This novel, in case you don’t know, is the second in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. By no means as interesting as the first, much of it feels rather like filler. It takes a very long while for the events to get moving. For a novel that’s 969 pages long, reading through 400 pages in which mostly nothing happens is pretty difficult. Still, the events of the latter half of the novel make pushing through the first part worth it, and I very much look forward to starting the next novel.
As ever, the story of the Seven Kingdoms is told from multiple third-person points of view, following a large number of different characters. One of the most frustrating things about this series is the sheer number of characters (I believe I read somewhere that throughout the series of five books so far there are over 1,000 named characters). Their names are unusual and some of them are very similar, making it extremely difficult to keep track of everyone. At times I only followed the story based on some vague concept of a person’s character–this man is bad, this woman is benevolent, this man can’t be trusted, this one can be bought for gold–instead of attempting to memorize all the names. It helps to read the appendix at the back, and keep referring to it as the novel progresses.
I will say this for Martin: with his main players he takes a great deal of care, crafting them into multi-faceted, many-sided characters. My favorite in this novel is Tyrion Lannister, a witty man whose lack of brawn has turned him into a clever schemer–the man who really controls the country, though from the shadows so that no one knows it. Arya, my favorite in the last book, lost most of her spunk for this one, though she gained it back at the end to reclaim her place in my heart. Sansa, whom I hated in the first novel, certainly earns the reader’s sympathy in this one, as her mad betrothed, Joffrey, abuses her horribly, both emotionally and physically. Cersei Lannister and her son Joffrey are both evil to the core–Joffrey a spoiled, mad child who has been given a crown, and Cersei the mother who will do anything to protect her son and see him hold on to the Iron Throne. Each of these characters, and the others, evoke specific emotions within the reader, and once the chapter ends and we don’t know how soon we’ll see them again, there is a little bit of disappointment. I’ve considered skipping ahead to the next chapter belonging to a character I’m particularly interested in, but I know that by the time the novel gets around to that next chapter, so many things have changed that nothing will make sense.
The plot moves swiftly and the fortunes of characters change in a flash. In this novel, as in its predecessor and presumably its sequels, nothing is certain–life or death, good or evil, victory or defeat. Even when it looks as if a battle can have only one outcome, Martin surprises us with some new trickery. With five kings vying for one throne, and two more self-styled monarchs eyeing the throne from a distance, there is no well-defined line in the sand, no clear hero for which to cheer. In this, Martin creates realism far beyond what most authors will do. These people could be walking around in an alternate universe, where fate does not always favor the noble or the good. Though the world he created is very thorough, complete with topography, geography, history, religion, language, culture, and the previously spoken-of characters, it is this ability of his to not give us the happy ending we want that truly brings the story to life and makes it believable.
Though I did not enjoy this novel nearly as much as the first, I still had difficulty putting it down, especially the nearer I drew to the end. The simmering pot of the Seven Kingdoms explodes into a boil, and it gets to be a very exciting read.