A Clash of Kings is the second in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Sensible people would read them in order if they normally read chapters of a book in order.
What I want to say about this volume without spoilers is that again Martin manages very well to have satisfying volume completion and satisfying character arcs within the volume—slightly less well than in the first book, but still remarkably well considering how difficult it is. Also, the cover of my edition says “The epic battle is joined,” which is just so wrong I don’t know how anyone could have typed those words in connection with this book, never mind got as far as putting them on the cover. The new edition replaces them with “The New York Times Bestseller” which has the virtue of being something nobody can argue with. There are indeed battles in A Clash of Kings, but no epic battles, because one of the interesting things about it is the way it’s not that kind of book.
So, as it’s a clash of kings, let’s start with the kings.
This book begins with Stannis, who we didn’t see at all in the first book, and Martin gives us two new point-of-view characters to see him with, first his Maester, Cressen, who dies in the prologue (never agree to be a POV character in one of Martin’s prologues unless you’re feeling suicidal) and Davos the Onion Knight. Stannis Baraethon is a stern unloveable upright honourable man who adopts the religion of the Lord of Light because that will get him what he wants. He was a constant offstage presence in the first book, and here we see him through other people’s eyes. Davos is a surprisingly colourless character—he ought to be good, a smuggler risen to be a knight, with the last joints of his fingers in a bag around his neck—but I don’t much care about him. Similarly, I don’t like Stannis and I hate his new god.
Stannis defeats his brother Renly by evil magic. Renly is playing at being king, he has the south at his feet, he’s having a tournament when we first encounter him. We see Renly through the eyes of Catelyn, who is sent to try to make peace between him and Robb, and she sees as ridiculously young, and then she sees him killed. It’s fitting that his ghost—actually his lover Ser Loras Tyrell—is part of what defeats Stannis’s army in the end. This whole interplay of Renly and Stannis is done brilliantly—the whole idea of Renly’s men ready to defeat Stannis and then discovering that Renly is dead and they have to support Stannis, however reluctantly, and then the way it backfires.
We hardly see Robb. He sends Catelyn off because he doesn’t want her around, and we have no point of view with him for the rest of the book. We hear, distantly, about him winning victories, and we hear (though we don’t know it yet) about the idiocy he’s committing that’s going to lead to the events at the end of A Storm of Swords. Also, if only he’d listened to his mother about not sending Theon to the Iron Islands!
Joffrey is seen through Tyrion and Sansa’s eyes. He’s clearly vile—his sadistic mistreatment of Sansa is horrible, and he’s just what you’d expect from the spoiled rotten product of incest. It’s interesting to see themes starting to repeat. Tyrion is Hand, and he’s trying to run the country from King’s Landing with the help of the small council, excatly as Ned did in A Game of Thrones. Tyrion’s story here is one of struggling to get the better of Cersei and Joffrey, and he manages it better than Ned, only to be undermined at the end by Cersei and by his father’s arrival. Sansa has a horrible time being beaten up by Joffrey’s knights and hoping vainly for rescue by his fool. She remains an idiot but she’s not actively treacherous in this book, and she sings a hymn to the Hound, so I like her a bit better.
Balon Greyjoy is Theon’s father, and Theon is given a point of view. The first time I read this I only vaguely remembered Theon from A Game of Thrones and was horrified at what he did. Also, I mentioned that Martin doesn’t have any unsympathetic points of view there—well, that changes with Theon. Theon betrays everyone including himself, and I wouldn’t mind if he was flayed for a very long time, it couldn’t happen to a more deserving person. Martin does him brilliantly, and the Iron Islands too, and the whole set of things that have made Theon who and what he is. Asha and the rest are honest Vikings, Theon is something different because of being fostered at Winterfell, and he’s much the worse for it. The whole fall of Winterfell plot continues to undermine standard expectations. The saddest part is not Theon’s attack nor the Bastard of Bolton’s destruction, nor Bran and Rickon going into hiding—though Martin leaves us in doubt as to what has happened to them for a very long time—it’s Arya finding out about it and realizing she doesn’t have a home to go to.
Arya’s story here is brilliant—despite the fact that really not much happens in it. She escapes with the Night’s Watch and then alone, she lives in Harrenhal under two regimes, she escapes Harrenhal at the end. She learns how much she doesn’t know, she grows up a lot, the whole bit with the three deaths and Jaqen is amazing, and the realization that Roose Bolton may be nominally on her family’s side but he isn’t a nice person is very well done.
Bran finally gets to have something to do here, other than just provide a point of view in Winterfell. He starts to have dreams of being Summer, and become a warg, seeing through Summer’s eyes. This makes something quite different of the wolves, and it really works. Bran also attaches Meera and Jojen, the Crannogmen, and ends up going off north with them and Hodor the simple-minded giant.
Catelyn drives me mad here. I’m sorry, but she should go back to Winterfell where her little children need her, not moon around crying and trying to make everyone be friends and lay down their swords—not going to happen, lady, and you should grow up and notice what kind of book you’re in. Rickon’s four and Bran’s nine and crippled, and they definitely need her more than her dying father or Robb. Also, she hardly makes any real effort to free Sansa or find out what’s happened to Arya. “Family, duty, honour,” doesn’t mean hanging around at Riverrun.
Jon’s story is quite separate from everyone else’s here—he goes North from the Wall across the wilderness and ends up forced to betray his oath in order to follow orders, and become one of the wildlings in order to find out what’s going on. His whole story is expedition and exploration, there’s no further sighting of anything uncanny, and really it’s all set-up. But his ending is splendid, climactic and cliff-hanging.
Daenerys’s story here is even more detached—she’s on the other side of the world—and she doesn’t really get very far. She has some dragons, they’re growing, she crosses a desert and goes to Quarth, she kills some warlocks and meets some people Illyrio has sent—one of whom is probably Ser Barristan Selmy in disguise. Clearly Martin is going to bring Daenerys “home” to Westeros at some point—it’s not really her home, she’s never been there, but she’s the Targaryen heir. In A Game of Thrones I felt her story was integral even though distant, here I felt she’s much more marking time. I do like the way the dragons being back is making magic work better—for the alchemists in King’s Landing and the red priests.
There are a lot of tangled plots going on here, and yet nothing is confusing and everything is clear and comes together well—everyone behaves just as they would. The climaxes—the battle at King’s Landing, the destruction of Winterfell, Arya and Bran (separately) setting out again, Sansa freed from Joffrey, Jon joining the wildlings and (perhaps slightly less successfully) Dany finding some ships, fall well together and one after the other, giving the book a sound solid shape.
On to A Storm of Swords!
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.