A CLASH OF KINGS is so fucking good man, definitely equally as good A Game of Thrones. It picks up where the previous book left off, with the Seven Kingdoms in the midst of a brutal internecine war. Sansa Stark is held hostage by the Lannisters in King’s Landing; Arya is making her way back north, having been rescued from their clutches by the Night’s Watch recruit master Yoren; Commander Mormont is about to lead Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch north of the wall on a rescue mission to find Benjen Stark; Tyrion has been sent to King’s Landing to act as Hand of the King in Tywin Lannister’s place and Daenerys leads her diminished khalasar east in search of an army to reconquer her throne. And we get two new viewpoint characters in Theon Greyjoy, who Robb Stark sends back to the Iron Islands on a diplomatic mission, and Davos Seaworth, a new character and lowborn smuggler raised high as an advisor to Stannis Baratheon. Now, from the ancient citadel of Dragonstone to the forbidding wilds of Winterfell, chaos reigns as pretenders to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms prepare to stake their claims through tempest, turmoil, and war.
In my review of A Game of Thrones I talked a fair bit about how great Sansa’s chapters were as distillations of the essence of grimdark; her naivete in the chivalry of knights and the benevolence of rulers colliding with the cold hard reality of Joffrey’s cruelty and the real politik of her value as a Lannister hostage in war. Sansa gets some great character development in A Clash of Kings and her relationship with Ser Dontos shows how good Martin is at writing incredible grimdark. Ser Dontos is a great character; as a former knight sentenced to death by Joffrey’s impulsive cruelty and rescued by Sansa’s intervention to be kept alive as Joffrey’s court fool, Dontos feels he owes a life debt to Sansa. He’s a sot and a drunkard, a jester and a laughing stock, laid low at the whims of his capricious king, and yet for all that he’s apparently the only person brave enough to try and help Sansa escape King’s Landing. It’s ironic because Dontos appears to be the bravest, most knightly figure Sansa knows and yet she is repulsed by him all the same because he still doesn’t fit the profile of her ideal knight in shining armour. What I love about Martin’s character development in these books is how gradually and unevenly people change. Yes, Sansa started to realise throughout the course of book one that real life isn’t how she imagined it should be but in many ways she’s still naïve and snobbish; her disdain for Dontos is evidence of that.
I want to take about Catelyn and Cersei and their role as women and mothers a little bit too, cos one thing I don’t get about some opinions of these books is that they’re sexist. For starters, there aren’t many books I can think of that match the level of attention to detail, character development and agency the women of A Song of Ice and Fire have. And even fewer fantasy books that allow women to express themselves as mothers while still engaging fully in the unfolding events of the story. One of the main themes of Catelyn Stark’s chapters is the juxtaposition of her role as a mother with the role men in this highly patriarchal world are expected to fulfil as warriors and soldiers. She talks about how “children are a battle of a different sort. A battle without banners or war horns, but no less fierce” and how “for men the answer was always the same, and never further away than the nearest sword. For a woman, a mother, the way was stonier and harder to know”. And Cersei is a horrible person, but is very aware of and resistant to the role she’s expected to play as a woman in the incredibly male-dominated nobility of Westeros. There’s a great scene when Cersei gets drunk and spills the tea, unleashing all her bitterness and resentment at the difference between her and her twin brother Jaime, how as children they did all the same things, except as they grew older he was taught to fight and rule, while she was taught only to sing and please others. He was heir to Casterly Rock, while she was merely married off to a drunkard king, just a chess piece to cement a family alliance. Cersei is the kind of character I often see people demanding more of in fiction, a woman who asserts herself and doesn’t pander to male expectations of meekness or likeability. There’s a ton of female characters in this book who break that mould, from Catelyn and Cersei to Arya the tomboy, Ygritte the wildling warrior and Brienne of Tarth, who takes on the role of a knight despite the ridicule it earns her from others.
Daenerys’ journey is possibly my favourite part of this book, just on a primitive level as a fantasy nerd, for the world building alone. The city of Qarth is fascinating, with its factions of warlocks and merchant princes and Daenerys’ visit to the House of the Undying at the behest of the great warlock Pyat Pree. The House of the Undying is an absolute mind fuck. As always, no spoilers, but the building doesn’t obey the laws of physics and Daenerys quickly realises she is in the presence of sorcery, which so far has been a very minor part in Martin’s world. The low magic setting is one of the things I love about these book; some people don’t even believe in it and it’s not always clear whether something is genuinely magical or simply common trickery. I’ve thought this before, but it was made starkly clear to me reading A Clash of Kings how Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books are a bit derivative of A Song of Ice and Fire. I mean, there’s obviously tropes in grimdark, but I couldn’t help thinking how Abercrombie’s north men are also scattered bands of warring tribes united by Bethod in the same way the wildlings in ASoIaF are united by Mance Rayder and how Abercrombie’s the House of the Maker bears a striking similarity to Martin’s House of the Undying in so many ways.
There’s too much going on in this book for me to go into detail without spinning this out into another 4000 word essay, so I’m just gonna end with some closing thoughts about some of the other POV characters. Arya’s story starts to get juicy in this second instalment. I love a good revenge plot (The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my favourite books so that tells you all you need to know) and Arya certainly has some scores to settle. One of the simplest ways to view any story is to think of it as ‘character wants to do something but something is stopping them from doing it’ and Arya’s story is very simple in that respect – she wants revenge, but she also wants to stay alive and the practicalities of flying under the radar put barriers in her way. Very simple, but incredibly well-executed plotline. I enjoyed getting Theon’s perspective too. He was largely a side character in A Game of Thrones, but he really comes into his own in A Clash of Kings and his actions really put a cat among the pigeons and lead to some great storylines and character development, as well as expanding the worldbuilding by showing us the Iron Islands for the first time. Davos Seaworth is a great character to see Stannis through as well. Again, Stannis is a major player in the story who was off screen for the whole of book one, having removed himself to his seat in Dragonstone. Now though, he is one of the main challengers to the Iron Throne alongside his younger brother Renly. Seeing his story from the perspective of Davos was a fantastic choice as Davos is in a very precarious position as a lowborn man with little respect among Stannis’ bannermen and his staunch refusal to go along with the wishes of Stannis’ counsellors causes a lot of tension, and yet because he’s not a yes man and speaks truth to power, he’s someone with great standing with Stannis himself. So Davos is walking a perpetual tightrope, as one wrong move could see his demise.
Ultimately I think this review does this book a disservice; I simply don’t have the time to write the novella length essay required to get into everything I think makes these books so phenomenal, and I’m not sure most people would have the patience to read it lol. Looking back over it I haven’t even really talked about the plot haha, but you can get that from the blurb I’m sure. If you read A Game of Thrones and liked it, then you’re gonna love this book too. Everything that made that book such a phenomenal read is present here; fascinating characters, court intrigue Machiavellian backstabbing, complex and dynamic politics and interpersonal feudal and familial relationships that cause so much fucking drama it makes me giddy with joy. I’m enjoying my re-reads of this series even more than my first go round, can’t wait to jump into book three!
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