Renly Baratheon explains, “I have it in me to be a great king, strong yet generous, clever, just, diligent, loyal to my friends and terrible to my enemies, yet capable of forgiveness, patient…” Renly’s only problem, besides arrogance, is that he has no legal claim to the Iron Throne of Westeros — excepting the strength of his army. Luckily for Renly, Westeros’ leaders no longer seem to require any legitimacy beyond the power of their armies and the ruthlessness of their bannermen. Perhaps the laws of the realm were always a whitewash, but now even Sansa Stark has begun to realize that the laws of the state are twisted to strengthen the powerful rather than enforced to protect the powerless.
In a realm like this, it should come as no surprise that Renly is only one of many men to have raised an army, forged a crown, and claimed a throne. Renly’s older brother Stannis has declared himself king of the realm, Balon Greyjoy has declared himself the iron king, Robb Stark claims to be king of the north, and Mance Rayder styles himself the king beyond the wall. Meanwhile, Joffrey Baratheon actually sits on the Iron Throne of Westeros, but he is only the heir of the usurper, Robert Baratheon, who stole the crown from the Targaryens. The last of the Targaryens, Daenerys, may be in exile, but she is doing her best to amass an army in preparation for her return. If ever a book was aptly named, it must surely be George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings.
Sadly, no one will escape the horrors and atrocities of this civil war. Lords and knights are supposed to provide the weak with protection, but the “common people” suffer rape, pain and death more than any other class in this war. So although most people in Westeros think monsters are just “grumkins” and children’s tales, we know the truth: there are plenty of monsters in the Seven Kingdoms, all of them fighting for just a little more power.
Arya Stark, the youngest daughter of Lord Eddard Stark, is especially surrounded by monsters. Without her father to protect her, Arya becomes a commoner and flees King’s Landing to return north to her family. Each night before bed, she recites a list of enemies she hopes to slay. Arya’s list of monsters includes the Mountain That Rides, a knight who preys upon the weak in service of the Lannisters; Rorge, a murderer and rapist who has been freed from the Red Keep’s dungeons; and even Joffrey Baratheon, a murderer of children but king of the realm nevertheless. Arya’s plucky story is by far the most charming part of A Clash of Kings. She is brave and clever, but young and alone. Fortunately, Arya is a fast learner and Martin consistently offers Arya charismatic teachers and protectors, including swordsmen, grizzled members of the Night’s Watch, and even a warlock.
Actually, every character in the A Song of Ice and Fire series is charismatic. They might not all be leaders, but they each command the reader’s sympathy and devotion. Martin has an uncanny ability to create larger than life heroes (and villains) with little more than a nickname or a sigil. Roose Bolton, Lord of the Dreadfort, uses leeches to keep his blood fresh and his house is known for its unusual sigil: a flayed man. Of the minor characters, my favorite may well be Jaqen H’ghar, a foreigner and prisoner who explains that “a man does not choose his companions in the black cells… these two, they have no courtesy. A man must ask forgiveness.” Jaqen H’ghar is more than he seems and a good reminder that any character in this series, hero or villain, can change the course of events in Westeros.
This is especially true for Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf known as the “Imp” and who serves as the Hand of the King. The armorer Salloreon recommends that Tyrion wear the helm of a demon, but Tyrion is determined to offer the people of Westeros justice while also defeating all of his nephew Joffrey’s rival kings, even the ones whose cause we sympathize with. Is Tyrion a hero, a villain, or a monster? Many readers will find themselves convinced that Tyrion is all of the above, which may well be Martin’s greatest achievement.
A Clash of Kings is a fast-paced and intriguing fantasy, one that delivers on every promise made in A Game of Thrones. It is also a violent, brutal novel, and few readers will want to live in Westeros. However, nearly every reader will return to it and to Martin’s third novel, A Storm of Swords.