Review of George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings

In a magnificent scene of A Clash of Kings, Tyrion Lannister speaks with the master of spies, Lord Varys. Varys refers to a riddle he posed earlier where a sellsword (read mercenary) is found before a king, a rich man, and a priest. The three men of power order the sellsword to kill the other two. Who lives and who dies? Tyrion responds that it depends on what power the sellsword respects/fears more. Varys titters as Tyrion has acknowledged the true nature of power. The power of life and death is the only “real” power, whereas the power of a crown, of gold or favor with higher powers is an illusion. Yet the men with swords choose to obey some form of power. Why? Power is an illusion that all agree to accept, consciously or not. Tyrion Lannister, the black sheep of the Lannister family and a dwarf, is capable of crafting quite a show of power.

George RR Martin’s original manuscript for A Game of Thrones continued long after the end he gave to his first book. He incorporated portions of his original manuscript of A Game of Thrones into his sequel book, A Clash of Kings. Released in 1998, this would be the second of George RR Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Unlike the first book, there is sadly no title drop. Though there is a series title drop.

After Robert Baratheon’s death and Ned Stark’s execution in A Game of Thrones, a power vacuum has been created where numerous would-be-Kings are all vying for supreme power. Dubbed the War of the Five Kings, Robb Stark, son of Ned Stark has been proclaimed King in the North and seceded his lands from the Seven Kingdoms. Balon Greyjoy attempts to seize the North while Robb is at war in the South. Joffrey Baratheon sits on the Iron Throne, while the haughty Renly Baratheon and the cold Stannis Baratheon seek to remove Joffrey from power. While all the Kings make for intriguing characters, Martin tells the story not from their perspective but from the points of view of those supporting the various kings.

Many of the kings claim to their thrones range from being the rightful heir, right of conquest and simple unabashed usurpation. Stannis Baratheon, as readers are aware is the “rightful heir” to the throne, as Joffrey is not Robert’s legitimate son. But Stannis so cold and rigid that more men flock to the cause of his younger brother Renly who greatly resembles King Robert and shares his brother’s charm. Renly Baratheon while charming abandons all pretext and accepts that he is a usurper. Renly makes a compelling case that “might-makes-right” as he has the largest army of all in the Seven Kingdoms. But it is important to note that Renly’s claim while slim comes from popular support, many lords and knights flocked to Renly’s cause. Is a rightful claim genuinely important when the majority of people want you as their leader? Martin does not make the war between the brothers clear-cut as Renly is a braggart and arrogant. In contrast though Stannis is cold, he also notes that he has never been respected for great evidence of loyalty and impressive accomplishments. Also, it is revealed that it was Stannis who first doubted the paternity of Joffrey and brought this to Jon Arryn’s attention. It was Stannis who instigated the events in the opening of the previous book.

Martin’s characters are as multi-dimensional and fascinating as his intricate fantasy world. One particularly interesting character is Theon Greyjoy. Though many readers understandably hate Theon, as do the cast, his own POV chapters shed a light on the struggle of loyalty. Theon is a character who was raised as a hostage-ward by the Stark family. Though never abused, he was never fully trusted nor loved by the Starks as the Greyjoy family rebelled against King Robert. Yet the magnificent irony is that the Greyjoys share equal distrust in Theon because he had spent so much time in the North they believe him to be a Northerner. Pressured by his family to prove his loyalty leads Theon down a path that he can never take back. In almost any other book, Theon Greyjoy would be a clear-cut villain, but Martin arguably succeeds in creating a nuanced villain, with a portrait of treachery that is less sinister and more peer-pressure.

The closest to character to being the main character of A Clash of Kings is Tyrion Lannister, who finds himself the Hand of the King. Quickly bypassing the will of the wicked Queen Cersei, Tyrion is left to truly govern King’s Landing. Unlike Ned Stark, Tyrion is much more willing to play the game of thrones as he dabbles in deception, blackmail, banishments, and occasional executions. These scenes are quite enjoyable as Tyrion shows a greater talent at politics as he weeds out his enemies. Tyrion must struggle with making incredibly unpopular decisions made for a supposed greater good. As King’s Landing struggles with famine, people clamor for Stannis or Renly to save them, ignoring that Renly is causing the famine by holding back the food supply for the city. Tyrion also struggles to manage the tempers of the violent and wicked King Joffrey. Though Tyrion tries to protect the whole of King’s Landing from the impending assault, he wonders aloud why he should want to save a city that hates him and fight for a King that is blatantly awful? While Tyrion is much more pragmatic and willing to dirty his hands, he does have a moral code and refuses to indulge in the Kingmaking suggested by his amoral companion Bronn.

A Game of Thrones concluded with magic truly entering Martin’s world with Dany’s dragon eggs hatching. With the opening prologue readers are introduced to the character of Melissandre a priestess for a fire god that has genuine magic powers. It is surprising and somewhat enraging to see how the magic becomes a genuine aspect to what was seemingly a magic free world, but that is Martin’s intent. Akin to Khal Drogo dying of an infected wound, characters die unceremoniously because of Melissandre’s magic. It is certainly a bit of a leap, but Martin’s narratives continue to be fascinating as he gently guides readers into a world of magic. As Melisandre introduces magical abilities we also see Bran and other Stark children develop the ability to warg, where they transfer their consciousness into their direwolves. We still have characters voice doubts or disbelief to the growing magic. But now this skepticism is characters actively ignoring the real threats to Westeros as they focus on their little wars for power.

While some characters are more active in politicking, others are simply attempting to survive. In particular the stories of Arya and Sansa Stark parallel one another. For Arya she is attempting to survive immediate and physical threats from numerous captors all the while trying to keep her identity hidden. For Sansa, she has lost some of her innocence and naiveté as she recognizes the true nature of King Joffrey. Whereas Arya faces literal torturers, Sansa must delicately attempt to say the correct words while she is held as a hostage. There is a definite bravery in both the Stark girls throughout the book. Sansa even maintains a certain idealism that is routinely ridiculed by the jaded Sandor Clegane who becomes a curious protector of Sansa. While the book is a captivating read it is not without its faults. Some of the chapters involving Daenerys are dull as she spends time begging for aide in her cause for war, though this is made up for by her exploration of the House of the Undying. Also, Jon Snow’s story of the Night’s Watch exploring beyond the Wall is slow to pick-up before becoming exciting. But these are small quibbles as this is a thrilling read and is a magnificent follow-up to A Game of Thrones. A Clash of Kings is a captivating exploration of war, the nature of power and naturally betrayal.

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James Kelly has been obsessed with comics and superheroes since he saw Batman: The Animated Series on TV. His father also got him hooked on Star Wars when he took him to the 1997 re-release of the magnificent Saga. Kelly graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in English Literature, and a concentration in Fiction Writing. He hopes to be able to one day produce his many comics and other writing projects to mass audiences.

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