Ciao, my dear strangers!
A Clash of Kings begins with a red comet soaring through the sky, a harbinger of what’s to come, or perhaps a sinister omen of everything dire about to happen to the characters we met in A Game of Thrones. Each point-of-view character interprets it in their own way, beginning with Cressen, an elderly Maester in the service of Stannis, younger brother to the late King Robert. Cressen fears that Stannis has had his mind poisoned by Melisandre of Asshai, a sorceress or priestess, if you will. She comes from Essos and is in the service of a religion foreign to Westeros, that of R’hllor, a fervent supporter of the Lord of Light. Cressen comes up with a scheme to murder her with a cup of poisoned wine, but she proves to be impervious to it and he dies instead. Stannis thinks little of his death and continues to heed Melisandre’s advice. Not that she’s much loved, though.
Davos, one of the newly-introduced POV characters, is a loyal knight to Stannis who mistrusts Melisandre as well. He used to be a smuggler, an outlaw, but was taken into Stannis’s service after having saved the entire castle from starvation during a siege many years prior. Nevertheless, Davos is still looked down upon by many lords of higher birth and hopes that his sons will secure more favourable opinions in the court. Davos is easily one of my favourite new characters. His demeanour, down-to-Earth nature, common sense and unwavering loyalty make him stand out as quite a respectable individual in the fickle world of Westeros, though his devotion is somewhat puzzling, as the lord he supports is neither well-loved nor terribly righteous, it seems.
Lord Stannis Baratheon is a cold, brooding man who rules in Dragonstone, the ancestral seat of House Targaryen, as it turns out. Upon hearing news of King Joffrey’s illegitimacy, he proclaims himself King and joins the war in order to advance his own interests and secure the Iron Throne. Heavily outnumbered, he resorts to Melisandre’s sorcery and blood magic.
Another pretender to the throne is Robert and Stannis’s youngest brother – Renly. Even though he isn’t the most suitable contender, according to the laws of primogeniture, Renly is nevertheless well-loved by noblemen and common folk alike. He secures a large army by marrying Margaery, daughter of Mace Tyrell, thus uniting the two great Houses. His only hamartia, it seems, is his inability to take war seriously and his illusions of grandeur. Ok, so two hamartias.
Across the Narrow Sea, we have yet another claimant. Daenerys Targaryen, having torched her husband along with a witch who’d murdered their unborn son and having managed to hatch three dragon eggs, seems the farthest away from sitting on the Iron Throne, not only geographically. After Drogo’s death, her Khalasar disbanded, leaving her with only a handful of loyal bloodriders, her devoted Ser Jorah and a slew of elderly people, women and children. Knowing that the first army they run into will slaughter them all and steal her dragons, Daenerys decides to follow the red comet across the Red Waste, a barren, desolate desert with no end in sight. Many of her people die on the perilous journey and Daenerys herself doesn’t seem to be able to go on for much longer.
After a brief respite in a ghost town, she sends three of her bloodriders to scout what lies ahead. One of them comes back with three strangers, a wealthy merchant, a warlock and a mysterious masked woman who all hail from the city of Qarth, where they offer her and her people a safe haven. At first, Daenerys is well received, with gifts and even marriage proposals coming her way. However, she soon discovers that the rulers of the city have no desire to help her win back the Iron Throne and turns to Pyat Pree, a warlock, for help. He leads her to the House of the Undying in what is perhaps the most interesting and riveting chapter in the entire tome. It is in there that she sees many gruesome visions, which make the reader question whether all she’s seeing is real or not. Somehow, through a maze of tricks and lurking darkness, she manages to find a way to the audience chamber of the Undying, a group of ghost-like creatures who show her visions of things past, present and future. Amidst it all, she also sees a vision of her eldest brother, Rhaegar with his wife Elia and their newborn son. Rhaegar utters some very intriguing words which perplex his sister and leave her obsessing over them for the rest of the novel.
Soon after, though, Daenerys gets attacked by the Undying and only manages to escape the House and the treacherous Pyat Pree with the help of Drogon, her favoured dragon. After that, however, her luck seems to have dried up in Qarth. Instead of receiving gifts, she now gets showered with threats and realises she must leave the city as soon as possible, for the warlocks have vowed revenge against her, what with Drogon burning down their House. She starts looking for ships when she gets attacked by a manticore, sent by the warlocks, and gets rescued by two strangers – Belwas and Arstan Whitebeard, who claim they have been sent by Illyrio Mopatis, whose house Daenerys and Viserys stayed in before the events of the first novel, to escort her safely back to the Free Cities. Her luck seems to be changing at last.
There is one issue I will take with her part of the story. In a thousand pages, she only had five chapters. Her story is immensely interesting and five chapters simply don’t cover it. Though I will admit that the accompanying descriptions were superbly written. I especially enjoyed all those subtle nuances portrayed during the group’s strife in the Red Waste. You know that they are struggling, yet what made the experience even more vivid and visceral were Martin’s thorough illustrations of every single detail that took place, no matter how small or insignificant it may appear.
So, we have Joffrey sitting on the Iron Throne and Stannis, Renly and Daenerys vying for it. But, that’s not the end of Sires. There are others who don’t necessarily wish to rule over the entire realm, but seek independence. One such is Robb Stark, late Eddard Stark’s eldest trueborn son. He’s been proclaimed the King in the North and has won every battle he’s fought, even managing to capture Jaime Lannister, though all at great a personal cost. Robb stays a bit passive in this novel, opting to stay at Riverrun, the seat of his mother’s House, and instead sending envoys to secure alliances. He sends his mother – Catelyn, a woman whose grief is masterfully described in her chapters, to rally Renly to their cause. However, before anything can get resolved, Renly is murdered by a shadow thought to have been conjured by Melisandre at the behest of Stannis, in order to get rid of the younger brother he never loved and take a step closer to the throne. Catelyn is present at Renly’s hour of death, as is Brienne, a recently appointed knight of his Kingsguard. Outraged lords, having discovered Renly’s corpse, believe Brienne is to blame and try to kill her, but Catelyn and her escape. Having witnessed Catelyn’s bravery and stoicism, Brienne pledges loyalty to her. Renly’s other followers are not as loyal though and many of them choose to side with Stannis.
Another envoy Robb sends is his friend, Theon of the House Greyjoy. Theon was taken as a ward of House Stark after his father’s failed rebellion against the throne, but had never received any mistreatment and was raised as one of Lord Eddard’s own children. However, upon arrival to Pyke, the seat of his House, Theon’s loyalty drastically shifts. His ego booms and, faced with the disapproval of his father, uncles and sister, Theon decides to prove his worth and loyalty to his family by betraying Robb. His father, Balon, proclaims himself the King of the Iron Islands and sends his children to secure posts on land. Theon has his heart set out for Winterfell, which he seizes, forcing Bran to yield.
However, Bran has forged some alliances of his own, namely – the Reed siblings. With their help, Bran finally manages to recognise his powers for what they are. Bran frequently enters the mind of Summer, his direwolf, prompting the siblings to realise that he is a skinchanger. They flee Theon’s clutches, along with Hodor, Osha, Rickon and the direwolves. Theon goes frantic trying to find them, before resolving to fake their deaths, the news of which deeply shakes Catelyn and forces her to resort to desperate measures. Bran and Rickon manage to escape though and go their separate ways, Rickon with Osha to loyal banners of House Stark and Bran’s party north.
Theon’s luck, however, changes. Left to defend Winterfell with only a handful of men, he desperately keeps sending ravens to his father and sister both, knowing that neither of them would be able to reach him in time, even if they wanted to. He keeps Stark banners at bay by threatening them with the lives of his hostages, before another twist of fate comes to pass. Reek, a repugnant servant of Ramsay Snow, the bastard son of Roose Bolton, comes to Theon’s service and slays the northerners, rescuing Theon from certain death. However, Reek soon turns on Theon and burns Winterfell to its very foundations, revealing himself as the real Ramsay Snow. Theon’s fate, at this point, seems uncertain.
The most enjoyable parts of his journey were his inner struggles. At some level, Theon knows that betraying Robb and seizing Winterfell for his own is a terrible choice to make, a choice that frequently comes back to haunt him. His own family is less-than-impressed by him and greatly mistrusts him and the people he’s grown up with as a ward of the Starks now despise him for the turncloak that he is. Theon is torn between the two families, knowing full well he cannot please them both. His chapters are a joy to read, though certainly very grim and ridden with doubts and despair or, as the author himself would put it – the struggle between good and evil within the individual human heart.
Jon ventures beyond the Wall with a party of rangers to a bleak, desolate landscape. Their objective is to find his uncle, Benjen Stark, and learn what the wildlings are up to. They have a King of their own, as well – Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall. For a long while, they encounter neither man nor hearth, with villages left burnt and deserted. Finally, the Lord Commander decides to stay put and wait for the return of a ranging party, led by the experienced, world-weary Qhorin Halfhand. The veteran ranger means to take a smaller party deeper into wildling territory so as to get a hang of their plans and takes Jon with him.
They stumble upon a small group of wildlings and it is there that Jon kills his first man – a rite of passage of sorts in the unforgiving world of Westeros. He moves on to kill another, only to discover it is a woman, which stays his hand. Left alone to determine her fate, Jon can’t bring himself to kill her and releases her instead. Their small group grows smaller every day, with men of the Night’s Watch either being sent away on some errand by Qhorin or sacrificing themselves to ensure the progress of the rest. In the end, it comes down to only Qhorin and Jon. Jon learns another very important fact about himself – much like his younger brother Bran, Jon is a warg, capable of entering Ghost’s mind in his dreams. During one such episode, he witnesses thousands of wildlings, along with giants and mammoths, seemingly preparing for battle.
Jon’s greatest test comes when the Halfhand orders him to infiltrate the ranks of the wildlings and learn inside information, before returning to the Wall. He tells him to do everything they ask of him, lest he be recognised for a fraud. When wildlings come, led by the Lord of Bones, Jon recognises among them Ygritte, the woman whose life he saved. They instruct him to kill his brother and, with Ghost’s help, he does so, realising that Qhorin knew all along what they would ask of him. Under the pretence of wanting to join the free folk, Jon goes off with them into the wilderness.
Arya, meanwhile, travels with Yoren of the Night’s Watch and his group of recruits, mostly made up of hardened criminals and orphaned boys. Posing as a boy, Arya hopes to reach Winterfell soon, but her dreams disperse when their party gets attacked by some Lannister men and Yoren gets killed. Left to survive in the woods with a handful of untrained, frightened children, including Hot Pie, a delightfully anxious baker and Gendry, whom her father had identified as one of King Robert’s bastards, Arya has to rely on her wits and shaky friendships.
Soon after, though, they get captured by Lannister men and taken to Harrenhal, a castle said to be haunted, and there endure daily fear and torture. However, having saved a recruit for the Night’s Watch called Jaqen from certain death, as well as two others, Arya gets informed that a debt must be paid. Jaqen tells her that she saved three souls, thus effectively stealing them from the God of Death, and that now she has the right to name any three people for him to offer to his God. Arya names two men who have slighted her and offers Jaqen’s own name as the third. In exchange for unnaming him, Arya forces Jaqen to help her release some of her brother’s men the foes are keeping in the dungeons. Before leaving for Essos, Jaqen gives her a coin from the Free City of Braavos, which could play a larger role in the coming days.
However, Roose Bolton, father to the odious Ramsay and Lord of the Dreadfort, comes to take charge of the castle. Knowing that her only chance lies in flight, Arya finds her courage again and kills a sentinel, allowing her, Gendry and Hot Pie to escape.
I must say that I absolutely loved Arya’s chapters, especially those she spent surviving in the woods with the other children. How different and more empowering her situation is compared to her sister’s. Arya is perhaps the most resourceful of all the characters, in the league with Daenerys and Tyrion, adapting herself to her surroundings and current situations almost seamlessly, fighting her way to independence and freedom. I love the certain amount of respect she commands among her fellow survivors, her adaptability, her bravery and single-mindedness.
Another reason I found her chapters so interesting is that they perfectly illustrate what such dark times of war and turmoil mean for the common folk. In this new situation, Arya must rely completely on herself. She can no longer hide behind her powerful family name and no longer enjoys the privileges that come with it, not even remotely so. She is now one of the small people, often invisible to the eyes of the great. Their lives and fates matter little to noble lords and ladies and, to survive, they must learn to fend for themselves. A perfect example of the gap between expectations and reality is Arya’s friend, Lommy Greenhands, who simply doesn’t seem to grasp the situation at all.
Sansa has to deal with arguably less and arguably more than her sister, in certain contexts, and bears it with her own sense of dignity, maybe not quite as aggressively or effectively as Arya, but deals with her strife the only way she knows how. She endures daily torture by Joffrey, at the mercy of his knights, his mother and the Hound, the one whose demeanour scares her the most, yet the one whose honesty she comes to appreciate and value. She has no swords and no armour, relying instead on mendacity and courtesies to get her through the day. At one point, she saves Dontos, a drunken knight, from Joffrey’s death sentence and, in exchange, he promises to get her out of King’s Landing and safely back to her family. It is this promise that keeps Sansa afloat.
As Stannis’s fleet led by Ser Davos attacks the city, Sansa seeks refuge with the Queen and other ladies of court. Terrified by the fighting, she is no longer certain which she desires more – Stannis’s victory or his defeat. His fleet gets destroyed however, by united forces of Lord Tywin Lannister and House Tyrell, who abandon Renly’s cause and side with the Crown. Lord Mace Tyrell proposes Joffrey wed his daughter Margaery and the young King concurs. Sansa is elated, at least until she learns that he can still bed her and impregnate her if he so wishes. Dontos assures her that they will flee the day of the royal wedding and gives her a hairnet as a sort of an amulet.
At the behest of his father, Tyrion arrives to King’s Landing to serve as the acting Hand of the King. Uncertain whom to trust, he plays a game involving several of the members of the Small Council and identifies Grand Maester Pycelle as the Queen’s informant. He goes on to send Janos Slynt, a knight who participated in the slaughtering of Robert’s bastards, including a baby, to the Wall and replaces everyone he distrusts with his own men. During the course of the novel, we see his love for Shae, a prostitute he picked up whilst fighting the Starks, deepen. He frequently thinks back to his first wife, a prostitute he fell in love with and wed when he was much younger, wondering whether Shae truly cares for him.
Faced with the imminent threat of Stannis, Tyrion devises a plan to beat him using wildfire, a controversial substance the Mad King used to kill his enemies. Though victory is uncertain for some time, even with wildfire, the Lannisters ultimately defeat Stannis at what comes to be known as the Battle of the Blackwater. After Joffrey leaves the battle, causing soldiers to lose heart, Tyrion steps in, simultaneously shaming them and encouraging them to defend their city. However, one of the Kingsguard attacks Tyrion, presumably at Cersei’s behest, and tries to kill him, but Tyrion gets rescued by his squire – Pod. Afterward, Tyrion learns that most of his nose has been sliced off. His final chapter ends with him sitting in a dark room, removed from the Tower of the King his father now claims, in pain, his efforts downplayed, wondering if there is anyone left he could trust.
There, I think I’ve pretty much covered everything. This novel answers some of the questions raised in the previous one, though it adds a lot of its own as well. For instance, for the life of me I cannot understand why Arya didn’t join the Glovers once she’d set them free. Maybe I’ve missed something. Oh, well. There’s lots of foreshadowing and I can’t wait to get my hands on the remaining books to clear some of the questions I’ve still got in abundance.
Maybe not as strong as the first novel, but still brilliantly steered, superbly written, gruesomely raw and realistic (so. many. rapes.), yet comforting at times. No matter what’s happening, you can always look back on a novel such as this one and think – if these characters can survive and become stronger after everything that’s happened to their minds, bodies and souls, surely I can defeat the challenges of the 21st century. Even though, the more time elapses, the more our world seems to resemble that of Westeros and Essos, with all their brutality and cruelty. It’s somewhat perplexing to think that we read novels such as this one for pleasure and enjoyment, yet frown at the things we hear in the news. But, such is life.
Keep reading 🙂