Whew, this one took me a while to get through — 969 pages is no small feat. I think one recommendation I have for someone picking up A Clash of Kings after a year or two away from the A Song of Ice and Fire series that it’s a part of is to recap the first book (A Game of Thrones) before digging in. I spent the first hundred pages remembering who the heck all the various characters are. NOTE: Anyone looking to avoid spoilers about A Game of Thrones should probably stop reading here.
To Martin’s credit, he picks up pretty much where the last book left off. The realm is in turmoil, there are multiple “kings” vying for the Iron Throne, basically your ideal setting for a long story of battles and journeys — which seem to be key components of all good fantasy. Martin continues with the alternating POV style that he began in A Game of Thrones, where each new chapter switches the character telling the story. For the most part, I think that strategy works well for Martin, since he has so much geographic area to cover with his tale. It’s like a giant, narrative game of Risk.
When I read the first book in the series I actually didn’t think that I would read the second, not because I didn’t envision myself enjoying it, but because I planned to watch the TV show instead (I know, I know, book people don’t hurt me). But in starting the second season of the show I got the sense that I was missing a lot of back story, so I turned to other Netflix disks while I gave myself a chance to read the second book.
Unfortunately, I kept picking the book up for a few days and then putting it down again to finish other, shorter books. While I love the depth and nuance that Martin creates through his works, sometimes they do get just a tad… long. When I got to the last three or four hundred pages though I really gave Clash of Kings the attention it deserved and got more firmly sucked into the story.
One aspect not unique to Martin’s work that I took issue with throughout Clash of Kings was the depiction of women as weak and powerless. My frustration is complicated, because I do think Martin is trying to depict a time similar to our Middle Ages, where women really didn’t have much power at all. Even so, the frequent portrayals of sexual violence against women, related in a very casual manner through the eyes of the male characters got a little challenging to accept. I would have loved to see a few more “strong” female leads. Catelyn Stark arguably plays this role, but her pieces of the book are surprisingly uninvolved — there is no place where she really carries a pivotal impact on the plot. Arya, another potential strong female role, is a child and that identity seems to trump her feisty nature and brains when it comes to power. I hope that both their roles grow in later books.
As I said, this phenomenon of normalizing rape and sexual violence in fantasy books seems to extend to many other authors outside of Martin’s work, and I can’t help but wonder if the prevalence has something to do with the fantasy writer playing field, which to my knowledge seems fairly white and male. I used to read a lot more fantasy when I was younger, and I think the skewed demographics, along with the sheer length of many of those books has led me to step a little away from the genre. I’m happy to have dipped a toe back in with a solid work like Clash of Kings, but I also think I got my fix for a while.