There once was a savage king who would abscond with the thrones of his defeated enemies and display them as trophies on the second floor of his palatial mud hut. Until, that is, the day when the roof collapsed and killed him.

The moral? Those who live in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones. Ha!

Title: A Clash of Kings, by George R. R. Martin

Motivation: Momentum.

Completed: April 28, 2012 (#30)

Recommendation: A recommendation for this book, number three in a series of five so far, is inseparable from reading the lot of them. For a fallen, Machiavellian take on Tolkiendom, please consider Mr. Martin’s work.

For readers unfamiliar with Mr. Martin’s œuvre or the popular HBO series it spawned, the Song of Ice and Fire series is quintessential genre fare, full of dragons and magic and diminutive people. As the success of HBO’s television show has demonstrated, however, these novels have an appeal beyond the walls of Star Trek and comic book conventions.

The plot twists are impossible to remember, let alone synopsize, but a fair description would be that the books loosely trace the history of the Wars of the Roses in an alternate universe, with House Stark of the North (i.e., the Yorks) vying with House Lannister (i.e., the Lancasters) for control of a unified throne. Add a dash of unvarnished language, brutal violence, and frequent concupiscence, and you have the makings of a perfect HBO cash cow.

Like his most surprising character—the refreshingly charismatic dwarf Tyrion Lannister (a human dwarf, not one of the hirsute Snow White variety)—Mr. Martin has a fondness for “cripples, bastards, and broken things.” Many of his main characters have severe defects of the sort that authors writing in a more heroic idiom tend to airbrush. Happily, Mr. Martin brings this off without indulging in a maudlin and manipulative political correctness, as does the wonderfully cast Peter Dinklage, who plays Tyrion on HBO.

While A Superfluous Man is generally reluctant to allow himself to be drawn into meandering and unfocused “series”—the long dark night of Left Behind still haunts him—Mr. Martin rewards departure from this principle. The predictable “special effects” that populate most “fantasy” fiction are relatively subdued here—dragons and other mythical beasts exist, but they are more naturalistically (one might even say “zoologically”) depicted than is typical. The politics of the Starks and Lannisters are as bloody and amoral as those of the Yorks and Lancasters, and heroes and villains do not play to archetype in Mr. Martin’s universe.

For those who travel frequently or who could use a bit of swashbuckling escapism, these books are certainly for you. (Men and women both tend to enjoy Mr. Martin’s work, I am told.) If you do decide to plunge in, A Superfluous Man suggests purchasing the full series at once to save a few pennies—the likelihood of your becoming hooked until the bitter end is relatively high, so may as well benefit from a bulk discount.