At the end of A Game of Thrones, the Seven Kingdoms went a little nuts. King Robert Baratheon was killed by a boar, and Lord Eddard Stark was beheaded by orders of Joffrey Baratheon, the new king. Rightfully peeved at his father's death, Robb Stark rebelled and proclaimed the North a sovereign nation. Even Renly Baratheon decided to get in on the kingly action and left King's Landing to amass his own force to take the kingdom.
And that's pretty much where we come in with A Clash of Kings. If you feel you need a refresher course in what happened during the previous novel, then we've got you covered. But if you feel up to speed, then keep on reading here.
To keep this summary simple—well, simple as possible at any rate—we're going to start with the super-brief plot summary below that gives a big picture perspective. Following that, we'll have more detailed plot summaries looking in on the actions of individual characters and their more personal stories.
All right, here goes one thousand pages of highly-condensed, made-from-concentrate storytelling.
In the east, Stannis Baratheon claims the Iron Throne as Robert's only legitimate heir, which, by the way, he totally is by law. But little brother, Renly, has already called most of the Baratheon lords to his cause in his bid to claim the Iron Throne for himself. The resulting popularity contest becomes a nationwide sibling squabble.
Elsewhere, Robb Stark continues to fume over his father's death and do battle with the Lannisters with the help of his mother's family, the Tullys. Despite his youth, Robb holds his own against the older Lord Tywin Lannister, resulting in several surprising victories for his cause.
At yet another elsewhere, the Greyjoy family decides to carve its own kingdom out of the north while the other families are too busy fighting each other to stop them—it's basically the warfare equivalent of Marty McFly's "What's that?" move.
The ensuing conflict becomes known as the War of the Five Kings, and A Clash of Kings tells the story of its major battles and political maneuverings. By the novel's end, Renly is dead, Stannis and the Greyjoys have suffered major setbacks, and the Lannisters and Starks remain the only true contenders.
(The war doesn't actually conclude until the third book, A Storm of Swords, and arguably not even then. So you'll have to keep reading to find out just how crazy things get. But anyway.)
Jon and Daenerys's tales also continue from A Game of Thrones. Jon joins Commander Mormont for the Great Ranging beyond the Wall, and Daenerys tries to gather support for her impending invasion of the Seven Kingdoms in the Essos city of Qarth. Each story sets up major events to take place in later books, and both characters' coming-of-age stories see them grow further into adulthood. With that said, each feels more like a side story as Jon and Daenerys have little connection with the politicking of the Seven Kingdoms.
Wow, and that's the super-short brief plot summary.
Tyrion Lannister comes to King's Landing on Joffrey's name day and surprises everyone with a letter proclaiming him active Hand of the King in Lord Twyin's absence. Not trusting Cersei's ability to rule properly as Queen Regent—on account of the fact that she's super bad at it—Tyrion immediately begins consolidating power around him.
He removes Cersei's men from key positions and replaces them with his own peeps. He prepares strategies for the invasion of Renly and Stannis's forces. To top it off, he must prevent the citizens of King's Landing from rioting as things like starving to death and having sociopathic Joffrey as king has put everyone on edge.
But Stannis is no slouch either. He tries to rally his bannermen to fight for his claim to the throne—which, again, is totally legit—but most of them swing over to Renly's side because Renly is a superstar by Seven Kingdoms standards. Also, Stannis proclaims to worship a new god called the Lord of Light and even allows his new priestess, Melisandre, to burn all the effigies of his old gods. Turns out, burning down someone's god is not the best way to make friends.
Robb Stark sends his mother, Catelyn Stark, to parley with Renly in the hopes that they can make the Lannisters a common enemy. Despite wanting to go north and be with Bran and Rickon, Catelyn agrees and reaches Renly's camp just as Stannis lays siege to Storm's End, Renly's castle.
When the two brothers finally meet up, they decide to duke it out rather than talk it out. Catelyn is present when Renly dies of mysterious circumstances conveniently before the battle, but she is positive that the shadow assassin that killed him looked like Stannis. Most of Renly's bannerbros go over to Stannis's side while Catelyn escapes with Renly's loyal knight, Brienne of Tarth.
Brienne swears fealty to Catelyn, and they spend the rest of the novel in Riverrun observing Edmure Tully, Catelyn's brother, battle the Lannister forces. Catelyn talks briefly with the imprisoned Jamie Lannister during this time, and she may or may not have straight-up murdered him (you'll just have to read the third book to find out).
Throughout all of this, Sansa Stark remains in King's Landing as Joffrey's kind-of betrothed, sort-of prisoner. She saves a weak knight named Ser Dontos from Joffrey's malicious ways, and the once-knight promises to see her safely home. In between bouts of being abused by Joffrey and Cersei, Sansa sometimes receives life lessons from Ser Sandor Clegane, a.k.a. the Hound. She also mopes about a lot. And… yeah, moving on.
Stannis finally attacks King's Landing, but Tyrion's preparations prove too much for his forces. Tyrion destroys Stannis's fleet with hulk ships filled with wildfire and leads a sortie that delays Stannis's soldiers from ramming down the King's Gate. During the battle, one of Tyrion's own men, Ser Mandon Moore, attempts to kill him.
When Tyrion comes to, he learns that his father managed to rout Stannis's forces with the help of the Tyrells. For their services, Joffrey takes Margaery Tyrell as his newly betrothed wife, meaning Sansa no longer has to marry him. For Tyrion's services, he is given a huge scar across his face and Tywin takes back the office of Hand of the King.
Everybody's story ends in a giant To Be Continued…
Arya Stark travels the King's Road a bit with Night's Watch recruiter Yoren, who plans to return her to Winterfell. They are eventually attacked by Lannister men lead by a Ser Amory. During the attack, Arya saves the lives of three men, but Yoren and most of the others die. With her friends Hot Pie and Gendry, Arya travels the wilderness for a while, but they are eventually captured by Ser Gregor Clegane, a.k.a. the Mountain, a.k.a. the last guy you want to capture you. He marches to castle Harrenhal to work for the Lannisters.
Unbeknownst to her, one of the three men she saved was an assassin named Jaqen H'ghar. He offers her three lives as payment for the life debt. Arya's first two kills are Weese and Chiswyck, pretty evil dudes in their own right. With her third death, she orders Jaqen to kill himself unless he helps her free Stark prisoners in the Harrenhal dungeons. Jaqen plays this "Get Out of Jail Free" card, and Ser Amory is displaced as Harrenhal's castellan.
Later, Lord Roose Bolton, one of Robb's men, takes Harrenhal as his own. He has Ser Amory executed by a bear—yes, you read that right—thus revenging Yoren's death in Arya's eyes.
So all is peachy for Arya then, right? Wrong. She learns Bolton is just as cruel as the other lords, so she, Gendry, and Hot Pie escape from Harrenhal with Arya's goal to get herself to Riverrun and back to her family. Arya's story is—you guessed it—To Be Continued…
Theon Greyjoy returns to the Iron Islands after being away from his home for ten years. He finds his homecoming less than celebratory as everyone finds his personality more Stark than Greyjoy. Theon tells his father his plan for them to join the Starks, but Lord Balon Greyjoy rejects it. He has his own goals, thank you very much.
Planning to carve a kingdom out of the north, Balon sends Theon to sack fishing villages up and down the coast while Theon's sister, Asha, takes the castle at Deepwood Motte. Seeing no glory in defeating fishermen, Theon disobeys his father and takes Winterfell instead. Afraid for his people's safety, Bran Stark yields the castle to Theon.
With the help of Osha, Meera, and Jojen, Bran and Rickon escape. Theon hunts them down but is unsuccessful. Fearing he will look weak, Theon lets a manservant named Reek convince him to kill two other boys and pass them off as Bran and Rickon.
Theon has difficulty controlling Winterfell with his skeleton crew and word comes that Ser Rodrik aims to retake the castle. Despite the warnings of his sister, Theon refuses to look like a failure and chooses to stay and fight for his prize. He gives Reek a bag of silver to hire men to help him fight.
Rodrik comes to retake the castle but is defeated by Reek and his men. Reek reveals himself to be Ramsey Snow, Roose Bolton's illegitimate son. Knocking Theon out cold with a gauntleted backhand, Ramsay sacks and burns Winterfell. And with that, Theon's fate is filed under To Be Continued… Shocking, we know.
As for Bran and company, they emerge a few days later, having been hiding in the crypts beneath the castle the whole time. They agree that Rickon and Bran must split up, so Osha takes Rickon while Bran travels with Meera, Jojen, and Hodor. Jojen says they will head north, seeking the three-eyed crow and an answer to Bran's dreams. Yet another To Be Continued…
Unlike the royalty and regular folk of the Seven Kingdoms, Daenerys's life is peachy across the Narrow Sea. Just kidding. Things are pretty weaksauce for her, too.
Caught between mightier khalasars (killer rocks) and the Red Waste (deadly hard place), she chooses to enter the Red Waste. After a harrowing journey, she and her people make it to Qarth, city of wealth and unpronounceable names. Dany is welcomed with open arms: A wealthy merchant named Xaro Xhoan Daxos lets her crash at his mansion, she is showered with gifts, and word even reaches her that Robert Baratheon is dead.
But Dany's Yelp review of Qarth isn't five stars, since she receives no help in her quest to retake the Iron Throne. The Pureborn of Qarth sees her and her dragons as novelties only, and Xaro assists her because he super wants a dragon. Quaithe of the Shadow offers sage advice, but like any true oracle, her words are a riddle wrapped in mystery stuffed inside an enigma.
Dany eventually seeks the aid of Pyat Pree and the Undying. Upon entering the House of the Undying with her dragon, Drogon, Dany receives several visions of the past and the future. The Undying also lay some prophecies on her but then attack her in the midst of the vision. Drogon sets the Undying alight with his fire breath, and thousand-year-old people are apparently super flammable.
Tired of begging the help of others, Dany goes to the ports of Qarth to seek her own passage to the Seven Kingdoms. There, an assassination attempt on her life is foiled by two strangers, Whitebeard and Strong Belwas. They say Magister Illyrio sent them with three ships to aid her return to Pentos, as Illyrio believes Dany alone can heal the Seven Kingdoms from its current political turmoil. Dany rechristens the ships, naming them after the dragons of Aegon the Conqueror.
She sails east and into the lands of To Be Continued…
Jon Snow joins Commander Mormont and two hundred Night's Watch brothers for the Great Ranging. Mormont's goal is to discover the fate of Benjen Stark, King-Beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder's plans, and what is causing men to rise up from the dead. What can we say? Dude's a go-getter.
As they set out, the Night's Watch find several wildling villages abandoned as though everyone just up and left. They travel to Craster's Keep, and Craster tells them that Mance Rayder is gathering his forces at a place called the Frostfangs, which is no doubt as pleasant as it sounds.
Jon and Sam meet Gilly, one of Craster's daughters/wives. She asks Jon to take her with them when they leave as she fears Craster will sacrifice her unborn to the cold gods. Jon refuses since they are heading to war and not the Wall.
The group travels farther north, eventually meeting up with Qhorin Halfhand and one hundred more brothers. Qhorin convinces Mormont to send three scouting parties to find Mance Rayder's forces. Qhorin agrees to lead one of the parties and requests Jon Snow join them. Jon accepts.
At a place called Skirling Pass, Jon kills his first wildling and captures another, a girl named Ygritte. That night, Jon and Ygritte go all getting to know you, and when Qhorin says to kill her, Jon lets her escape instead.
The scouting party draws closer to Mance Raider's forces. But an eagle, controlled by a warg—yep, that's a thing—spots them. Qhorin orders the retreat, but a hunting party kills the other crows in the pursuit. Cornered, Qhorin orders Jon to yield and become a double agent. To sell the ruse, Qhorin attacks Jon, forcing him to slay him. Ygritte vouches for Jon—isn't that lucky?—and Jon joins the wildlings. They travel to Mance Rayder's camp as the Wildlings prepare to assault the Wall and invade the Seven Kingdoms.
Thus ends Jon's story… for this novel at least. To be Continued… of course.
A note: If this all seems like a lot, well, it's because it is. With that said, the story is really easy to follow thanks to central point of view characters and a fair amount of exposition. It can be hard to tell where everyone's story is taking place in relation to everyone else's, but thankfully Martin's fans are a helpful community. Some thoughtful cartographers have even created maps to help fellow readers keep it all straight.