Sunday, April 27, 2003

Review: "A Clash of Kings" by George R.R. Martin

In general, books that have the audacity to pronounce themselves "The Fantasy Novel of the Year" on the cover, fall far short of that lofty title. Occasionally, there are exceptions, though. One such came a few years ago, George R.R. Martin's "A Game of Thrones," the debut novel in his "Song of Ice and Fire" series.

At first I scoffed at the title, but Martin's work quickly convinced me.

The book introduced us to a land in turmoil. The ruler of the Seven Kingdoms has been slain and seemingly all of the royal families have a connection to the throne - and each one intends to stake its claim, often brutally. It's a world descending into chaos, with the ominous and ever-present threat in the motto of the Stark family - "Winter is coming." Indeed, a bleak and icy winter from the looks of things.

The two successive volumes, "A Clash of Kings" and the latest, "A Storm of Swords" ($7.99, Bantam Spectra) have built on that story, adding layers of intrigue, action and suspense.

Of the three ambitious, sweeping fantasy epics that came out of the 1990s - Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time," Terry Goodkind's "Sword of Truth" and "A Song of Ice and Fire" - only Martin's continues to achieve the same quality found in the first installment.

Jordan's story has gotten bogged down in near endless subplots that have made the past few volumes practically unreadable. Goodkind's series seems to have lost steam, with many of the story lines seeming contrived just to keep the tale of Richard and Kahlan alive. With his series, Martin has managed to avoid those pitfalls.

Martin has kept a firm focus on the primary storyline of his series. While his story is just as complex as Jordan's, with almost as many subplots, Martin weaves them into a seamless whole that advances the main story at all times.

Though Martin does a lot of head-hopping, dropping in regularly on the numerous characters of the books, he also manages to keep the flow. The drastic shifts are not jarring to the reader, but rather segue smoothly into each other.

The books feature powerful characters - both the kind you want to cheer for and the kind you love to hate. But they're also not all cut-and-dried, good or evil. The shades of gray that exist in real-life are very apparent in Martin's work, and his world is much richer for it.

With any luck, the fourth volume of the series, "A Feast for Crows" will be out in hardcover before the end of the year, but nothing is guaranteed, as Martin is still writing it. As anxious as I am to get my hands on it, I hope he takes his time. I'll wait a few extra months for continued quality.

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