posts Tagged George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin’s “A Dance With Dragons” — Back on His Game

A Dance With Dragons US.jpgGeorge R.R. Martin’s A DANCE WITH DRAGONS is the fifth book in his “Song of Ice and Fire” saga and it’s a huge improvement over his last book in this series, A FEAST FOR CROWS.  But before I get into this review, I’d like to give you a few words of warning: if you haven’t read my reviews for books one (A GAME OF THRONES), two (A CLASH OF KINGS), three (A STORM OF SWORDS) and four (A FEAST FOR CROWS), you will be completely lost.  (This is your last warning.)

A DANCE WITH DRAGONS starts off with all the stuff that was missing from book four, A FEAST FOR CROWS.  Here, we find out what happened to Tyrion Lannister after he killed his father (for good reason; Tywin Lannister, though gifted as a military strategist, was a bad piece of business); we find out what is going on at the Wall with Lord Jon Snow (he’s now the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch despite his tender age — he’s under twenty); what’s going on with Bran and his psychic talents; what’s going on with Theon Greyjoy (can he ever be redeemed?); and finally, we find out what’s going on with Daenerys Targaryen for good measure (hence the reference to dragons in the title, as she has three).  Once we’re caught up with them, we get to read a little more about the people the last book, A FEAST FOR CROWS, featured — namely, Queen Cersei Lannister, King Tommen Lannister, Queen Margaery Tyrell-Lannister (she’s married into the Lannisters twice now and has yet to consummate any marriage; Tommen is far too young at age eight to attempt the marital bed, and Margaery is around fifteen or sixteen), and a little bit more about Jaime Lannister.

First, I’ll start with my favorite character: Tyrion.  In A STORM OF SWORDS, Tyrion killed his father because he found out that much of his life was made unnecessarily horrific due to something his father did when he had just hit puberty.   Not to put too fine a point on it, Tyrion married, then the marriage was annulled; that wouldn’t be so bad except Tywin Lannister, Tyrion’s father, told everyone that Tyrion’s wife was a prostitute, and convinced his elder son, Jaime Lannister, to go along with the deception as that was the only way Tyrion would’ve believed it.  Tyrion’s wife was named Tysha, and we don’t have any idea what happened to her; there have been zero hints.

Note that Tysha was the one person who’s loved Tyrion for who he is; she had no problems with him being a dwarf, with being somewhat funny looking (unlike Peter Dinklage, who plays Tyrion on HBO’s series “Game of Thrones,” the book-Tyrion is described as being odd-looking from the start), with having mismatched eyes, etc.  So if Tywin Lannister would’ve left well enough alone, Tyrion would’ve enjoyed at least ten years of wedded bliss by this point with the only person he’s ever clicked with, and wouldn’t have ever had anything to do with other prostitutes.

At any rate, Tyrion’s on the run, and he goes through a series of adventures, most of which don’t get him anywhere.  He’s trying to get to Daenerys Targaryen, but the saying “the best laid plans often fail” would pretty much cover that; that Tyrion runs across someone else who has a claim to the throne of Westeros along the way is sheer happenstance.  (Even though other reviewers have discussed this, I’m going to leave this alone.)

The thing that struck me most about Tyrion’s plight is this: he is nearly suicidal.  He killed his father for what I believe were excellent reasons, but he’s away from the only person who’s ever cared about him besides Tysha — his brother, Jaime.  And to find that Jaime was complicit in Tysha being driven off and treated as a prostitute nearly slayed Tyrion.  So Tyrion’s mental state isn’t too good.

Plus, Tyrion’s been sheltered much of his life up until now, to a degree; he’s been wealthy and his caprices had to be tolerated.  Now, he’s a dwarf who has to trade on how strange he looks to make a living, or at least get by some of the time; this is a demonstration of how George R.R. Martin believes life goes.  Sometimes the good people win (Tyrion’s among the best people in the whole SOIAF series), sometimes they don’t, and “into every life a little rain must fall.”  (Proverb intentionally misquoted.)

Next, there’s Daenerys Targaryen herself, who’s in a very odd position now as Queen of Meereen.  She became the Queen because she freed a whole bunch of slaves at Slaver’s Bay; those freed slaves refused to be led by anyone else.   This is akin to Daenerys’s “practice run” as a ruler before she returns to Westeros; she feels responsible for these freed slaves, and as her dragons aren’t fully mature anyway, she figures she’d better stay in place.

Of course, despite Daenerys’s gifts for ruling, she’s also a young woman.  This means she has a lot of sex.  With more than one partner, though most of it is with one, particular individual she seems to care for deeply.  Daenerys also has to deal with all sorts of things rulers must handle, including an arranged marriage, taxation, trade, reparations, and other important and influential things; despite that, though, Daenerys does seem to enjoy herself in the bedroom a little bit more than I’d expected out of a woman who was widowed early from her “sun and stars” back in book one, A GAME OF THRONES, Khal Drogo.

Anyway, back to Westeros, where the next person dealt with is Jon Snow.  He’s now called “Lord Snow” because he’s the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, those who watch for invaders of either the human or non-human sort at the very northernmost part of Westeros.  (If you think of a huge wall, like the Great Wall of China, juxtaposed with Siberia, you’re probably fairly close as far as what Martin’s talking about, geographically.)

Lord Snow has an unexpected ally, this being King Stannis Baratheon, the legitimate heir to King Robert Baratheon (as all three of Cersei Lannister’s children were sired by her own brother, Jaime, none of them are legitimate heirs to the throne; King Joffrey was illegitimate and extremely cruel, then the throne passed over his sister, Princess Myrcella, to King Tommen due to the law of primogeniture).  King Stannis is the only powerful man who understands how important the Wall is; Stannis has been convinced by a mysterious mystic named Melisandre, who has uncounted psychic powers and follows the Red God, R’hllor.  I’m not sure what visions Melisandre has actually had, but she knows that the Wall’s important, she knows Jon Snow in particular is important, and as King Stannis’s chief advisor, she’s managed to get Stannis to the Wall in order to help reinforce it.

Now, this doesn’t make King Stannis any more likeable than he was before; he’s still someone who tolerates no nonsense, has an exaggerated view of his own importance, and often behaves very badly even for a seated king (rather than what he is, a pretender to the throne, though his claim on it is much stronger than Tommen Lannister’s).

That being said, there are a number of adventures at the Wall, some of which have to do with why Samwell Tarly was sent off in the last book, A FEAST FOR CROWS, to become a Maester (a scientist and a scholar, more or less).  (Good thing it was finally covered here, eh?)  Some others have to do with the remnants of Mance Rayder’s  people who have elected to camp at the Wall alongside the Night’s Watch and King Stannis’s men (Rayder was called “the King Beyond the Wall” and was more or less elected to speak for his people because of his proven ability to lead men), and a little bit has to do with what’s going on at Winterfell (more about that in a bit).

Next, we deal with Bran Stark; he’s a greensinger-in-training, and he needs help.  His psychic visions are so strong that they could easily overwhelm him and do harm rather than good, so he must be trained.  Half the narrative here is getting Bran to the personage who can help him; the other half is how Bran learns to deal with his newfound abilities.

Now, we’re at Winterfell — where we see the odious Ramsey Bolton (actually a bastard and originally surnamed “Snow”) as he takes “Arya Stark” in marriage.  This isn’t Arya, who’s actually still in the House of Black and White over in Braavos being trained to become an assassin; instead, this is Jeyne Poole, the steward’s daughter, who must pretend to be Arya or she’ll be killed outright.  Bolton wants Winterfell even though it’s been sacked (by him, mostly, but attributed to Theon Greyjoy) and this marriage is what will get it for him.

But Bolton is so nasty that it’s hard for anyone to deal with him.  He is cruel, ruthless, a torturer and murderer who gets off on both things, and has tormented Theon Greyjoy beyond all measure.  Greyjoy is only barely sane now; he’s being called “Reek” because of Bolton’s nastiness in not letting Theon ever take a bath (part of it has to do with a childhood friend of Bolton’s, too, and Bolton’s own insanity), he’s lost fingers, toes, and possibly his manhood itself to Bolton’s torturers, and doesn’t seem to have much of a future, if any at all.  Bolton amuses himself by continuing to hurt Theon in various ways, and also enjoys causing as much trouble for poor Jeyne Poole as he can; no one can stop him, and no one has the will to gainsay him due to his own abilities to terrify and cow people, not even his own father, Lord Roose Bolton (who isn’t a good person, either, but isn’t insane like his son).

How can this situation possibly be redeemed?  And if it can be, what will happen to Theon?  (That Martin actually made me care about what happened there was a masterful piece of storytelling.  Theon was a puffed-up, arrogant little wart before, but no one deserved what’s happened to him since A STORM OF SWORDS.)

After all this, we’re finally up to what’s going on in King’s Landing these days; we see Jaime Lannister trying his best to hold the kingdom together with his uncle Kevan’s help (Kevan has been named the King’s Hand as he’s the most-able man in the kingdom).  We see Cersei Lannister, who has a “walk of shame” in her future, and the way this is described is appalling.  And finally, we see a little teensy bit of King Tommen Lannister — he’s really not ready to rule, though at least he’s of good heart, unlike his unlamented late brother, King Joffrey.

Even though much of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS is set-up for the next book, THE WINDS OF WINTER (goodness knows when that’ll be forthcoming, as A DANCE WITH DRAGONS was only released this past July and there were six years between books four and five in this series), I enjoyed reading it.  I found it strangely moving, how Tyrion was looking for any remnants of whatever happened to Tysha on his quest to stay one step ahead of the bounty hunters (sent by his sister, Queen Cersei, before she ended up deposed by the Faith Militant — my term, not Martin’s — that she’d raised so high in the first place).  I found it poignant to see Melisandre admit, at least in private, to having some sort of human feelings for Jon Snow (I’m not sure they’re romantic feelings; they seem closer to agape than anything else.  But feelings are feelings in this case, from a woman I thought didn’t have any.), and I found it moving the way Theon Greyjoy did his best to reclaim his humanity amidst the extremes of depravity.

This is why I say that Martin is back on his game (pun intended); this is a very good novel, one that is far closer to the first three books in the SOIAF epic cycle than the last book, A FEAST FOR CROWS.  Of course, you still need to read the previous novels or you’re unlikely to understand this one (a neat marketing trick that happens to be the truth in this case), which is why it’s so frustrating that this book ends with several cliffhangers and no idea when the next book is coming.

The only drawback here is this: this is a book that’s almost all set-up.  Some readers have come out, in force, at places like to say they don’t like this and wonder why the plot didn’t move forward overmuch.  And there are some static elements — why Daenerys doesn’t seem to learn much as Meereen’s Queen and why Tyrion doesn’t quite manage to achieve any of his objectives no matter how hard he tries, just for two examples.

Still.  This is much better writing and much better storytelling than A FEAST FOR CROWS, almost up to the level of A STORM OF SWORDS in those two areas, and I was very glad to see it. 

Grade: B-plus

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George R.R. Martin’s “A Feast for Crows” — Good, but not Great

George R. R. Martin’s fourth book in his Song of Ice and Fire series is A FEAST FOR CROWS, which is about what’s going on in Westeros now that the “War of the Five Kings” is over.  (As always, if you haven’t read the reviews for the previous three books, A GAME OF THRONES, A CLASH OF KINGS, and A STORM OF SWORDS, you’re going to be completely lost; this is epic fantasy with a vengeance, and it’s nearly impossible to pick up midstream.)

At the end of A STORM OF SWORDS, several of the warring kings were dead, including Robb Stark (killed at his uncle’s wedding), Joffrey Baratheon (killed at his own wedding by poison), and Balon Greyjoy.  (Renly Baratheon was killed earlier, so he’s also a non-factor.)  This has left a void in Westeros, one that’s been made worse by the murder of Tywin Lannister by his own son, Tyrion, as Tywin Lannister was probably the only person who could’ve held Westeros together.

Now, the young Tommen Baratheon is on the Iron Throne.  But like Joffrey before him, Tommen is actually the son of siblings Jaime and Cersei Lannister and has no Baratheon blood at all, so he’s not a legitimate ruler and many know it.  Even were he legitimate, King Tommen is only eight and the odds would be against him living to adulthood.  Worse yet, he has few strong advisors, so many people are taking whatever advantage they can, including Tommen’s own mother, Queen Cersei, who has been officially named the Queen Regent.

Most of A FEAST FOR CROWS revolves around Cersei Lannister and the bad decisions she keeps making to try to keep her son safely on the throne.  One of the decisions that comes back to haunt her is that of Tommen marrying Margaery Tyrell, who’d been previously married to both Renly Baratheon and Joffrey Baratheon though neither of the previous marriages were able to be consummated.  Margaery has been thrice wed and twice-widowed, and though she’s adjudged a beauty by most and comes from a powerful family, the Tyrells of Highgarden, marrying her was more to keep the Tyrells from outright revolt than anything else as Tommen’s at least four years too young to even attempt the marital bed.

But that’s not all Cersei does.  Cersei re-arms the Church militant, something no one else had wished to do in a few hundred years because they’ve been so difficult and fractious to rule in the past, in order to give herself some very minor temporal (and temporary) power.  She also, to be blunt, has a whole lot of sex with anyone she pleases — male, female, it makes no never-mind, because apparently Cersei is an insatiable vortex.

All of this, of course, would be forgivable if Cersei had any ruling skills at all, but she doesn’t; this keeps things profoundly unstable and prone to change at any notice.  But she’s too blind to see it, as she’s apparently lost in her own navel-gazing now that she’s obtained the post of Queen Regent.

As if that’s not enough, Princess Myrcella is in Dorne, the one area of Westeros that has no aversion to females who rule in their own right.  Myrcella has a powerful benefactress in the Heir to Dorne, Arianne Martell, who wants Myrcella to rule in her own right; however, Myrcella is still young (perhaps as young as ten) and has no idea of all the intrigue going on all around her, nor does she wish to raise her standard in rebellion against her own brother.  (And, like her brothers Joffrey and Tommen, she, too, is not legitimately the daughter of King Robert Baratheon, so she truthfully has no claim to the throne.)

So there’s unrest in Dorne; there’s unrest in King’s Landing as Cersei is unable to rule effectively; there’s unrest in the North as the Starks are all scattered (more on them in a bit), and the only really stable area is, oddly enough, the Wall as King Stannis Baratheon has removed to there in an effort to shore up the rest of the kingdom.  This is an important plot point that’s given short shrift as Martin ended up having to roughly “divide” his original conception of A FEAST FOR CROWS, and most of Stannis’s story ended up in the fifth (and most recent) book, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS rather than here where it really would’ve helped balance the narrative.

At any rate, other than the Wall itself, the North is in uproar due to Robb Stark’s death and there are many lords and lordlings attempting to take advantage.  But once again, this is merely hinted at in A FEAST FOR CROWS; the meat of the story ended up in A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, which overall weakened the over-arching structure of the whole Song of Ice and Fire series.

As for the Starks, we only really follow two of them this time around, Sansa and Arya.  Arya is now in Braavos over the sea, and has been taken in by a bunch of religious assassins in what’s called “the House of Black and White.”  She’s a competent fighter already, so what the people in Braavos mostly are teaching her is how to judge men even though when it comes right down to it, the House of Black and White will kill whomever they’re told to kill regardless of whether a person is good or bad as “death is a blessing to all, regardless of how it comes.”  (This is my best paraphrase of the House of Black and White’s attitude toward death and assassination.)  But can Arya trust these people?  And if she does, what will happen to her?

Then, there’s Sansa, who’s been spirited away from King’s Landing by Petyr Baelish.  Baelish is a complicated man who’s closer to a villain than not, and he’s been the same way since the very first book, A GAME OF THRONES.  We know that Baelish was in love with Sansa’s mother, Catelyn (or “Cat,” as Baelish calls her), and Sansa looks very much like Catelyn did.  So perhaps it’s not surprising that Baelish is attracted to Sansa and, if he felt the need, would ravish her in a heartbeat.

However, Baelish does feel some loyalty, or at least good manners, toward Catelyn’s memory (as she’s presumed dead by now), which is why he got Sansa away from King’s Landing and brought her to the Vale of the Arryn’s.  Sansa is now called “Alayne Storm” as she’s presumed to be Baelish’s natural (bastard) daughter, so she’s more or less hiding in plain sight.  Baelish’s overall plans are to restore Sansa to her heritage (as he doesn’t know that her younger brothers Bran and Rickon are still alive, he believes Sansa is the rightful Heir to Winterfell) but at a time and place of his choosing — most likely when it’ll cause the most unrest as Baelish seems to relish that.  Baelish is untrustworthy and he definitely has “lust in his heart” when it comes to Sansa, so her situation is not all that stable.

As for the Lannisters, Tyrion is not present in this book, as he’s presumably on the run and out of Westeros.  (His story picks back up in book five, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS.  All I’ll say now is that I completely sympathized with Tyrion’s decision to kill his father, Tywin, in A STORM OF SWORDS.)  As previously stated, Queen Cersei is royally screwing things up (sometimes quite literally) in King’s Landing.  Which leaves Jaime Lannister’s story — the most complex and fascinating one in A FEAST FOR CROWS — for last.

Jaime’s story almost makes up for all of the stuff that’s missing in A FEAST FOR CROWS (including the complete absence of Daenerys Targaryen’s story, which also picks up in book five, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS) because it’s now time for Jaime to redeem himself.   He’s been told by his Aunt Gemma Lannister that Tyrion is the dangerous one no matter what it looks like — and Jaime, deep in his heart, knows that’s the truth as Tyrion has to be one of the smartest people around.  Jaime is extremely upset with Cersei over all of Cersei’s whoring and bad rulership, but Jaime doesn’t have too many people to lean on as mostly, his best friend is his brother, Tyrion.  So he starts a rigorous bout of self-examination — for a fighting man, this is as introspective as he’s ever likely to get — as he continues to learn how to fight left-handed (his right was cut off in A STORM OF SWORDS) and take up his duties with the Kingsguard.

Jaime’s friendship with the female fighter, Brienne, is once again in evidence, but as Brienne is far from him, she can’t factor into anything Jaime does.  Still, the fact that Jaime has been able to form a stable friendship with a woman — a female fighter, no less — is a source of consolation to him, along with the fact that now that he’s forced to become more scholarly, he has found he actually seems to have a gift in that area.

So in this one way — getting down to the bottom of Jaime Lannister’s story — A FEAST FOR CROWS succeeded on every level.  But in every other respect, this novel feels incomplete, or worse, unbalanced; it definitely does not stand up to the standard Martin himself set with the previous three books.

Because of that, the best grade I can give A FEAST FOR CROWS is a B-minus, even though I wanted to give it a tad more due to how well I felt Jaime Lannister’s story was told.  And I’d definitely buy this one in paperback, for some of the same reasons I gave for the last book, A STORM OF SWORDS — there’s a lot of violence here, some of it gory and deeply disturbing — and if you buy it in paperback, you won’t feel bad after you throw it across the room.

Grade: B-minus

— 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


** 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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George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” — A Winning Hand

AGameOfThrones.jpgGeorge R.R. Martin’s A GAME OF THRONES, book one in his Song of Ice and Fire cycle, is about the various families that make up the Seven Kingdoms on the continent of Westeros, particularly the Starks of Winterfell.  The main character most of the action revolves around is Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark, whose home of Winterfell is so far north that snow often falls in the summer and their pithy family phrase is the matter-of-fact “Winter is Coming.”  These words, and the character of Ned Stark in particular, have a great deal to do with the coming problems in the Seven Kingdoms.  Stark’s canny plays at the “game of thrones” may save the realm as a whole — or damn it utterly.

You see, Ned Stark is the rarest of the rare: a truly honest man who doesn’t want power.  He loves Winterfell, his wife Catelyn, his children Robb, Sansa, Arya, Brandon (called “Bran”) and Rickon, and his bastard son Jon Snow.  But when King Robert Baratheon comes to call, Ned must become the Hand of the King (the King’s Chief Counselor, second in power only to the King himself) as the former Hand died under mysterious circumstances and Robert doesn’t know who to trust anymore.  That Ned and Robert are long-time friends, and fought together to take the Seven Kingdoms fifteen-plus years ago from the corrupt and vicious Aerys Targaryen, is part of why Ned feels he cannot turn Robert down even though he would rather do anything else than accept.

Now, there are other powerful families that must be accounted for along with the Starks and Baratheons.  First among these other families are the Lannisters.  There’s Cersei Lannister, Robert Baratheon’s Queen, who’s beautiful, avaricious, and completely amoral.  Next, there’s consummate fighter Jaime (pronounced “Jamie”) Lannister, called “the Kingslayer” because while a member of the Kingsguard sworn to protect Aerys Targaryen, he instead slew him due to that king’s insanity.  Jaime is not too wise when it comes to love, especially as he can’t seem to keep his hands off his own sister.  Cersei and Jaime’s father, Tywin, is no better; he’s cold, ruthless and despotic, whose only redeeming social value lies in his inordinate wealth and his gifts as a military strategist.

Yet all is not lost with the Lannisters, as the youngest son of Tywin Lannister, Tyrion, is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the whole Song of Ice and Fire cycle due to Tyrion’s physical limitations (he’s a dwarf) and how he gets past them.  Tyrion features a razor-sharp wit and an intellect to match, is partial to “cripples, bastards and other wild things” because of his personal situation, and loves the company of women but has to settle for whores instead as he knows he’s not exactly a prime physical specimen.  Tyrion is the one Lannister who can be trusted wholeheartedly to do what the Lannisters say they always do: pay his debts.

Next, there’s the exiled Targaryens, Viserys (called the “Beggar King,” a very embittered individual willing to do anything in order to claim the throne he knows should be his) and his much-younger sister Daenerys, called “Stormborn.”  Viserys has a plan to put himself on the throne of the Seven Kingdoms, a plan that requires him selling his thirteen-year-old sister — er, marrying off his sister — to Khal Drogo of the Dothraki, one of a race of horse lords (think: Mongols); Viserys is not a sympathetic character for obvious reasons.

And then there’s the Wall — a cold, inhospitable place in the far North that defends against Wildings (bands of freemen and women who refuse to accept anyone’s authority but their own) and changelings — magical creatures that most of the people of the Seven Kingdoms believe no longer exist.  Yet both the Wildlings and the changelings are on the march, with pitifully few men of the “Night’s Watch” left to resist (these men “take the Black” in order to guard the Wall and keep the rest of the Seven Kingdoms safe; some take this life because it’s the only honorable path left to them, while most go to the Wall as their choice is either immediate execution or the Wall).  Few are listening to the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon Mormont, as to the immediate threat; Ned Stark is one of those few, partially because his own brother, Benjen, has kept Ned apprised for years about the Watch due to Benjen being a Ranger for them who keeps track of the Wildings and tries to keep track of the changelings.

The sheer scale of the Seven Kingdoms is why Ned’s struggle is so daunting.  Ned’s an honest man — honest to a fault — and he’ll do what he can to keep the peace, but things are extremely bad and getting worse and he knows it.  Ned finds out that Robert and his queen, Cersei, don’t like each other; worse yet, Robert doesn’t like the “ruling” part of Kingship, and sticks all that onto Ned’s broad shoulders.  Then, there’s the Heir to the Throne, Joffrey, a stuck-up adolescent mess that’s made worse by his mother encouraging his worst impulses; how will this child ever keep the peace once Robert is dead?  And as if all that wasn’t enough, there’s still the mystery of what happened to Jon Arryn, the previous Hand — was he murdered, and if so, why?  And will Ned himself be in danger once he, too, figures out what Jon Arryn knew?

The story is told in fits and starts, with various characters taking up the narrative (Daenerys gets a chapter, then Arya, then Ned, then Catelyn, not necessarily in that order) and it jumps around in time and place a great deal.  While this makes it tougher for the reader to stay on track and understand what’s going on, Martin somehow manages to make the narrative more cohesive out of this apparent chaos — not less — due to the diversity of viewpoints.  And it makes Ned Stark’s choices all the more difficult, because he is the only one in the kingdom who knows all the players well enough to perhaps keep the peace a little while longer if he plays all his cards right.

Because this is what the “game of thrones” means — it’s life or death, a “game” with very real consequences, as Cersei Lannister points out on page 488:

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.  There is no middle ground.”

So, what happens to Ned Stark and his wife, Catelyn?  What about his children, including bastard Jon Snow who ends up “taking the Black” and serving on the Wall?  What about those Lannisters — can they overcome their father long enough to do any good for anyone?  What will be the final disposition of Viserys?  And will poor Daenerys find any happiness with her Dothraki horse lord?  These questions will be answered, but in turn raise even more questions that will be featured in the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire series.** 

This is an absorbing, dramatic read that has enthralled millions of readers to the point that it’s now an HBO series (season two of GAME OF THRONES will take up where the second book, A CLASH OF KINGS, starts), and it’s blindingly obvious why.  There’s great, true-to-life characterization.  There’s bawdy humor and blind ambition.  There’s sex, and a lot of it.  There’s betrayal at every turn, and only a few honest men around to try to keep the peace — aside from Tyrion and Ned, the most sympathetic figure in the book has to be Varys the Eunuch, Master of Whisperers (the King’s Spy), who only wants the realm to be peaceful, prosperous, and whole and works toward that end regardless of whomever holds the throne — with all of this riveting the attention to the point it’s hard to put the book down.

This is a quasi-medieval feudalistic epic fantasy that is an enthralling read and deserves its A-plus rating and high standing among fantasy fans.  So go grab it now, then watch the HBO series when it returns in 2012; you’ll be glad you did.

— reviewed by Barb


** Note:  Three other Martin novels in this series will be reviewed in the days and weeks to come here at Shiny Book Review.  But in case you can’t wait, Wikipedia has something here to get you started, while there’s a great Web site called that’ll be glad to point you in whatever direction you wish to go.  Or if you wish a more encyclopedic knowledge, try the Tower of the Hand site instead.

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