A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin
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Cannonball Read IV: A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

By The Scruffy Rube | Book Reviews | June 19, 2012 | Comments ()


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?

For more of The Scruffy Rube's reviews, check out his blog, The Scruffy Rube.

This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • TheScruffyRube

    Thank you to everyone who commented. As mswas says I'm just an amateur and working on improving my writing with each piece I do. The critiques here will certainly help.

    As to the primary criticism (my note on the role of female characters), I admit that my review was based primarily on my personal reader response rather than an contextual/conceptual reading response which means that I approached the book from a fundamentally different perspective than many commenters.

    Since, I have many friends who have enjoyed the series, I will bear these comments in mind as I go on, because, I genuinely do want to enjoy what I read. Thank you all for voicing your opinions, I'm glad that--even if you disliked my review--you enjoyed the opportunity to discuss an idea it brought up.

  • Uriah_Creep

    That was a classy comment, Rube. Here's an upvote.

  • Fredo

    I would say the biggest difficulty in CoK is that it clearly demands you to have read GoT before you try and tackle it. This is a series and you can't just pick the books up at random.

    Also, I think everyone's bashing TSR incorrectly. He does state that there are heroines who are independent and brave. But he is right in that a great deal of the womenfolk's role in this book (and indeed the series) is to be participants (whether willing or not) in copulation. GRRM makes a point of being lurid about these encounters -- think about Theon and the captain's daughter or the rape of Lollys.

    Where I think he misses the point (and where I agree with Wednesday) is that this isn't done just for shits and giggles. It is reflective of a type of society where women cannot hold real power. And it goes to the points of view and motivations of characters like Cersei, Dany, Arya, Brienne and Asha. (Aside: it's one of the things that Lena Headey captured so well this past season with Cersei. Her disdain for her role as a commodity to be sold or a broodmare to be mounted). Furthermore, it's going to continue to push these characters down the paths that they are walking, for good or ill.

  • mswas

    Well said, Fredo.

  • splinter


  • yocean

    You accuse this book on being an attention bait, I pin that accusation right back where it came from; to you and your review. This is not a well written work in any ways conceivable.

  • Yossarian


  • KatSings

    I find it interesting that you write this review as if Game of Thrones wasn't always intended to be a series, and also as if it was always designed for TV. GRRM has always planned on 7 books, and as the first volume is from 1996, I think it's fair to say he wasn't aiming for an HBO series. So to belittle a sprawling epic as appealing to a need to franchise seems awfully ridiculous.
    To second what everyone else has said, part of what I love about this books are the strong female characters. Yes, some of them have used sex as a tool for power - but how else would you have it? This is a world where feminism isn't a thing. They are doing what they can with what they are given. And you have characters like Arya and Brienne who are INCREDIBLY powerful women for whom sex never enters the equation.
    And as Jodi pointed out - all that "boring non fighting" is actually really important. It's what makes you go back time and again - to see how different omens played out. The sequence in the House of the Undying, for example, is incredible once you know some of what comes later.

  • Fredo

    Actually, he started out with a trilogy in mind. Then when AGoT got too big, he chopped it off and said 4. Then he said 6 (with his wife behind him going "It's going to be 7"). Now it's 7.

    You're right in that its always meant to be a series. it's just gotten bigger and bigger as he's written it.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    And book four was such a stinker that I haven't read book five and I was an avid fan... 10 years ago.

  • KatSings

    Touche, I had forgotten that. I appreciate the correction! :-)

  • lowercase_ryan

    not related to CoK but I'm reading Storm of Swords. Read the Red Wedding chapter. I've never thrown a book before but I chucked that mother into the wall. So furious. didn't get to bed for 2 hours after that.

  • Guest

    Fortunately those moments are balanced by the "YES!" moments (there are two great ones coming up in Bk 3*, and another at the start of Bk 5), so it helps me deal. But that wedding...I'm still hurting 2 books on.

    *Um, maybe one of them I'm thinking of is in Bk 4. Brain fuzz. But it's FABULOUS.

  • birdgal

    I did pretty much the exact same thing! I had to read other things before I could come back to the series, GRRM pissed me off so much. But, I'm reading the 4th book now and it's recaptured my attention, so I might actually finish through the 5th book before the 6th comes out....

  • lowercase_ryan

    Thank you both, it's good to know I'm not alone. It's just so hard to pick it back up right now. I will push through.

  • yocean

    Also, please, they make way way R-rated or even above the bar of NC-17jokes and actions.

  • Yocean

    What "Wednesday" said. Seriously, I don't usually read book reviews here much and now I know why :P

    It got really interesting and complex and strong female characters (some like Daney get involved in a lot of violent actions in later books. So does Catelyn.) and please do not tell me I cannot be a judge of that because I am a male.

    Do over please.

  • mswas

    As we mention at the bottom of the review, this is indeed a part of Cannonball Read IV. You may not agree with the reviewer, but they are doing this as a part of a charitable endeavour.

    Yocean, I really hope that you do come back and read the reviews that are a part of this effort. Maybe next year you can join in the fun, and see if you too can make it to 52 books read and reviewed in a year. We welcome all.


  • Yossarian

    Even though I just got done writing my own harsh comment, be aware that Cannonball Read posts are amateur book reviews posted by members of the community for the love of reading and the pleasure of talking about books. If you don't usually read book reviews here, you should, and you're welcome to jump into the conversation, but please don't be condescending. This is the one section of Pajiba where bashing the writers is not acceptable.

    Thanks for sharing your opinions. I think you're absolutely right about the female characters.

  • Yossarian

    You found a Song of Ice & Fire to be predictable? I mean, there is a fair amount of foreshadowing for key events and in certain characters and families you can see the heroic or tragic arc forming a long way off, but I don't think I would ever call the series "predictable". The world is so rich and complex, so vast and chaotic, that I'm frequently and pleasantly surprised (and sometimes frustratingly astounded) to see where things veer next.

    And I completely don't get your take on the female characters. Catelyn Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, and Cersei Lannister are married women in monogomus relationships (well, Cerei is a bit complicated) who end up widowed and from that point on don't have sex with anyone yet remain compelling characters.

    Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, and Brienne of Tarth are virgins and total bad-asses (Sansa in her own way).

    I don't think Osha or Ygritte or Asha Greyjoy actually have sex with anyone in this book, and even if they do they are strong, self-determined women who do not sit idly by waiting to provide their pre- and post- battle services to any men.

    So, I don't mean to pile on here, but just what the hell are you reading? This series has a lot of sex, rape, and prostitution and plenty of crude talk from men, but Martin also creates some remarkable female characters and provides plenty of commentary and criticism of the male-dominated society.

    I mean, it's ok to criticize the books. I don't want to come off as an angry internet fanboy. It's just that your criticisms don't make a whole lot of sense to me.

  • Miss Kate

    Here here.

    From the first few chapters of Game of Thrones, you discover that this is not your dad's fantasy novel. While admittedly CoK is less engaging than the first or third books (I think most fans will agree), a lot of important things DO happen. Small details matter, and the political machinations are fascinating.

    And...Daenerys Targaryen? Brienne? Arya Stark? (Sansa still needs to redeem herself to me, sorry.) Seriously, these are some strong-ass women. Despite the fact that they are stuck in a world where women have little or no power, they manage to make a place for themselves.

    As someone already mentioned, this was always meant to be a series. I have no idea where Martin is going to take us in the next two or three books, although I think I've read that he has had the basic arc plotted out from the beginning. I know what I want to happen, but Martin has a way of both breaking my heart and thrilling me at the same time. I'll be reading!

  • Pinky McLadybits

    Those minor omens? Not so minor actually. Everything GRRM tells you is for a reason, whether you realize it at the time or not. Specific cats in the castle in AGoT may not be especially important, but they are talked about because of specific links they have to fallen dynasties or people long gone. Ignoring these great swaths of "nothing" is to miss something important that will help flesh out events or people later.

  • Gentleman Farmer

    I've read the series to date, and hadn't picked up on the cat reference before... is it a prevailing theory that the tricky tomcat Arya chased in King's Landing is Balerion? That's pretty cool if so... I hadn't thought of that before

  • Pinky McLadybits

    It also makes the story about the tomcat stealing food from Tywin that much funnier, methinks!

  • Pinky McLadybits


  • Captain_Tuttle

    Thanks for the review. I've read all 5 books, and have been trying to figure out how to write about these things without doing a full-on book report. I've noticed that as the books continue, the cast of characters has grown exponentially - to the point where it's hard to keep up. But, I'm hooked and panting for book 6's arrival.

  • Wednesday

    It's a quasi-medieval world where women of noble birth are commodities to be traded for political alliance and/or land, and all other women are basically for sex. There is no Gloria Steinem in Westeros. The fact that the women DO attempt to force their way into power -- usually through back channels and manipulation -- is pretty freakin' accurate. How many days did you spend studying Dolly Madison or Lucretia Borgia in history class when you were in school? Not many, I'd bet. Women may have made up +/- 50% of the population, but they never held an even share of the power. To complain that they are not typically heroic characters in a setting where there are no typically heroic characters seems like a very weak objection.

    Despite being set in a fictional world, ASOI&F resonates because it is a completely shitty place to live for most of the population. It's not pointy hats and unicorns. Bad stuff happens to everyone, consistently, and if it hasn't happened for awhile, double-down on catastrophe 'cause like winter, it is surely coming.

  • competitivenonfiction

    I really agree with you in the case of this series, largely because I think that this series does a great job of imagining where women would have found their own type of power when other, more obvious types are denied them. I think GRRM has a good sense of why he's looking at power this way. However, in other series, I've found myself wondering why someone can imagine a world with dragons and magic and all these other things, but they can't seem to imagine a world in which women are more than commodities. It's hard to criticize a specific book or series about this because it's not really the individual author that is the issue, but I would argue that it's a failing of the fantasy genre in general (with exceptions e.g. the Malazan Book of the Fallen).

    All that said, I'm impossible to please because I'll argue for a more imaginative view of women in science fiction and fantasy, but I'll also argue for historical accuracy in other genres, where someone is plopped in as an activist against racism or a feminist in a setting where such a character would be highly unlikely.

  • Serpentlord

    This needed to be said.

    I never understood why people got bent up over characters having to be involved in a constant pattern of flash and ACTION. What really matters is characters being involved in choices, personalities, and consequences. Catelyn Stark and Queen Cersei aren't involved in any swordfighting in the series, and they're my third favorite character and most reviled villain respectively.

  • manting

    PRIMERO! I think you are thinking of the TV show when it comes to your belief that "sex" is the only thing women do. Did you read the book?

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