Those folks who just finished watching the second season of Game of Thrones need no real introduction to the second volume in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Clash of Kings. After all, the book’s sprawling narrative was pared down to a lean 10-episode storyline that managed to hit all the high points while jettisoning that stuff that wasn’t strictly necessary to keep things rolling forward. While I will not go so far as to say that watching the show precludes the need to read the book, it is possible to watch and then go straight on to the third book, A Storm of Swords, with little need for orientation.
You may recall my review of A Game of Thrones, the first volume in A Song of Ice and Fire. In it I tried to do a decent job of summarizing what went on in the book without venturing into spoiler territory, which was something of a task. I’m in even more difficult straits with this book because so much is going on between the two covers and almost all of it is significant in some way. For a book that’s as long as A Clash of Kings is, it sure doesn’t have much in the way of padding.
I’m going to try and pick my way carefully around some key events from A Game of Thrones as I talk about this one. Suffice it to say that A Game of Thrones ended on a particularly shocking note and set the stage for major conflict in all the lands of Westeros, George RR Martin’s fantasy continent. In the far north the “wildlings,” essentially barbarian clansman, were stirring themselves to war under the banner of the King Beyond the Wall, while in the south a messy succession has resulted in the fragmentation of the once-united Seven Kingdoms into four separate chunks, each with its own king.
It’s into this maelstrom of burgeoning hostilities that A Clash of Kings plunges us. As was the case with A Game of Thrones, the book is broken up into bite-sized episodes from a bunch of different perspectives, some more interesting than others, but all important. Those folks who formed attachments to surviving characters from the first book will find plenty to entertain them here as the cast remains mostly intact. A few new point-of-view characters enter the mix, as well, including reformed smuggler Davos, who serves one of the three southern kings, Stannis, brother of Robert Baratheon. You remember Robert Baratheon from A Game of Thrones, don’t you? No? Then stop reading this review immediately and set about either reading the first book or watching the show, because you are seriously stuck behind the narrative curve.
I will say that though A Clash of Kings is packed with incident, it’s not exactly the most zippy read. When we get into later volumes this becomes a serious issue, but as of this book Martin still manages to balance in-depth character work with an overarching plot without much in the way of trouble. The sheer size of A Clash of Kings may put some readers off, particularly when they realize there are five more books to follow, with each one growing fatter than the last. This will be the last time in the series, unless Martin reverses his current trend, that a volume contains both heft and the pace to offset it.
The bulk of the book takes place in the south, where the Houses Baratheon and Lannister buzz around the Iron Throne in the wake of A Game of Thrones‘ succession. Fan-favorite character Tyrion Lannister has been tasked by his formidable father with running the kingdom as the King’s Hand, the position last held by Ned Stark, the nominal hero of the previous book. Tyrion’s father can’t do the job himself, you see, because he’s off fighting a war with the so-called King in the North, Robb Stark, who is Ned Stark’s eldest son. Meanwhile, the armies of Stannis and Renly Baratheon are breathing down the neck of the ostensible king of the Seven Kingdoms, Joffrey Baratheon, a thirteen-year-old malcontent with the governing skills of a newt.
As with A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings is not for the faint of heart. You have to want to juggle all these storylines and keep their intersections firmly established in your heads. If you’re not prepared for the task, your reading is going to fall apart and the book will be no fun at all. Again, this becomes even more daunting in later volumes, so best to get your sea legs now while you still have the chance.
North and south, east and west, king and commoner… well, maybe not so much the commoners. As with most histories of our own medieval period, A Clash of Kings concerns itself largely with the ruling class. When regular folk enter the picture they are almost always being horribly abused or murdered. One gets the sense that Martin is trying to make a larger point about how war is hardest on the little people, but things get so bad as the series wears on that it almost becomes an exercise in sadism.
A couple of characters get short shrift in A Clash of Kings, which may be a disappointment if you’re invested in their stories. Ned Stark’s illegitimate son, Jon Snow, does a few things in the miserable north beyond the gigantic wall that protects the Seven Kingdoms, but his story doesn’t really kick in until the next book. Similarly we spend some time with Daenerys Targaryen, the ostensible legitimate ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, as she struggles in the far east, eventually coming to rest in the fabled city of Qarth, where numerous temptations present themselves to settle down and forget about this queen business altogether. Of all the characters of the series thus far, Daenerys is the most problematic because she doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the narrative. Consequently whenever the story skips to her point of view, everything comes to a screeching halt and we become acutely aware of how little forward motion her plot has.
If I had to boil down my review to just one sentence it would be this: if you liked A Game of Thrones, you’re going to like A Clash of Kings. While the book may not have the strong core narrative that the first novel had, it’s still plenty good and you will want to start the next volume just as soon as you’re done with this one. That’s a testament to its effectiveness, don’t you think?