George Martin’s second book is typical of the practised screenwriter: a tremendously well-plotted story with deceptively complex character development. Very many threads build towards the suitably chaotic final battle while kings and low-born alike traverse the rich and dirty roads of their narratives.
We will begin with the end, a climactic battle better handled for me than Tolkien’s attempts. I was sorely disappointed with the lack of viscerality in Tolkien’s description of the Rohirrim charge. Perhaps it was Tolkien’s lived experience of war that made him yearn for the lyrical over the graphic. George RR Martin does not suffer such restraint, and the violent confusion of battle is woven more skillfully than any other fantasy I’ve read recently. The best scene for me is Cersie pandering to the highborn women who are trapped and fearful with Sansa. The framing and turn of their fate resounded with me. Sansa’s realisation that knights and vows are transitory in this dark world transforms sympathetic smiles to curled cynical lips.
The story, as the title suggests, presents different kings with their contrasting ideologies. None are perfect, although some are monstrous. Having watched the series my favourite is (strangely) Stannis, functional and principled and borderline-fascist. He feels Italian albeit he is passionless. His threads that will become more conflicted in the later books begin here. In contrast, Renley is an excellent foil, his charisma and good dress-sense coming to a typical conclusion in this world. Stood against both of these is inherited weakness and blithe cruelty in the form of Joffrey, a boy-king who taps into the American disdain for old-money. The goodness of the Robb Stark feels strangely distant, developing instead his difficult transition from son into king. All of these are handled well in the book, better than the TV series perhaps.
For me it is development of the secondary characters that I enjoy the most. Theon is a particular delight: we really sense his horrible combination of nervousness and arrogance, although he lacks the cruelty of Joffrey. His suffering that begins here will thread beyond these books into a truly complex character. It is, in particular, his belief that he will out-achieve his father that makes him more sympathetic than not. The ominous rise of the bastards begins with him.
Varys develops further still, establishing his arc as the voice and will of the masses. Whilst this an ambition impossible to achieve, his origin story rising from street-dweller to king’s counsel is as beautiful as it is depraved.
The plotting of Tyrion is the most coherent and powerful. We can sense his tensions and his love, trapped within expectations of status and body, both of which support and fail him. Here is a man of genuine morality who can operate wisely in a broken world of dark fantasy. His leading of the final attack is breathlessly done, although I don’t really understand how is able to slay so many with such a weakened body. That is one bit of plot armour that belies George RR Martin’s reputation.
Another minor, and very personal, criticism concerns Bran’s tedious but essential expositions. Since I watched ET as a boy, I struggle to accept weak and nice boys as protagonists, let alone heroes: Maze Runners suffers similarly for me here. Nice boys are destroyed in dark fantasy: to have otherwise feels contrived and boring. George RR Martin is playing the long game here, though, and I believe Bran’s narrative will become the most relevant in due course.
And so I enjoyed this over several weeks: definitely worth a read, even to the casual reader.