I’m sure I’m going to annoy at least a few stalwart George R. R. Martin fans when I say that A Clash of Kings, the sequel to Game of Thrones, is not as good as its predecessor. I do realize that it’s unfair to judge artists against themselves, so in the spirit of fairness, I’ll point out that A Clash of Kings is better than a lot of the epics that have been published in the last 20 years.
There are some spoilers ahead.
The problem I had with this outing was, after being so thrilled by Game of Thrones, I expected more from the sequel. My expectations were high because the sequel is significantly longer than the first, and that led me to believe there’d be more story, conquests, double-crosses, direwolves and so on. A Clash of Kings did boast those things, but the sense of adventure from the first book was largely absent. Instead of having characters off questing, for much of the book, many of the beloved Starks are incarcerated, meaning there’s a bunch of chapters consisting of characters feeling miserable while inching their way toward freedom.
It seems to me the trend in epic series is that the first part consists of adventure and the second part switches to character develpment and world-building, for instance The Fellowship of the Ring and the Two Towers, or Star Wars: A New Hope and SW: The Empire Strikes Back. In the case of TLotR, I enjoy The Fellowship immensely more than the follow up.* Similarly, I found sections of A Clash of Kings to be too political and trenchant.
On the other hand, despite the change in tone, A Clash of Kings did have much of what I loved from the first. For example,
Tyrion still plays a large role–larger than before even. I find him to be the most interesting character because he is the most human. Rather than be overridden by constant dreams of glory or virtue or family pride, he’s interested in sleeping in a nice bed with the woman he loves. Also, it’s not political ambition that stays his sword, it’s that he seems to genuinely empathize with other people’s urge to go on being what they are. If Bran doesn’t end up being king, I hope it’s Tyrion.
Apart from Tyrion, Arya continues to be the most interesting character because she’s driven by something very human and very personal: the need for revenge. Sansa remains passive-aggressive throughout the story, plotting against her captors but without taking direct approaches. Arya intends to be very direct, which is why her chapters are often the most exciting, especially when she gets into action.
The series continues to be a layered, philosophical critique of the workings and machinations of power. That’s the series’ selling point. Through fantasy, it manages to lift the veneer and decorum off from our world, and show how much is done for wealth and power. Love itself has hardly a place, though it struggles to assert itself. Instead, marriage is treated as a part of commerce, as women are appraised by their looks and family background and are traded from one family to another. Family ties are treated like the affinities of power, and can be broken once a chance for more power arises. Due to this unquenchable need, the characters’ roles and allegiances constantly shift, yet remain an extreme version of what goes on in our lives.
Despite the faults of A Clash of Kings, I doubt that anyone who finishes even the first book will be able to go the rest of their lives without reading the rest of the series. I know I’ll pick up A Storm of Swords, but not with the same excitement that I first picked up this one with (to read my first impressions of Game of Thrones, click here). If you, like me, only started on the series recently, keep in mind the HBO series of A Clash of Kings comes out around spring (to read my brief review of the first season, click here).
*And yes, I do realize The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was originally one extra-large book.