A Clash of Kings, a story about faith, begins appropriately with a bright omen: a red comet streaking across the sky, seen by everyone in Westeros and beyond. Yet everyone reads the portent differently. The titular kings see the comet as an omen of their own victories. Peasants fear it. A widowed queen follows it across a barren desert. A Clash of Kings isn’t just about the clash of Renly Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon, and the rest: it’s about the clash of faiths and civilizations.
Westeros has seen its share of bloody conquest. Its history is analogous to that of the British Isles: wave after wave of invaders, each pushing the previous occupants further north. The Children of the Forest settled Westeros before recorded history, and they worshipped the Old Gods. The First Men arrived some time after, brokering an uneasy alliance with the Children and sharing their faith. Then the Andals landed with their Seven Gods, forcing the First Men further north. These Seven Gods (or Seven Faces) are worshipped by most sides of the bloody conflict engulfing Westeros, each with a personal favorite: Catelyn Stark praying for Mother’s mercy, Robb Stark appealing to the Warrior’s strength, Tyrion Lannister bowing to the alien nature of the Stranger.
Then a newcomer arrives: the Lord of Light, deity of an aggressive, fundamentalist religion from far to the east. Lord Stannis Baratheon, brother to the recently deceased King Robert, has accepted this new religion much like Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. He is persuaded by the priestess and sorceress Melisandre to burn the statues of the Seven Gods in his capital city as a token of his loyalty. Through the eyes of a reformed smuggler Davos Seaworth, we watch Stannis begin his bloody path into Westeros against his brother Renly Baratheon, who also claims the throne, and Joffrey Baratheon, a child of incest of the Lannister clan.
And the newly crowned King of the North, Robb Stark, watches warily.
The separation of the Stark family, as well as the dissolution of their litter of grown direwolves, continues. Robb leads his meager war machine across the north, while he sends his mother Catelyn to ally with Renly Barratheon in the south. Apart from Rob, Catelyn’s children fare worse. Sansa remains a hostage of the Lannisters in King’s Landing. Arya goes into hiding with a group of recruits for the Night’s Watch. And Bran and his little brother Rickon are left to hold Winterfell. Direwolves are strongest with the rest of their pack; scattered across Westeros, the Stark family is at its weakest, and events only serve to further drive them apart.
Bastard son Jon Snow, with friend Sam Tarly and a host of rangers of the Night’s Watch, treks across the frozen north in search of yet another king that would lay claim to Westeros: Mance Rayder, a former brother of the Watch, who leads the Wildlings against the Wall. But there are other, scarier things that haunt Jon’s dreams: creatures with dead flesh and pale blue eyes. Jon’s faith in his vows to the Watch is sorely tested as he follows his commander Mormount through the north.
Things come apart quickly for the Starks. Catelyn’s entreaties to Renly are interrupted by the arrival of Stannis’s armies, and Renly is soon murdered by Melisandre. Blamed for Renly’s death, Catelyn flees to Riverrun, her ancestral home, with Brienne, a woman who fashions herself as a knight. Theon, former ward of Ned Stark, is prodded by his family to invade Stark lands and conquer Winterfell for a time, holding Bran and Rickon hostage. Robb sees further losses in his campaigns as his allies desert him. Arya is held captive at the forbidding Harrenhall, where she meets a mysterious assassin from the East. Sansa must endure daily humiliation and abuse from King Joffrey, her only hope of escape a drunk knight.
But Winterfell is not the only castle in peril. King’s Landing is near collapse, peasants starving within its walls. The ruling Lannisters struggle to bring food from outside the city walls, due to the scorched earth policies of their enemies. But the larger threat of King Stannis Baratheon and his massive armada sailing from Dragonstone leave the city dwellers in fear. In this climate, Tyrion Lannister has been charged by his father Tywin to be the Hand of the King to Joffrey, and it takes all of Tyrion’s cunning to keep the city from falling apart around him. As he readies defenses and holds the city together with his bare hands, he also has to contend with the many intrigues infesting the Red Keep. When Stannis lands his armada in Blackwater Bay and the city erupts, all of Tyrion’s efforts almost come to naught . . . just before a surprising ally comes to the rescue. Tyrion, alas, is left scarred in many ways from the experience.
Far to the east, Danaerys, newly widowed of Khal Drogo and caretaker of the last three dragons in the known world, sees the red comet and leads her meager caravan across a vast desert. They arrive at a deserted city and take brief refuge before moving on to Qarth, a wealthy port city. Ser Jorah, her sworn protector who is deeply in love with her, suggests they regain their strength, parenting her three dragons until they are fully grown, and marching on Westeros after they have armies to back them. She heeds other counsel at Qarth from her wealthy benefactors, but they would want her dragons in exchange for their help. When Danaerys seeks answers from the local warlocks, they offer an ambiguous prophecy that she would be betrayed three times by those close to her. She leaves Qarth with Jorah and her retinue in fear and uncertainty, returning to the wealthy trader who sold her to Khal Drogo.
The end of A Clash of Kings is about the end of faith, as much as it was about faith’s resilience at the start. Smuggler-turned-knight Davos, along with his King Stannis, suffers defeat in Blackwater Bay; he is left floating adrift, his sons killed before his eyes. Tyrion loses his grasp of the political situation in King’s Landing (and some important body parts). Catelyn goes to kill the one man who can get her daughters back, driven by vengeance for the deaths of Bran and Rickon. Danaerys leaves Qarth more confused about her destiny than she came in. Jon breaks his vows to survive and spy on the Wildlings who captured him. The comet at the start of the book was a bloody harbinger, no mere portent. But if the title A Storm of Swords is any indication, there will be more bloodletting yet to come in the next book.