Book Two of A Song of Ice and Fire
Bantam Spectra fantasy - copyright 1999
Book read in March 1999
Rating: 6/10 (Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
*SPOILER WARNING: The following plot synopsis does not give away any of the surprises of A Clash of Kings, but it does assume you already know where things stand at the end of A Game of Thrones.  If you have not read A Game of Thrones, you should bypass this plot synopsis and skip ahead to the last three paragraphs of this review (and you should go find a copy of A Game of Thrones!).
A Clash of Kings picks up soon after A Game of Thrones left off.  The threats to the Seven Kingdoms from the supernatural Others in the North and from dragons and nomadic Dothraki warriors across the sea have yet to materialize.  As for the internal struggles for control of the Seven Kingdoms, however, the battle has been joined.
Having dispatched Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark through treachery, Cersei of House Lannister and her despicable son King Joffrey (the product of Cersei's incest with her brother Jaime) rule at King's Landing.  Sansa is the only Stark still with them at King's Landing, miserable because she remains engaged to Joffrey, whom she has finally learned to despise.  As the story opens, the dwarf Tyrion arrives with instructions from Lord Tywin, the Lannister patriarch, to keep Cersei and Joffrey from continuing to do stupid things, Cersei because she's so ambitious and Joffrey because he's so . . . stupid.  Tyrion will have to negotiate the minefield of court politics.  (The sleazy cast of characters at court seems to indicate Martin's opinion of politicians in general.)
Although the Lannisters hold the throne, they have yet to consolidate their power.  Robb Stark, the self-proclaimed King in the North, holds Jaime Lannister captive at Riverrun and continues to win a series of skirmishes with Lannister forces.  However, he still has not engaged Tywin and the main Lannister host, holed up at Harrenhal in defiance of Cersei's "order" that they march south to defend King's Landing.
What is Cersei worried about?  Renly Baratheon, Robert's younger brother, has forged an alliance with the Tyrells and is gathering a huge army at Highgarden, obviously intent on seizing the capital.  Renly doesn't seem to care at all that the legitimate claim to the throne belongs to his brooding older brother Stannis.  This infuriates Stannis no end, and it is uncertain whether the brothers will be able to join forces against the Lannisters or will instead waste their resources fighting each other.  Isolated on Dragonstone, Stannis commands a much smaller host than Renly, but he has in his corner the mysterious Lady Melisandre and her sinister magical powers.  (It is Stannis, his loyal servant Davos, and Melisandre who are pictured on the cover of the Bantam hardback.)
The last contender for the throne is Daenerys Targaryen across the sea.  She has her three young dragons, but few other resources.  She determinedly leads her small band across a desolate wasteland, finally arriving at the great merchant city of Qarth.  There she has little success finding anyone interested in helping her reclaim power in the far away Seven Kingdoms.  In desperation, she turns for help to the enigmatic House of the Undying Ones.  Their bizarre encounter will hold surprises for both Dany and the Undying Ones.
Those are the key wannabe rulers of the Seven Kingdoms, but there are plenty of other subplots to keep track of as Martin bounces us back and forth between nine different viewpoint characters (ten if you count the book's prologue).  Young Arya Stark proves surprisingly resourceful as she attempts to sneak through Lannister territory back to her family.  Up north Jon Snow, Eddard Stark's (supposed) bastard son, is part of an expeditionary force of the brothers of the Night's Watch sent over the Wall to investigate the disappearance of many of their comrades over the Wall, where they expect to encounter former brother Mance Rayder's wildlings, if not the Others.
Finally, Theon Greyjoy has returned home to the Iron Islands for the first time since he was sent to live with the Starks, essentially as a hostage.  Theon's mission is to convince his father to send his substantial naval forces to further Robb's cause, but his father has nothing but disdain for the Starks.  He is considering instead an attack against Winterfell, while Robb is away and the North is commanded by Bran, young and crippled and troubled by unsettling dreams.  Theon is torn between his loyalty to Robb and his desire to prove himself to his father.
If you liked A Game of Thrones, you are likely to like this as well.  Martin's very capable writing should be more than enough to keep you going.  Still, I am extremely dismayed at how little Martin advances the story in over 700 pages.  In all those pages Robb is off-stage fighting unimportant battles, Dany's story barely moves, Jon is involved only in a minor skirmish with the wildlings, Arya manages merely to travel halfway to Riverrun, and Sansa goes nowhere at all.
Most of the action in this book centers instead on characters who were bit players in A Game of Thrones, particularly Stannis and Theon.  Theon is a surprisingly sympathetic character.  Once he shows his true colors you'll be hoping to see him get his comeuppance, but he probably would have done only good if his own family hadn't disrupted his plans.  You also have to feel for Tyrion Lannister, who emerges in this book as the main protagonist of the story.Although I wish we had penetrated further into the main story lines in this installment of Martin's series, I am still enjoying it enough and interested in the characters enough to wait to see if something will happen in the next three thousand pages.s.
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