Cressen, the maester of Dragonstone, watches a red comet. He wonders if it is an omen, like the raven that brought news that summer, which had lasted ten years, has ended. Pylos, his assistant, brings in Shireen, the daughter of King Stannis Baratheon, and her fool, Patches. On his way to the king’s chambers, Cressen meets Davos, a former smuggler whom Stannis knighted. Davos says that the lords he went to see will not pledge loyalty to Stannis and that many have sided with Renly, Stannis’s younger brother, who also claims to be king.
Cressen urges Stannis to form an alliance with Renly or Robb Stark, the King in the North, against the Lannister faction at King’s Landing. Stannis refuses. Queen Selyse arrives. She wants Stannis to attack King’s Landing on his own and suggests they assassinate Renly. Cressen objects but is dismissed to his chambers. Cressen realizes that Melisandre, a priestess from Asshai, and her foreign religion are at the heart of Stannis’s troubles and resolves to poison her that night.
At the banquet, Stannis announces that Pylos will take over Cressen’s duties. Cressen tries again to convince Stannis to form an alliance, but Stannis refuses and Melisandre says her god, the Lord of Light, is all the help Stannis needs. Melisandre and Selyse make Cressen put on Patches’s fool’s crown, although Stannis stops them when they try to make Cressen sing. Cressen takes advantage of the distraction to slip poison into the wine he offers to Melisandre. After drinking, Melisandre returns the cup to Cressen so that he can drink. Cressen dies, while Melisandre, unharmed, stands over him triumphantly.
Arya Stark marches north from King’s Landing with other recruits bound for the Night’s Watch at the Wall. Yoren, the chief recruiter, has convinced Arya to pretend that she is an orphan boy named Arry and has promised to drop her off at Winterfell, her family’s home in the North. Lommy and Hot Pie, two boys in the party, try to steal Needle, Arya’s sword and a gift from her half-brother, Jon Snow. But Arya knocks Hot Pie to the ground. Yoren pulls Arya away and beats her, telling her that Hot Pie did not kill her father and that she should not turn on her new brothers. At night, she remembers her father’s execution at King Joffrey’s command and dreams of home.
Sansa Stark attends the tournament being held in honor of King Joffrey’s name day. Joffrey tells her that Viserys, the last son of King Aerys, has been killed in the lands across the narrow sea, and he speculates on how he should kill Sansa’s rebel brother Robb. Joffrey grows irritated as the tournament knights put on a poor display. When a knight named Ser Dontos shows up drunk, Joffrey calls for him to be killed. Sansa convinces Joffrey to spare Ser Dontos’s life by making him a fool instead. The tournament is interrupted by the arrival of Joffrey’s uncle, Tyrion Lannister, and his gang of wild mercenaries, fresh from battle. Tyrion speaks more gently to Sansa than Joffrey does, but Sansa still feels that he is untrustworthy since he is a Lannister.
Tyrion delivers a letter to his sister Cersei, Joffrey’s mother and the Queen Regent. In the letter, Tywin Lannister, Tyrion and Cersei’s father, instructs the council to recognize Tyrion as the Hand of the King until Tywin himself can arrive in King’s Landing. Cersei objects, as she wanted Tywin to bring his armies to the city to protect the Lannister claim to the throne. Tyrion explains that he has come to help her and to try to free Jaime, Cersei’s twin and lover, whom Robb Stark has captured in battle. Cersei notes that they have Sansa Stark and that she has spread the rumor that they also have Arya, but in truth they lost Arya and she's likely dead.
Tyrion tells Cersei that Joffrey’s reign has been a disaster and asks what happened to Eddard Stark. Cersei tells him that the plan was to make Eddard join the Night’s Watch, but Joffrey disobeyed her and had Eddard executed at the last moment. Tyrion tells Cersei that he will control Joffrey by making the boy feel threatened. Cersei makes Tyrion promise to tell her of all his plans.
Tyrion tours King’s Landing. The city is growing restless under Joffrey’s cruel, inept rule, and the war with Robb Stark has resulted in a food shortage. He learns that Cersei has tripled the size of the City Watch to try to keep the peace, and that Littlefinger, the king’s master of coin, has imposed a tax on everyone entering King’s Landing. Tyrion arrives at an obscure inn where his mercenaries are staying, and finds Lord Varys, the eunuch in charge of intelligence for the king, already there. Varys has discovered that Tyrion brought his prostitute lover, Shae, with him, against Tywin’s orders. Tyrion tells Shae that he plans to do justice in King’s Landing.
The books that make up A Song of Ice and Fire combine to form a single seamless story, and A Clash of Kings picks up immediately where Game of Thrones left off. Accordingly, A Clash of Kings begins in media res (in the middle of things), as characters continue on the trajectories they were on at the end of Game of Thrones. The lack of exposition helps further the use of dramatic irony in the series, in which readers, since they see events from multiple characters’ perspectives, know more than the characters do. For instance, readers of the series know at the outset of A Clash of Kings that Joffrey’s father was not King Robert, but Jaime Lannister, his mother’s twin, and thus that the Lannisters have no claim to the throne. Most of the characters, however, do not know this, and the novel uses this gap between the knowledge of the readers and characters to increase the tension and drama in the story.
The hard, military-minded Stannis, much discussed but never present in Game of Thrones, makes his first appearance in the series, and we see him to be an uncompromising, pragmatic, humorless man increasingly obsessed with his struggle to win the Iron Throne. Stannis desperately needs more men if he is to take King’s Landing, but his unpleasant nature and Renly’s great popularity have left him with few resources. Although still clear-headed enough to recognize the weakness of his position, Stannis seems to be moving beyond reason, rejecting Cressen’s sensible advice to form an alliance with Renly or Robb. Instead, he nurses such a strong grievance against Renly that he has forgotten that the Lannisters should be his primary target. Moreover, he appears to be increasingly under the control of Melisandre and her god, the Lord of Light. It is evident, however, that Stannis has no interest in religious doctrine or spiritual matters. He only cares about Melisandre and the Lord of Light in so far as they can help him to become king. Stannis listens to Melisandre because he recognizes that she is powerful, as her interaction with Cressen makes clear.
With Melisandre, the novel pushes to the forefront an issue that had been addressed only indirectly in Game of Thrones: religious conflict. Most people in Westeros worship the Seven, also known as the “new gods.” A few people, most notably the Starks, continue to worship the nature spirits known as the “old gods,” which are the same gods worshipped by the first men who came to Westeros. It is evident that these two polytheistic faiths have been essentially the only ones in the kingdom for quite some, but Melisandre brings in a third religious perspective that centers on a single, all-powerful deity. Stannis takes up Melisandre's god as his own, and so, as is custom in the novel, his followers do as well. Consequently, a face off among three religious faiths begins to take shape. The novel never suggests that one or another faith is the correct one. Mostly we see religion as a part of the culture of each rival faction, though of all the characters Melisandre alone appears to gain some supernatural ability as a result of her faith.
Arya and Sansa Stark seem like they could not be more different, but the book draws close parallels between them. Both girls find themselves having to pretend to be something they are not in order to survive. Arya must act like a poor orphan boy, and Sansa must act as though she still loves Joffrey and despises her traitorous family. Within those delicate positions, however, both Arya and Sansa find ways to assert themselves, Arya with physical violence and Sansa with her sympathetic plea to save Dontos’s life. And both girls got what they thought they wanted—Arya a life of adventure and Sansa a life of courtly leisure—only to find that the reality does not meet their expectations.
Tyrion Lannister stands out in the series largely because of his amazing ability to live by his wits without sacrificing his integrity. Some characters in the series are morally bankrupt but politically savvy (Cersei Lannister, for instance), while others are politically naïve but morally good (Eddard Stark in Game of Thrones). With a rare mix of cunning and conscience, Tyrion combines the best of these two types. He recognizes that the Lannisters must keep Sansa Stark alive if they hope to free Jaime from captivity, but he also seems to genuinely feel for Sansa and the terrible position she is in. Similarly, he can see the political folly of bringing Shae with him to the capital, but he has become truly fond of her and feels that he cannot betray her by leaving her behind. Nor does he wish to deny himself her company. His first chapter sets up the political conflict between himself and his sister that will dominate much of his plot in the book, but there can be no doubt that he also means to do what is best for his family as a whole.