Saturday, April 23, 2011

George R.R. Martin's A CLASH OF KINGS

A Clash of Kings, the second book in George R.R. Martin's (insert your own favorite synonym for big here) series, A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the most restless books I have ever read.

Where the prior book, A Game of Thrones built an amazing edifice and then knocked it over with every siege engine imaginable, A Clash of Kings watches the frantic scurryings of the people who were trying to live in that edifice. And scurry they do. Whereas the prior book took place primarily in just a few locales, this one takes us all over the map and darned near off it altogether.

Something to which I hold is the idea that no story that's a story worth caring about or sticking with depends solely on surprise for keeping our interest -- hence the warning in the description text for this here blog, 'ware spoilers, especially since they're pretty much impossible to avoid in this day and age anyway. I do still have some dear friends who cover their ears, squint their eyes and dance side to side singing "la-la-la" at the merest hint of spoilers, and the degree to which I try to humor them is perhaps a mark of the esteem in which I hold them despite finding this stance very silly (they doubtless find some of my foibles just as silly and are maybe much too polite to mention them)(or I'm too dense to see that they have).*

A Clash of Kings is already pretty well spoiled; one of my nearest and dearest spent days refreshing his memory on the story so far with giant, detailed internet synopses of each book, for example, and it's pretty well impossible to hang out on social media, especially now, without stumbling into a lovingly detailed, fannish discussion of these things (at least in my social media circles; your mileage may vary, but chances are if you're reading this you're in one of them, at least peripherally, no?). So, given the stance I outlined above, you're probably expecting this post to be all kinds of spoiler-ific.

But it won't be.

It is not, though, I assure you, because A Clash of Kings or its predecessor depend on surprises to pass for quality entertainment; on the contrary. As I mentioned in my Game of Thrones post, these books are deeply and wonderfully character-driven and have, as my good friend Jason Ramboz pointed out in the comments on that post, the feel of extremely well done historical fiction, as if a man** took up Jean Plaidy's or Dorothy Dunnet's pens and drew dragons with them.

And while this means they're more than strong enough, these books, to take whatever slings and arrows of outrageous spoilage get shot at them, it seems to me a great pity to let any more be fired their way, because then one other truly extraordinary element of Martin's art is diminished thereby. And I'm not talking about the plot, at least not directly.

The first thing anyone says to me on learning that I'm reading these books for the first time (well, the first thing after some expression of jealousy that I'm having an experience he or she can never have again, that of reading them for the first time) is that "no character is safe!" And that is exactly the case. The initial blow that took down the edifice in the first book had a lot of collateral damage, and its immediate aftermath took out more -- and we're not talking minor characters here. Martin put us on notice fairly swiftly (well, at least given the scale of this story -- seven novels in all are projected, of which we currently have only four) that, just like in real life, no one's fate is certain, no matter how well-beloved or thoroughly reviled he or she is. Just like nobody gets to stay in one place for very long unless he or she is a hostage, nobody gets a free pass to live to see the next chapter.

Combine this with a brilliant stroke that Martin chose to make of having so many viewpoint characters (two new ones are added for A Clash of Kings and they are both just as superb as the ones with which his readers are already warmly familiar) and of choosing, for each stage in the story and the action, just the right character from whose vantage a narrative should be described -- and it's not always the person who is most directly involved -- and the ultimate effect is something that is truly rare in modern storytelling, a genuine sense of jeopardy for all of the big important siege-and-battle scenes and many of the subtly deadly drawing room scenes as well. That glass of wine could be poisoned; the next arrow may hit our man in the eye; a whole freaking army can switch sides and raze a castle we thought was safe and boring. And we care.

A final note, just to highlight my own most gleeful enjoyment of the series so far. Late in A Clash of Kings there comes a naval battle that is quite simply one of the most thrilling extended scenes I've ever read, not just because of the sense of genuine suspense and jeopardy I outlined above, but because the tactics employed are at once fiendishly clever, devastatingly effective, highly unusual and restrospectively obvious as hell -- but only retrospectively. The tactics laid out for this battle begin to manifest fairly early in the story and serve as an irresistible narrative hook (on a line that is admittedly festooned with hooks) that drags even the reader who is maybe getting a bit tired of all of the dynastic manouvering going on deep into the story, wondering, a la Tom Waits, what's he building in there? I had suspicions that proved mostly right, but it was still fun to speculate even as I read on and on and on and on...

And now on to A Storm of Swords

*Oddly enough, my most spoiler-allergic friends have already read all of these books, I believe. And they've held to their creed, I must give them that; it wasn't from them I got the big bad hints I refer to above.

**Yes, George R.R. Martin is a man, and these books, while not the "boy literature" a certain fluff-headed New York Times "critic" who shall remain nameless (though whom I still suspect of being a catspaw for the launch of the HBO series -- there is no such thing as bad publicity, and there is no such thing as news of a cheap insult to get the internet in a lather and get lots of eyeballs on the forum in which the insult was delivered AND the cultural product that was criticized. Just ask the dickwolves at Penny Arcade), have a very masculine feel to them even as they depict strong female characters, for while much lip service is paid to the Strong Mother/Plucky Tomboy/Brave Girl archetypes, and certainly to the Evil Queen, not a lot of the actual sucky experience of being a woman is front and center. Sure, the EQ bitches about how much it sucked that her brother got to play with swords and she got to learn to be nice, and many, many, many faceless peasant women get raped, but the horrible inner negativity, the self-doubt, the basic sense of inadequacy that even the strongest woman in the real world deals with on a daily basis is absent here. The closest we get is when one of the Strong Mothers watches a Plucky Tomboy in action and thinks how horrible it must be to be an ugly female. But THAT'S OKAY. I like that Martin did create so many feminine paragons for us to enjoy and admire, and as characters he drew them, as I've said, extraordinarily well. But he's still writing them from the outside, as he can't help but do. A man wrote this book. Go man!

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