Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Clash of Kings, Or Why Fantasy Novels Should Come With a Score Card

I've been a fan of fantasy since I was a kid.  I remember getting the Narnia books for Christmas and reading them all before going back to school.  I remember getting The Wishstone of Shannara for Christmas a few year later and completely losing myself in the quest to save the tree...and how I cried when the elf had to sacrifice herself at the end.  I think that this is one of the reasons that I like role playing games like Final Fantasy or Fable-they are like living in the books I read growing up.


That said, it's been a while since I have gotten into a fantasy series.  I suppose some of the reason is because after reading so many they do start to blend together and feel like the same story over and over.  I experienced a similar phenomenon after years of reading almost nothing but mysteries and thrillers.  But I think that part of it is because fantasy stories have this perception of being childish or immature somehow.  I mean, serious, literary readers don't read genre fiction like fantasy, do they?

Then came Game of Thrones on HBO.  Because while I might have stopped reading much fantasy, I sure do love to watch it.  I've probably watched every Arthurian based movie and show made in the last 20 years, as well as any Robin Hood adaptation.  While I did read all of the Harry Potter series, I am just as excited about the movies coming out as I was the books (well, OK, maybe not just as excited, but you get my point).  Now, I have always been a proponent of reading the books that a series is based on.  I've scolded people for not reading the Southern Vampire books before watching True Blood, and I have waxed poetic on how much better the Temperance Brennan books are than the TV show Bones is.  So, after watching (and loving) the first season of Game of Thrones, not to mention hearing my many friends who've read the books lambast me for being a hypocrite, I gave in and downloaded the second book in the series, Clash of Kings, for my brand-spanking new Kindle.

I should have known that my friends would not steer me wrong.  George R.R. Martin has done something that most fantasy writers in my experience can't quite pull off-a grown up fantasy novel.  Clash of Kings tells the story of what happens in the Seven Kingdoms after King Robert is killed by a boar while hunting.  His "son" ascends to the throne, supported by his rich and powerful family, House Lannister.  Of course, thrones are rarely passed peacefully, especially when it is pretty apparent that the 13 year old "king" is in fact not King Robert's son, but a product of incest between his mother and her twin.  Three other men aspire to be king:  Robert's brothers, Renly and Stannis, and the murdered Eddard Stark's son, Robb.  The intrigue, violence, and betrayal that ensues are pretty much impossible to summarize, unless I want this post to be as long as the book (which at 761 pages is one of the longer books I've read this year).

The writing is smart and well-crafted, and the main characters are well-developed.  They are also fairly nuanced for a genre that lends itself to one-dimensional characters who are either wholly good or wholly evil.  I find that of my favorite characters, one is a member of that incestuous Lannister clan, despite the fact that in the arc of the story his family is pretty much completely cruel and morally bankrupt.  And this talk of character leads me to the subtitle of this post.  While I love my new Kindle, reading this book on an e-reader may not, in fact, have been the best choice.  I'm not sure that it is exaggerating to say that there are hundreds of characters mentioned in this book-both "present" day and past heroes-and not being able to flip to the maps of the pages tat listed how everyone was related to everyone else sometimes left me very confused. Short of reading with a computer next to me to look things up I was hard-pressed to keep it all straight.   In the end I decided to just go with it-after all, I'll have season two of Game of Thrones to explain whatever I missed.

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