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.