A Clash of Kings: Book Two of a Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin (New York: Bantam Books, 1999. 768 pp)
George R. R. Martin is an American author and screenwriter of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Born in New Jersey, Martin earned a B.S. and M.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University. He began writing fiction in the early 1970s with his first works earning him a Hugo and Nebula award. In the 1980s, he began writing in Hollywood for the Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. Martin is best known for his critically acclaimed epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, which was developed into Game of Thrones, an HBO television series.
*Spoiler Alert for Book One in Effect throughout this Review*
The Female Lead
What constitutes a strong female character? Does she need to act “masculine,” dominating the fields of battle, outwitting her male counterparts, and saving the day? Or is a strong female character reserved, capable of reading scenarios, understanding social settings, and leading a household?
I don’t claim to know the answer to these questions. I do, however, enjoy the female characters in A Clash of Kings, the second installment in George R. R. Martin’s epic series, A Song of Ice and Fire.
The book begins where A Game of Thrones concludes.
Civil war plagues the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. In every corner, an army declares their respective leader the claimant to the throne. While Stannis Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon, and Robb Stark prepare for war, Balon Greyjoy, the self-proclaimed king of the Iron Islands aims to take the northern territories of Westeros. Simultaneously, Jon Snow marches beyond the Wall with the Night’s Watch hoping to better understand the potential threat of Mance Rayder and his armies in the far north.
Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen meanders eastward nurturing her baby dragons and raising an army with the hope of retaking Westeros.
With a myriad of moving parts, there is little wonder why A Clash of Kings tips the scales at over 700 pages. World building depends upon verbosity.
Grace Among the Bone, Pulp, and Gristle
But the females stuck in a male-dominated world interest me most in this narrative.
In A Clash of Kings, we find Arya Stark pretending to be a boy as she flees King’s Landing. To hide her gender, Arya must “make water” in the woods and exude a vicious “masculine” personality to hide her true self from enemy troops. Arya’s life depends on the denial of her gender.
|The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros|
Catelyn, the widowed Stark matriarch, feels helpless as the war unfolds around her. Even though she continues to perform crucial tasks in the war effort, she feels the pull of home—Winterfell—and the motherly duties of raising children.
As an illustrative contrapuntal character to Catelyn, Brienne, a sworn knight, promises to protect Catelyn.
“Brienne fell in beside her, silent. It is simpler for her, Catelyn thought with a pang of envy. She was like a man in that. For men the answer was always the same, and never farther away than the nearest sword. For a woman, a mother, the way was stonier and harder to know” (495).
A big-boned and hard-featured character, Brienne rejects her noble upbringing as a lady replacing it with the brutality of knighthood.
The Queen Regent
Even though the previous characters intrigue, my favorite character relationship in A Clash of Kings goes to Cersei Lannister and Sansa Stark. As Queen Regent, Cersei effectively rules Westeros for her teenaged son. Sansa, betrothed to Joffrey despite her “traitorous” father, lives in King’s Landing existing in a careful balance between enslaved and a noble lady. Sansa, as the sister of Robb Stark, the King of the North, carries immeasurable value as a hostage in the war effort. Yet she remains betrothed to King Joffrey.
Throughout the novel, Cersei communicates the tenets of womanhood to the frightened Stark girl.
“’Tears,’ she said scornfully to Sansa as the woman was led from the hall. ‘The woman’s weapon, my lady mother used to call them. The man’s weapon is a sword. And that tells us all you need to know, doesn’t it’” (637)?
Martin depicts Cersei as a power-hungry harridan. If Cersei were a man, the Iron Throne of Westeros would be hers in a heartbeat it would seem. As a woman, her ambition must remain cloaked. Martin potently describes Cersei’s vitriolic nature:
“’When we were little, Jaime and I were so much alike that even our lord father could not tell us apart. Sometimes as a lark we would dress in each other’s clothes and spend a whole day each as the other. Yet even so, when Jaime was given his first sword, there was none for me. ‘What do I get?’ I remember asking. We were so much alike, I could never understand why they treated us so differently. Jaime learned to fight with sword and lance and mace, while I was to be sold to some stranger like a horse, to be ridden whenever my new owner liked, beaten whenever he liked, and cast aside in time for a younger philly. Jaime’s lot was to be glory and power, while mine was birth and moonblood” (639).
One’s sexual constitution most certainly dictates the path of life in A Clash of Kings, much like in real life. Even though life in Westeros often depends on becoming more masculine, Martin includes some strong feminine characters. While men parade through Westeros seeking violence with the sword, the women represent the most compelling characters through strength, resolve, and dignity.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
What do you think? What makes a compelling female character? Does George R. R. Martin succeed in depicting strong female characters in an overtly masculine setting?
Share your thoughts below.
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