Tag Archives: Civil War

“A Clash of Kings,” by George R.R. Martin

15 Apr

“A Game of Thrones,” by George R.R. Martin (708p)

A Clash of Kings is the second novel in American author George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Published in 1998 it continues the story from the previous novel A Game of Thrones, telling three roughly connected stories from the viewpoint of several main characters. The first story is told by Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled princess of the overthrown king living in the mysterious eastern land as the queen of a nomadic tribe. The second story is told by Jon Snow, bastard son of the late Eddard Stark, and the wall that protects the lands of Westeros from the evil that lurks beyond. The third story is the main story told by the rest of the character viewpoints, and concerns the civil war between the House of Stark and Lannister following the death of the king’s right-hand man, Eddard Stark, and the King himself. This story is told by Catelyn Stark, widow of Eddard; Sansa, Arya and Bran, their children; Tyrion Lannister, brother of the ambitious queen Cersei, son of the most powerful lord in the realm and the new Hand of the King; Theon Greyjoy, former ward of Eddard Stark and enemy of the Starks; and Ser Davos Seaworth, a smuggler turned knight in the service of King Stannis, the old king’s brother.

In the east, Daenerys Targaryen strikes east across the forbidding red waste, accompanied by the knight Jorah Mormont, her few loyal followers, and three newborn dragons. Some of Daenerys’ followers scout the surrounding region and find a safe route to the great trading city of Qarth. Daenerys is the wonder of the city for her dragons, but her attempts to secure help for claiming the throne of Westeros do not succeed. She seeks an alliance with the powerful warlocks of Qarth, but in their House of the Undying she is shown many confusing images and her life is threatened. Daenerys’ dragon Drogon burns down the House of the Undying, sparking the enmity of the Qartheen and convincing Daenerys to leave the city. An assassination attempt is carried out on Daenerys in the city’s harbor, but it is thwarted by the arrival of two strangers, a fat warrior named Strong Belwas and his squire, an aged warrior named Arstan Whitebeard. They are agents of Daenerys’s ally Illyrio Mopatis, come to take Daenerys back to Pentos, and Daenerys agrees to accompany them.

On the wall in the far north, The Night’s Watch advances northwards from the Wall into the region known as the Haunted Forest. They stop at Craster’s Keep, where a wildling man named Craster serves as an informant for the Watch. The Watch continues north to a strong defensive position known as the Fist of the First Men, which used to be a fortress many thousands of years ago. Concerned about the whereabouts and activities of the King-beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder, Lord Commander Jeor Mormont sends Jon Snow and Qhorin Halfhand on an advanced reconnaissance of the Skirling Pass. In the pass, Snow and Halfhand discover that there is much wildling activity in the mountains and they find themselves being hunted by several wildling warriors. Facing certain defeat, Halfhand secretly commands Snow to become an oathbreaker in order to infiltrate the wildlings and learn their important secrets. As proof he has truly turned, the wildlings force Jon to fight Halfhand, whom he kills, with the aid of his direwolf Ghost, as Halfhand knew he would have to. He learns that Rayder is already advancing on the Wall with tens of thousands of fighters.

The civil war among the noble families of Stark, Lannister, and Baratheon becomes more complex when the Greyjoys enter the fight. Robb Stark’s attempts to secure an alliance with the Greyjoys are rebuffed and, instead, the Greyjoys launch a massive assault along the west coast of the North. At Winterfell, the Stark stronghold, Robb’s young brother Bran is in command; he finds two new friends when Jojen and Meera Reed arrive from Greywater Watch. They take an interest in his strange dreams. As the true blood heir to his brother’s throne, Stannis Baratheon declares himself King of Westeros, having been encouraged by Melisandre, a red priestess. Enraged that his younger brother Renly has also claimed the throne, Stannis chooses to besiege Renly’s castle, Storm’s End, to force Renly to march east and defend it. Catelyn Stark joins a parley between Renly and Stannis to discuss a possible Stark-Baratheon alliance against their mutual foe, the Lannisters. The parley ends in acrimony and Renly resolves to use his immeasurably vaster army to destroy Stannis in battle the next day. However, that very evening a mysterious shadow that seems to have the shape of Stannis kills him in his tent before the battle begins. Catelyn flees along with the only other witness to this murder, the warrior-maid Brienne of Tarth. Most of Renly’s supporters shift their loyalty to Stannis, but the Tyrells do not, and Storm’s End itself only falls when Melisandre magically gives birth to another shadow of Stannis to kill the castle’s defiant castellan.

At the bidding of his father to serve in his place, Tyrion Lannister arrives at King’s Landing, to act as Hand of the King, the closest adviser to the monarch. Whilst intriguing against his sister Cersei, widow of the late king and mother of King Joffrey, Tyrion improves the defenses of the city. Learning of Renly’s death, Tyrion sends the cunning schemer Littlefinger to negotiate with the Tyrells. Lord Mace Tyrell agrees to wed his daughter Margaery to Joffrey. Tyrion also arranges the marriage of Joffrey’s sister Princess Myrcella to Trystane Martell in exchange for the support of that family.

Theon Greyjoy, seeking glory and wishing to earn the respect of his father Balon Greyjoy who has come to mistrust him after 10 years as a ward of the Starks, makes a daring gamble and captures the Starks’ very own Winterfell (with a minimal garrison as the rest are off to rebuff a diversionary attack on Tohrren Square) using just 20 men, taking Bran and Rickon Stark captive. Theon’s sister Asha suggests he raze the castle and flee before Stark supporters reclaim it, but Theon refuses. Bran and Rickon disappear in the night, and Theon after a desperate but fruitless search, decided to set up a ruse by finding two similarly aged boys and having them murdered, beheaded and tarred and claiming to all that he had the two princes executed for treachery. An army of hundreds of Stark supporters eventually arrives to retake the castle. Just before the force prepares to retake the castle, a party of what the Stark supporters believe are allies appears, but these soldiers of House Bolton quickly turn on their fellows and drive them off with heavy losses. Theon eagerly opens the gates to his ‘allies’, only to have them turn on him and his small Greyjoy force. Winterfell is razed to the ground and the Boltons return to their seat at the Dreadfort. Bran and Rickon emerge from hiding. It is agreed that at this point the most prudent course is to separate the two brothers, who are next in line of succession after their brother Robb. A castle servant, Osha, agrees to take Rickon to safety, while Bran, accompanied by Meera and Jojen decide to travel north to the Wall.

Robb Stark leads his army into the Westerlands and wins several victories against the Lannisters in their home territory. Tywin Lannister reluctantly advances against him, but his attempt to reach Robb is rebuffed, and upon receiving news that King’s Landing is threatened, his army rapidly marches south to join their new allies, the Tyrells.

Arya Stark, posing as a boy named Arry to protect her identity as a wanted daughter of Stark, travels north along with new recruits for the Night’s Watch. They are attacked and taken prisoner by Lannister soldiers, who take their captives to Lannister-held Harrenhal, where Arya becomes a servant. Her ruse of being a boy lost, Arya is still believed to be a mere peasant girl. Jaqen H’ghar, who had been a captive member of the Night Watch party, repays Arya, who had previously saved his life, by pledging to kill three men at her request. After naming and receiving the murder of her first two men, Arya cunningly requests the third name as Jaqen H’ghar himself. In exchange for releasing him from this promise to eliminate himself, Arya enlists him in a bold plot to release a recently captured contingent of Stark supporters. The prisoners are freed, and in the ensuing bedlam, they quickly arm and take over Harrenhal. Before leaving, Jaqen H’ghar gives Arya a strange coin and a mysterious phrase Valar Morghulis, which she should use if she ever wishes to seek him out. The lord of House Bolton, Roose Bolton soon arrives to accept Harrenhal for the host loyal to House Stark. Arya, who despite herself and her ruse of being a mere servant girl, is whispered of as being the one who was instrumental in helping wrest Harrenhal from the Lannisters. Lord Bolton takes Arya as his page, but she soon escapes with some of the other Night’s Watch recruits that she had befriended.

Stannis Baratheon’s army reaches King’s Landing and a combined assault is launched by both land and sea. Under Tyrion’s command, this force is thrown back by cunning use of “wildfire”, a napalm-like concoction, to set fire to the river and raising a chain across it to prevent Stannis’ fleet from retreating, essentially trapping them in the boiling bay. Tyrion is seriously injured during the battle as a result of a treacherous attack by Mandon Moore, one of Joffrey’s bodyguards. Stannis barely manages to escape with only a few thousand soldiers and a few ships after Tywin Lannister and the Tyrells catch them on the flank. The story continues in A Storm of Swords.

As I said in the previous review in this series, it is truly epic. The scope, size and depth of this novel and series are difficult to summarise. There are so many characters and so many little things that happen it would be impossible for me to put it all in one review. It’s why I gave up on recounting it myself and just copied it from Wikipedia – forgive me. It is all one story, though, and A Clash of Kings continues on where the previous novel left off. Martin’s style of writing does not do that annoying thing where more questions are asked than ever answered – like on Lost, for instance – and the loose ends from the first novel are answered in its sequel. For example, we learn why Jon Aryn was murdered and how, and we learn what makes the lands beyond the wall so dangerous and evil, and we learn the fates of others. It is interesting to see how it plays out and moves forward, and I found A Clash of Kings engrossing in this respect.

It helps that I like this sort of thing. But while the novel is epic in scope with so much to take in, it is very readable and not difficult to grasp. If you’re paying attention you won’t miss anything which is always a good thing. I heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in fantasy novels, novels of war and political intrigue, or to anyone who just wants to check out a great series and have a good read. But do read A Game of Thrones first – you have to.

9/10.

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“A Game of Thrones,” by George R.R. Martin

2 Jun

“A Game of Thrones,” by George R.R. Martin (807p)

A Game of Thrones is the first novel in an as yet unfinished planned seven part series by American fantasy author George R.R. Martin. Set in the fictional world of Westeros, a realm resembling medieval Europe, it tells three stories roughly connected from the viewpoint of several main characters. The first story is told by Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled princess of the overthrown king living in the mysterious eastern land with her brother Viserys. The second story is told by Jon Snow, bastard son of Eddard Stark sent north to serve his life as a guardian of the wall that protects the lands of Westeros from the evil that lurks beyond. The third story is the main story told by most of the character viewpoints, and concerns the eventual civil war between the competing houses Stark and Lannister following the suspicious death of the king’s right-hand man. This story is told by Eddard Stark, the new Hand of the King; Catelyn Stark, wife of Eddard; Sansa, Arya and Bran, their children; and Tyrion Lannister, the brother of the ambitious queen Cersei and son of the most powerful lord in the realm.

In the east, Daenerys Targaryen travels with her brother Viserys in the search of a political marriage match with a powerful lord in return for an army to win back his birth-right, the kingship of the Seven Kingdom. The ruling Targaryen’s were overthrown in a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon (now king), and every member of the royal family either died in battle or were summarily executed, leaving just Viserys and Daenerys to live in exile. Viserys is far from a loving brother, however, and regularly beats and terrorises his younger sister. As Daenerys embraces the life and culture of her new people, her brother grows continuously discontent and impatient waiting for his promised army. His increasingly boorish and disrespectful behaviour leads to tragedy, and Daenerys is eventually left with nothing in a strange hostile foreign world following the death of Khal Drogo, her husband. As she takes her own revenge on those who took everything away from her and buries her loved one, a stunning transformation occurs with the ornamental dragons eggs Daenerys carried with her as a symbol of the lost Targaryen might. Daenerys Targaryen had re-awoken the dragon.

Jon Snow is the bastard son of Lord Eddard Stark, Warden of the North and Lord of Winterfell. He seeks to join the Night’s Watch, the black covered men sworn to man the wall separating Westeros and the evil beyond. After travelling north with his uncle Benjen Stark, who disappears one day while on patrol beyond the wall. Jon settles into his training and soon progresses quickly, his earlier knights training at Winterfell serving him well. Upon his swearing of the oath that would bound him to the brotherhood for life, Jon is dismayed when he is assigned to a lesser role than he thought he would receive but endeavours to make the best of it. He is convinced his true calling is to command and makes his full commitment to the Night’s Watch, proving himself to himself, as the King-beyond-the-Wall begins his first march south bringing all his evil with him. Jon Snow knows his place is with the wall.

The main story, though, concerns the story of the Seven Kingdoms. In the prologue Eddard Stark, called Ned, executes a man for deserting the Night’s Watch and on his return to Winterfell, comes across a fallen direwolf (the herald of the House Stark) killed by the antler of a stag (the herald of the royal House Baratheon), leaving behind it six pups – five for the natural born legitimate Stark children and one albino pup, given to the bastard Jon Snow. They return to Winterfell shortly before King Robert, his family and all his retinue arrive for a royal visit, rare to the northern lands. Robert’s visit is really just a guise to ask Ned to become the new Hand of the King following the death of Jon Arryn. He also promises to wed Sansa, Ned’s daughter, to his son and heir, Prince Joffrey. Reluctantly Ned agrees because he wishes to find the truth of Jon Arryn’s death, suspecting the Lannister family. Preparations are made to journey south to King’s Landing, the capital, leaving behind his wife Catelyn to rule with his eldest son and heir, Robb. But Bran, the middle son, accidentally stumbles upon a terrible secret shared between the twins Jaime Lannister and Cersei, the queen, and befalls a tragedy himself. Ned still decides to depart and takes his daughters Sansa and Arya with him, and shortly after his departure an attempt is made on the life of Bran and Catelyn. Her discovery of the knife that tried to kill her and her son forces her to also take leave of Winterfell and head south to seek out her husband.

In King’s Landing Ned chafes under the horrors of court life. The intrigue, backstabbing, lying and untrustworthiness of every man and woman causes him much grief. His investigations into the murder of Jon Arryn continue and he frequently clashes with the unsavoury members of court over it – Varys, the eunuch with all the eyes and ears in the city; Littlefinger, a man who had once loved his wife and is now an influential councillor; Robert, the king who hates being king; and the Lannisters, the worst of them all. Catelyn arrives in King’s Landing and discovers the owner of the knife used in the attempt on her life belonged to Tyrion Lannister. Travelling north again, Catelyn and her company stumble upon Tyrion by chance in an inn and take him prisoner and head east, not north, and the lands of the Eyrie and the Vale of Arryn, which is being ruled by Catelyn’s sister Lysa following the death of Jon Arryn. This act, taking a son of the most powerful family in the kingdom prisoner, stirs the Lord of Lannister into action, and be begins to mobilise his forces – war is coming.

Ned Stark pieces together the mystery of Jon Arryn’s death and eventually discovers the truth, the same truth his son Bran discovered at Winterfell. Queen Cersei’s plan to have her son Joffrey become king succeeds when King Robert is slain while hunting, and Ned is betrayed and captured by the Lannisters. Offering himself to Joffrey to free Sansa and Arya, he is brutally executed by Joffrey and Sansa is captured again, her sister Arya had stolen away in the night. The Lannisters had made their bid for absolute power and now reigned supreme over the Seven Kingdoms. Civil war erupts as the noble houses declare for either Stark or Lannister. The Tully’s obligingly side with the Starks and join forces with Robb Stark, now Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, as he leads an army south to face the Lannister army. The Frey’s declare for Stark as well as Catelyn negotiates a series of dynastic marriages tying the two houses together. As a series of decisive battles are fought and won, with the Stark army defeating Jaime Lannister’s forces, the younger brother of the deceased Robert heads south and proclaims himself king with the support of House Tyrell. Robb Stark is also proclaimed King in the North and supported by the Tully and Stark banner-houses, while the Lannister’s hole up in King’s Landing, Tyrion Lannister ruling as the new Hand of the King. The story continues in A Clash of Kings.

A Game of Thrones is an epic novel. It is epic in scope and depth with a full cavalcade of different characters, each of whom have their own personalities and fleshed out story. It is obvious Martin has put a hell of a lot of effort into this, you can see it in the writing the way everything connects and there are no holes in the story. His skill as a writer is also exemplary, for his style of multiple points of view told by a series of character is challenging, and easy to make a meal of. But Martin manages to seamlessly switch between characters and give them all their own distinguishable voice and personality, perfectly switching from noble lord to whimsical little girl to mischievous and cunning dwarf. Even the characters that do have their own point of view chapters are suitably personalised and distinct, so the full cast of characters is wonderfully put together.

The dialogue flows easily and fluently, nowhere does it seem forced or contrived, which is important in a story where the majority is told through the dialogue rather than the narrative. His style is actually quite similar to Sharon Kay Penman. That also makes it eminently readable and a real page turner, I found myself ploughing through chapter after chapter and went through more than a hundred pages in one sitting (and I’m a notoriously slow reader). For such a complex story with so many things going on at the same time for the reader to digest, this is a real accomplishment by the author.

While this does fall into the genre of fantasy, it’s not really the stereotypical fantasy novel. For one thing, magic plays almost no role in A Game of Thrones, and the supernatural elements are confined to the usual superstition and mysticism found in the past. The series is essentially written to resemble the Late Middle Ages in Europe (and the story is based on the War of the Roses), so I would think of it more as historical fantasy rather than clear cut fantasy. The setting and images created in the narrative immediately resemble any description I have read of medieval Europe. This is quite an adult novel as well with all of the politics involved a lot to digest and make sense of, but seasoned readers will grasp the political manoeuvrings of Cersei Lannister and Ned Stark easily. Anyone interested in trying a book in this genre would be wise to consider A Game of Thrones because it is an enrapturing and engrossing read that will pull anyone right into this ruthless, complex and intriguing world the author has intricately created. Do not be put off by the fantastical setting or classification because this novel and series is so much more than that, it’s many things, and a very worthy read.

10/10.

“When Christ and His Saints Slept,” by Sharon Kay Penman

11 Nov

“When Christ and His Saints Slept,” by Sharon Kay Penman (901p)

When Christ and His Saints Slept is one of American author Sharon Kay Penman’s masterpiece novels of the Middle Ages. Written in 1994, this one tells the story of a bleak time in English history as rival claimants to the throne of England, Stephen of Blois and Empress Maude, fought a needless war for two decades that devastated England. It was the time of England’s history called The Anarchy.

It is 1120, and the son of King Henry I of England, William, is readying to return to England on the brand new royal vessel, the ill-fated White Ship. The seas are rough and the passengers drunk, too drunk to spot the sudden appearance of a reef in the ocean. It tears a hole in the boat and sinks, destroyed and drowning all of its passengers, including the heir to the throne. With no male heir, Henry I is forced to name his daughter, the widowed Empress Maude, as successor and forces his barons to swear allegiance to Maude. But none of Henry’s vassals wanted a woman ruling in heir own right, least of all one married to the hated Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. And so on Henry I’s death one of his barons breaks his agreement and claims the throne himself, making Stephen of Blois the fourth King of England since the conquest. Maude’s allies are outraged and immediately declared war on Stephen, but they were otherwise hemmed into Geoffrey’s Anjou, left with attempted sieges and small fights in Normandy while Stephen controls England. Stephen tries to consolidate his kingdom but the blunders which would characterise his reign surface soon after, eventually forcing the public support of Maude by her powerful half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. Eventually, the war tide favoured Maude enough for her to leave her exile in Anjou and return to England, ready to claim her rightful crown.

When Stephen is betrayed by his cowardly allies at the first pitched battle of the war, the Battle of Lincoln, and captured Maude is able to make her formal claim and hurries across country to be crowned. But she, like Stephen, makes far too many mistakes so quickly and quickly offsets the people of London. Londoners unite to scare Maude and her supporters out of the city before she could be officially crowned. The Queen consort, Matilda, rallies and begins a campaign to free her husband – eventually doing so after the destruction of Winchester, capturing Robert of Gloucester. Robert was traded for Stephen’s freedom, so the King returned to the throne, and Maude would never be Queen.

The two then fight a bloody, desperate and at times pointless war across the length and breadth of England with Maude narrowly escaping capture at Oxford, her legendary escape in the snow to Wallingford brought to life. Intermittent between this is the de facto protagonist, the fictional Ranulf, and his sorry tale of lost love and redemption as he seeks to find his happiness in the world while being one of Maude’s key supporters. After six years of getting nowhere, her dream of being Queen ends when Robert of Gloucester dies, and Maude decides to return to Anjou a defeated woman leaving her campaign in England to the rest of her allies and the Earl of Chester, as Stephen lurched from one political mistake to another, his kingship held together by his brilliance on the battlefield.

The final part of the novel deals with the rise of the future Henry II into adulthood. Together with his entertaining father, Geoffrey, the Angevins sweep across Normandy and completely take it out of Stephen’s control – not only pacifying the Norman barons but then becoming Duke of Normandy in his own right. The young Henry is a brilliant character – confident, intelligent, quick-witted, polite yet commanding. Henry surges to the fore of Anglo-French politics and becomes such a headache for Stephen and Louis VII that they try anything to get an advantage over the rampant Angevins. While on a visit to Paris Henry meets his future bridge, the teasing beauty Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France. Henry conspires with her to force her divorce from Louis and the two fall in love, secretly marrying weeks after Eleanor’s divorce from Louis. Henry was on top of the world then and continued to storm through the campaigning season with victory after victory, not even the sudden death of Geoffrey could keep him down for long. Eventually, Henry returns to England to reignite the Angevin cause in the sickly England, and beats Stephen across the length and breadth of the country. When Eustace, Stephen’s son and heir, suddenly dies, Henry forces Stephen’s hand and gets himself named as the heir to the throne, ending the bloody war at long last. At novels end, Henry Fitz Empress, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, becomes King of England as Henry II and the Plantagenet dynasty was born.

Compared to a lot of historical fiction readers, I’m a very late comer to Sharon Kay Penman’s books. Everything I have heard about them indicates the very tip of excellence in this genre … and I totally see why. This was just superb. Superb writing, superb characters, superb plot devices, and superb dialogue. The latter is particularly true. One of the things I noticed is that most of the story is told in the dialogue, as in it moves from event to event in the dialogue. I kind of imagine each chapter as a short play and the various characters lay out their lives like that. It is quite different from a lot of the things I read where the story moves from various action scene to another, but that did not deter from the reading experience at all. Instead of seeing castles under siege and torrid fighting, you hear about it, and it is left up to your imagination to picture it. I liked that.

The risk of having a novel mainly confined to dialogue is the characters rather morph into one and become the same person. But this is not the case in When Christ and His Saints Slept. All the characters have their own voices and their own defined yet easily recognisable personalities. You know it is Robert when caution and planning is spoken of, you know it is Stephen when chivalry and doing the right thing is spoken of, and you know it is Maude when it is a quick tongue and an impatience with the world around her. I enjoyed these recognisable personalities a lot with characters properly brought to life. Particularly I liked Geoffrey of Anjou, so often over-shadowed by his illustrious son. I felt pity for Stephen, he seemed like a nice person but never suited for rule, and I enjoyed reading so much about what is probably England’s most forgotten monarch. The only character I particularly didn’t enjoy as much was the fictional Ranulf – I felt him to be a little too perfect, you know? He seems to say and do everything right, and I found him to be a little on the nauseating side at times, and would have preferred him to have a little more chinks in his armour like some of his real contemporaries, people who could not be any more flawed if they tried. But he is an exception, and the rest of them are brilliantly developed and constructed people with a very clear voice that beam off the page.

At 901 pages this is one of the meatiest books I have ever read. I think only War and Peace is longer but I made my way through it reasonably fast. It took me a little longer than it should have but that is more because I stupidly chose to begin reading it in the middle of writing a couple of essays, so I went a couple of days without reading. For blokes who have reservations about historical fiction written by woman with a fear that it might be too mushy with romance (hey, there are some), fear not, for there is little of that. It is a rollercoaster ride of ambition, treachery and politics set against the backdrop of the turbulent 12th century, one of the most important in English history. Through Maude, the fictional Ranulf, Stephen, Robert, Geoffrey and Henry the twenty year civil war of The Anarchy unfolds in a truly excellent way, told in a style that is guaranteed to captivate any reader. Despite the length it is easy to read and very simple to understand with a style of dialogue that resonates in this century as well as one 900 years ago. It is very much worth taking the time to read this fantastic novel.

9.5/10.