4) A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice & Fire, #2) by George R. R. Martin
The second part of Martin's immense epic that's served as the source for the hit HBO show continues right where the last one left off. Westeros is in turmoil as the country plunges into civil war over who should be the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Besides Joffrey, the son (in name only) of the recently deceased king, there's Renly and Stannis, brothers to King Robert, Robb Stark, the proclaimed King of the North, along with Balon Greyjoy and Daenerys Targaryen. Frankly, it's a job that's accompanied by problems that someone wouldn't wish on their worst enemy, so it's difficult to understand why they would want it. The same three basic stories continue from before: the aforementioned war to gain control of the Seven Realms of Westeros, Jon Snow and the Night's Watch folks travelling north of the Wall to investigate zombies and find their missing members, and Dany Targaryen trying to return to home with her dragons.
The big difference in reading this volume compared to the first is the lack of the television show as a supplementary guide. Reading the first book concurrently with watching the show revealed the surprising lengths the latter took to follow the former, and the show also took some of the characters that received short shrift in the book and fleshed them out. Thanks to some of those moments, some of which came to the forefront more in this volume, the motivations and misconceptions I may have had were easier to understand. Without the show this time around, I was left to my own devices. That's not a negative, as it has me pumped for Game of Throne's return on April 1, but it was jarring and revealed just how much the show spoiled me for the rest of the books. Considering fans of the series have had to endure a majority of their time as fans without the series AND with long gulfs of time between volumes, there's never been a better time to jump on this bandwagon.
Where the last book was about the relationship between power and compromise, this one deals more with maintaining the perception of power when one recognizes how much their grasp on it can wane. Each of the characters has a tenuous grip on the power they wield, and the differences between many of them comes down to whether or not they recognize how tenuous that grip can be.
The scope of the story continues to expand, and the note at the beginning of book three explains that some events occur concurrently with the Battle of Blackwater. Knowing that helps going into the third book since, despite how large and encompassing the story is, it felt like a few of the characters were ignored far too much. Robb Stark appears to be having a ton of success, but the reader only gets to hear about it second hand. Some of the characters that do get their own POV chapters are left out in the figurative cold as well. More Davos and Daenerys would certainly be welcome compared to the amount of Sansa, Catelyn and Bran we receive. The Starks are the center of the story and the family the reader is supposed to be rooting for, but too many of the other characters are far more fascinating. But the series so far is literary pizza in the sense that even the bad or boring stuff (food descriptions, I'm looking at you) is still plenty entertaining.