Cannonball Read IV: A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin
Increasingly, stories have to be franchises. It's not enough to write a good book with great characters and relatable themes. Now, to be a successful author, you need to craft a creative series with consistently charming protagonists (preferably ones that can be played by rising Hollywood stars). You need riveting action and a dollop of comedy-but of course the action can't be too violent, nor the comedy too coarse or else the movie version will be R rated. And you need to keep the door open, just a crack, for another sequel, and another, and another...
Reading A Clash of Kings, the second entry in George RR Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series, reminded me of many of the things I liked about the first book. The characters frequently pop off the page, especially when they get into intimate, engaging dialogue that offers complexity for their character and context for the book's action. I frequently found myself marking winning quotations (favorites include: "sorcery is the sauce fools spoon over failure to hide the flavor of their own incompetence" and "a woman's life is nine parts mess to one part magic") and savoring each scene with my favorite characters. Again the seemingly minor characters sell the story and own the audience's attention, and again, I love that.
But, while a sequel can build off the successful elements of the first book, but it also amplifies the things that were irritating. For instance, wide swathes of the book go by with little more happening than people standing and talking about the possible meaning of minor omens. People want to fight. People talk about fighting. People get ready to fight. And then! we hear an oblique reference to how the fight came out for one sentence and get back into discussions about possible meaning of minor omens. The detail of the first book was valuable, but as we go forward looking for plot development as much as description, it becomes a bit much.
Also, while the most integral female characters (specifically the ones who narrate the story) stand out as brave, independent heroines the primary role of women in Westeros seems to be: have sex with guys before battle, have sex with guys after battle, and have sex with guys just on the off chance that a battle might occur eventually somewhere in your general vicinity. (Cue the SNL clip)
As any franchise grows more complex and expansive, it has to change. In many cases, the funhouse amazement of earlier installments wanes until the author either abandons it (as Harry Potter largely does with Quidditch) or overuses it to the point of diminishing returns (as Star Wars does with the increasingly inane planets of sand/ice/rain/lava). Martin's reliance on increasing both positive and problematic elements of his first book makes him seem indifferent to the potential of a broader fan base and wider appeal. The initial stunner of so wide and complex a world may eventually seem familiar, but if it's also predictable, what's the point?
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This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.