George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings, Book Two of A Song of Ice and Fire (Bantam Spectra, 1999)
We have become swollen, bloated, foul. Brother couples with sister in the bed of kings, and the fruit of their incest capers in his palace to the piping of a twisted little monkey demon. Highborn ladies fornicate with fools and give birth to monsters! Even the High Septon has forgotten the gods! He bathes in scented waters and grows fat on lark and lamprey while his people starve! Pride comes before prayer, maggots rule our castles, and gold is all ... but no more! The Rotten Summer is at an end, and the Whoremongering King is brought low!
So says a beggar prophet near the begining of A Clash of Kings, repeating the rumors that have swept through the land as a comet's fiery light cuts across the sky like a sword. This book opens with the comet that ended the last book, A Game of Thrones, still blazing bright, as the Seven Kingdoms descend into social chaos and armies take to the field to contest for the Iron Throne. Self-declared kings step forward, each believing the comet to herald their certain victory. Small folk seek shelter from the raiding armies, and carry with them rumors of new gods, tales of battles lost through sorcery, of incest in the highest courts, and strange things deep in the forests beyond the great wall in the north. Through it all, the children of the House Stark struggle to stay alive in a harsh and forboding landscape.
This series of books, weighing in at 900+ pages of narrative and nearly a dozen pages of appendix and maps per book, certainly appears to be a daunting read. In the hands of any other author, that might be the case. But George Martin's writing in this second book of A Song of Ice and Fire is so evocative that it is as if he has provided a looking-glass through which the world can be observed. Every knight's shield, armor, and helm is detailed, every castle unique, every character a living, breathing individual with passions, motives, and needs that ring true. This book, like the first, is so realistic (even at its most magical) that it feels like a retelling of history.
Martin follows Arya, Sansa, Bran, their half-brother Jon Snow and mother Catelyn Stark closely in this book. He chronicles Tyrion Lannister's personal quest for honor and public quest for justice, and Daenerys Targaryen's struggle to gather an army she might use to reclaim her ancestral throne, as well as Theon Greyjoy's return to his homeland on the islands in the northeast after having been fostered in Winterfell with the Stark children. He also introduces Davos, a knight in the service of Stannis Baratheon, a smuggler who keeps the tips of his fingers in a bag around his neck for luck. Yet even though this book follows nine primary characters, with more than twice that number of equally important secondary characters, there was never a point where I lost track, where I needed to reference the appendix that lists all the characters and their relationships with each other.
As the novel progresses, again and again I am struck by the emotional complexities of these characters. They grow, changing in the face of hardship, each one as important to the plot as the next. It is a testament to Martin's talent that he can evoke such emotional responses in the reader for characters that would remain unlikable in the hands of a lesser writer. Even the most villainous cut-throat can be seen as a product of the world in which they find themselves, acting out of loyalty to a power greater than themselves. Others, at first appearing to act only in their own interest, later reveal themselves to be acting according to conflicting lines of honor. There are no easy answers in this world of Martin's, no hollow dichotomies of absolute good struggling to overcome absolute evil, no quests, no elves, only people, struggling to get by, and that alone is a refreshing change from most other fantasy novels. I believe that a hundred years from now the Seven Kingdoms and George R. R. Martin will be remembered in the same light as Middle Earth and J. R. R. Tolkien or Narnia and C.S. Lewis.
Visit A Song of Ice and Fire's domain. I found this page of special interest, as it contains over 300 banners for each of the major and minor Houses, drawn from the descriptions given in the books themselves.