This is the second book of the 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series, which will ultimately be seven books in length (at least). The book picks up exactly where 'A Game of Thrones' ended - the king is dead, there are several warring claimants to the throne, the Stark family (through whose eyes much of the first book's story was told) is scattered. This book follows the fortunes of the war, although very little of it is seen first-hand. Generally, the characters hear about battles, sieges and the like, or come across ravaged castles and fields, but apart from a few skirmishes there is relatively little fighting, apart from one big battle at the end.
It is a curious thing, given that the writing style is very much the same as in the first book, but this one was much, much easier to read. Partly this is because there are fewer of the traumatic deaths and maimings in evidence, but partly I think it is simply because there is so much low-level random violence and cruelty going on that any sense of shock is lost. The conceptual jumps from chapter to chapter are much easier to take, too. Yes, each chapter has a different character as its focus, but the plot flows seamlessly from one to the next. In practice, the character point-of-view chapters are less about the characters themselves, but more a way to move quickly around the widely distributed locations where the action is going on. The chapters actually feel quite episodic, and perhaps it is no coincidence that the author is also a screenwriter.
Suddenly, there is overt magic in the world, too. There is even an explanation for this - the magic supposedly lost its power when the last dragons died. Now that three dragons have been born (as we know, but most of the characters do not), it seems the magic has regained its power. So we have some very strange killings - Renly murdered by a shadow, the defending Lord at Storm's End who mysteriously throws himself from the battlements (both achieved by Melisandre) and elsewhere, Ayla's overseer is killed by his own dog, and the freed prisoner who makes this happen changes his appearance magically.
The most interesting magic is that experienced by the Stark children through their wolves. Bran, in particular, is able to move his consciousness into his wolf, and Jon too has some ability. Rickon probably also has it, since he shared a dream with Bran after their father died. Arya is at present merely very aware of (ordinary) wolves, but there is no sign that she has been in the mind of her wolf (who is still alive, but location unknown).
But most of the book is taken up with the much more earthly machinations of the political scramble for position after the death of the king, and this is where the book is quite glorious. Down at King's Landing, Tyrion the dwarf is in charge, and, where his Stark predecessor was ponderously straightforward (and therefore inept) in his handling of affairs, Tyrion is even more devious than the other courtiers - and the queen. Elsewhere, the two brothers of the dead king are fighting each other, and in the north, Theon and his family are more concerned with settling old scores. Only the experienced Tywin and the fifteen-year-old Robb Stark are getting on with the business at hand.
It is still distasteful how even the knights and high lords are uniformly horrible - not just to each other but to everyone. Women are there to be raped or put to work, men who are only trying to defend their properties and families are routinely slaughtered, servants are beaten or maimed for the slightest imagined transgressions, prisoners are gruesomely tortured. This book is much more graphic than its predecessor, and one has to wonder just what the purpose is (apart from a more dramatic story, that is). If battling lords made a habit of killing off all their farmers, smiths and millers, and burning their woods and fields in the way described, the victor would find himself king of a desert. Farms and villages do get destroyed in the heat of war if a battle happens to be fought on the spot, or a passing army camps there, but generally only those who take up arms are liable to die as a result, and the innocent bystanders are left alone. Even kings have to have subjects to rule over, and bread to eat, and keeping the population alive, contented and productive is part of the deal, or so I would have thought.
I do have some concerns over plot credibility. A major motivating factor is the lack of food in King's Landing, the main city of the south. Given that it is not under seige, is nowhere near the theatre of war, and has a seaport, it's hard to know quite why food is in such short supply. For most of the book, the fighting is at least a hundred miles to the north, and the entire regions to the west and south, while not exactly settled, are not totally disrupted either. The farmers need to sell their produce to the city, and the city needs to eat it - it's a simple and effective arrangement, and when war is looming, prices go up, and trading is even more profitable. It only breaks down by physical prevention - seige, or having nothing to sell.
Then there is the group moving north through the war zone, and reduced to eating worms. Granted, the armies have been back and forth, and those camped or installed in a castle somewhere will deplete local supplies by foraging, and there has been some burning. Nevertheless, it is very hard to destroy a farm to such an extent that there is nothing at all left to eat. Crops rarely burn fully, there are orchards and vegetable gardens, underground storage facilities, and even if the pigs, sheep and cattle have all been taken, there will always be some chickens left.
The first book had a grim and depressing tone to it - the most honourable character ends up dead, horrible things happen to some of the children, while the bad guys get away with (literally) murder. This book is a little more balanced. The children are beaten up or enslaved or hunted down, but they come through it all relatively unscathed. All the remaining direwolves survive (so far). Some of the bad guys get their comeuppance, and some of the good guys are victorious. The author still takes pleasure in killing off the (relatively) nice characters (eg the lovely Renly) in favour of the unappealing (Stannis, Cersei, et al), and maiming poor Tyrion even in his moment of triumph. What does a dwarf have to do to get a break?
But the book is beautifully written. There is enough information to remind those who read the first book some time ago of important plot points, without seeming repetitive to more recent readers. All the characters are interesting and, to a greater or lesser degree, sympathetic. And the various plot threads weave in and out of each other like Gandalf's magically controlled smoke rings. In one chapter, a peace envoy's escort is infiltrated with a group of carefully chosen activists whose job is to free a prisoner. Many chapters later, we find out, oh so subtly, that this failed, by seeing their bodies suspended from gallows. This is so much more effective than a direct report.
The multiple character viewpoints work well in this book, too. In the first book, it was sometimes quite jarring, but it seems less so in this one - or maybe I'm just more used to it. But it serves the plot well in the way it enables the author to jump about the country, as needed. The action is taking place in some seven or eight different locations, and although it sometimes seems contrived that Catelyn, in particular, manages to arrive at various places at crucial moments, generally the transitions are quite seamless and there is no difficulty working out where we are and what is going on, and the overall plot flows effortlessly from place to place.
The setpiece battle which forms the climax of the book is brilliantly executed. The preparations for it underly the entire book, and the twists and turns of the fortunes of the opposing forces are ingenious. Will it be the King in the North who comes? No, he's tied up elsewhere. Will it be Stannis or Renly? No, they've gone off to fight each other. Oh, wait, Renly is dead, it is Stannis after all... And the actual battle follows a similar pattern - the defences are holding, we have them on the run... no, they're still coming, we can't hold them off... but wait, we're saved after all. And even though these are (in a very real sense) the bad guys in all this, we still want them to be saved.
This book has fewer shocking moments than its predecessor, and so was a much less intense experience. In some ways it feels transitional, with little real progress for most of the characters. The ending, which has four of the five Stark children setting out on new ventures and the fifth released from previous ties, has the feel of preparation for the next book. Politically, with the rival kings dead, defeated or tied up fighting on their home turf, and the rival queen still looking for an army, there is the possibility of stability for the unlikeable boy king and his family. But undoubtedly it won't be as simple as that. Five stars. [First written February 2011]