“A Clash of Kings,” by George R.R. Martin

15 Apr

“A Game of Thrones,” by George R.R. Martin (708p)

A Clash of Kings is the second novel in American author George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Published in 1998 it continues the story from the previous novel A Game of Thrones, telling three roughly connected stories from the viewpoint of several main characters. The first story is told by Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled princess of the overthrown king living in the mysterious eastern land as the queen of a nomadic tribe. The second story is told by Jon Snow, bastard son of the late Eddard Stark, and the wall that protects the lands of Westeros from the evil that lurks beyond. The third story is the main story told by the rest of the character viewpoints, and concerns the civil war between the House of Stark and Lannister following the death of the king’s right-hand man, Eddard Stark, and the King himself. This story is told by Catelyn Stark, widow of Eddard; Sansa, Arya and Bran, their children; Tyrion Lannister, brother of the ambitious queen Cersei, son of the most powerful lord in the realm and the new Hand of the King; Theon Greyjoy, former ward of Eddard Stark and enemy of the Starks; and Ser Davos Seaworth, a smuggler turned knight in the service of King Stannis, the old king’s brother.

In the east, Daenerys Targaryen strikes east across the forbidding red waste, accompanied by the knight Jorah Mormont, her few loyal followers, and three newborn dragons. Some of Daenerys’ followers scout the surrounding region and find a safe route to the great trading city of Qarth. Daenerys is the wonder of the city for her dragons, but her attempts to secure help for claiming the throne of Westeros do not succeed. She seeks an alliance with the powerful warlocks of Qarth, but in their House of the Undying she is shown many confusing images and her life is threatened. Daenerys’ dragon Drogon burns down the House of the Undying, sparking the enmity of the Qartheen and convincing Daenerys to leave the city. An assassination attempt is carried out on Daenerys in the city’s harbor, but it is thwarted by the arrival of two strangers, a fat warrior named Strong Belwas and his squire, an aged warrior named Arstan Whitebeard. They are agents of Daenerys’s ally Illyrio Mopatis, come to take Daenerys back to Pentos, and Daenerys agrees to accompany them.

On the wall in the far north, The Night’s Watch advances northwards from the Wall into the region known as the Haunted Forest. They stop at Craster’s Keep, where a wildling man named Craster serves as an informant for the Watch. The Watch continues north to a strong defensive position known as the Fist of the First Men, which used to be a fortress many thousands of years ago. Concerned about the whereabouts and activities of the King-beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder, Lord Commander Jeor Mormont sends Jon Snow and Qhorin Halfhand on an advanced reconnaissance of the Skirling Pass. In the pass, Snow and Halfhand discover that there is much wildling activity in the mountains and they find themselves being hunted by several wildling warriors. Facing certain defeat, Halfhand secretly commands Snow to become an oathbreaker in order to infiltrate the wildlings and learn their important secrets. As proof he has truly turned, the wildlings force Jon to fight Halfhand, whom he kills, with the aid of his direwolf Ghost, as Halfhand knew he would have to. He learns that Rayder is already advancing on the Wall with tens of thousands of fighters.

The civil war among the noble families of Stark, Lannister, and Baratheon becomes more complex when the Greyjoys enter the fight. Robb Stark’s attempts to secure an alliance with the Greyjoys are rebuffed and, instead, the Greyjoys launch a massive assault along the west coast of the North. At Winterfell, the Stark stronghold, Robb’s young brother Bran is in command; he finds two new friends when Jojen and Meera Reed arrive from Greywater Watch. They take an interest in his strange dreams. As the true blood heir to his brother’s throne, Stannis Baratheon declares himself King of Westeros, having been encouraged by Melisandre, a red priestess. Enraged that his younger brother Renly has also claimed the throne, Stannis chooses to besiege Renly’s castle, Storm’s End, to force Renly to march east and defend it. Catelyn Stark joins a parley between Renly and Stannis to discuss a possible Stark-Baratheon alliance against their mutual foe, the Lannisters. The parley ends in acrimony and Renly resolves to use his immeasurably vaster army to destroy Stannis in battle the next day. However, that very evening a mysterious shadow that seems to have the shape of Stannis kills him in his tent before the battle begins. Catelyn flees along with the only other witness to this murder, the warrior-maid Brienne of Tarth. Most of Renly’s supporters shift their loyalty to Stannis, but the Tyrells do not, and Storm’s End itself only falls when Melisandre magically gives birth to another shadow of Stannis to kill the castle’s defiant castellan.

At the bidding of his father to serve in his place, Tyrion Lannister arrives at King’s Landing, to act as Hand of the King, the closest adviser to the monarch. Whilst intriguing against his sister Cersei, widow of the late king and mother of King Joffrey, Tyrion improves the defenses of the city. Learning of Renly’s death, Tyrion sends the cunning schemer Littlefinger to negotiate with the Tyrells. Lord Mace Tyrell agrees to wed his daughter Margaery to Joffrey. Tyrion also arranges the marriage of Joffrey’s sister Princess Myrcella to Trystane Martell in exchange for the support of that family.

Theon Greyjoy, seeking glory and wishing to earn the respect of his father Balon Greyjoy who has come to mistrust him after 10 years as a ward of the Starks, makes a daring gamble and captures the Starks’ very own Winterfell (with a minimal garrison as the rest are off to rebuff a diversionary attack on Tohrren Square) using just 20 men, taking Bran and Rickon Stark captive. Theon’s sister Asha suggests he raze the castle and flee before Stark supporters reclaim it, but Theon refuses. Bran and Rickon disappear in the night, and Theon after a desperate but fruitless search, decided to set up a ruse by finding two similarly aged boys and having them murdered, beheaded and tarred and claiming to all that he had the two princes executed for treachery. An army of hundreds of Stark supporters eventually arrives to retake the castle. Just before the force prepares to retake the castle, a party of what the Stark supporters believe are allies appears, but these soldiers of House Bolton quickly turn on their fellows and drive them off with heavy losses. Theon eagerly opens the gates to his ‘allies’, only to have them turn on him and his small Greyjoy force. Winterfell is razed to the ground and the Boltons return to their seat at the Dreadfort. Bran and Rickon emerge from hiding. It is agreed that at this point the most prudent course is to separate the two brothers, who are next in line of succession after their brother Robb. A castle servant, Osha, agrees to take Rickon to safety, while Bran, accompanied by Meera and Jojen decide to travel north to the Wall.

Robb Stark leads his army into the Westerlands and wins several victories against the Lannisters in their home territory. Tywin Lannister reluctantly advances against him, but his attempt to reach Robb is rebuffed, and upon receiving news that King’s Landing is threatened, his army rapidly marches south to join their new allies, the Tyrells.

Arya Stark, posing as a boy named Arry to protect her identity as a wanted daughter of Stark, travels north along with new recruits for the Night’s Watch. They are attacked and taken prisoner by Lannister soldiers, who take their captives to Lannister-held Harrenhal, where Arya becomes a servant. Her ruse of being a boy lost, Arya is still believed to be a mere peasant girl. Jaqen H’ghar, who had been a captive member of the Night Watch party, repays Arya, who had previously saved his life, by pledging to kill three men at her request. After naming and receiving the murder of her first two men, Arya cunningly requests the third name as Jaqen H’ghar himself. In exchange for releasing him from this promise to eliminate himself, Arya enlists him in a bold plot to release a recently captured contingent of Stark supporters. The prisoners are freed, and in the ensuing bedlam, they quickly arm and take over Harrenhal. Before leaving, Jaqen H’ghar gives Arya a strange coin and a mysterious phrase Valar Morghulis, which she should use if she ever wishes to seek him out. The lord of House Bolton, Roose Bolton soon arrives to accept Harrenhal for the host loyal to House Stark. Arya, who despite herself and her ruse of being a mere servant girl, is whispered of as being the one who was instrumental in helping wrest Harrenhal from the Lannisters. Lord Bolton takes Arya as his page, but she soon escapes with some of the other Night’s Watch recruits that she had befriended.

Stannis Baratheon’s army reaches King’s Landing and a combined assault is launched by both land and sea. Under Tyrion’s command, this force is thrown back by cunning use of “wildfire”, a napalm-like concoction, to set fire to the river and raising a chain across it to prevent Stannis’ fleet from retreating, essentially trapping them in the boiling bay. Tyrion is seriously injured during the battle as a result of a treacherous attack by Mandon Moore, one of Joffrey’s bodyguards. Stannis barely manages to escape with only a few thousand soldiers and a few ships after Tywin Lannister and the Tyrells catch them on the flank. The story continues in A Storm of Swords.

As I said in the previous review in this series, it is truly epic. The scope, size and depth of this novel and series are difficult to summarise. There are so many characters and so many little things that happen it would be impossible for me to put it all in one review. It’s why I gave up on recounting it myself and just copied it from Wikipedia – forgive me. It is all one story, though, and A Clash of Kings continues on where the previous novel left off. Martin’s style of writing does not do that annoying thing where more questions are asked than ever answered – like on Lost, for instance – and the loose ends from the first novel are answered in its sequel. For example, we learn why Jon Aryn was murdered and how, and we learn what makes the lands beyond the wall so dangerous and evil, and we learn the fates of others. It is interesting to see how it plays out and moves forward, and I found A Clash of Kings engrossing in this respect.

It helps that I like this sort of thing. But while the novel is epic in scope with so much to take in, it is very readable and not difficult to grasp. If you’re paying attention you won’t miss anything which is always a good thing. I heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in fantasy novels, novels of war and political intrigue, or to anyone who just wants to check out a great series and have a good read. But do read A Game of Thrones first – you have to.

9/10.

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