I’ve finished reading A Clash of Kings even if it didn’t show on my reading queue and I’m not going to “officially” review, but I wanted to write down some scattered comments about it and put some kind of content on the blog.

Overall I think it’s not a strong as the first book. Martin did a good job with it, but I think the merit is mostly on the first book, setting up really well all the various parts. Book 2 makes it more a task of running with the ball, and that’s well done. Something that I didn’t expect is that Martin jumps some events more than the first book. The PoVs dictate the flow and the scenes that don’t strictly belong to one are avoided even if they could be significant. I fear that moving on with book 3+ this will become an exception and Martin will feel compelled to bog in unnecessary detail. In fact I remember a recent interview where he said that if he could rewrite ACOK today he would put Robb PoV back in and describe directly the campaign (hint: this wouldn’t improve the book at all and I’d rely more in Martin’s past wit than his most recent…).

Most of the merits of this second book are about sticking to those PoVs and make the characters’ drama drive the story in a way that feels plausible. Some of the best chapters tell a self-contained mini-story that ranges between 8 and 20 pages. In this book Martin begins having a more cumbersome, heavy prose that sometimes indulges into lists of names or other things that one reads only to immediately forget, but being the chapter “chunks” rather short it still makes for a good flow. Every time one of these chapter closes you have the urge to know what happens next (and I often went to read the first pages on the same PoV, sometimes almost 200 pages ahead), and I don’t think anyone else gets this compelling reading formula better than Martin.

Characters are always well written and truly “grey”. I think this is an aspect often misdescribed. It’s not about making a character morally ambiguous, but about making it somewhat plausible. There are definitely “heroes” that Martin wants the reader to root for, taking sides actively. The book is NOT neutral. Its strength is in making it work. Arya, an heroine the reader is supposed to love and recognize/sympathize with, can murder some nameless guy. This is from one side coherent with the character and the truly unforgiving world, and from the other side the reader finds it acceptable. As if this case made the murder totally acceptable. Necessary in some way.

This contrasts with murder that is not necessary, and while considering this I noticed how Martin uses this device every time he seeks for a certain response and shock the reader with some unpredictable death (and there are MANY). What defines these deaths, that are supposed to move and shock the reader, is that they are usually unnecessary (and unexpected). The result of some hate, or spite or brutal violence. But not strictly necessary, it’s an exhibition of violence. That’s how some characters (like Arya) can still be readers’ favorite even when they do something controversial. And I think this prepares the path from some characters’ arc like Jaime. The trick is the PoV, when you get into a character and learn his motivations you get to understand and sympathize.

At the micro level you can appreciate how well written everything is, but at the macro level some evident shortcomings start to show. For example the “pinch” that is made by the two extreme sides that close on the story, Ice/Jon Snow and Fire/Daenerys, is very obviously lagging behind while the center (the clash of kings) is getting bloated out of proportions. It’s not surprising that Martin started to have problem managing the thing (“the story grew in the telling”), since it’s only this central part that gets bigger in comparison with the rest. Daenerys PoV is a total of 60 pages in a book of 950, and in those few pages she’s basically idling or chasing after prophecies that are used to foreshadow how the story develops. Jon PoV is about 100 pages, but it’s mostly all preparation and flavor, used simply to move Jon to a new position. These two PoVs go together because they are disengaged from the rest of the story. They are like side-plots that wait to converge in some later book.

Another observation about the macro level is that the book is filled with Deus Ex Machina. I know people complain about this in Erikson’s books, but if you accept that kind of broad definition of DEM, then Martin have aplenty in this book, and all at crucial points of the story. To begin from the obvious: Melisandre.

In a world soaked in deceit and betrayal, she’s immune to both (the Prologue, to begin with). I guess Martin “has plans” to rule her in the later books, but within this one she’s a personified DEM for the simple reason that all the rules that apply to other characters DO NOT APPLY to her. Being a DEM personified she also leads to crucial DEMs in the plot. She can make prophecies that are NOT revealed as delusions. They really work. She has the DEATH SPELL. When I read that part I was absolutely sure that Martin was tricking me, but he wasn’t. In a world that establishes itself as “low on magic”, so that everything comes down to men and their affairs, she can simply “wish” that someone dies, and they do. At least in the Malazan world the power is in check. An action triggers a reaction, and it’s the power itself being a delusion. I don’t remember anyone dispatched as easily. But here nothing exists to keep the balance. She proceeds by killing a core character and another relevant one. Without these two deaths the WHOLE story would have spun in a totally different direction. About as much as dramatic as that certain death in book 1. And this huge plot bend is entirely a Deus ex Machina. Death spell, no saving throw. In a world with no magic and with kings being the show runners, being able to pick one and kill him in an instant is the exact equal of an I-WIN button.

It’s kind of ridiculous that when matters get serious and she can be used to easily win the war (and kill someone not made into a redshirt) she’s sent away with an excuse: “Your Grace, if the sorceress is with us, afterward men will say it was her victory, not yours. They will say you owe your crown to her spells”. The point being she’s one step away from breaking the whole story, and Martin has to rely on this artificial trick to limit the power he gave to her. Yet, she steps out and the other major DEM enters the picture: wildfire.

This is a sort of “magic” fire, whose DEM potential lies entirely in the fact that, being magic, no one anticipates it (well, Davos does, but only so much as to the lead to the powerless Big “No!” trope). It really gives this feeling of “magic entering the world” and subverting everything, a meta-device that enters the picture to make it change the natural course. On the micro level you have the character dramas that are written very well and work perfectly (in their big-picture-irrelevant stories), but on the bigger level there’s the whole war on the continent and the clash of kings. EVERYTHING on this level is artificially steered through all these Deux ex Machina. First Melisandre changing the course by killing two key characters by wishing it, and then by wildfire, whose power of subversion simply turns around the outcome of the biggest battle in the whole arc of the first two books.

A third major DEM comes with Jon, who has a magic dream (by the way, this book is filled with dream sequences, and I wonder why I don’t see them criticized as similar scenes in other books) that shows him what they are going to find, and so he’s able to save the whole company by making them turn around. Magic dream = magic rescue. A classic Deus ex Machina.

Now you can tell me that there’s very little magic in this world, but Martin has used it in the WORST way possible. By steering artificially the plot whenever something truly major was about to happen. Makes it feel the plot is on a leash. And yet it works, because the characters are so well written and relatively safe within their smaller cocoons of plot. It gives an idea of a complex world because it’s as if the main PoVs are caught in the events and not controlling them, which is the way “reality” usually feels. They try to survive while pieces more around them. Martin is the god moving the pieces from out of the picture, but at least he stays true to the characters.


  1. Hi. I’m a human being living in Paris that is going to try to write here in english. I’ve just read your text about Donnie Darko and recognized in it a deep intuition and comprehension of the looped and non dualist nature of the movie. I guess that the final Donnie’s death is just a total acceptation of his enlightenment. A acceptation of the fact that the nature of consciousness is fundamentally to be the mirror of the universe and that we should be living by following this nature. I guess that this movie, through is looped process, erase the difference between the conscience and God (inside the only place where it can happened : in a human being : Donnie). This erasing of frontier can be reach through enlightenment, which can be reach through, I guess, love, that is to say, creation. Anyway, I’m really happy to discover your websites. Your mind is fresh and deep. By clicking on the link that leads to my website you would be able to find an personal experience of translation of the looping nature of things.

  2. I think the points about DEM in ACoK are reasonable on a micro-level (although it should be noted that Daenerys says at one point that magic vanished in the western world after the Doom, but not in the east – Melisandre’s point of origin – where it remains a potent force). Melisandre’s abilities feels a bit overpowered at this point and GRRM relies in surprising the reader to a “WTF?” reaction when Melisandre gives birth to a shadow demon thing in front of us.

    However, on a larger level we do get explanations for the problems you pose. Why doesn’t she shadow-demon everything else to death? Because there are severe limits on it. She only gets to use it twice, and the reasons why are presented at the start of Book 3. After-rationalised DEMs are still DEMs, of course, just as Erikson’s use of the Azath at the end of GARDENS OF THE MOON is a DEM rationalised in later books, but still, your concerns in this area are addressed.

    Some of your other issues are based on assumptions disproven in later books. Melisandre’s prophecies are just as prone to misinterpretations as the one about the Stallion Who Mounts the World in AGoT, and the fact that Melisandre’s prophecies about Stannis could also apply to multiple other characters (that Mel is not aware of but the reader is) is something that becomes more notable in later books. Melisandre being conveniently absent from the battle on the Blackwater is a bit of a stretch, granted, given that Stannis doesn’t care at all about his PR, only his rights.

    As for wildfire, it’s not a DEM at all. It’s set up early in the book and we are told it’s properties way ahead of time (as a variant on Greek fire, how magical it really is and how much is the pyromancer trying to impress Tyrion is also open to debate). That Tyrion simply changed its use from being chucked at the enemies in catapaults to basically being turned into primitive sea mines doesn’t really qualify as DEM to my mind, merely a reasonable use of strategy.

    Your analysis of the structural weakness of the series is correct, however. The War of the Five Kings, Dany in the east and Jon on the Wall appear to have supposed to have been stories of equal weight, but the war has taken over the narrative to the detriment of the other stories. However, even in ACoK, arguably the most important chapter in terms of deciding what is to come isn’t the Blackwater battle, but Daenerys’s experiences in the House of the Undying, which go to the very core of what the series is actually about.

    • Melisandre’s abilities feels a bit overpowered at this point and GRRM relies in surprising the reader to a “WTF?” reaction when Melisandre gives birth to a shadow demon thing in front of us.

      Well, my WTF wasn’t the demon itself. I know that Melisandre comes from the “Fire/East/Magic”, but I didn’t expect that in book 2 already Martin would use it to hit right on core plot. The shock was seeing who she targets, and that her target has no chance to survive at all.

      Why doesn’t she shadow-demon everything else to death? Because there are severe limits on it. She only gets to use it twice, and the reasons why are presented at the start of Book 3.

      I was expecting that at some point Martin would give some limit, but my comments are related to one book (and the one before). The only reason she doesn’t keep doing it (or doing some other trick) is that she’s sent away on what is OBVIOUSLY a convenient (for the writer) excuse to come out of a problematic point.

      But IF she’s doing it twice then she’s worse than Arya at picking targets. You know, the painfully obvious choice: kill Tywin.

      As for wildfire, it’s not a DEM at all.

      It’s not a typical DEM because properly introduced. The DEM aspect is specifically on the fact that they suddenly have a so large quantity of it. When Davos sees wildfire the first time he’s not too surprised and thinks it will be over soon. But the sheer quantity of wildfire is something that is properly introduced but not really explained.

      It’s a carefully placed DEM in the sense that there’s suddenly a great power that tips the outcome of a battle (and the most significant one). And once again is labeled as “magical” in the world (it was somewhat descending from dragons).

      House of the Undying

      Seems to me another set of prophecies. I don’t like much when Martin writes about this stuff because it doesn’t seem he knows what to do with it. There’s this aspect about puzzling what the prophecy really means and possibility to misunderstand everything, but it’s a trope and it’s not really interesting. A trope used without an inversion or spun in some original way.

      Prophecies are used mostly to keep readers entertained between books and do the guesswork. It’s something I find no interest in, no matter if it’s Martin or Jordan, or whoever else. Erikson for example uses the trope in book 2 and 4, but to mock it and use it as meta-commentary on memory and history:

      The Book’s prophecies were sewn to a far older skin. The Book was in truth naught but a history, a telling of apocalyptic events survived – not of those to come –

      It’s the same of the dream sequences, I personally find more powerful and chilling the Mhybe and her discoveries in her dreams, than the wolf/tree dreams of Jon and Bran.

  3. “But IF she’s doing it twice then she’s worse than Arya at picking targets. You know, the painfully obvious choice: kill Tywin.”

    Tywin is hundreds of miles away. A very obvious limitation of the power, shown in ACoK itself, is that Melisandre has to be reasonably close to the target.

    “The DEM aspect is specifically on the fact that they suddenly have a so large quantity of it.”

    Again, this is explained and is a somewhat important plot point in Book 3. I note in the TV show they do address this upfront a bit more (indicating the Targaryens had them making tons of it for future use as a replacement for their dragons), perhaps to address the problem you identify of an explanation not being given beforehand. However, giving that explanation beforehand would destroy any sense of mystery or tension in the situation. That said, there’s probably enough info in AGoT and ACoK themselves to reach a reasonable conclusion as to why they have so much of the stuff (i.e. Aerys II loved fire, had no dragons, so sponsored the Alchemists Guild into making tons of wildfire, which he then used to burn his enemies alive).

    Again, it is confusing as to how you can criticise GRRM for not providing detailed explanations ahead of time for such things and then laud Erikson who does not provide detailed explanations (ahead or often after the event either) for anything. You are definitely judging the two authors by different criteria and then trying to claim otherwise, which is baffling.

    “A trope used without an inversion or spun in some original way.”

    Except in the first book, of course, when the Stallion Who Mounts the World prophecy was simply averted by having Dany’s son killed whilst still in the womb. That demonstrated that prophecies are not certain things and are not guaranteed to come true at all in Martin’s world, unlike in Jordan’s when they are 100% always going to come true, just not always in the manner expected.

    • If wildfire was the only example I probably wouldn’t have noticed anything wrong with it and wouldn’t have written about it. It’s how it stacks with the various instances of Melisandre and Jon that makes it stand out more. All these events comprises not just a relevant part, but really the whole thing (minus Theon).

      One could include Daenerys a well, but in that case it’s a magical threat that is solved through magic, so it kind of negates itself.

      It’s because magic is nowhere in Westeros that when magic appears it is a game-changer, and so has DEM power. It’s an intrusion in the logic of the world.

      The problem with wildfire is the significant impact it has, the surprise effect on the reader. It steers the plot and it is also at least partially magical (it’s still tapping into a greater power that isn’t justified to be there). Since it “stacks” with other magical elements, and since all of these contribute to dictate the plot, I said that this feels as problematic. Mostly because I believe Martin’s talent is elsewhere.

      When Erikson does similar things I don’t like the outcome either. But I say that Erikson, or Bakker, write this magical/meta-fictional layer much better, it is because it’s always more meaningful than just the trick itself. It brings with it a resonance of themes and it’s not just a whim or a mere plot point. It’s not just a magical thing, but something with an actual meaning and connected more deeply.

      The prophecy not realized doesn’t stray from the trope. It would stray if Martin had explained WHY it wasn’t realized. Who’s sending Melisandre her visions? Who gives her power? Why this power can’t be clearer? These are the kinds of questions that either Bakker or Erikson would have put at the center of the narrative, while Martin seems to have them on the sidelines. Maybe he’ll come to them, but my suspicion is that he doesn’t handle this stuff very well.

  4. I agree with your analysis Abalieno. Martin’s use of magic seems purely plot device. It doesn’t enrich the narrative in the same way as Erickson/Bakker’s use of it does. Martin leaves them as mysteries, unanswered hooks, which then become less meaningful as the story progresses. Forever waiting in the wings as it were, only to be brought out as DEM’s when the need arises.

    Martin has unfortunately lost the plot amongst all the minor characters as book four proved. An extended mea culpa devoted to tidying extraneous POV’s that advanced the plot only minimally.

    I’m assuming that Martin will add to the magical Meta fictional layer once he gets around to the conflict between ice and fire, which should have been the central theme in the arc. The contrast between Martin and Bakker in this respect is stark. Bakker has total control of the plot five books in and has built a world that has both historical and magical depth, a world steeped in meaning that engages on many levels, whereas Martin has constructed a very well told generic fantasy story which can only be appreciated at face value.

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