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A Clash of Kings is the first fantasy novel in years and years to be legitimately called "great." It will no doubt sweep away fans of this senses-reeling saga as effortlessly as its predecesor did, but with a story far more layered, suspenseful, shocking and exhilarating. That Martin can grip a reader so consistently and expertly throughout a story nearly a thousand pages long is no small achievement. Other genre luminaries as Jordan, Brooks, and Goodkind have garnered their followers and made their marks upon the genre for good or bad, but all of their works pale before A Song of Ice and Fire. There's no clash of kings to be had on this battlefield. Martin wins decisively, his genuine epic soaring above the countless wannabe epics weighing down bookstore shelves. And you know I'm not a guy given to hyperbole, if you've been reading this site for any length of time. (At least I think I'm not.)

Martin's second installment begins right where A Game of Thrones left off. So don't read any more of this review if you haven't read it. With Eddard Stark treacherously murdered, his eldest son Robb has been proclaimed King in the North by all of his loyal followers and bannermen. Meanwhile, the late Robert Baratheon's two brothers, Stannis and Renly, each claim the crown and the Iron Throne at King's Landing held by the cretinous boy-king Joffrey and his arch-evil mother Cersei Lannister. With no fewer than four men claiming kingship, the land of Westeros is on the brink of the most devastating war it has seen in years. And prognostications of doom are only enhanced by the appearance in the skies of a blazing red comet, held as both a good and evil omen by the masses and the high houses alike.

The plot follows the lives of the characters introduced by Martin in book one, as events spiral headlong into chaos and madness. Martin does a gripping job of putting his readers squarely into the midst of a realm and an entire people inexorably carried along into war and strife; the characters' helplessness is palpable, and, in the cases of those who try their best to maintain courage and dignity in spite of everything, they grow more heroic simply because they are so human.

Yet the narrative structure of A Clash of Kings is surprising. It opens introducing the heretofore unseen Stannis Baratheon as viewed through the eyes of Davos Seaworth, a former smuggler who is one of Stannis's most loyal sea captains. Stannis has taken on the services of one Lady Melisandre, a priestess of a god known as the Lord of Light, and the powers she seems to be able to call up are frightening indeed; Stannis's enemies drop dead horribly and mysteriously, and people whisper of evil magic. Then, as the novel progresses, Stannis serves as a looming threat in the background as Martin divides the plot between the scattered Stark children, and the Lannisters' attempts to hold onto their power despite the cruel tyranny of Joffrey and the fact that major armies are massing against King's Landing from all points on the map.

Robb Stark, the King in the North, is doing quite well in his battles against the Lannisters, winning virtually every time he meets them on the field, and yet his victorious streak is threatened by both Stannis and Renly, and a new threat of which he is unaware. His sister Sansa, now completely disabused of her romantic delusions of life at court, sits helplessly at King's Landing, fearing for her life every day as she awaits her opportunity to flee back home. Arya, the other Stark sister with the strong rebellious streak, is making her way north disguised as an orphan boy in the company of a band of thugs destined for the Night's Watch far to the north. Back at Winterfell, Bran and Rickon, the two youngest Stark boys, find themselves face to face with a former friend turned traitor. And Jon Snow, Eddard Stark's bastard son serving in the Night's Watch, is ranging far to the north of the Wall, where he discovers the threat of yet another looming invasion.

It's all very exhausting for even the hardiest reader to keep up with...and that was merely scratching the surface. Suffice it to say that, unlike so many epic fantasies, A Clash of Kings merits its length. Martin packs his pages with story upon story upon story upon story, and all of it (as I've said before) populated by some of the most finely realized characters the genre has ever seen. Beyond its bone-crunching action scenes and its often agonizing suspense, this is a story about human beings. And even though Martin does bow to convention enough to give us clearly delineated good guys and bad guys, in truth most of his characters are flawed, or are at least affected by the horrors around them in ways anyone could relate to. Catelyn Stark, though she remains brave as she sees her precious family scattered and lost all around her, eventually grows numb and even a bit cold in the face of tragedy. Not a reaction one might associate with a heroine but certainly one you'd associate with a real person. Tyrion Lannister, the much-maligned dwarf who finds himself teetering between order and disaster as he tries to keep the Lannisters from losing absolutely everything, may very well be the strongest antihero in all of contemporary fantasy. (Martin has said Tyrion is his personal favorite character in the saga, and it shows.) When Tyrion comments that he is all that stands between the family and population who both despise him, and chaos, it's a defining moment.

Intriguingly, Daenerys Targaryen, who figured so powerfully in the first novel (especially in its astounding finale) gets little play in this book, occupying not much more than 100 pages of its nearly 1000. But her brief moments are crucial and point towards much more to come in future volumes.

A Song of Ice and Fire is shaping up to be the pinnacle of unromantic, epic military fantasy. Martin can cross swords with the best of them (an unforgettable battle scene in the book's final 200 pages has an intensity to rival that of the film Saving Private Ryan), but never forgets that the heart of his tale lies with its people. And the human heart is one place both ice and fire can call home.

Followed by A Storm of Swords.