Tuesday, February 3, 2009

My top 10 fantasy fiction battles: Battle of the Blackwater

9. A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin
Battle of the Blackwater

George R.R. Martin is one of the most talented fantasy fiction authors writing today, and not just because of his great story-telling and characterization, or the cold-hearted, wildly unpredictable plot of his current series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin can also write damned good battle scenes, a few of which rank among the most convincing and violently portrayed that I’ve encountered in fantasy literature.

In particular, the Battle of the Blackwater from book two of his series, A Clash of Kings, is one of the bloodiest and most chaotic affairs I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It features ship-to-ship combat, the use of catapults, scorpions, and alchemists’ fire, a charge of armored knights, drownings, severed limbs, men burned alive, and even prisoners executed via trebuchet (you have to read it to believe it).

The Battle of the Blackwater is a microcosm of Martin’s strengths as a writer. In this violent struggle on land and sea, he captures the gruesomeness and realism of what a pitched medieval battle must have been like, while also managing to spring several nasty shocks on the reader (true to form, Martin hideously maims the battle’s point of view character).

In this battle the forces of Stannis Baratheon sail up the Blackwater River to attack the castle of King’s Landing and approximately 5,000 defenders under young King Joffrey. Baratheon’s force is formidable—20,000 men, many borne on war-galleys, the decks of which are studded with scorpions and catapults capable of flinging stones and barrels of burning pitch.

But the army is overconfident and fails to send ahead probing ships. As a result, they run into a deadly trap. Many of the ships at King’s Landing are empty hulks full of vicious green wildfire, a substance akin to napalm which sticks to its unfortunate target and melts flesh like tallow. Martin describes it as, “Evil stuff, and well-nigh unquenchable. Smother it under a cloak and the cloak took fire; slap at a fleck of it with your palm and your hand was aflame.”

When the attackers ships move in, great trebuchets from King's Landing send rocks the size of a man’s head raining down upon them. “When they fell they sent up great gouts of water, smashed through oak planking, and turned living men into bone and pulp and gristle,” Martin writes.

Battle is joined. Ships ram one another, spilling armored men into the water, who quickly drown. Other ships lock together with grappling hooks in a death embrace, and decks are soon awash in blood as men hack each other with swords and axes.

Despite some terrible losses the attackers are winning until an unfortunate ship, the Swordfish, rams a Lannister hulk floating low in the water—with slow green blood leaking out from between her boards. The crew of the Swordfish fails to recognize the wildfire and crashes in. The explosion and towering gout of flame engulfs a dozen Baratheon ships, destroying most of their crews. More ships begin to catch fire. Then, horribly, the defenders haul up a chain-boom behind the attacking force, cutting off the mouth of bay and preventing retreat. Another dozen ships, piled up against the chain, go up in flames. The Blackwater is turned into the mouth of hell. This marks the turning point of the battle.

Yet many of Stannis’ ships make it through and the attackers manage to land a fair force on land. Some of the men bring a ram to the king’s gate and bash away at the oaken doors. The keep appears on the brink of falling after the Lannister’s mightiest warrior, the pitiless, murdering Sandor Clegane, is humbled by the roaring flames (he's mortally afraid of fire) and refuses to go out and repulse the attack.

But Tyron Lannister, the stunted, dwarfish son of Lord Tywin Lannister, leads a sortie out from the Red Keep to repulse the attackers. He shames a group of knights to follow him (“They say I’m half a man,” he said. “What does that make the lot of you?”). They slam into the attackers at the gate, running them through with lowered lances. Tyrion takes a man’s head half-off with a swing of his axe. Another knight, dazed on his feet, tries to hand Tyrion his gauntlet in an act of surrender; Tyrion realizes the knight’s hand is still inside the steel glove.

Martin describes the chaos and carnage—and Tyrion’s exultant, near suicidal mood—with master strokes:

Men were crawling up from the river, men burned and bleeding, coughing up water, staggering, most dying. He led his troop among them, delivering quicker cleaner deaths to those strong enough to stand. The war shrank to the size of his eye slit. Knights twice his size fled from him, or stood and died. They seemed little things, and fearful. “Lannister!” he shouted, slaying. His arm was red to the elbow, glistening in the light off the river. When his horse reared again, he shook his axe at the stars and heard them call out “Halfman! Halfman!” Tyrion felt drunk. The battle fever.

Down in the bay twenty galleys, wrecked and lashed together, have formed a treacherous bridge. Hundreds of Baratheon troops on the far shore are using it to leap from one deck to another and cross the Blackwater. Tyrion turns to Ser Balon Swann, one his knights, and utters perhaps my favorite line in the series:

“Those are brave men,” he told Ser Balon in admiration. “Let’s go kill them.”

Tyrion leads another charge to the water’s edge and hurls the enemy back into the water as they swarm ashore. The carnage is overwhelming: “His own killing was a clumsy thing. He stabbed one man in the kidney when his back was turned, and grabbed another by the leg and upended him into the river … A naked man fell from the sky and landed on the deck, body bursting like a melon dropped from a tower.”

Tyrion nearly drowns as the ruined ship breaks beneath him and he falls, grasping for the rail. He reaches for the hand of one of his trusted knights, Ser Mandon Moore, but the latter turns traitor and slashes Tyrion cruelly across the face.

But Tyrion and the defenders have held out long enough, and a huge combined Lannister-Tyrell army arrives to take the remainder of the Baratheon army from the rear, ending the ferocious battle.


Falze said...

Interesting. I mostly found this battle to be just too much. It seemed like every time it just got completely out of hand he'd pull another string and there would be another 'Oh, come ON!' moment. I wish he'd used the energy he expended on this battle and split it between several. Still, it does indeed succeed as being exhilirating and over the top and a great read in the end.

Jack Badelaire said...

Very neat series of posts I'm betting - are you going to figure in anything from Bernard Cornwell, by any chance? Some of the battles in the Saxon Tales books are pretty badass.

Chad Thorson said...

I still haven't read this one yet, or at least I haven't finished it. I read the first one in the series and really liked it. I guess I need to get reading this one!

Anonymous said...


Yes, I agree that Martin is dangerous close of falling off the line between gruesome-extreme that he started with and cartoony in terms of the character death and violence that he incorporates (or he may have already fallen off). It's ironic that his espoused aim seems to have been the attainment of some kind of 'realism' and yet he gets more and more like an over the top Tarantino movie with each book.

Brian Murphy said...

Falze/Terry: I also agree that Martin has done a dangerous dance with over-the-top violence. It's realistic and compelling, but it can lead to detachment. After I put down A Feast for Crows I found myself either hating or not caring about most of the characters left standing. If Martin kills off Jon Snow I may have to dump the series.

Badelaire: Oh yes, Cornwell will appear on the list.

Atom Kid: Steel yourself. Nasty shocks are in store in this series.

K. Bailey said...

Oh yes this is a good one. It's also very satisfying how this battle is an extended "crowning moment of awesome" for the much despised (but very reader-friendly) Tyrion.

K. Bailey said...

Re: Feast for Crows. It snuffed out my hope of this series ever completing. It was late, it was probably a lie (supposedly it was a completed book whose other half would follow a year later), it doesn't have anything worthwhile in it. Whatever is keeping Martin from the brilliance of the earlier books, I wish it were gone.