A Clash of Kings – George R.R. Martin

As the newcomers walked the length of the hall, Bran saw that one was indeed a girl, though he would never have known it by her dress. She wore lambskin breeches soft with long use, and a sleeveless jerkin amored in bronze scales. Though near Robb’s age, she was slim as a boy, with long brown hair knotted behind her head and only the barest suggestion of breasts. A woven net hung from one slim hip, a long bronze knife from the other; under her arm she carried an old iron greathelm spotted with rust; a frog spear and round leathern shield were strapped to her back,

In the post for A Game of Thrones, I said that I would try to remove the spoilers from my reviews.  That may have been a bit of a lie, so there are probably spoilers in this..

So the Good Man failed to kill the nest of vipers, quite epically in fact. Eddard Stark is dead, so is King Robert. Joffrey is now King, with the strings being pulled by his delightful mother Cercei. But wait a minute, we know that Joffrey isn’t the Kings son, so surely the crown should pass to his brother, the straight and narrow Stannis. Stannis dithers however, and his younger brother Renly steps up and claims the throne as well. While all this is happening Rob Stark has marched to avenge his dad, and en route is declared the King of the north, at this point I believe he is fourteen years old. Meanwhile, across the sea Daenerys is now the heir to the Dragon Throne, and would you believe it, she has dragons! However, she is also only fourteen, and her great tribe has been reduced to the extremely young, extremely old, the infirm and an ever decreasing number of horses. As if that’s not enough to contend with, up beyond the wall The Others are back, walking in the night with only the Night’s Watch to stop them, and as the men in black venture forth, they discover that is not all that is on the other side of the wall.

While war wages on Tyrion is dispatched by his father to be the Kings Hand to young Joffrey, and to reign in his sister. It is here that Tyrion excels, gathering up the Kings council and playing everyone off against each other as he struggles to keep a grip on everything, contrary to his concubine, who manages to keep a very tight grip on him.

Meanwhile Arya is just trying to get home, without anyone realising she’s a girl or that she’s Stark’s daughter, however en route the Night’s Watch are attacked! Those who stay above such things..so Arya ends up working in Harrenhal, where an unexpected ally helps her bump off a few baddies. After the cursed castle changes hands she escapes with the ever unreliable Hot Pie and Gendry and his Hammer, heading home.

Then Stannis bumps of Renley quite spectacularly and Tyrion rubs his hands as he races to take advantage of the situation, meanwhile Catelyn shakes her head at the folly of men and their ambition. But she should be more concerned with home, for Theon Greyjoy is scheming, after being brilliantly humiliated by his sister, he plots to hand his distant father a kingdom on a plate, and almost does so, before being wonderfully betrayed in his moment of triumph, still, Winterfell is hiding something in it’s depths, that everyone thought had been brutally lost.

And so it ends, you could almost rename this series the tragedy of House Stark such is the pitfalls that befall this stoic family. Although I have to admit that I did slog through parts of this, it was because of my own efforts rather than that of Martin, who quite brilliantly manages to weave a story told from vastly differing characters in certain places at certain times, that still somehow manage to create a complete, beautiful tapestry that is effortless to read.

Onto book 3!

Pleading illness, Lord Gulian Swann had remained in his castle, taking no part in the war, but his eldest son had ridden with Renly and now Stannis, while Balon, the younger, served at King’s Landing. If he’d had a third son, Tyrion suspected he’d be off with Robb Stark. It was not perhaps the most honourable course, but it showed good sense; whoever won the Iron Throne, the Swanns intended to survive

The Aleph – Jorge Luis Borges

Set in her coppery face painted with fierce colours, her eyes were that halfhearted blue that the English call Gray. Her body was as light as a deer’s; her hands, strong and bony. She had come in from the wilderness, from “the interior,” and everything seemed too small for her – the doors, the walls, the furniture.

A giant of South American literature who has hovered over my shoulder since I first dipped into it, to the point where I wondered if I was pointedly ignoring him. It is eleven years since I first got back from my travels, and delved into the world of Garcia Marquez, Jorge Amado and Mario Vargas Llosa amongst others. Borges I knew of, knew his stature but little else. In The Old Patagonian Express, Paul Theroux dedicates a whole chapter to his time with Borges, describing a humble but forthright character who had come to terms with his blindness and seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of literature.
Maybe that was it, perhaps I didn’t feel I was a good enough reader for Borges. I seldom remember what I’ve read, only particular scenes if they are extremely vivid or provoke a strong reaction in me, to be able to quote lines and slide them into stories seems even now, a wondrous ability to me (although I couldn’t tell you why).

I finally succumbed while picking up my Roberto Bolano, by the cold precision of alphabetical ordering, Borges sat tight nearby, his books just waiting for me to notice them. I picked up the Aleph and added it to my growing pile.

I immensely enjoyed this from the first story, The Immortal, a beautiful, enveloping detailed Sunday afternoon escapism story that I did not want to end. As I submerged deeper I loved Borges style, his turn of phrase, cleverly translated in this edition by Andrew Hurley. This is Storytelling as an art, the learned, literary narrator, reminiscent of Saramago, or perhaps it is the other way round, I can only go by my order, not theirs.

Andrew Hurley in his afterword points out some of the themes in the collection, which I had only the vaguest sense of while reading. What I do remember is wondering if these stories, even the ones that bordered on the fantastical (Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth or The Aleph) could be real, or experienced, such was the power of Borge’s writing, the realness of the worlds and the characters that inhabit them. What is clear is that Argentina infuses his writing, from the epic of Martin Fierro and the wars of independence, the dictatorship of Rosas, even to the first person narratives that star Borges himself, similar to Bolano, where momentous events sit like a background to the writing, even when they are not specifically the subject, they still cast a certain colour over the words.
My favourites from the collection included The Dead Man, Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden, The House of Asterion and The Man on the Threshold. But others, such as Emma Zunz, The Theologians and Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth. It was The House of Asterion that I enjoyed the most though, a simple yet clever piece that seems to draw me back to a subject that I hold a certain unexplained fascination for.

This edition also includes texts from The Maker, shorter pieces that almost seem as a wind down from the short stories, as if you are slowly being released from the book, like a diver slowly rises to the surface, A Dialog between Dead Men being my particular favourite.

Aside from Hurley’s afterword, and the one chapter from Theroux, I still know little about Borges, for some reason with him more than any of the others it feels like I should know more, even after reading his works he still seems to have this pull on my imagination. For now I’ll settle with reading more of his works, perhaps for me it may well be the best way of learning about the man behind the pen.

At my feet, on the threshold of this house, as motionless as an inanimate thing, a very old man lay curled up on the ground. I shall describe him, because he is an essential part of the story. His many years had reduced and polished him the way water smooths and polishes a stone or generations of men polish a proverb.