Thursday, September 14, 2006

A Clash Of Kings, George R. R. Martin

A Clash Of Kings
George R. R. Martin

A Clash Of Kings is the second in the ongoing series by George R. R. Martin. It's better than the first, in my opinion, but still suffers from a nit or two.

The first thing you should know about this tome is that it is huge. My paperback copy is 969 pages long, and that doesn't include the appendices. The story revolves around the struggle for the throne between many (and I mean many) competing groups of people. At one point there are at least five men calling themselves kings of some or all of the continent.

The story is complex enough to require a thousand pages, with a lot of political intrigue and double dealing. Keeping track of who is in whose pay is nearly impossible without a score card. Just remembering the names of all the minor characters was impossible period. In the end, I simply had to trust the author to remind me of who someone was when it mattered.

Lastly, magic exists here, though its form(s) and potency are still unclear. Thus far I have found the magical element to be interesting and well designed.

As to why it is better than the first volume, I can say that my biggest issue with A Game Of Thrones was the unexpected death of a major character, one I'd come to like over hundreds of pages. That doesn't happen here, though the threat looms over all the major characters nearly all the time. Some reasonably well developed characters do die, even some we met in the first book, but they'd always been wearing red shirts, so their deaths didn't cause me to swear at the author.

It is also the case that this time around I wasn't as bothered by the changes in point of view. It didn't seem as though they were as obviously designed to conceal things from the reader, with the obvious exception of one case - a cliff hanger drawing you into the next volume. That said, some interesting action does happen off stage and we only hear about it later from someone not directly involved. That happens even when the character doing the deed - whatever it may have been in a specific case - is one that we're following directly at times.

On the downside, we still have two parallel but related stories going on that have yet to intersect in any major way, and that's after something like 1600 pages of writing. It is clear they will cross paths eventually, but how many thousands of pages we'll read before then I cannot tell.

I also still have an issue with the writing style, though I may be growing less sensitive to it. As before, I was capable of putting this book down at almost any time. Not quite mid sentence, but certainly mid paragraph. I'm not sure why that was the case, but I am starting to suspect that the huge cast of characters and the fact that any of them could die at any time is keeping me from getting wrapped up in any of them too deeply.

In addition, no one is given a the clear role of hero, victim or bad guy. Everyone is painted gray to varying degrees. While that makes it more realistic in some ways, it also makes me less willing to bond to someone. Martin doesn't pick favorites either. As far as I can tell, every side in the conflict presented thinks all other sides have it wrong, and therefore they would be right if they win out in the end. Put more succinctly, they all think "we're good, they're evil." With that presentation and the continual change in perspective, we have no idea as readers who (if anyone) we're supposed to be pulling for in this conflict. That may also be keeping me from getting lost in this book the way I have in other cases.

One final nit: why does the world here contain some things that so familiar to us, and yet is clearly fictional? Why can a ship sail far away and bring back giraffes, for example? Just how is this place related to the real world? No answers are given, but I feel like they should be. It's a small point, but it's been in the back of my head since the first volume.

Despite those issues A Clash Of Kings kept me reading. The events are interesting and the world is deeply thought out. The story is complex enough to keep me guessing what is going on, and the writing is good enough to keep me entertained.

It's still not the best fantasy I've read, but it's pretty good.