Tuesday, 17 April 2012
"A comet the color of blood and flame cuts across the sky. Two great leaders—Lord Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon—who hold sway over an age of enforced peace are dead, victims of royal treachery. Now, from the ancient citadel of Dragonstone to the forbidding shores of Winterfell, chaos reigns. Six factions struggle for control of a divided land and the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms, preparing to stake their claims through tempest, turmoil, and war. It is a tale in which brother plots against brother and the dead rise to walk in the night. Here a princess masquerades as an orphan boy; a knight of the mind prepares a poison for a treacherous sorceress; and wild men descend from the Mountains of the Moon to ravage the countryside. Against a backdrop of incest and fratricide, alchemy and murder, victory may go to the men and women possessed of the coldest steel...and the coldest hearts. For when kings clash, the whole land trembles."
This is the second heavyweight book in the acclaimed Fantasy series, "A Song of Ice and Fire".
Whilst reading this book I was forcibly reminded of the movie "The NeverEnding Story". In the film, Bastian has read many classic books such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Robinson Crusoe but Mr Koreander scorns his taste;
Mr. Koreander: Listen. Have you ever been Captain Nemo, trapped inside your submarine while the giant squid is attacking you?
Mr. Koreander: Weren't you afraid you couldn't escape?
Bastian: But it's only a story.
Mr. Koreander: That's what I'm talking about. The ones you read are safe.
Bastian: And that one isn't?
In most books you have a rough idea of the direction of the narrative, you broadly know that Professor Aronax will survive even if Captain Nemo can never rejoin society; that Lizzie Bennett will get married; that Dorian Gray will have to answer to a higher power for his crimes. The main draw is not what will happen in the end, but how the characters will get to their ending. They are safe.
"A Song of Ice and Fire" is not "safe". You can have no measure of certainty over where the story is going, or how it will affect the characters, or indeed whether the characters will live to see the end of it. Book 2 opens with the main players of Book 1 dead, background characters now come to the front, and plans which once seemed certain are thrown into disarray.
Book 1 belonged to Daenerys Targaryen. The slow burning narrative was driven forward by her difficult journey from child fugitive to Queen-in-waiting in little more than a year. In book 2 the drive is provided by the story of Theon Greyjoy, one of the background characters I kept forgetting about in book 1. His story is masterfully told: he's a man with two fathers who is struggling to live up to the ideals of either: too refined and civilised for Balon Greyjoy, not honourable or selfless enough for Ned Stark. His actions and dealings with his birth family and his adoptive family have far-reaching consequences and his story is masterfully told.
Theon's story is a flagship tale which is echoed through other storylines: children attempt to live up to, or defy their fathers: Joffrey Baratheon is another character with two fathers and he embodies the worst of both of them as he rebels against his family and creates a reign of terror. Ramsay Stone fights against the contempt he receives at being labelled a "bastard": he assumes Roose Bolton's family name and crest when riding to Winterfell to prove his worth. Tyrion Lannister effortlessly lives up to Lord Tywin's intelligence and strategic planning, while Robb Stark has to defy his mother in order to fully take on the mantel of his father.
A secondary theme in the book is that of hidden identities: Asha Greyjoy, Gendry, Arya Stark and Ramsay Stone all gain advantage by pretending to be someone else, while Theon Greyjoy causes himself problems by getting others to switch identities, to save face, as it were, when things look bad.
The backdrop to the story is the struggle between heirs assumptive to the throne, but in reality this is about power struggles and betrayal within families. There is no-one more dangerous to Tyrion Lannister than his own family; Stannis and Renly Baratheon are brothers at open war with each other; the Starks breed their own danger.
Of course this continues the running theme of legitimacy and illegitimacy; in a realm where none of the contenders has a solid claim to the throne each tries to cement his position, and it is the bastards and outsiders, Jon; Tyrion; Joffrey; Ramsay; Theon and Stannis who wield the most power.
As in book 1 the vast array of characters is bewildering: I again forgot who many of them were and started glossing over them. I think this is a major flaw in the work and it's becoming more pronounced: as some of these background characters take centre stage it's difficult to remember who they are or where they came from.
The fragmented narrative is rather distracting: each narrative is genuinely engaging and gripping, but it is always broken off to move to someone else's story. I had to spend a while at the start of a few chapters reminding myself where each character was up to, and getting back into the story, before the focus switched again.
These flaws aside, this is a rich, well-drawn world with colourful characters and no end of suspense and surprises.
Reviews of "A Song of Ice and Fire"
Book 1: "A Game of Thrones"