The OF Blog: SOIAF re-read project: George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

SOIAF re-read project: George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

In my commentary on George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, I noted that I had found in my 2000 and 2002 reads of the second volume, A Clash of Kings, that the story lagged in comparison to the first and (to a lesser extent) third volumes.  What I recall thinking back then is that while Martin continued developing characters and events throughout the novel, that there was this sense that the timing was off.  In addition, with much of the action situated around nobles and their machinations, it was difficult to get a sense of why the story's events should have any greater import than just stating baldly, "oh, and a bunch of nobles fought for their honor or the honor of their liege lords and many people died while the river ran red with their blood."  As I believe I have said before, political maneuverings in fiction, particularly speculative fiction, rarely hold my interest, in large part because they seem to be pale carbon copies of actual events, many of which I had to study while earning my degrees.

But if time is said to heal most wounds, perhaps it can also be said that time (and experience) can alter a reader's perspective.  No, I am not going to argue that A Clash of Kings is superior to A Game of Thrones, nor will I take back my earlier opinion that the book felt a bit bloated at times.  I am willing to admit, however, that this novel contains more interesting scenes than the Battle of Blackwater Bay/King's Landing.  Considering how antipathetic I can be toward "battle scenes," it was a good thing that I found the characters and their situations to be better than I had earlier remembered them being.

Although I am not going to search diligently through both books to make certain, I don't believe there are any major new PoV characters outside of the Onion Knight, Davos Seaworth, whose purpose is to provide some insight into what is taking place in the King Stannis sphere of plot operations, and Theon Greyjoy, whose actions show two different theaters of the spreading war.  The rest of the PoV characters pretty much occupy the same areas and perspectives as they did in the earlier novel.  While this approach of having at least one and often two PoV perspectives in each theater of operations allows for a multiplicity of insights into what is transpiring among the nobles, there is the negative consequence of more page space being required to develop each of these character/subplot arcs than what might have been the case if Martin had used a multi-PoV chapter approach that condensed what each PoV was experiencing. 

While eight to ten years ago I might have found the trade-off of sacrificing character/situation detail for brevity to be enticing, this time I am not so certain that alternate approach would have generated as many benefits to offset the increased narrative power once all of these numerous parts click into place.  There is, after all, something to be said in favor of a slower buildup than what might be the course for most epic fantasies.  But this is not to excuse those moments where it seemed instead of there being a gradual but swelling rise toward a huge climactic scene, that there was a sense of things hanging a bit too long, of too much being revealed in too laborious of detail. 

Surprisingly, considering how much I enjoyed his chapters during my first two reads, some of the Tyrion chapters lagged the most for me during this re-read.  At times, it felt as though too much of his resentments, his lusts, and his plans were revealed.  Although I would be hard pressed to suggest how Martin could have done it any differently, I got the sense that too much was revealed in the scene between Tyrion and the alchemists, as the turning point in the naval battle of Blackwater Bay felt a bit too predictable and devoid of real shock and awe (well, as much as could be for a third read of the book).  More numerous and perhaps of greater weight when considered together, were all the references to Tyrion's cock.  If I can note my irritation at how there is too much repetition of character comments, quirks, and so forth in the WoT series, it is only fair to note that Tyrion's cock received too much air-time (intentional pun?  Not really).

Although I believe it is worse in the next volume, the amount of feasting in this novel did numb me to what was occurring around those feasts.  Yes, I know there are occasional feasts held by the local nobility, but between that and the tournaments (thankfully abbreviated in this volume), and it is more difficult for me to keep my focus on what is occurring.  These, along with the above-mentioned Tyrion scenes, were perhaps the worst parts of the novel.

However, I should note that an earlier opinion of mine regarding this book in particular and the series as a whole has shifted somewhat.  I remember thinking that as the series progressed, there was less and less of a focus on presenting the "common people's" views of what was transpiring.  While it would have been nice to have a one-off PoV chapter from a denizen of Flea Bottom or a common soldier in one of the armies, Martin did at least attempt to show more of what was transpiring around the four kings' struggles than just the leaders' perspectives.  Arya's chapters grew on me during this re-read, although her character still disturbs me as much as it did when I first read this book and the following.  In a way, that is a compliment to Martin's characterization skills, as Arya's transformation into a borderline sociopath in this novel was deftly done.  It is in sections such as hers (and to a lesser extent, the Daenerys and Jon chapters) where Martin's choice of utilizing PoV chapters, with limited third-person perspectives, appears to be the correct decision.  I was engaged more with these three PoVs than I was with the others, which may be more telling about me as a reader than about Martin as a writer.

So while the pace was slow and at times too full of padding for my liking, overall I found myself more engaged with A Clash of Kings than I recall ever being with my first two reads.  Although there are some problematic issues surrounding his PoV chapter approach (and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that these structural issues are behind at least some of the delays with the fifth volume, A Dance with Dragons), on the whole, the story works because the characters feel more well-rounded and their motives, regardless of how despicable they might be in today's societies, have a sense of justification to them that makes it hard to be completely unsympathetic to the more villainous characters or, conversely, completely sympathetic to the better-natured ones.  It is an intricately-told tale, one that improved for me upon this re-read.  Now on to A Storm of Swords, which I hope to finish by Wednesday evening.


Bill said...

A very interesting perspective, Larry. This series was introduced to me 6-7 years ago, and it has become my all time favorite.

As a writer, though, I realize my view is biased, and it's nice to see a more objective, experienced, and intelligent take on the work.

Martin has stated that much of the storyline parallels the War of the Roses (which I suspect you studied).

World history is riddled with those sorts of political machinations turning into wars; do you think it is possible to write about kingdoms/conflicts without sounding like some sort of historical echo?

My personal take has been to introduce races or cultural parallels that have not met in actual world history and spinning the conflict with "what if?" in mind. Ultimately, I suspect it might still parallel the above.

Before I ramble on much further, I just wanted to compliment you on the analysis. I am looking forward to your thoughts on ASoS (and whether or not AFFC annoys you).

Larry said...

Yeah, I think it's very possible, but also very tricky (which is why most novelists probably haven't dare do this approach). What could be done to alleviate the political machination part would be to take the story "street level," or create a sort of quasi-cultural history/story of conflict/desire. If I were reviewing say Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, I would note that this mosaic works so well in part because VanderMeer took it to a very "personal" level, where it isn't the manipulators of politics that are highlighted, but instead the denizens of Ambergris and their hopes, fears, lusts, and dreams that come to the center stage in some of those novellas. Such an approach would also allow an author to play with "mood" and "tone" more, since the story would be more dependent upon those to create the conflicts and the resolutions.

Glad you're enjoying these commentaries. I know I'll have ASoS up before the weekend and perhaps AFfC as well.

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