A year ago, I wrote a short post on just how I came to fall in love with A Song of Ice and Fire. I had had enough of the relentless optimism of other fantasy series and 18 year old me craved something darker and edgier. The simple fact that people died and suffered graphically in this series made it feel more real to me, all those year ago. Having finished re-reading A Clash of Kings almost half a decade after I first did, is an interesting experience. The violence and sheer brutality of the series that once drew me in like a fly to a rotting carcase now horrifies me. I’m still very much interested in the series but not for the same reasons I once was. Martin’s famed deconstruction of the fantasy genre isn’t the major factor drawing me to the series any longer; now it is my emotional investment in the characters. As a book, I think A Clash of Kings is one of the more eventful in the series; certainly, I feel it outstrips A Feast For Crows, A Dance With Dragons and even A Game of Thrones in that regard. However, as I recall noting in the book’s prologue discussion, I don’t want to make the mistake of confusing ‘things happening’ with quality.
A Clash of Kings is a book where certain characters really set themselves apart and become the fan-favourites we know them to be. I would argue that this book is the kindest to Tyrion; even with how things end for him, no other book puts him in his element and lets him run free quite as much. Tyrion was already an extremely entertaining character in A Game of Thrones but by the end of Clash he established himself as more than just ‘interesting’ – he was a complex, deeply flawed character. Re-reading his chapters very frequently threw up moments of frustration where the blessing of hindsight turned a little sour; a lot of Tyrion’s most triumphant moments, on hindsight, turned out to be moments that would eventually lead to his downfall and knowing that certainly took a good part of the vicarious pleasure we experienced, out of it. Yet, the fact that the Tyrion behaves exactly as we would want to in his situation is a big part of what makes him popular and the fact that just doing what we would want to do, as opposed to what we know we ought to do, gets him into so much trouble, is what contributes so greatly to the depth of Martin’s world. With that said, however, Tyrion’s interactions with Shae will make any Tyrion fan want to tear their hair out.
The other character that really blossomed in Clash was Sansa Stark. Sansa gets a great deal of stick for her inadvertent role in her family’s downfall in A Game of Thrones and to be fair, not all of it is undeserved, but only the most heartless fan will withhold sympathy at her plight in Clash. Emotionally and physically abused throughout, we begin to see the character’s strength emerge when it is most needed. There is an innate goodness and compassion in Sansa Stark that keeps her sympathetic even when she is out of her league politically or she does things we know to be mistakes. There is also something deeply refreshing about seeing a character keep that compassion and silent optimism even when they have progressively less reason to do so. Sansa’s character arc is far from done at this part and I’m aware that in the future she loses some of the naiveté that gives birth to her ‘goodness’ but for now, I still find it a nice change of pace from the otherwise rampant cynicism of the characters.
Clash also introduced Theon Greyjoy as a POV character and whatever you say about watching Tyrion and Sansa make their mistakes, you will have to multiple that ten times over for Theon. One of the more remarkable things about re-reading Theon’s chapters is that the guy had so many chance to save himself and get out but at each step, his myriad of psychological issues kept him from saving his own skin and abandoning his ever-sinking ship. I find Theon’s character to be one of Martin’s most compelling and breaking down the whole host of conflicting, motivating factors is one of the best parts of reading his chapters. Yet, we will not be seeing Theon again till A Dance With Dragons and at that point, his survival will be surprising at first and then increasingly unfortunate.
Of the rest of the characters, I guess special mention ought to go to Jon and Daenerys. I’ve never been huge fans of either – I find Jon a little too bland and Dany rather self-righteous and annoying – but while Jon’s arc was the more meaningful of the two, I enjoyed Dany’s more. In Clash, we saw Dany tested yet again; she begins the book in absolute shambles but ends it ascendant. She grows into a leader but it is only in A Storm of Swords and A Dance of Dragons that we will really see what kind of leader she becomes. Meanwhile, Jon’s transformative journey doesn’t really begin in this book but his arc does introduce us to the icy wilderness north of the Wall and even though it is easy to forget, that will ultimately be where the series’ final showdown will occur. I seem to recall that A Storm of Swords is a book dominated by the Big Three (Jon, Tyrion and Dany) and I am very much looking forward to Jon’s arc in it.
Among the disappointments, so to speak, are the other remaining Starks; Catelyn, Bran and Arya. Each had their share of eventful chapter but there were punctuated by long stretches of nothing. For Catelyn, while she was witness to Renly’s assassination, she also had long stretches of rather depressing mourning. None of this mourning was unexpected or inexplicable but nevertheless, going through that much grief and sadness doesn’t really make for easy, fun reading. Likewise, Arya saw a Faceless Man function up close but large swathes of her chapters were literally made up of the worst kind of suffering – between Gregor Clegane and the Bloody Mummers, there was hardly any reprieve from the very grim realities of warfare. It offered a lot of world-building but little additional value on a re-read. Last but not least, we have Bran. Bran’s chapters introduced us to the concept of warging and the Reed children but they were also filled with long descriptions of the dour life at Winterfell and Bran’s own unhappiness at his disability. Each character’s arc will only improve from here on out, however – although it will be a good while before Bran’s chapters get fun.
So with that, we leave A Clash of Kings behind and sally forth towards A Storm of Swords!