Incest, fratricide, alchemy, the dead rising to walk and kill, cold hearts and cold steel and, of course, dragons - A Clash of Kings has all that. It also has strong characters and a fully realized mythical world that seems as real and as current as today's newspaper.
The land of Westeros is in turmoil. Even more turmoil than in A Game of Thrones. In fact, A Game of Thrones seems almost tame by comparison. Yes, George R. R. Martin has definitely kicked it up a notch with this book.
The king who sat on the Iron Throne, Robert Baratheon, is dead, killed by a boar and by the perfidy of his queen, Cersei. His friend and ally, Eddard (Ned) Stark, the Hand of the King, is dead, killed by the newly installed King Joffrey, a cruel and obnoxious 13-year-old boy, son of Cersei and putative son of Robert. Ned was killed, as the previous Hand had also been killed, because he had uncovered a terrible secret about Cersei and her son.
Now the Stark family, Lady Catelyn and her five children and the bastard son, Jon Snow, are all still alive but are separated, scattered to the four winds by the chances of war. War rages throughout the land because Joffrey is not the only king. Robert's two brothers, Stannis and Renly, have each claimed the kingship, and in the North, Robb Stark has been proclaimed the King in the North and he leads a formidable army to protect the lands he is heir to and to avenge his father.
Beyond the Wall in the North that protects Westeros from the wildlings and other even more sinister beings that lurk in the frozen waste, Jon Snow is learning the ways of a ranger of the Night's Watch, a force which is sworn to protect the realm but takes no part in civil wars and contests for thrones.
Sansa, the older Stark daughter is trapped in King's Landing where she saw her father beheaded and where she is betrothed to the child king Joffrey who ordered his murder.
Arya, the younger daughter, is in the wilds as the book opens. She had been present at her father's beheading also, but had been protected from actually seeing it by Yoren, a ranger of the Night's Watch, who afterward spirited her away and out of the city.
The two youngest Stark boys, Brandon and Rickon, are still at the ancient home of the Starks called Winterfell, but their peril increases daily.
Lady Catelyn accompanied her son, Robb, to war and serves as his emissary to the two Baratheon brothers who vie in the South for the kingship.
Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, the last of the Targaryens, Daenerys, the "Mother of Dragons," raises her three dragons and tries to find a way to get her meager band of followers across the Narrow Sea to take back the Iron Throne which she deems hers by rights.
And while four "kings" stake their claims and battle for supremacy, other lesser Houses also see an opportunity to advance their own prospects.
Over it all, in the sky, a red comet takes its journey through the heavens. Is it an omen? And, if so, of what? Each House, of course, interprets the comet in the way most beneficent for that family.
This book is over 900 pages long and there seems no way to sum it up. Martin has created an astonishing work of imagination that is unrivaled by anything I have ever read with the possible exception of J.R.R. Tolkien. This work is definitely on a par with Tolkien.
One of the things that I find particularly satisfying about the Song of Ice and Fire series is the several strong female characters. This is not always - one could say almost never - the case in such fantasy works. From the pre-teen Arya to her mother Lady Catelyn, to the female knight Brienne, to Daenerys Targaryen, and even the odious Cersei, these are females who take responsibility for their own fates. Yes, they are victims of the society in which they live, but they reject that victimhood.
For me, one of the most affecting moments of the book was when Arya, who is now a prisoner, goes to the Godswood to pray among the trees to the old gods of her father and she finds an answer to her prayer in the remembered words of her father. And since I can't wait to finds out what happens next to Arya, I'm moving right along to the next book in the series, A Storm of Swords. Did I mention that these books are mesmerizing?