I felt a bit mixed about the first <i>Game of Thrones</i> book and for quite a while avoided reading further. That had nothing to do with the quality of the first book, which I rated a full five stars and I thought earned it. Both books immediately pulled me in and made me care about its characters--perhaps a bit too much. Part of why I was reluctant to continue after the first book was that Martin killed off one of my favorite characters--and in a way that was a shock. I knew going into <i>A Clash of Kings</i> that no one was safe. And that does have a payoff, helping to create real suspense.
A lot of the characters I fell in love with in the last book are closely followed in the second and were a treat to return to, particularly Tyrion, Arya and Daenerys. What impressed me most in this book however was how smoothly Martin introduced new characters that were just as compelling to follow such as Melisandre, Davos and Brienne. Not necessarily characters to root for in the same way as my favorites from the first book, but certainly complex and alive on the page. Having read a short YA while taking a break from this behemoth I newly appreciated how much stronger Martin is as a writer than what you typically find in the fantasy genre, and much more gritty and dark--verging on too much so for my tastes.
If I'm docking this a star from the first book, it's because this second book didn't quite generate the same intensity of emotion, and certainly not the sense of almost awe of the first book's ending. Instead, this book ended on very much a to-be-continued note designed it seemed to push you along to the next book. Something I wouldn't mind so much if this series was finished and Martin didn't have a tendency to go years between books.