Appreciating A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Most people, when talking about the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, rank A Feast for Crows as the least interesting followed by A Dance with Dragons.

The first time through though. the second book in the series, A Clash of Kings, bored me in every chapter that wasn’t a Tyrion or Davos chapter. It’s not the book’s fault but a fault of my own.

You see, I have this problem when it comes to reading. Every time I try to read a series in succession I grow bored, no, restless during the second book. It becomes hard for me to concentrate and I always end up putting the book down, especially since I’ve figured out this flaw, and picking up a different one. I think it might stem from my A.D.D. (which I was diagnosed for, not just the many people claiming to have it) but I can’t be sure.

Besides A Clash of Kings other victims of this dilemma include the second Mistborn book, The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and even The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s just when Sam and Frodo are climbing down the elven rope that I put it down though unlike the others listed I picked it back up shortly after. Spoilers ahead. 

The first time through A Clash of Kings I don’t believe I understood the full implications of what Jojen and Meera Reed were telling Bran before Theon invaded Winterfell nor did I appreciate Arya’s time with Yoren and the recruits for the Night’s Watch on their way up North.

More than any other of the books in the series this one, because of my restlessness, was distorted and in some places superseded by season 2 of Game of Thrones. While I do believe season one is still the best season, the second one might be my favorite overall. Rereading A Clash of Kings didn’t alter that but comparing the two actually made me appreciate the book more than I previously had.

It’s understandable that when adapting a show to television some characters might have to be cut but waiting until season three to introduce Jojen and Meera Reed does Bran’s story a disservice. Jojen’s greendreams help explain what Bran is going through with his own dreams of warging with Summer. This would also cut to the chase the trip to the Wall so more material that was cut from the seasons covering A Storm of Swords could now be included. Plus Jojen and Meera’s oath to Bran is one of the best passages of the book, and would’ve been highly quoted if it had been included on the show.

“To Winterfell we pledge the faith of Greywater,” they said together. “Hearth and heart and harvest we yield up to you, my lord. Our swords and spears and arrows are yours to command. Grant mercy to our weak, help to our helpless, and justice to all, and we shall never fail you.”

“I swear it by earth and water,” said the boy in green.

“I swear it by bronze and iron,” his sister said.

“We swear it by ice and fire,” they finished together.

Also, while not essential, the Walder boys work as great foils to Bran in this book leading up to  their predictably but inevitably switching sides as soon as Theon takes control of Winterfell.

If you read the entire series through rather quickly your reaction to Theon showing up again in A Dance with Dragons may not have the same impact it had on me nor those who waited years to read it. I finished A Clash of Kings originally in 2011,  A Storm of Swords in 2012, then A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons in 2013. In that time, I had forgotten how much of a backstabbing bastard Theon was in this book. Season two of the show has him far more sympathetic, though still not very much after burning two children alive, than the books and in A Dance with Dragons he’s so broken that because of that time between books I pitied him. Not anymore. It’s not only the cruelty that he shows to the people working in Winterfell but the arrogance and swagger he displays while doing it. The death of Ned Stark still feels fresh in this book, no matter how much time you leave between reading A Game of Thrones and it, so when Theon claims himself Lord of Winterfell and sits in Ned’s chair all sympathy for Reek is gone. He only gets worse from there.

Arya’s story arc is much more profound in this book than on the show. Though Yoren does die and she does indeed get captured she does not suffer as much becoming the cupbearer of Tywin Lannister shortly in the show. Her courage is never tested, but in the book it falters. She is captured, her sword taken, and broken mentally by the Tickler. It makes the regaining of her courage through Jaqen H’ghar have a much bigger impact especially when she uses her last kill not to escape but to free Robb’s men that were captured and removed the Lannister’s from power in Harrenhall.

“When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives,” he said.

“But there is no pack,” she whispered to the weirwood. Bran and Rickon were dead, the Lannisters had Sansa, Jon had gone to the Wall. “I’m not even me now, I’m Nan.”

“You are Arya of Winterfell, daughter of the north. You told me you could be strong. You have the wolf blood in you.”

“The wolf blood.” Arya remembered now. “I’ll be as strong as Robb. I said I would.”

For the most part in this volume Catelyn works as our point-of-view into Renly’s camp. The book has better foresight when it comes to Barristan Selmy, by having Renly name dropping him to Catelyn. Now we know he hasn’t gone to Robb, he’s not with Renly, and he’s not with Stannis. So where is he? This line would’ve been better kept in the show, reminding viewers who this person is that the book doesn’t need to do as much. Then again, after watching season five Benioff and Weiss don’t come off as respecting the character too much. Also, Renly in this book not only tells Catelyn he’ll avenge Ned’s death but if he’s made king he’ll gladly let Robb be king and the North their own kingdom granted he still swore fealty to the Iron Throne. I may be mistaken,  but he says no such thing in season two. One part that can’t be helped, due to the aging up of all the characters, is the loss of the naivety of Renly’s camp including Brienne.

“War will make them old,” Catelyn said, “as it did us.” She had been a girl when Robert and Ned and Jon Arryn raised their banners against Aerys Targaryen, a woman by the time the fighting was done. “I pity them.”

“Why?” Lord Rowan asked her. “Look at them. They’re young and strong, full of life and laughter. And lust, aye, more lust than they know what to do with. There will be many a bastard bred this night, I promise you. Why pity?”

“Because it will not last,” Catelyn answered, sadly. “Because they are the knights of summer, and winter is coming.”

“Lady Catelyn, you are wrong.” Brienne regarded her with eyes as blue as her armor. “Winter will never come for the likes of us. Should we die in battle, they will surely sing of us, and it’s always summer in the songs. In the songs all knights are gallant, all maids are beautiful, and the sun is always shining.”

Winter comes for all of us, Catelyn thought. For me, it came when Ned died. It will come for you too, child, and sooner than you like. She did not have the heart to say it.

And of course, shortly after, Winter does come for Brienne and continues to do so. The best moment, and the most heartbreaking comes when she is delivered Ned’s bones.

This is not Ned, this is not the man I loved, the father of my children. His hands were clasped together over his chest, skeletal fingers curled about the hilt of some longsword, but they were not Ned’s hands, so strong and full of life. They had dressed the bones in Ned’s surcoat, the fine white velvet with the direwolf badge over the heart, but nothing remained of the warm flesh that had pillowed her head so many nights, the arms that had held her. The head had been rejoined to the body with fine silver wire, but one skull looks much like another, and in those empty hollows she found no trace of her lord’s dark grey eyes, eyes that could be soft as a fog or hard as stone. They gave his eyes to crows, she remembered.

Jon Snow and the Night Watch’s story remains relatively the same up until Craster’s Keep, then again when Jon Snow interacts with Ygritte. On the show, Jon discovers Craster sacrificing a baby boy to the White Walkers. In the book, it is briefly mentioned and the reader is left to assume the baby boys are giving to the Others. More importantly though, is Jon Snow’s interaction with Qhorin Halfhand and Ygritte. When he doesn’t kill Ygritte on the show, it is the cause of their downfall as she later ambushes Snow and Halfhand. His kindness is construed as a weakness but not so in A Clash of Kings. Qhorin never really expected Jon to kill Ygritte.

“Now. Tell me why you spared her.”

It was hard to put into words. “My father never used a headsman. He said he owed it to men he killed to look into their eyes and hear their last words. And when I looked into Ygritte’s eyes, I …” Jon stared down at his hands helplessly. “I know she was an enemy, but there was no evil in her.”

“No more than in the other two.” “It was their lives or ours,” Jon said. “If they had seen us, if they had sounded that horn …”

“The wildlings would hunt us down and slay us, true enough.”

“Stonesnake has the horn now, though, and we took Ygritte’s knife and axe. She’s behind us, afoot, unarmed …”

“And not like to be a threat,” Qhorin agreed. “If I had needed her dead, I would have left her with Ebben, or done the thing myself.”

“Then why did you command it of me?”

“I did not command it. I told you to do what needed to be done, and left you to decide what that would be.” Qhorin stood and slid his longsword back into its scabbard. “When I want a mountain scaled, I call on Stonesnake. Should I need to put an arrow through the eye of some foe across a windy battlefield, I summon Squire Dalbridge. Ebben can make any man give up his secrets. To lead men you must know them, Jon Snow. I know more of you now than I did this morning.”

“And if I had slain her?” asked Jon. “She would be dead, and I would know you better than I had before.”

Adding the scene after Craster catches Jon, when Mormont tells him to follow orders and changing this scene with Halfhand changes how we feel about the Night’s Watch. On the show, north of the Wall it is all about the survival of the fittest. In the book, they’re the order of knights doing what they have to only when they have to. The second biggest loss on the show, and this goes for Stannis as well, is the loss of Jon Snow’s support cast. Characters like the one-armed smith Donal Noye deliver great lines that are missed like this one about the Baratheon brothers:

Robert was the true steel. Stannis is pure iron, black and hard and strong, yes, but brittle, the way iron gets. He’ll break before he bends. And Renly, that one, he’s copper, bright and shiny, pretty to look at but not worth all that much at the end of the day.

With Stannis’s story arc, the adaptation much criticized by fans including me, isn’t drastically different on the macro scale but there are little details that change how we perceived him and his lead up to the Battle of Blackwater. Stannis’s supporting cast is much larger than just Davos, Melisandre, and Davos’s son and because of this we feel the class difference between Davos and his other knights and men. Davos also isn’t the only voice mistrusting Melisandre, therefore, he can’t be fully blamed when Stannis loses the Battle of Blackwater because she isn’t there. Though Melisandre summons multiple shadows to kill Stannis’s enemies both her and Stannis’s actions come off less evil-deeds-for-the-great-good and more morally grey.

The Lannisters fall into that same grey area. Without a doubt in season two Tyrion Lannister is the main protagonist. It is with him we spend the most time. He is the underdog, the clever one, the one with something to prove to everyone in King’s Landing in a den of villains. He’s the one that gets the big heroic moment at the end, but in the book it is not as cut and dry. Joffrey, though cruel and ill-tempered is not the mustache twisting villain of the show. This might be the result of the aging up on the show, but then how come book Joffrey has far more grace as a king than show Joffrey. He’s also less of a coward, wanting to participate in the Battle of Blackwater,  and more doting on his mother. Cersei, likewise, though still unlikable, is much more reasonable with Tyrion when she sees he’s trying to protect her family and regain Jaime. She doesn’t display the outright contempt for her younger brother though she still spies, plots, and blackmails him into protecting Joffrey during the Battle of Blackwater.

That battle may be the most important part of the book, but Daenerys’ chapter in the House of the Undying is the most important chapter for the future of the series. It foreshadows the Red Wedding, show Dany a glimpse of the madness of her father, a glimpse of Stannis, her brother Rhaegar dying at the Trident, what her son Rhaego would’ve looked like, what might be the death of Renly, and predictions that may not have happened yet in the series.  A cloth dragon amidst a cheering crowd, a great stone beast flying from a smoker tower, breathing shadow fire, a corpse at the prow of a ship, eyes bright in his dead face, smiling sadly, a blue flower growing from a chink in a wall of ice, a corpse being dragged behind a silver horse, a white lion running through grass taller than a man, a line of naked crones emerging from a lake, kneeling before her beneath the Mother of Mountains.

They give Dany a prophecy of threes.

Child of Three… three heads has the dragon… three fires must you light: one for life and one for death and one to love… three mounts must you ride: one to bed and one to dread and one to love… three treasons will you know: once for blood and once for gold and once for love… daughter of death, slayer of lies, bride of fire…

I could write another thousand words about Dany’s visions but instead I’ll leave one of my favorite passages from the same chapter when she gets a vision of her brother Rhaegar, easily the best character no longer living in the series.

“He has a song,” the man replied. “He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire.” He looked up when he said it and his eyes met Dany’s, and it seemed as if he saw her standing there beyond the door. “There must be one more,” he said, though whether he was speaking to her or the woman in the bed she could not say. “The dragon has three heads.” He went to the window seat, picked up a harp, and ran his fingers lightly over its silvery strings. Sweet sadness filled the room as man and wife and babe faded like the morning mist, only the music lingering behind to speed her on her way.

His is the song of ice and fire, damn it, and the dragon has three heads. I love this series.

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