Initial Thoughts on A Clash of Kings (by Bethany)

a-clash-of-kings cover image

Pages read: 210 out of 969

My reviews of A Game of Thrones are here, here, here, and here.

I couldn’t help myself: I started A Clash of Kings. I’m enjoying it, but I’m finding the experience of reading the first two hundred pages similar to the experience of reading the first two hundred pages of A Game of Thrones, which is to say that almost everything that is going on feels like exposition, and I have trouble figuring out where the novel is going. I don’t see this as a shortcoming, really – I know that when the plot does get going, the minor events of the first two hundred pages will turn out to be important – but it does make for a bit of a disorienting reading experience when so many of the books I tend to read follow the usual rule that the central conflict should be clearly established in the first chapter – and often in the first sentence.

This novel concerns most of the same central characters as A Game of Thrones, but their configurations have all been shifted around. Joffrey is the new king on the Iron Throne, and his mother Cersei is still trying to reign him in (even though she is a little on the evil side herself). Tyrion Lannister has been appointed Hand of the King, and his first action in this new role was to fire – and in some cases, exile – all the members of the City Watch who had a role in the killing of Jon Arryn and/or Eddard Stark. Tyrion remains one of the most interesting characters in this series, although we really haven’t seen him in action very much yet.

Some of the most interesting exposition in the novel is happening at the court of one of the many newly-crowned kings, Stannis Baratheon. Stannis is Robert Baratheon’s younger brother, and in his eyes he is the true heir to the Iron Throne. In the previous novel, Stannis learned from Eddard Stark that all of Robert Baratheon’s three children are actually the sons of Jaime Lannister, who has been having sex with his sister, Queen Cersei, for years and years. For this reason, both Eddard Stark (when he was alive) and Stannis Baratheon believe that Joffrey cannot legally inherit the throne and that, therefore, the kingship should pass to Stannis. The problem, though, is that no one really likes Stannis very much. As the middle son in the Baratheon family, he lacked the charisma of Robert or the flamboyance of their younger brother Renly. Stannis is a good soldier, but he doesn’t inspire adoration the way kings are supposed to.

To me, the most interesting thing going on at Stannis’ court involves a woman named Melisandre, who is always decked out in the color red. She is the priestess of “R’hllor,” which seems to be the god of a new religion. In A Game of Thrones, some basic facts are stated about the religious culture of Westeros, but the spiritual lives of the characters are not developed much. Before the arrival of Melisandre, all we really knew about the religions of this fictional world was that there are “old gods” and “new gods.” The “old gods” are worshipped in forests called “weirwoods,” and the trees in these weirwoods have giant faces on them. There is a “creation myth” in A Game of Thrones that tells the story of how the faces were carved in the trees by the “first men.” The old gods seem to be worshipped more in the north than in the south, and the Stark family in particular is known for its commitment to the old gods. In A Game of Thrones, Jon Snow takes his vows as a member of the Night’s Watch in front of a tree in aweirwood. The “new gods” are described in less detail, but they are associated with the south and are generally worshipped indoors – in “septs,” which seem to be temples or churches. So far it seems as if there is little tension between the followers of the old gods and the followers of the new gods. While occasionally a practitioner of one religion says something mildly scornful of the other, overall each religion seems to accept the legitimacy of the other, and individuals are welcome to worship however and wherever they choose (this is one of the elements that makes this series a fantasy, I suppose).

With the arrival of Melisandre at Stannis’ court, there seems to be a new religion taking root. The sense I get is that Melisandre’s religion is monotheistic rather than polytheistic, and – in the novels just as in history – the polytheistic religions that tolerate one another perfectly well feel deeply threatened by the arrival of a religion that accommodates only one god. It makes sense: if you already believe in many gods, and someone else comes along and believes in other gods, it’s easy enough to live and let live, but when a third person or group comes along and announces that there is only one god and that all other gods are false, the stage is set for conflict. In defense of his decision to give Melisandre an honored place at his court, Stannis tells Davos (a newly-minted knight who is one of his key followers; more on Davos in a moment) that “there are four kings in the realm, and three of them have more men and more gold than I do. I have ships, and I have her. The red woman. Half the knights are afraid even to say her name, did you know? If she can do nothing else, a sorceress who can inspire such dread in grown men is not to be despised. A frightened man is a beaten man. And perhaps she can do more. And I mean to find out” (162).

So in other words, Stannis is cynical and driven by his inferiority complex and his resentment of the fact that everyone loves his brothers more than they love him. He’s not a believer himself but recognizes the fact that religion is a tool (and weapon) that men can wield to manipulate believers. It occurs to me that – even though the setting of these novels resembles medieval England, Stannis himself is more like Constantine, opening up the realm to a monotheistic religion for reasons that may involve true faith but most certainly involve politics and the will to power.

A Game of Thrones is narrated in the third person by eight alternating points of view – those of Eddard, Catelyn, Bran, Sansa, and Arya Stark, plus Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen. In A Clash of Kings, Eddard no longer helps tell the story because he is dead. The other seven point-of-view characters are still around – although we have heard very little of Sansa at this point, and even less about Bran – but we also have two new point-of-view characters. One of these new perspectives is that of Davos, a smuggler who has been recently knighted by Stannis in recognition of the fact that he smuggled food to the people of Storm’s End when it was under siege during the war. Davos is called the Onion Knight because onions are one of the foods he smuggled, but of course this moniker also suggests, as onions always do in literature, that there are layers to Davos’ character that we can’t quite detect yet. Davos has seven sons, and Stannis has also rewarded some of them with positions at his court. We don’t know a whole lot yet about how Davos will factor into the plot, but clearly he’s a vulnerable character because of how dependent he and his family are upon Stannis, who has given them their positions and status and can easily take them away. At the same time, Davos is a smuggler, known for his cunning and stealth and resolve.

The other new point-of-view character in this novel is Theon Greyjoy. Theon plays a small role in A Game of Thrones: he is the son of Balon Greyjoy, who once rebelled against Robert Baratheon from his intimidating ocean fortress called Pyke. Eddard Stark led the battle in which Pyke was retaken for Robert, and Eddard took Theon – ten years old at the time – back to Winterfell after the battle to serve as both “ward” (a youth raised and trained in a family not his own because of a political arrangement on the part of his parents) and hostage (in the sense that Balon knows that Eddard can kill his son if Balon rebels again). In A Game of Thrones, Theon is portrayed as a near-equal within the Stark family, friends with Robb Stark and Jon Snow, who are close to him in age, and as a loved and well-cared-for foster son of Eddard Stark. Now that we’re reading the story from Theon’s point of view, though, it becomes clear that he never stopped thinking of himself as a hostage and a pawn and a second-class citizen at Winterfell and that he never stopped resenting Eddard Stark for taking him away from his home. In this novel, Robb decides to send Theon back home to Pyke with a message for his father. The message simply states that Robb will give Balon his own kingship over the Iron Sea if Balon helps Robb defeat the Lannisters. Catelyn Stark strongly objects to this plan (this is Catelyn’s primary role in this novel so far: strongly objecting to things that Robb does) because she believes that Balon can’t be trusted and that the only way the Starks can ensure his good behavior is to keep Theon with them. Robb dismisses this idea and sends Theon to Pyke anyway, and Balon’s response (suspicion that Theon has become loyal to the Starks, rage at the idea that a teenaged king like Robb would dare to offer to “give” him a throne in exchange for doing Robb’s dirty work in fighting the Lannisers) indicates that Robb is likely a bit short-sighted.

So far in this novel, Arya’s plot consists of traveling north to the wall with a man named Yoren, who is a “recruiter” for the Night’s Watch. Yoren recognized Arya shortly after her father’s execution and cut off her hair, telling her that her only chance to escape being taken hostage by the Lannisters is to pretend to be a boy and travel north with him. He promises that he will drop her off at Winterfell on the way to the Wall. The journey is arduous, of course, and so far Arya’s story mostly involves getting up in the middle of the night and walking deep into the woods to pee (so no one will figure out that she’s a girl) and trying not to get into too many fights with the other Night’s Watch recruits, who are mostly criminals who Yoren took from dungeons in King’s Landing. Arya’s forays into the woods do contribute to the sense of creepiness that surrounds the northern parts of Westeros now that winter is officially coming – and I have to say that while I enjoy the characters in these novels very much, the main reason I keep reading is that I really, really, really want to find out what happens when winter comes. George R.R. Martin does a fantastic job of sustaining suspense in this regard.

Jon Snow is another character who is deeply invested in the change of seasons. Along with several hundred other men of the Night’s Watch, Jon has just departed on his first trip north of the Wall. The purpose of this mission is to find out what happened to Jon’s uncle Benjen Stark, who went on a mission north of the Wall in A Game of Thrones and disappeared. The main thing the Rangers are discovering on their journey so far is that the “wildlings” – the scary people who live north of the wall – have for some reason deserted their villages. One by one they find houses and other buildings abandoned, and they are deeply unnerved by this. They also find a human skull at the base of a tree in a weirwood that has a really creepy face.

Daenerys has only been given one chapter of her own yet, and since she doesn’t pop up in the chapters of the other characters, we know very little about her so far – only that the dragons she hatched (and breast-fed) at the end of A Game of Thrones) are growing stronger and that her small, ragtag army of Dothraki warriors, Dothraki slaves, and Ser Jorah Mormont – apparently the last man of Westeros who is still loyal to the Targaryens – is gaining a little bit of confidence and strength. Daenerys is a fascinating character. On the one hand, she has spent most of her life being bullied and beaten by her psychopathic brother Viserys and was married off at thirteen to this series’ embodiment of Genghis Khan; in any modern context she would be on her way to Child Protective Services, stat. But she is also undergoing a transformation that seems to be mostly intuitive. Though she sometimes asks Ser Jorah for advice, most of the time she is acting on her own intuition. There is something inside her that tells her to breastfeed dragons, to step onto burning funeral pyres, and to reimagine her family’s royal heritage in Dothraki terms. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an author portray the process of a person learning to listen to his or her intuition quite so well – and for this reason Daenerys is one of the most fascinating literary characters I’ve encountered in a long time.

Oh, and there’s a comet. A red one. Everyone sees it, and characters remark on it here and there. They all seem to think it’s an omen of something, and I have no doubt that it probably is (because DUH – it’s a comet. In a fantasy novel). When I find out what it’s an omen for, you’ll be the first to know.

More soon!

This entry was posted in Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, George R.R. Martin, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Initial Thoughts on A Clash of Kings (by Bethany)

  1. Maria Caswell says:

    So handy to side step reading these or watching the whole series by reading your posts! I keep up on contemporary culture without work, and with a much better understanding of things than if I read myself. 😉

    • bedstrom says:

      We’re happy to be of service! It’s true that these books take up a fair bit of time, not only because they’re long but because there are SO many characters that I’m constantly flipping back or checking the family charts in the back of the book just to make sure I know what’s going on.

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