The Known World
The A Song of Ice and Fire series occurs in a fictional place simply called the Known World. It's called such because the various civilizations haven't yet gotten around to exploring the entire planet, so there might be several unknown islands or even a continent or two chilling just off the edge of the map.
With that said, we still have plenty of setting to consider here. The continent east of the Narrow Sea is called Essos, and we don't know too much about it yet. As of A Clash of Kings, Dany has been the only point-of-view character to spend any time here, so our knowledge of this giant chunk-o-land is limited to the places she's visited and the tidbits she's picked up along the way.
In the west we find the aptly named continent Westeros. Most of the story takes place here since this landmass houses the Seven Kingdoms and the lands beyond the Wall. By the way, the Seven Kingdoms actually consists of nine regions: Dorne, the North, the Reach, the Riverlands, the Stormlands, the Crownlands, the Iron Islands, and the Vale of Arryn.
Since we've already spent a fair amount of bytes discussing Seven Kingdoms and its history in our A Game of Thrones guide, and since its sequel takes place in most of the same locations, we figured, why use up more of the Internet? True, there is plenty of Internet to go around, but instead of discussing the world and its history again, we thought we'd consider how Seven Kingdoms has changed since the first novel.
Resistance is Feudal
If you'll recall, the Seven Kingdoms uses a feudalist system of governance, so we'll need to consider how exactly feudalism works first. Please note that this discussion will be entirely in broad strokes as feudalism was wide spread across the European Middle Ages, and it varied depending on country and century.
Atop the feudalist social pyramid is the king, ruler and owner of the kingdom. This head-honcho lends sections of land to various lords (barons, dukes, earls, etc.) to be worked in exchange for taxes and military service when necessary. These lords then divide their land further into fiefs and lend these to vassals, who provide knight service to the lord when necessary. Finally, these vassals have peasants (read: Martin's "smallfolk") work the land to produce crops and other useful materials such as metal ore. Among the peasants are also craftsmen and merchants.
If this is all a little confusing, then you can check out this feudalism flow chart for a visual representation of how land is divided down the social ladder and goods and money flow up it.
We catch a glimpse of how this system plays out in a few of Bran's chapters. As Winterfell's lord, Bran governs the affairs of the North region. He discusses economic strategies and ship building with Wyman Manderly, and how to regulate the harvest with Lady Hornwood (17.Bran)—these people represent the Starks' vassal families. They manage the fiefs, and most have sent knights to fight in Robb's war against the Lannisters. Lady Hornwood's husband, for example, is a knight who dies in the Battle of the Green Fork.
Once Upon a Time in the Westeros
In A Game of Thrones, Martin set up his fictional feudal system, and in A Clash of Kings, we get to see some of the deficiencies within it. To put it simply, civil war just makes everything in life more difficult.
We're sure it's not news to you, but war can be a pretty awful affair, and this is true even in fantasy worlds. As Ser Cleos tells it: "It is bad in the riverlands, Tyion. Around the Gods Eye and along the kingsroad especially. The river lords are burning their own crops to try and starve us, and your father's foragers are torching every village they take and putting the smallfolk to the sword" (21.Tyrion.58). And this is but a taste of the appalling happenings war has brought to Westeros.
In the feudalist system, the vassals are technically supposed to protect the peasants working their fiefs, but most of them have been called to fight in the various armies, leaving few to defend against enemy raids or good-old fashioned banditry.
Even fielding the armies meant to defend the region can harm the smallfolk. Resources must go into building war machines and arming soldiers, and food must go to the knights to keep them in fighting condition. Finally, money is required to pay for it. Armies sure aren't cheap, and maintaining them creates a stopgap in the society's already uneven flow of resources.
Of course, to underfund the army would be inviting defeat, meaning the peasants must suffer or be conquered. Since being conquered means pillage and plunder, what we really mean is the peasants must either suffer or suffer.
And tormented people will do horrible things to survive, as evidenced by, well, all of Arya's story. Her travels on the kingsroad in the first novel were more-or-less safe and comfy. Sure, there was the incident with Joffrey, but we're not counting that because, you know, Joffrey. Watching her travel the same road a second time, though, we get a wildly different picture of the Seven Kingdoms.
She notices starving men and women traveling south for the safety of King's Landing's walls. Many of the travelers are armed with makeshift weapons, and they give "lingering looks at the wagons" (6.Arya.3), deciding whether or not to ambush Yoren's party. Farther along, Arya spies a roadside grave dug for a child—and then "a day hardly pass[es] without one" (6.Arya.7). And let's not forget Ser Amory burning the village despite Yoren's claims of the group's neutrality (15.Arya.69).
Through Arya's story, we get firsthand experience of how the war has broken down the social structure and how this harms the majority of the Seven Kingdoms's populace.
Not that things are much better at King's Landing. Consider what Tyrion observes when he first returns to the city:
The streets of King's Landing had always been teeming and raucous and noisy, but now they reeked of danger in a way that he did not recall from past visits. A naked corpse sprawled in the gutter near the Street of Looms, being torn at by a pack of feral dogs, yet no one seemed to care. Watchmen were much in evidence, moving in pairs through the alleys in their gold cloaks and shirts of black ringmail, iron cudgels never far from their hands. The markets were crowded with ragged men selling their household goods for any price they could get… and conspicuously empty of farmers selling food. What little produce he did see was three times as costly as it had been a year ago. One peddler was hawking rats roasted on a skewer. (4.Tyrion.117)
Talk about painting a word picture—a grimy, nasty, wholly revolting word picture. But this is a key passage in understanding just how disruptive war has been for the Seven Kingdoms. The guards are present but just as scared of the common people as they are of them. Food is in short supply and inflation is rampant. And roasted rat… need we say any more? King's Landing hasn't even been attacked yet, and already the system cannot handle the strain of supporting both itself and a civil war.
Not that the lords aren't doing their job… most of them anyway. Cersei and Joffrey could care less about the smallfolk's hardships, but Tyrion certainly gives being a decent lord the old college try:
He had done all he could to feed the hungry city—he'd set several hundred carpenters to building fishing boats in place of catapults, opened the kingswood to any hunter who dared to cross the river, even sent goldcloaks foraging to the west and south. (16.Tyrion.71)
The problem is not with Tyrion's efforts but with feudalism itself. It just doesn't really work. Unfortunately, though, by the novel's end, there is no relief in sight. The war continues, and only another novel or two in the series will tell if these problems are alleviated in Westeros.
Essos Bound or Down
As Dany continues her journey across Essos, she comes to the city of Qarth, and her story parks it there for the rest of the novel. Qarth and its people draw inspiration from the famed Middle Eastern and Asian trading cities of the Middle Ages in much the same way the Dothraki were based on the ancient Mongolians.
After trudging through the Red Waste, Dany and her people make it to Qarth, a city Pyat Pree calls "the greatest city that ever was or ever will be" (28.Daenerys.2). Excellent marketing aside, Dany's more nuanced take of the city goes a little something like this:
Qarth was one of the world's great ports, its great sheltered harbor a riot of color and clangor and strange smells. […] The waterfront was one great marketplace where the buying and selling went on all day and all night, and goods might be had for a fraction of what they cost at the bazaar, if a man did not ask where they came from. (64.Daenerys.59)
The city itself is surrounded by three walls, and the sea sits on its fourth side. This reminds us a lot of Constantinople, a major trading port of the Middle Ages. Well, today the city is called Istanbul, but back in the day it was Constantinople. Why did Constantinople get the works? Not our business.
Anyway, like Qarth, Constantinople had famous walls protecting it (source). Like the Qartheens, the Byzantines grew rich thanks to their city's location as a major trading route. In fact, Constantinople was considered for several centuries "the greatest trading port in the Christian world" as "furs, honey and wax, brought from the North by Russian merchants, were exchanged for spices, drugs, and precious stones from the Orient" passing through the city's ports (source). Constantinople for the win.
We should note, though, that Martin didn't just copy-and-paste Constantinople into his world, rename it Qarth, and call it a day. Several different Middle Eastern and Asian influences went into crafting the city. For example, Qarth's many colored buildings and walls decorated with animals and scenes of war feel inspired by Babylonian architecture, especially the famed Walls of Babylon, one of the ancient world's Seven Wonders. Also, the carvings that depict "men and women giving pleasure to one another" (28.Daenerys.3) were definitely inspired by the erotic sculptures at the temples at Khajuraho.
Ultimately, the importance of trade and money in Qarth are at odds with Dany and her goal of acquiring the ships necessary to invade the Seven Kingdoms. Without money of her own, Dany must decide what she is willing to trade: her principles, her pride, or perhaps her dragons? We'll leave this a spoiler free zone, but if you're curious how Dany's story turns out, swing over to her page in the "Characters" section.
On a side note, Qarth is ruled by a group, and their shared authority is not as absolute as that of the King of Seven Kingdoms. As Dany notes:
The merchant princes, grown vastly rich off the trade between the seas, were divided into three jealous factions: the Ancient Guild of Spicers, the Tourmaline Brotherhood, and the Thirteen, to which Xaro belonged. Each vied with the others for dominance, and all three contended endlessly with the Pureborn. (41.Daenerys.18)
In Qarth more than elsewhere, we're witnessing the beginnings of the bourgeois class in this world. The guilds represent tradesmen who have carved out a class of power and respect in the social structure, one originating not from birth but from economic gains. In our history, the rise of the bourgeoisie resulted in the decline of feudalism, as well as social, economic, and political changes that would eventually lead to the development of Western capitalism (source).
By the end of A Clash of Kings, we can't be certain this will happen in Martin's world or that we'll see this social trend move beyond Qarth. What we can say, though, is that it'll be interesting to see what becomes of Qarth in future entries of the series.
Another Crow Beyond the Wall
Jon spends a little time at Castle Black, but it's not long before he's off with Jorah Mormont for the Great Ranging. The lands beyond the Wall are a mysterious place, and we can't say much as Jon is just learning about them himself.
The lands seem to be inspired by northern Scandinavia. Like the European peninsula, they are close to the world's pole and filled with forests, harsh weather, and mountainous regions. Consider this passage where Jon describes Skirling Pass:
[It] was really a series of passes, a long twisting course that went up around a succession of icy wind-carved peaks and down through hidden valleys that seldom saw the sun. (52.Jon.17)
Google a picture of Galdhøpiggen, the highest mountain in Scandinavia, and you can easily see the influence.
The lands beyond the Wall feel like a place untouched by time, where wilderness still contends with mankind and magic might exist in the darkness. The forests are thick, a "vast tangle of root and limb painted in a thousand shades of green, with here and there a patch of red where a weirwood shouldered through the pines and sentinels" (35.Jon.18). Here, the wilderness is untamed, and the presence of the weirwood shows they have changed little since the days before the Seven Kingdoms. This makes Jon wonder whether the ghosts and spirits of the First Men really do haunt the forest still (35.Jon.16).
Then there are the people who live in that land: the wildlings. In Westeros, wildlings are viewed as barbarians, savages who kill mercilessly and with little reason. But the truth turns out to be a little more nuanced. As Jon thinks when he meets Craster, his first wildling:
[He] remembered Old Nan's tales of the savage folk who drank blood from human skulls. Craster seemed to be drinking a thin yellow beer from a chipped stone cup. Perhaps he had not heard the stories. (24.Jon.40)
Clearly the stories have been exaggerated, and what Jon finds are people, just like everybody else—these just happen to be his enemy.
When Jon meets Ygritte, we get further hints at how different yet similar the wildlings are. They refer to themselves as the free folk, there are hints at a complex society of hunter-gatherers, and they have their own legends of heroes, such as Bael the Bard (52.Jon.89).
By the novel's end, Jon joins their ranks as a double agent, so we'll no doubt learn more about the wildlings and the lands they call home in the next novel, A Storm of Swords. But that's a discussion for another day.