Written by Matthew Pardue
I’m having trouble with this review for a few reasons. First, A Clash of Kings is similar enough in style to the first book that most of what I said in my last review still applies. I still prefer the HBO adaption (the second season more or less covers this novel) to the original; I think the changes the show made were for the best. I’ll go more in depth about this later, but the majority of my argument just expands on what I’ve already mentioned. And second, what can I tell you about the story without ruining it? So much of the plot stems from major characters dying or turning on one another in the last novel. Even the nature of some characters will tell you that somebody in the first book got a French Revolution haircut. To a point, most sequels are like this. You see commercials for them that could spoil significant twists in the original. So, to play it safe, I’m watching the official HBO trailers for Game of Thrones to see what they let slip. Note that you’ve been warned: if you want to approach the books and show with entirely fresh eyes, you probably shouldn’t stick with me here.
The first line of one trailer is “My brother left no trueborn heirs,” spoken by Stannis, younger brother of the king. Ok, that’s a pretty big one, considering that Robert had three kids. We then get a montage of different characters that shows them in interesting positions but doesn’t give away mu—oh, there’s Prince Joffrey wearing a crown. Between the opening line and this, it looks like poor King Robert had a run of bad luck. The rest of the trailer is just a few vague, threatening comments from Stannis, so apparently he’s not happy. Given the title of the book that matches this second season, A Clash of Kings, I expect most of you can put those pieces together.
Trailer number two, this one looking like it came from a theater preview, doesn’t mess around. About ten seconds in, you get to watch one of the leading characters from the first book get beheaded. Crying family members follow for about twenty seconds. Joffrey is again crowned, this time sitting on the Iron Throne for good measure. Half a minute later, we see some baby dragons—that’s rather important. The rest is another series of random character shots and war scenes, implying that everyone hates pretty much everyone else at this point. I don’t mind spoiling that: the general plot of A Clash of Kings is a free-for-all with lies and broken promises holding it together.
So, three big things I can say from A Game of Thrones that lead into A Clash of Kings: dragons are back, King Robert’s dead, and so is poor Ned Stark. I really debated dancing around that last one, big of a scene as it is, but so much directly follows from his death that it’s pretty hard to keep it a secret without ignoring huge portions of the plot. Besides, most people should see it coming throughout the first book anyway. He was too noble and inflexible to live. In this series, your life expectancy is directly connected to how much of a jerk you are, which is why Joffrey is effectively immortal.
Joffrey, or as I like to call him, [string of bitter profanities], has to be the worst ruler ever. Not just in the history of the Game of Thrones world, or fantasy as a whole, but ever. He isn’t just evil, he’s stupidly, pointlessly, pettily evil. If Mr. Bean and Hitler somehow had a baby, it’d be Joffrey. His very existence could disprove karma unless there’s a gigantic and humiliating death waiting for him further into the series, which there damn well better be. I can’t even really hate him anymore. When I watch or read him making his horrible, cruel decisions, I just sit back and think, “Keep digging that hole, kid. Somebody’s got to start throwing dirt on top of you sooner or later.” He makes enemies with literally every other character he meets. Even his own mother knows he’s a monster; if he didn’t have the backing of both the throne and the richest, most ruthless family in the book, people would be lining up to take turns kicking him as he roasted over a low fire. What I’m trying to say is that he isn’t a nice guy (I feel bad for the actor playing him because he’ll have a hell of a time not being typecast after this).
Tyrion proves the good-people-suffer theory too; you should remember him from my last review as the main reason I like this series. When he’s sneaky and selfish, good luck just rolls out a red carpet for him. When he tries to help others, the world tip-toes up behind him and smashes a fence post over his head. I will say that this brings up one change I didn’t like in the HBO series: near the end of A Clash of Kings, he gets a scar. In the book, it’s pretty horrifying, but in the show—HBO being concerned with physical beauty in the same way that a diabetic is concerned with insulin—it’s a long yet manageable mark. He makes just as big a deal about it as he did in the book, though. I couldn’t help but laugh when I watched that episode. No, Tyrion, you’re not some hideous monster now. You’re Peter Dinklage with a line of lipstick across your face. Furthermore, it’s a scar you got while defending a major city. While facing overwhelming odds. Which you handled because you’re a genius. And you led the fight since no one else was brave enough to. Against soldiers twice your size with decades more fighting experience. And you kicked it off with the best speech in the HBO series. You don’t need to whine about it; you need to tattoo arrows all over your head pointing to the scar and pay someone to follow you around with a spotlight. That’s not a disfiguration. That’s a trophy.
While I’m talking about the Lannisters, let’s mention Tywin, Tyrion’s father (try not to get them confused, although I do all the time; the only reason I can keep them straight now is because I’m following along with the Wikipedia character page). He’s one change in the HBO series I definitely approve of. In the book, we only see him for a few scenes, and he’s poorly described in those. In the show, he’s an old badass who easily comes in second as my favorite Lannister thanks to how complicated he is. He gets far more screen time and creates the perfect level of sympathy: this is a character you don’t want to admire, him being a remorseless mass murderer in command of numerous cruel, torturing rapists and whatnot. Tywin is easy to hate in the book because you hardly ever hear the man speak. HBO, though, realized potential when it saw it and gave him great lines and a chance to talk about his beliefs and background. Now he’s a remorseless mass murderer with depth.
Furthermore, the show expands his role in the best way possible, by pairing him with a perfect complimentary character. To make the most of Tywin, he needed to speak often to someone who’d be torn between respecting and hating him, just like the audience. Someone who also struggles between being noble and good versus being brutal, because brutal gets results in this setting. That someone is Arya.
This little girl goes through so much Hell after her father dies, especially in the book, where her story gets drawn out further (more than it needs to be, to be honest; I approve of how HBO trimmed her subplot to keep things more focused). At every turn, she just becomes tougher and smarter, like a lab rat being forced through a maze made of fire and sadism. Her older brother may be leading armies to avenge their father’s murder, but she’s still stealing the limelight. Right after Tyrion, Arya is my second favorite character overall. Part of the reason is her three-wish-murder-genie, of course.
I think that’s enough characters to hopefully pique your interest; I can’t cover them all in a timely fashion, not even just the major people, and besides, I’ve got three more books to read and review, with more being written. That’s plenty of time to go through most of the cast. Instead, let’s take a moment to talk about the differences between A Clash of Kings and the second HBO season.
The show is much tighter, for one thing. I’m not sure I’d have gotten into the books if I hadn’t first been hooked on Game of Thrones; George R. R. Martin, I’m sad to say, has a tendency to ramble. So do I, but I’m not writing for an audience of millions. The day I get his kind of fame is the day I have editors of my own take machetes to my work. HBO kindly helped Martin with that process (I assume the books were edited as well, which raises the question of how long and twisted they were when he first submitted them to Bantam Books). The TV adaption combines many scenes together so that we have a better concentration of the important stuff and the major characters get more screen time; in the novels, a lot of stuff is handled by minor people who don’t matter as much and certainly aren’t as entertaining to watch. For example, I mentioned that Arya and Tywin get paired up for a while in the show. In the book, she goes through the same process with multiple characters who’re somewhat interesting, I suppose, but can’t possibly hold a candle to Tywin. These kinds of changes improve the pacing dramatically.
Another point in the show’s favor is that it says things once where the books say them ten times. Take Tyrion, my favorite. Both versions mention that he used to be married. It didn’t end well, poor guy. But in the HBO version, he tells that story, thereby explaining some of his quirks and giving more depth to his character, and then the plot moves on. We now know more about him; the whole world is a better place for a more defined Tyrion. In A Clash of Kings, though, he tells the story and then keeps mentioning it in every one of his chapters for the rest of the book. Your audience doesn’t have that short of an attention span, Martin. Far better to show this sort of background information and then remind us of it through the character’s actions. The other screenwriters understood this, thank Francis de Sales (Catholic patron saint of writers and journalists; isn’t learning fun?).
And yeah, I’m also amused by how I apparently think I can criticize this famously successful author. Maybe I’m just jealous. On that note, I’ll wrap this up by pointing out one area where A Clash of Kings stands superior to the HBO series. Martin, in the style of fantasy writers like Tolkien, has created a gigantic, detailed world for us to explore. You only see a fraction of it in the show. The books introduce us to all these minor characters that aren’t even referenced in the adaption yet give more substance to the setting, like the knights and vassals of the major noble houses. We read about the customs of different areas, the various religions, history, and even architecture, of all things. Numerous castles and such are described to an awesome degree; I can more easily picture Dragonstone than I can half the characters. King’s Landing even has a map at the back of the book. If fantasy fans have historically respected anything, it’s attention to detail. Still, this just further makes me recommend that you watch the TV show first. Get a decent grasp on the plot and setting before you really sink your teeth into it, because this is a big mouthful.
That’s about all for today. I’ll borr—ah, definitely buy the third book sometime this week and get to work on it for next Wednesday. If you read fast enough, you could catch up to me and feel less spiteful about the next set of spoilers.