This review contains spoilers for A Game of Thrones, Book 1 in A Song of Ice and Fire.
As the second book in A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings may need the briefest of introductions since, unlike its predecessor, it has not (yet) been made into a ridiculously popular television show. Like A Game of Thrones, though, A Clash of Kings has been written about and discussed for years. That won’t stop me from weighing in with my own opinion, however.
Warning: In order for this summary to make any sense there will be spoilers from A Game of Thrones. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.
Suffice it to say that kings certainly do clash. King Stannis Baratheon, Robert’s oldest surviving brother, has gathered his power at Dragonstone and sets out to reclaim the Iron Throne from King Joffrey, whom he sees as nothing but an abomination born of incest. Renly Baratheon, the younger of the brothers, has also declared himself King, supported by House Tyrell, and marshals his forces at Storm’s End, the impenetrable fortress Robert gave him. Stannis demands that Renly pay homage to him as the elder brother, and their conflict must be resolved before either can march on Joffrey. Meanwhile, Robb Stark has been crowned King in the North and succeeded in protecting his lands from the carnage south of Riverrun. His only mistake is in sending Theon Greyjoy home to rally the Iron Islands to the cause of the North. Theon’s interest is in reasserting himself as his father’s heir, particularly as Balon Greyjoy has declared himself King of the Iron Islands and sets out to conquer the undefended far North, including the Stark seat of Winterfell. More kings, anyone?
A slow start
Martin is brilliant at switching viewpoints and immediately immersing the reader in the mind of each new protagonist; however, A Clash of Kings requires the introduction of some new major characters that take some getting used to. There is also a significant amount of geographical positioning of characters that needs to take place before the action really heats up. When it does, Martin proves to be an excellent writer of battle in all its grisly horror, surpassing his own portrayal of war in A Game of Thrones, particularly when he is showing it through the eyes and shrewdly poetic mind of Tyrion Lannister.
This is fantasy
Amid the backdrop of human conflicts, magic is slowly returning to the world (presumably with some connection to the birth of Daenerys’s dragons). It is still rare, and most of its iterations are presented negatively. Melisandre, the red priestess who supports Stannis Baratheon, is an object of fear and loathing for Davos Seaworth, the major viewpoint character through whom we follow Stannis. Daeny’s visit to the Warlocks of Qarth provides her with cryptic knowledge at an almost terrible cost. Jaqen H’Ghar’s mysterious power is used to do murder, even if it is at the behest of Arya Stark. The people of Martin’s world fear magic and hold those who use it in great suspicion. Daeny’s dragons seem to be the only supernatural creatures that generate any positivity.
The master of shades of grey
Martin makes masterful use of this sentiment to maintain incredible complexity in the motivations and personalities of his characters. The reader should probably favor Stannis, yet his association with the creepy red priestess creates uncertainty about his claim. We want to see Tyrion succeed in his efforts, but that means defending the crown for the universally hated Joffrey. It is clear that Stannis is the legitimate heir to Robert’s throne, but we never want him to attain it. Martin brings this conflict to an incredible climax in which the reader won’t even know what they want to see happen, let alone what actually transpires.
A sense of dread
Perhaps because of this uncertainty there is an oppressive weight hanging over A Clash of Kings. Maybe that is an unfair description, and I should instead say that the story is atmospheric and appropriately tense. If the possible outcome of this clash of kings is a choice of one evil over another, there can be no happy ending, particularly as soldiers and resources needed to face the true threats growing outside the Seven Kingdoms are wasted.
Why should you read this book?
It’s the sequel to A Game of Thrones which you read and loved. The obvious point to make is that if A Game of Thrones wasn’t to your taste, there isn’t a great twist or stylistic change that will make you think better of A Clash of Kings. Yet in spite of my gripes about pacing and the suffering meted out to Martin’s characters, fantasy doesn’t get any better than this.