In George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings, the second book of A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones), several independent storylines assemble themselves, all initially anchored by a blood-red comet streaking the sky and the different groups’ interpretation of it, and, of course, by the ongoing war over who has claim to the throne of the Seven Kingdoms—Robb Stark, or the deceased Robert Barathian’s brothers Renley and Stanis. (Since he’s younger than Stanis, Renley shouldn’t have any claim, but Robert B took his throne by force, so all bets are off.) Arya’s on the road trying to get back to Winterfell after escaping King’s Landing. Sansa’s still stuck at King’s Landing betrothed to Joffrey, who’s about to go to war with her brother. Catelyn still wants peace, but Robb is determined to war. Tyrion is at King’s Landing working as the King’s Hand, trying to undermine and manipulate Queen Cersei and Joffrey. Daenarys is leading her retinue through a wasteland following the comet. Jon Snow has gone on a large-scale ranging mission outside the wall with other Watchmen to locate the wildlings and/or Others. Then we have two new POV characters: Davos, a former smuggler who’s a member of Stanis’s court, who’s watching him try to consolidate power via the questionable sorceress Melisandre, and Theon Greyjoy, a Stark ward we met in the first book who’s now gone home to the Iron Islands to find his family bent on using the current conflict to take the throne for themselves.
From there we proceed, with some, but not all, of the separate characters’ threads intersecting for the climactic Battle of the Blackwater between Stanis and Joffrey that takes place near King’s Landing.
Catelyn is sent by Robb as an envoy to Renly to see if they might join forces; at his camp she inadvertently witnesses Renley’s death by sorceress, his throat slit from out of nowhere. She returns to Riverrun with Renley’s closest female knight Brienne, where she eventually learns her sons Bran and Ricken have been killed when Winterfell was taken by Theon Greyjoy. She goes to confront Jaime where he’s being held captive in one of Riverrun’s cells (after being captured in battle by Robb at the end of the first book). Jaime tells how awful the original mad king Aerys was to potentially absolve himself of killing him, and when he insists that everything he’s ever done was honorable, and more honorable than Nedd, Catelyn calls for Brienne’s sword.
Davos winds up conflicted over his role in serving Stanis when Stanis becomes dependent on Melisandre the sorceress, whom Davos rows over to Storm’s End, where she births a shadow child that apparently unleashes great devastation. His ship is destroyed in the wildfire explosions of the Battle of Blackwater, leaving him drifting toward a mouth of fire.
Daenarys winds up in Qarth, under the protection of rich merchant Xaro Xhoan Daxos as she attempts to amass ships and an army to take back her rightful place on the throne as ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. She once again winds up tricked by sorcery, this time by some Warlocks who send her on a queer vision-laden journey through the House of the Undying, where she’s given a prophecy about a bunch of things that will happen to her in threes before the Undying try to devour her and she’s saved by one of her dragons–but then driven from town in response.
Arya’s group winds up ambushed on the road and she’s eventually captured by Lannister soldiers and brought to Harrenhal, held by Lord Tywin and rumored to be cursed by ghosts. Her life as a servant is difficult and she befriends Jaqen H’agar, who was on the road with her group as a prisoner and whose life she saved by giving him an ax to break his binds when there was a fire. Jaqen kills three men for her as repayment for this debt, but too late she realizes that she didn’t pick powerful enough men to make a difference. She winds up helping free some men the Lannisters have taken prisoner, who then take over the castle, at which point Arya slits a guard’s throat (by tricking him by giving him a fake coin Jaqen gave her) to escape with two friends.
Sansa stays imprisoned at King’s Landing, mistreated by Joffrey, and has several near-rapey interactions with the Hound, Sandor Clegane. During the climactic Battle of the Blackwater when Stanis lays siege to King’s Landing (a siege delaying the battle with Robb), Cersei intimates Sansa will be killed if the castle is taken rather than allowed to escape. After Sir Tywin and the Tyrells save the day for the Lannisters and Stanis is defeated, Joffrey becomes betrothed to Lord Tyrell’s daughter instead of Sansa, much to her relief. Ser Dontos plans to help Sansa escape during Joffrey’s wedding and gives her what he claims is a magic hair net.
Theon Greyjoy, who lived for ten years as a ward of the Starks, finds himself alienated and isolated upon returning to his home, the Iron Islands. He’s greeted by a girl who seduces him and whom he reveals his grand plans of becoming monarch to only to find out he was tricked by his sister, whom their father’s grown to trust significantly more than Theon in his absence. When they strike out to conquer and Theon’s given a lesser role than his sister, he takes the initiative of seizing Winterfell. After Bran and Rickon escape and, unable to find them, he lies about recapturing them and having them killed, the realm turns on him, and neither his sister nor his father come to his aid. Reek, who was at Winterfell when Theon took it over, saves him from siege with an army that then turns around and sacks the castle, and appears to kill Theon.
Tyrion works as the King’s Hand at King’s Landing to undermine Cersei, who’s constantly trying to undermine him. At one point she mistakenly takes the wrong whore she thinks he loves as hostage so he’ll stop undermining her. During the Battle of the Blackwater Tyrion plants wildfire in one of Joffrey’s ships, a tactic that winds up potentially doing more harm than good. When the Hound Gregor Clegane balks at the green swirling flames, Tyrion heroically rides out and cuts down many men, but he’s then almost killed by one of Cersei’s men, but saved by his shy squire Pod. Gravely injured and vulnerable under Cersei’s close eye, Tyrion tries to get Pod to help him.
Jon is out on a quest beyond the wall to chase down the wildlings and their leader by Mance Rayder, a defector from the Watch, rumored to be gathering his forces in the Frostfangs. Jon is chosen for a scouting party through Skirling Pass, where he makes his first kill when he’s sent ahead to kill some wildling scouts. They have a woman, Ygritte, with them he’s ordered to kill but releases instead. Their party is then hunted down by the wildlings, but before they’re taken Jon is ordered to yield and bide his time as a captive rather than die fighting. Jon also has “wolf dreams” and suspicions raised that he’s a shapeshifter. He winds up in a similar position to his father Nedd before his death, of doing something honorable that appears dishonorable to absolutely everybody else.
Bran struggles to be Winterfell’s young lord, and with his “wolf dreams” where he seems to be his direwolf Summer, and visions of Winterfell overtaken by the sea. When Winterfell is taken by Theon, we learn in the last chapter that Bran, Ricken, Hodor et al have been hiding down in the crypts of Winterfell all along. After they emerge into the empty sacked castle, Asha decides it’s best if Bran and Ricken travel in different directions, a plan that severs the last remaining connection of immediate proximity between the Starks here at the conclusion of the second book.
Theon’s the only POV character killed this time, and it’s a lot different from when Nedd died. You were rooting for it this time. Theon’s thread is one of the most satisfying of the book, largely because he gets what’s coming to him. His is a classic arc of be careful what you wish for. When he’s cornered, with 17 men against 2000, he manages to buy time with a hostage before the alleged servant Reek he sent off to find him more men return with 200, who are able to conquer the greater force by initially pretending to be their allies. This deception appears to save Theon, but then turns out to be his undoing as the same men who initially appeared to be his allies turn on him as well. Theon proves unlikable characters can be main ones, that the reader can actively dislike them, and Martin does a fantastic job of rendering him casually despicable:
He sent for Kyra, kicked shut the door, climbed on top of her, and fucked the wench with a fury he’d never known was in him. By the time he finished, she was sobbing, her neck and breasts covered with bruises and bite marks. Theon shoved her from the bed and threw her a blanket. “Get out.”
Yet even then, he could not sleep.
Misogynist, yes, but that’s Theon’s misogyny, not Martin’s. Theon’s thread also demonstrates something that Martin does very well, which is the way he conveys information by jumping between POVs. At the end of Theon’s chapter in which Bran and Rickon escape, someone suggests a place they might be hiding, and Theon decides to go, but we’re never shown what actually happens there. In the intervening chapters we learn from other characters (Catelyn) that Bran and Rickon are supposedly dead at Theon’s hand, that their heads have been mounted on Winterfell’s wall. It’s not until the very end of Theon’s next chapter that we learn these heads are in fact not indisputable evidence the boys are dead:
On their iron spikes atop the gatehouse, the heads waited.
Theon gazed at them silently while the wind tugged on his cloak with small ghostly hands. The miller’s boys had been of an age with Bran and Rickon, alike in size and coloring, and once Reek had flayed the skin from their faces and dipped their heads in tar, it was easy to see familiar features in those misshapen lumps of rotting flesh. People were such fools. If we’d said they were rams’ heads, they would have seen horns.
The chapter where he’s tricked into lusting after his sister nicely foreshadows how he’ll be tricked in the siege of Winterfell, and of course the subplot with his sister ties in directly when he takes Winterfell to try to one-up her but then she doesn’t provide him with any men to defend it with.
The other thread that seemed to have the most satisfying payoff this time around was Arya’s. The business with Jaqen manifests in her using the coin he gives her (a concrete symbol of how her thread plays out the theme of what’s owed) to kill the guard and escape, and in the midst of the business with Jaqen Arya also proves herself quite clever when Jaqen won’t help her free the Harenhall prisoners, saying he only owes her one more death, not multiple. After confirming that he has to kill whoever she names, she tells him his own name, prompting him to help her with the prisoners in exchange for picking a different third name. Further evidence that Martin is not the misogynist—he just writes some misogynist characters, and he’s certainly writing a misogynistic world. Which makes the women’s threads and their coping with it—further accentuated this time around by the introduction of the awkward female knight Brienne—all the more compelling. Game of Thrones may be medieval, but it’s got more modern parallels than probably more than a few are willing to acknowledge.