Picking up shortly after the events in A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings begins slowly but soon accelerates as events foreshadowed in the previous novel come to fruition. The beginning is the weakest part of it all (save for the fascinating prologue which brings into the reader’s view one of the characters who major events will centre on), as Martin takes his time to refresh memories and to carefully put the pieces on the board. But once they’re there, tension builds to a crescendo which explodes into yet more chaos. There’s several major battles, some on-stage, some off-stage, and the horrors of warfare are emphasised by the journey of one of the characters. Once-fertile, scorched lands surround the human cruelty and misery which falls so hard upon the peasants who are caught in the midst of the lords’ wars.
Standing out in particular among the POV characters are Tyrion’s chapters. An obvious favourite character of the writer, the witty, brilliant dwarf is caught up in the race to prepare a city for assault while having to juggle the incessant, power-hungry demands of his sister and the cry for justice and food from the starving, frightened population. Martin is very quick with Tyrion’s caustic, raunchy speech, and equally adept at portraying the decent, duty-bound man who is seen as a monster by those he tries to help. The final chapters for the character are exciting, leaving some readers breathless with excitement - and perhaps shock. Martin never fails to surprise, or to show that reality can be very different from the songs.
In counterpoint, many readers were disappointed in Daenerys’ chapters, as many lofty expectations existed after the stunning conclusion of her story in the first novel and few, if any of these, were met. However, in re-reading the book some have found that Martin’s surprising (but foreseeable) turn of events were exactly what was needed to keep the story in perspective. Instead of the "Fire and Blood" of her family’s words, Dany takes an archetypal journey across a red waste to come across a city as exotic as Vaes Dothrak. There, intrigues, greed, and magic all seek to bind her, and she learns the hard lessons of reality that she will need to achieve her goals. It’s sometimes easy to forget that she’s still barely more than a girl, with some of her navet still intact.
In the end, A Clash of Kings is a successful novel, if perhaps a little less so than A Game of Thrones. It carries a heavy burden of story, yet Martin manages to keep the narrative crisp, and for many the shifting between POVs served to keep the story’s forward-momentum intact. There’s really only one word of warning for the would-be reader: if A Game of Thrones was at the very edge of acceptability with its dark, gritty realism, its violence and its sexuality, then A Clash of Kings is likely to be too much for you.