Book Review: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
Note: This review contains spoilers for the previous book A Game of Thrones; if you haven’t read that one yet, check out the review here.
Westeros has too many kings. In the south, the King on the Iron Throne is Joffrey Baratheon, heir to the late King Robert. He is a beardless boy, and cruel, and there are those who say he is not Robert’s trueborn son. Still, he has the support of Queen Mother Cersei, Robert’s widow, and her powerful Lannister clan.
To the east is the King of the Narrow Sea, Stannis Baratheon, middle brother of Robert. He is the one who instigated the rumors of his nephew’s illegitimacy, which would make him the rightful heir, and has a strong navy. He is a hard man who has few friends, and has taken up with a foreign god.
To the west, his younger brother Renly is the King in Highgarden. While Joffrey and Stannis yet live, Renly’s claim to the throne is tenuous at best. However, Renly is a man who makes friends easily, and has the support of most of the southern lords who are not directly connected to the Lannisters.
The King in the North is Robb Stark, son of the former King’s Hand Ned. He is barely older than Joffrey, but far more accomplished in strategy and battle, and has the support of the northern lords. He may have too much of his father’s tendency to do the right thing rather than the wise thing, and grows weary of his mother Catelyn’s counsel.
Further north is Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, who is rallying the free wildling people for a journey south, as the Others begin to stir.
In the far west islands, Balon Greyjoy is styled King of Salt and Rock. He has long chafed under the rule of landsmen, and intends to pay the “iron price” for such seaports as he can seize while Westeros is in chaos.
And far to the East, Danerys Targaryen is the last known descendant of the previous rulers of Westeros, and thus the rightful queen of that line. But she has another, perhaps more important title now: Mother of Dragons!
Perhaps this might be a good time for Westeros to switch to representative democracy.
This is the second book in the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, and source material for the Game of Thrones TV series. It’s a thick book, with lots of events, though the tight third person narration means that many of those events take place “off-stage.” Even the battle of King’s Landing, which gets a lot of detail, requires a key moment to be given in an after action report as none of the viewpoint characters are there.
So, let’s look at the viewpoint characters. Eddard “Ned” Stark is dead (told you there’d be spoilers) and we still don’t get chapters for Robb or Rickon. But the rest of the Stark family is represented.
Catelyn Stark (nee Tully) initially is with King Robb’s forces until he makes her ambassador to Renly. She tries to mediate between him and Stannis, as their rival claims endanger them both. It does not go well, and she is forced to retreat with one of Renly’s bodyguards, the female knight Brienne.
Jon Snow has joined a Night Guard expedition beyond the wall to learn Mance Rayder’s intentions and if necessary stop him. There are dark doings afoot, both those of ordinary men and of the supernatural.
Sansa Stark remains a hostage of the royal family in King’s Landing. She’s trying to retain what shreds of her optimism and belief in chivalry she can, but the story seems intent on crushing every last bit of her naivete.
Arya Stark has managed to escape the royal city disguised as a boy named Arry, only the first of several name changes. She experiences the war from the perspective of the “smallfolk” who have no choice but to obey whichever master currently holds sway or be killed. Her sections include a really cool character, but naming them would be a huge spoiler.
And Bran Stark learns that his body may be crippled, but he has powers of his own. Also, being the eight-year-old lord of Winterfell castle is not as much fun as you might have thought, especially when enemies come knocking.
Meanwhile, Tyrion Lannister continues to be his family’s viewpoint character. He’s appointed acting King’s Hand while his father Tywin deals with the military aspects of the multi-sided war. His short stature is no handicap in a job that primarily involves making and carrying out plans, and Tyrion has more success than any other viewpoint character. But because he took the post just as the ill effects of the war hit King’s Landing, he’s despised by the citizens. And his relatives aren’t making things any easier!
Further afield, Dani is trying to parlay her baby dragons and handful of followers into a force that will retake Westeros for the Targaryen line. This is the plotline with the most overt magical elements, including a trippy sequence where Dani gets a great deal of symbolic information that she can’t use because she has no context for it. Apparently, dragons enhance magic merely by existing, but most magic is used in unpleasant ways so that’s not a good thing.
The first new viewpoint character is Theon Grayjoy, who appeared as a minor player in the first book. He is at last released from his hostage status with the Starks so that King Robb can offer an alliance with Balon, Theon’s father. Theon has a lot of resentment against his foster family, and is planning to betray them as soon as it’s convenient. Balon, on the other hand, has no interest in an alliance in the first place–worse, he distrusts Theon because the young man has been too long away from their pirate island. And indeed, Theon does very poorly trying to navigate between the differing ideas of correct behavior of the Northmen and the Ironmen.
Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight, is completely new. He’s a former smuggler raised to knighthood by Stannis Baratheon for services rendered, while also being punished for his crimes. Thus Davos is one of the few men totally loyal to the would-be king while not having any illusions about his character. Ser Davos speaks truth to power, which does not bode well for his longevity.
This volume is full of signs and portents, beginning with a red comet that a number of characters think is relevant to them…but they can’t all be right. Several other clues are disregarded due to prejudice or past experience.
Content issues: Rape continues to be the go-to “gritty realism” thing in this volume; none of the viewpoint characters are raped this time, but it is frequently threatened. Incest gets an increased emphasis, once played for comedy! Lots of violence of course, torture is mentioned more than once, and frequent cruel and pointless deaths And of course salty language.
There are some really cool moments and the general quality of the writing is high. On the other hand, the survival rate of likable characters is low (and unlikable characters are only somewhat longer-lived) so this tends to be a depressing book.
Recommended if you liked the first book or the TV series.
Now, let’s have the TV show opening credits!