My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0
Amazon Rating: 4.40 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 4.37 / 5.00
This is the second book in Mr Martin’s highly acclaimed ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series. I have previously reviewed Book 1: A Game of Thrones.
Warning: this review contains numerous spoilers for A Game of Thrones: if you have not read that book I would suggest that you avoid the rest of my review.
King Robert is dead, killed by a wild boar and his own drunkenness, and the Iron Throne now belongs to the vile Joffrey. Lord Eddard Stark refused to accept Joffrey as the rightful king, after discovering that none of Cersei’s children were actually fathered by Robert. Although he does not reveal his knowledge of her incest with Jaime to the realm, she sizes the opportunity to remove him from power and he is beheaded after Joffrey refuses to allow him to take the Black. Sansa remains a hostage in King’s Landing, whilst Arya has escaped from the Red Keep and is being taken north by Yoren of the Night’s Watch.
Each of Robert’s brothers, Renly and Stannis, announce that he is the true king and begins to raise an army. In the north, Robb Stark has won a series of battles against Lannister forces and has captured the Kingslayer. Whilst at his mother’s ancestral home of Riverrun he learns of his fatehr’s death and is crowned King in the North by his bannermen. Meanwhile, the now crippled Bran Stark is trying to be the Lord of Winterfell and is developing a curious link with his wolf, Summer.
The Mighty Tyrion has been dispatched to King’s Landing to act as the Hand of the King in his father’s place. On the Wall, Jon Snow has saved Lord Mormont from a wight and is now marching with Mormont to take battle to the King Beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder. Meanwhile, in the East, Daenerys has lost her beloved husband, Khal Drogo, to treachery. However, she uses his pyre to awaken the stone dragon eggs that she received from Master Illyrio as a wedding gift. She is now the Mother of Dragons, determined to reclaim her position as the ruler of Westeros.
High above all of this, a comet trails a red tail across the sky.
Although we have lost two very powerful personalities from book one (Robert and Ned), Mr Martin fills that gap by introducing several new and interesting characters. He also gives us two new Point of View characters to expand our view of the world. The first of these is Theon Greyjoy, who was a constant presence in book one as a friend of Robb Stark. However, it soon becomes clear that Theon is not as a good a friend as he seems as he returns to his home in Pyke as an ambassador from Robb to his father Lord Balon. Rather than providing the ships that Robb asks for, Balon takes the opportunity to proclaim himself King of the Iron Islands and attack the defenseless North. Theon is browbeaten into going along with this treachery and indeed decides to take Winterfell for himself. The Ironmen are a hard, vicious people, as we see from Balon and Theon’s elder sister, Asha.
The second new POV character is one of my favorites in the series so far: Ser Davos Seaworth. He is an ex-smuggler who helped Stannis Baratheon to withstand the siege of Storm’s End by smuggling food into the castle. As reward, Stannis made Davos a knight, but also removed the ends of his fingers because of his past crimes as a smuggler. Rather than resenting this action, Davos understands why it was necessary and it totally loyal to Stannis. He is levelheaded and sensible, offering Stannis blunt, honest advice and is brave enough to never hide the truth from his master. Stannis trusts Davos implicitly and appreciates his unfailing honesty and lack of political posturing. Of course, Davos is almost universally despised by the highborn people that he must deal with.
Of the new characters, I was pleased that four of the most important are female. Melisandre is a red priestess who has thrown her support behind Stannis. She is a very scary lady who can wield some amazing, but horrifying, magic. She is very forceful and committed to her vision of Stannis as Azor Ahai, a prophesized hero who will come to defeat the Others with his sword of fire. Her introduction also reveals yet another religion in this complex world and gives us a taste of some truly terrifying magic.
We are also introduced to Brienne of Tarth, a huge and mannish woman who lives as a knight. She is in love with Renly Baratheon and asks to be made a member of his Kingsguard as a reward for her victory in a melee. Brienne is ugly and is nick-named “The Beauty” by the men that she can out-fight. She is a deeply sincere person who continually fights against prejudice and mockery to do what she wants to do.
Then there is Meera Reed, who arrives at Winterfell with her younger brother, Jojen. The Reeds are intriguing characters because they are crannogmen and children of Eddard’s great friend, Howland Reed. They are trained in all manner of woodcraft and Jojen is a Greenseer, subject to prophetic dreams. They become firm friends with Bran and will play an important role in his future.
Another important female addition is Ygritte the wildling. Whilst scouting in the wastes beyond the Wall, Jon captures Ygritte, but cannot bring himself to kill her. Later, when he is forced to infiltrate the wildling army by killing Qhorin Halfhand, she speaks up for him and advises that Mance Rayder will certainly want to question Jon before he is killed. This saves Jon’s life and also allows him to continue with his mission of gathering information. Ygritte is earthy and funny, but she also gives us a different point of view, by showing how the free people beyond the Wall feel about their lives in comparison to those of the ‘kneelers’ in the South.
Arya collects some new friends in her role as ‘Arry’ the boy riding to the Wall with Yoren. Most notable of these is Gendry, the young smith that we met in book one who was a bastard son of Robert Baratheon. He is also travelling North to escape the wrath of the Queen, although he is unaware of his ancestry. She also meets, and saves the life of, Jaqen H’ghar, something that will become very useful later in the book as she tries to get home before someone works out who she is.
As the strands of the story increase in number we are shown more of the diverse cultures and societies of both Westeros and Essos. From the Iron Isles in the North East to the wondrous city of Qarth in the east, we see that King’s Landing and Winterfell are not the only cultures that exist. We are also exposed to far more real fantasy. In King’s Landing we see wildfire, which may be more chemistry than magic, but there is most definitely magic in evidence in the House of the Undying, where the warlocks of Qarth have lips stained blue by the ‘shade of the evening’ that they drink. We also encounter a ‘warg’, who can share the consciousness of an animal, as well as mammoths and giants north of the Wall.
However, these fantastical elements are not the main reason why I love this series. Its success is totally bound up in its characters, who are beautifully written and so lifelike that they carry us forward. Some I love and some I loathe, but I want to know what happens next to each and every one of them.
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