We can basically sum up the ending of A Clash of Kings in three simple words: to be continued. Martin originally envisioned the A Song of Ice and Fire series as a trilogy, making A Clash of Kings the middle chapter in a longer story. As such, none of the conflicts are resolved, and no characters' personal stories reach their conclusion. Well, except for Renly's because that guy is totally dead.
Let's quickly recount where everybody stands by the end of the novel:
- Jon joins the Wildlings as a double agent after killing Qhorin Halfhand. He is being brought to their camp to meet the King-Beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder—the guy the Night's Watch has been looking for all this time.
- Tyrion is heinously injured by Ser Mandon Moore, and he's sure his sister, Cersei, put the hit on him. He has also been stripped of his powers as Hand of the King since his father, Tywin, has taken on the job.
- Daenerys is sailing back to Pentos at the request of Magister Illyrio. She is no closer to claiming the Iron Throne than she was at the novel's beginning, but at least she has some ships now.
- Catelyn Stark stays in Riverrun and receives word that her sons Bran and Rickon are dead. Believing them, she goes to have a chat with Jaime Lannister, and the conversation ends with her borrowing a sword from Brienne.
- Arya Stark's layover at Harrenhal comes to an end, and she continues to search for her family. She heads for Riverrun.
- Sansa Stark is still in King's Landing and hating it. Ser Dontos promises to help her escape on the day of Joffrey and Margaery's wedding day and gives her a hair net with amethyst jewels.
- Theon Greyjoy is knocked out cold by Ramsay Snow. What becomes of him is unknown, although it seems likely Ramsay either captured or killed him.
- Davos Seaworth is missing in action after being tossed off his boat during the Battle of the Blackwater. We follow the Hollywood rule of death here at Shmoop, though: If you don't see a body, then they ain't dead.
- Bran and Rickon Stark are forced to leave Winterfell after its destruction and go their separate ways to stay safe. Bran travels with Jojen, Meera, and Hodor north.
- The War of the Five Kings is now a few kings short of a full house, but it is by no means over. Stannis received a setback at the Battle of the Blackwater, but we're guessing he'll be back in some fashion soon enough. Robb Stark is still going toe-to-toe with the Lannister forces, and when we last saw Edmure Tully, he was kicking some serious butt at Riverrun.
Ultimately, the purpose of all these cliffhangers is to get you to read the third book, A Storm of Swords. Like any good television show, these endings are designed to leave you in suspense, wondering what's going to happen next. It's a huge part of the reason this books series does, in fact, make such a good television show. Its stories were designed like one.
War, What Is It Good For?
We think we can offer another reason A Clash of Kings resolves none of its many plot threads, though. One of the story's main themes is war, the War of the Five Kings to be specific, and many of the characters hope that by winning the war their problems will be fixed. Catelyn hopes that Robb winning the war will bring her family back together; Tyrion hopes to get some respect and the admiration of those around him; and Theon wants to be recognized by his father and family as a true and proper ironborn.
These are just a couple of examples from the novel of people hoping that by winning their wars everything will break their way. But just look at how these three tales play out: Catelyn's focus on Robb's war results in her losing two more members of her family; Tyrion wins the Battle of the Blackwater but loses his power in the court; and Theon takes Winterfell but comes no closer to receiving his father's love.
And this proves true not just for a couple of characters, but for the Seven Kingdoms as a whole. Consider this quote:
The smallfolk were hiding themselves behind closed shutters and barred doors as if that would keep them safe. The last time King's Landing had fallen, the Lannisters looted and raped as they pleased and put hundreds to the sword, even though the city had opened its gates. This time the Imp meant to fight, and a city that fought could expect no mercy at all. (53.Sansa.21)
For us, the key words here are "[t]he last time." War came to King's Landing in the form of Robert's Rebellion, and that happened recently enough that the people living there now still remember it. In fact, the time between the Sack of King's Landing and the Battle of the Blackwater spanned a mere fifteen years.
While the rebellion might have solved the immediate problem—the Mad King's reign—it clearly did not solve any long-term social or political issues, or you could argue the rebellion did solve them but then created entirely new ones. Either way, had war been a true solution, then King's Landing wouldn't be under attack yet again.
So perhaps the novel is suggesting that conflicts like war really don't solve the problems they set out to, whether personal, societal, or political. In the same way political maneuvering resolves nothing in the first novel, the wars and battles in the second solve nothing either—the problems just keep perpetuating, pushing into the future as new conflicts form in their way. These problems, then, are kind of perpetually to be continued themselves, just like the book's ending.
What's the answer to social discord if not politics or war? We can't say at this point in the series, and it's unlikely the novels will offer any easy answers later. The world is too messy and complicated for a simple, one-word answer like war to be truly effective.