Renly Baratheon explains, “I have it in me to be a great king, strong yet generous, clever, just, diligent, loyal to my friends and terrible to my enemies, yet capable of forgiveness, patient…” Renly’s only problem, besides arrogance, is that he has no legal claim to the Iron Throne of Westeros — excepting the strength of his army. Luckily for Renly, Westeros’ leaders no longer seem to require any legitimacy beyond the power of their armies and the ruthlessness of their bannermen. Perhaps the laws of the realm were always a whitewash, but now even Sansa Stark has begun to realize that the laws of the state are twisted to strengthen the powerful rather than enforced to protect the powerless.
In a realm like this, it should come as no surprise that Renly is only one of many men to have raised an army, forged a crown, and claimed a throne. Renly’s older brother Stannis has declared himself king of the realm, Balon Greyjoy has declared himself the iron king, Robb Stark claims to be king of the north, and Mance Rayder styles himself the king beyond the wall. Meanwhile, Joffrey Baratheon actually sits on the Iron Throne of Westeros, but he is only the heir of the usurper, Robert Baratheon, who stole the crown from the Targaryens. The last of the Targaryens, Daenerys, may be in exile, but she is doing her best to amass an army in preparation for her return. If ever a book was aptly named, it must surely be George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings (1998).
Sadly, no one will escape the horrors and atrocities of this civil war. Lords and knights are supposed to provide the weak with protection, but the “common people” suffer rape, pain and death more than any other class in this war. So although most people in Westeros think monsters are just “grumkins” and children’s tales, we know the truth: there are plenty of monsters in the Seven Kingdoms, all of them fighting for just a little more power.
Arya Stark, the youngest daughter of Lord Eddard Stark, is especially surrounded by monsters. Without her father to protect her, Arya becomes a commoner and flees King’s Landing to return north to her family. Each night before bed, she recites a list of enemies she hopes to slay. Arya’s list of monsters includes the Mountain That Rides, a knight who preys upon the weak in service of the Lannisters; Rorge, a murderer and rapist who has been freed from the Red Keep’s dungeons; and even Joffrey Baratheon, a murderer of children but king of the realm nevertheless. Arya’s plucky story is by far the most charming part of A Clash of Kings. She is brave and clever, but young and alone. Fortunately, Arya is a fast learner and Martin consistently offers Arya charismatic teachers and protectors, including swordsmen, grizzled members of the Night’s Watch, and even a warlock.
Actually, every character in the A Song of Ice and Fire series is charismatic. They might not all be leaders, but they each command the reader’s sympathy and devotion. Martin has an uncanny ability to create larger than life heroes (and villains) with little more than a nickname or a sigil. Roose Bolton, Lord of the Dreadfort, uses leeches to keep his blood fresh and his house is known for its unusual sigil: a flayed man. Of the minor characters, my favorite may well be Jaqen H’ghar, a foreigner and prisoner who explains that “a man does not choose his companions in the black cells… these two, they have no courtesy. A man must ask forgiveness.” Jaqen H’ghar is more than he seems and a good reminder that any character in this series, hero or villain, can change the course of events in Westeros.
This is especially true for Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf known as the “Imp” and who serves as the Hand of the King. The armorer Salloreon recommends that Tyrion wear the helm of a demon, but Tyrion is determined to offer the people of Westeros justice while also defeating all of his nephew Joffrey’s rival kings, even the ones whose cause we sympathize with. Is Tyrion a hero, a villain, or a monster? Many readers will find themselves convinced that Tyrion is all of the above, which may well be Martin’s greatest achievement.
A Clash of Kings is a fast-paced and intriguing fantasy, one that delivers on every promise made in A Game of Thrones. It is also a violent, brutal novel, and few readers will want to live in Westeros. However, nearly every reader will return to it and to Martin’s third novel, A Storm of Swords.
Many editorial reviews of book (or movie) sequels claim that the second is as good as, or better than, the original. I read the same thing about A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin’s sequel to A Game of Thrones. I was a bit skeptical, I mean… how can one not question whether Martin could duplicate what he accomplished in the first novel, let alone better it. “Thrones” is magnificently expansive and epic… how could book 2 match the energy and intensity?
Martin absolutely knocked the ball out of the park with A Clash of Kings. I don’t know if it’s better than A Game of Thrones, but it’s easily its equal. He takes the core set of surviving characters (Arya, Sansa, Bran, Catelyn, Jon, Cersei and the wonderfully rich Tyrion), and picks up almost immediately where A Game of Thrones left off. And I don’t just mean in terms of plot, but also in building out his fantastic world of intrigue, adventure and politics.
A Clash of Kings is complicated, intense and absolutely epic. It sprawls majestically over a widely varied physical and literary landscape. The politics within the plot, focused on four Kings battling over a land that’s used to having only one, are intricate, but not difficult to follow. Martin’s writing is clear, his dialogue is smooth and the interplay between characters is enjoyable and completely in sync with the overall tone and ‘place’ of the story. The book is very serious and heavy — at about 1,000 pages, the book is actually heavy, but I love the weightiness, with corresponding depth, of the story.
Like A Game of Thrones, there’s not a ton of fantasy in A Clash of Kings. It’s very middle-ages-historical-fiction with a tinge of supernatural. There’s more fantasy in this book than in the first, though, and it feels like it’ll build into much more for the third book. There are dragons, but they set up a certain tone and act more as a plot device than anything else. There’s no fire-breathing and attacking and destroying. There’s further development around Bran’s supernatural connection with his direwolf Summer, and we see that the bastard Stark, Jon, has a bit of the gift as well. There are a few more fantastical devices scattered throughout the book, which Martin develops slowly through his world’s mythology rather than hammering in a slew of de facto dungeons & dragons.
The characters are Martin’s true accomplishment. He feeds off a character’s strengths and deficiencies, and each one is perfectly human and in some way relate-able. Individuals-as-‘outsiders’, is the base upon which the best characters are built. And he uses that foundation frequently. Tyrion, the dwarf prince, has become one of my favorite and most memorable characters in the series, and perhaps one of the most well-developed characters in any popular fiction. He’s witty and smart, and sometimes obnoxiously flip. But his deep-seated insecurities which evolve slowly over the course of both of the first books make his chapters the most anticipated. Arya develops into a wonderfully three dimensional character as the tomboy princess cut off from her family, trying to survive and find a way back home. Sansa’s princessly arrogance dissipates under the strain of trying to survive as a hostage, and finds friends in very unprincessly places.
There’s no reason to read this book before the first. There’s a wealth of back story upon which A Clash of Kings is built. Some of which Martin explains, most of which he doesn’t, which I found enjoyably and surprisingly subtle. I would’ve been more lost if I’d not read the books back-to-back. And yes, they’re that good that I was willing to invest over a month of precious reading time in two 1,000-page books.
I have a very strange relationship with George R.R. Martin‘s A SONG OF FIRE AND ICE, one that most uber-fans would be horrified with. As it happens, I never really tuned in to HBO’s Game of Thrones, being happy to just watch the most important scenes on YouTube in a “greatest hits” kind of way, and I only read through the first book in the series when I gave a copy to my sister for her birthday. That was a couple of years ago now.
Yet I’ve always been fascinated by fan reaction to the books and episodes, and often browse through online message boards to see how others think and feel about the course the story takes. To cut a long story short, I think I’m more interested in the franchise as a phenomenon than a story — though when I spied a cheap copy of A Clash of Kings at my second-hand bookstore, I nabbed it. You have to jump on the bandwagon sooner or later!
Knowing what I do about Martin’s glacial writing pace, it’s obvious that this early in the saga’s inception he was at the height of his creative powers, under no pressure to get the books finished, and enjoying himself immensely when it came to the building of his invented world. Every page is bursting with action and insight and creativity, with a perfect balance hit between plot, character and world-building. From medieval cities to northern wastelands to desert plains, there seems to be no end to the landscapes Martin can portray.
And like all good sequels, the story branches out to include new characters and points-of-view, giving the story more scope and depth. This is best exemplified in the opening few chapters, in which characters strewn across the land each witness a single red comet in the sky, each attributing it with qualities that endorse their individual causes.
But how to summarize the breadth of A Clash of Kings’ story in a single paragraph? Across the continent of Westeros a war is waging, in which various factions vie for possession of the Iron Throne. But who is the rightful heir: the deceased king’s older or younger brother? Or his firstborn son, though largely believed to be born of an incestuous liaison between the queen and her twin brother? Perhaps the crown should instead go to a newcomer, like the young King in the North who has yet to lose a battle? Or to the remaining heir of the kingdom’s previous dynasty, gradually accumulating allies and weapons on the eastern continent?
Yet while all this intrigue and turmoil rages, there are whispers of a greater threat far to the north, where the men who oversee the great Wall grow increasingly aware of movement in the lands beyond. And whatever lies in the uncharted north poses more danger to the realm than any of the civil wars that rage across its borders.
The scope is so great that I haven’t even mentioned a single character by name, and yet Martin’s cast of characters is one of the story’s strong points. His heroes are flawed and his villains are despicable, but everyone — to some extent or other — is painted in varying shades of grey; neither truly good nor fully evil (well, except in a few cases). The conflict that exists in each individual’s heart is reflected in the turmoil that surrounds him, and perhaps Martin’s greatest contribution to the fantasy genre is that it doesn’t have to be based on simple “good versus evil” narratives.
It’s also interesting to read the source material having watched bits of the show first — often some of the creative decisions that involve changes made between page and screen are interesting to ponder: for instance, it’s clear why the showrunners felt they had to tinker with Daenerys’s storyline (Martin only gives her a few chapters here) even though what they delivered wasn’t exemplary.
On the other hand, decisions like the one to combine Edric and Gendry into a single character worked in the show’s favour, especially when it came to manufacturing a (completely original) meeting between Arya and Melisandre.
But where Martin excels is in depicting the real cost of war: the violence, the terror, the overwhelming wastefulness of it all. Something I hadn’t realized after watching the prevalence of Robb Stark’s character in the HBO show is that Martin deliberately keeps his POV chapters away from characters in positions of power. Instead the story is told from those who can only advice or witness their leaders making decisions, whether good or bad.
By this point any overriding discussion on Game of Thrones seems oversaturated. What could possibly be said that hasn’t already been said dozens of times before? It’s a massive chronicle, it’s a worldwide phenomenon, it’s a frustratingly slow wait until the next book, it’s not too long before the show breaks further ground — you’re either on board the bandwagon or you’re not.