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Fantasy has generally been a genre in which male protagonists dominate and female characters play secondary roles. Does the novel adhere to convention in this sense?
A Clash of Kings overturns the stereotypical roles played by women in fantasy novels by showing women who do not conform to so-called traditional female roles and by devoting large portions of the story to the viewpoints of female characters, even though the fictional world it presents is still dominated by men. The women of Martin's novel are not confined to stereotypical roles like the ingenue, or the damsel-in-distress character, and the harpy, or evil queen. In fact, these characters do exist in the forms of Sansa and Cersei, but the novel is never content to see them as caricatures. Sansa, for instance, learns that her romanticized idea of the world—which promotes those stereotypical roles of the gallant, active man and helpless, passive woman—is completely false. Cersei, moreover, rails against the fact that, had she been born a man, her fate would have been drastically different. Through their characters, the novel in fact criticizes the traditional role of women in fantasy novels. In addition, the characters of Catelyn, Daenerys, Asha, Brienne, and Arya further demolish these traditional notions. They range so widely in personality and power that it can't be said that the novel imagines only limited roles for women.
The novel is not simply a depiction of a gender-neutral society, however, as it shows that the world it describes is still dominated by men. Notably, it never hesitates to show the ways in which women are subject to a level of sexual violence that men are largely spared. Numerous rapes, attempted rapes, and threats of rape course through the novel, extending to girls as young as Arya. Sansa’s development into sexual maturity, for example, adds a new danger for her. Joffrey has already assaulted her in a sexual way by having her stripped, and now that she has begun menstruating, her situation is all the more perilous as she is now available for Joffrey to bed. This emphasis on the vulnerability of women to sexual violence demonstrates how women are often cast as sex-objects in a patriarchal society like that of Westeros, and how that casting is in fact a brutal form of oppression.
Robb Stark and Tywin Lannister are two of the most important figures in the civil war plot, but they hardly appear in the book at all. What effect does Martin’s presentation of Robb and Tywin have on the novel as a whole?
By keeping Robb and Tywin offstage for nearly the entire novel, Martin adds elements of uncertainty and suspense to the work. Like many of the characters, readers can only guess what Robb and Tywin are up to, as their movements are either unknown or misrepresented. The mystery surrounding their intentions and plans creates an atmosphere of suspense, as readers do not know when and where they might strike. The war changes direction and momentum rapidly, and by keeping Robb and Tywin away from readers, the novel makes those changes unpredictable and thus makes the story more compelling.
Another effect of Robb and Tywin’s absence from most of the book is that it allows the book to show the chaos of war, a major theme of the book, and how much people’s lives can be effected by war's unpredictable events. Tyrion and Cersei, for instance, go from a position of growing strength to one of incredible vulnerability overnight, as Robb unexpectedly destroys the Lannister army gathering in the west. Later, this sudden change happens again, but in the opposite direction. Cersei gives up the battle for King’s Landing, convinced that the Lannisters have lost, and Tyrion rides into the fray in desparation, when their situation reverses instantly as Tywin and Mace Tyrell arrive and overrun Stannis’s army. Cersei and Tyrion plot and scheme relentlessly, seeking to manage every aspect of their political fortunes, only to see their lives completely altered by events that they did not even slightly anticipate. By withholding the viewpoints of Tywin and Robb, the novel allows the reader to experience these unexpected turns of events as Cersei and Tyrion do.
Labeling a novel "fantasy" immediately implies that it is not realistic, but all fantasy novels employ varying degrees of realism. How does A Clash of Kings bridge the gap between realism and fantasy?
Though A Clash of Kings does deal with fantastical elements like dragons and magic, it is able to balance realism and fantasy by initially creating a realistic world largely devoid of magic and the supernatural, then slowly pulling back that ordinary world to reveal more and more extraordinary things. For most of the people who live in the world of the novel, magic does not exist. Dragons and spells and wargs are things of the faraway past. Characters such as Tyrion are openly skeptical about the existence of supernatural beings or powers, as they have no reason to believe in such things. And in fact, much of the plot development in the novel is devoid of anything supernatural. By having so much of the book be devoted to political, personal, and martial maneuvering, the novel establishes a foundation based in the ordinary—in the sense that it is not supernatural—on which it can build. Even characters who have supernatural abilities, such as Bran, express doubts about them. These doubts anticipate the doubts of skeptical readers, and in showing how the novel's characters gradually accept the fantastical elements they're confronted with, the novel also urges the audience's gradual acceptance of these elements.
With Bran in particular, the novel builds a sense of mystery about the supernatural that turns slowly to acceptance. For a long time in the novel, it seems like Bran’s dreams could go either way, that he’s either simply projecting a desire to be able to move around like Summer, or that he actually does enter the wolf. In prolonging this uncertainty, the novel acknowledges the appeal of a skeptical, realistic take on Bran’s situation. Bran himself is dubious at first, and it is through the character of Jojen that the he is encouraged to embrace his supernatural ability. In essence, the novel presents realism as a valuable perspective that is the best vehicle for much of the story it has to tell, then it stretches that realism to accommodate fantasy elements.