War is ever-present in this story. The War of the Five Kings is ongoing at the novel's beginning, and it won't reach a definitive conclusion until later in the series. Importantly, though, much as the plot is driven by war in A Clash of Kings, the book looks at war as just one element of its fantastical society, showing how the consequences of violence on such a massive scale infect the realms of politics, agriculture, and economics. War, in other words, is one way in which we come to understand Martin's world—a big deal, but not the whole show.
A Clash of Kings considers war to be a natural phenomenon, something people of all eras undertake simply due to human nature.
Arya's personal journey demonstrates how a war culture propagates violence at all levels of society, not just in soldiers and on battlefields.
Think living in the 21st century can be rough? Then we suggest you skip your Westeros vacation, since that place can go medieval on you. You know the drill: kings, knights, chivalry, and disease—whole bunches of disease ruining everything for everyone. This is a society that loves its hierarchy, be it financially-based or structured around gender. So here's the deal: If this all sounds pretty terrible to you, then just visit vicariously by bringing A Clash of Kings with you on your next beach vacation. You can get a tan and visit a society that leaves a whole lot to be desired.
Although the rigid feudalist structure of the Seven Kingdoms hinders social mobility, there are a few characters that demonstrate an ability to rise—namely Davos, Varys, and Littlefinger.
The women of the Seven Kingdoms receive their social status based on their husband instead of personal merit. This is why Dany's story of moving up the social ladder takes place on an entirely different continent.
Family plays a huge role in A Clash of Kings, and not just because the families of the Seven Kingdoms are huge. Seriously, everybody is related to everybody, and they all share, like, five names between them. Thematically, though, families represent the conflict between the individual and the group he or she associates with. That is, does being a member of a certain family make you a certain type of person, or is the individual free to choose their own being? It's a bit like the nature versus nurture debate, and just like that debate, the answer here is both.
Political and family conflicts are one and the same in the Seven Kingdoms, a consequence of the tightly bound feudalist social structure.
The breakup of the family unit is one of the major consequences of war presented by the novel.
The political scene of Westeros is all about manipulation: of people, of information, of money, of the law, of other manipulators, and so on. Of course, this is nothing new if you read the first book in the series, so why bring it up again? Because of Tyrion Lannister. See, Ned Stark wasn't very good at playing the game of thrones, hence his political career was cut short. On the other hand, Tyrion is pretty good at the game of thrones. In A Clash of Kings, we witness how the game is properly played, giving us a whole new appreciation for the manipulation it takes to lobby in Westeros politics.
None of the great manipulators—Varys, Littlefinger, or Tywin Lannister—are given point-of-view chapters in the novel because readers are being manipulated by them, too.
Although Arya and Cersei develop two unique styles, both require the art of manipulation to survive in their respective parts of society.
Sometimes power in fantasy can be as simple as a sword swing, but in A Clash of Kings, power is a much more nuanced affair. Varys uses information to levy his influence, while Joffrey's authority comes simply being the son of a now dead king. Littlefinger has immense power over people because he controls the flow of money. The Hound is strong, but if strength equals power, then why do others dominate his choices? As such, there are many varieties of power in this world, but which is the most powerful power? We honestly couldn't say.
Jon and Daenerys's journeys to unknown countries bring new understandings of power to the Song of Ice and Fire series. Daenerys's interactions in Qarth show the power of trade and commerce while Jon's encounter with the wildlings suggests a type of power in community.
In each novel of the series, a central character overreaches for power and succumbs to a disturbing fate. In A Clash of Kings, this character is Theon.
Death is everywhere in A Clash of Kings, and that's not an exaggeration—people die in every location in every horrific way imaginable. Ser Amory is killed by a bear at Harrenhal, and thousands die by wildfire in the Battle of Blackwater at King's Landing. Heck, Renly is murdered by a shadow at Storm's End, and, generally speaking, we can't think of anything less harmful than a shadow. Death comes for everyone, but in this world, it can be shocking to see just how commonplace this macabre part of life really is.
Joffrey's disregard for death and its effects on others stems from his father's praise of war and the men who fight in them.
Witnessing so much death and destruction has desensitized Arya to the mortality of others, weakening her ability to feel empathy and increasing her understanding of killing as the solution to her problems.
A Clash of Kings serves as a formative entry in many characters' stories. Characters that started as innocent children, such as Arya and Sansa, begin to realize the true harshness of the world without their father's protection. Former misfit Tyrion finds a place in society where he feels he belongs, and Dany becomes a strong, independent woman in her own right. These personal journeys play into the novel's coming of age theme. Because remember: Age is just a number. And even grown-ups have some growing up to do.
Martin picks his point-of-view characters in each novel based on the coming of age theme. If a character has a POV chapter, then they'll be learning some life lessons for sure.
This theme connects the entire series together, meaning no character's coming-of-age story concludes in A Clash of Kings.
In the Seven Kingdoms, gender roles are pretty much set in stone: Boys will be boys, girls will be girls, and that's the end of the discussion. Good talk. This is especially true amongst the country's upper class. Female characters in A Clash of Kings are required to marry, have babies, and look pretty—unless they become prostitutes, in which case they need only follow rule number three. For their part, men must learn to fight and run their land.
But gender roles are cultural constructs, and they don't exist within universal hard lines for every culture or even every person for that matter. Yes, even in the Seven Kingdoms. So keep your eyes out for cracks in that stone.
The gender roles Cersei wishes she could break free from in the Seven Kingdoms are the same gender roles Dany breaks free from in Essos, making these two characters interesting foils.
Even characters that accept their gender roles struggle to match them. Kings Robb and Joffrey are excellent examples, striving to be viewed as true men in their roles.
In A Clash of Kings, the past has a powerful influence over the present. The War of the Five Kings would not have happened had Joffrey not executed Ned Stark, but the seeds of that deed were planted in events that predate the first novel, such as Robert's Rebellion and the death of Lyanna Stark.
But this relationship between the past and present is more than one of cause and effect—the past also has a cyclical relationship with the present in these novels; events in history mirror those happening in the now. For example, just like Aegon Targaryen conquered the Seven Kingdoms with three dragons, Daenerys Targaryen plans to conquer the country with her three dragons. The Others have invaded the south before for mysterious reasons and now they plan to return for equally mysterious reasons.
As such, the past is not simply a series of historical events but a part of a temporal cycle. Leading to what exactly? We can't say yet. This is only the second book in the series, after all.
Characters without strong connections to the past are also the characters without families, such as Jaqen H'ghar.
The cycle of history relates to individual characters as well as large events. For example, every person who becomes the Hand of the King either dies or has something horrible happen to them.
In A Clash of Kings, duty is all up in everyone's business. For example, it is a lord's wife's duty to birth boys for her family's lineage (no pressure there), and it's a knight's duty to fight for his lord. And along these lines, there are those who do their best to meet their duty—here we can think of, say, Robb Stark—and those whose truest sense of duty is simply to themselves (ahem, Joffrey). But while the deeds may be different, one thing's constant: How characters relate to duty tells us a lot about them, and the duties that exist tell us a lot about this world.
Duty is often the death knell of a character. For example, Renly is going to be dutiful and meet Stannis on the battlefield—but then Stannis does the backhanded thing and sends a magical assassin. Remember how that turned out? Also, see Ned Stark.
Although Jaime Lannister may have forsaken his vows, he has not forsaken his duty. He just sees his duty as different than the vows society placed on him.