This book is much, much better than its predecessor, mainly because there is a huge improvement in the pacing. Looking back, Game of Thrones is definitely about setting up arranging all the pieces to be in position for the action that follows in the sequel. While that seemed tedious at times, Clash of Kings definitely makes it worth the effort to get through. Twists and turns continue as the people of Westros play the Game of Thrones for control of the Seven Kingdoms. What strikes me the most (in a good way) about Kings is the way that Martin manages to deftly juggle subplot upon subplot. While the lords of the Seven Kingdoms jockey for power in an all-out war, North of the Wall the Black Brothers are tracking down a mystery that may change the face of the civil war in the south. Meanwhile, the East, across the Narrow Sea, the last scion of the former King is on a magical and exotic journey through a land that seems bizarre to say the least compared to Westros, a place where magic is born again and dangers lurk around every corner. Martin does a fantastic job at selecting characters for points of view of the action on all sides and each chapter ends on a tantalizing note that makes you want to continue forward. Again, the pacing is really good and just when you're about to find out what happens to Bran, we're whisked away to the other end of the world to find out what's happening with Daenerys. In spite of how that sounded, it's not annoying, and the title of each chapter brings all the action that was left off the last time we saw that character rushing back, making you eager to continue. Martin is politically savvy, does intrigue really, really well and manages to build likable, but extremely round characters. There are no fantasy archetypes here. They're buried under layers and layers of flaws that make some of the characters endearing, and others utterly repulsive.
So why not 5 stars? As much as an improvement this book was to the pacing of the series, it could still have used some heavy editing, particularly when it comes to the elaborate and inane descriptions of EVERY single meal that anyone sits down to eat. Every. Single. One. I get it. It's period-accurate and all that jazz, but you convinced me of that in the first book and through other aspects of this one. I don't need to know that Cersei is sitting down to a seven course meal with a three page long description of each of the courses as if I'm perusing the menu at a fine dining restaurant only to be confronted with the meal that Tyrion is eating in the middle of the next chapter. Were you hungry when you wrote this? Seems like it. Anyway, the descriptions just became tedious and I found myself skimming whenever Martin started to mention food. Two books in and I also still can't get used to the very uncomfortable descriptions of rape that seem remarkably casual given the gravity of the act. Again, I understand the whole Alan Moore of Fantasy effect he's going for, but at times, it seems tasteless and with all of Westros at war looting and pillaging neighbors, there were lots of moments that I felt were unnecessarily graphic. Yes, war is brutal and medieval medicine and gender roles and relations being what they were, etc., etc., but do you really have to take every opportunity possible to be so blunt about it? Call me a boy scout, but I just get tired of it after a while. I don't want or expect a G rated Fantasy. I like the grittiness of the series and its realism, but, as with Thrones, I just feel like sometimes it goes overboard.
Nevertheless, my personal proclivities aside, this is a very intelligent and suspenseful work of fiction that leaves other contemporary fantasy in the dust. It's intricate, well-developed and littered with amazing characters and page-turning tension. Well worth your time, even if fantasy is outside your usual reading ground.