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I first read this last August hot on the heels of book one, a Song of Ice and Fire. The first story had set the scene of a mystical world of Westeros, a vicious yet intriguing world where a Kings rule is with a sword.
After the true King Robert died in book one, the realm had fallen into severe disarray. Robert's son sits on the throne currently, but popular belief is that Joffrey was not a trueborn son, so others also claim the throne for their own. Hence the clash of kings in the title, as all these self proclaimed kings are trying to win the realm.
The strongest candidate is Robert's younger popular brother Renly, though we also see Robert's older brother Stannis want to do his duty. There is also a third claimant in the form of Robb Stark who has been declared King in the North even though his father was beheaded for being a traitor. And finally, across the seas is the Khaleesi, otherwise known as Daenarys Stormborn. The sister of the King before Robert who was violently removed from his throne, and she is determined to reclaim it as hers.
If it sounds complicated, that is because it is. There are a large number of characters in the different houses vying for your attention. This is not a book to tackle when not able to give it your full attention.
It takes the same format as book one - each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the main characters. In this book there is a palpable sense of fear that builds as the story progresses. Anything can and will happen. Martin is not afraid to kill off fairly major characters when the story suits it.
At points in the story my heart was in my mouth as horrible things befell my favourite characters. Martin is an expert in creating suspense as I really could not predict what was coming next, and there are many misturns in the plot that are really hard to pick up on.
I found this story emotionally exhausting to the extent that even though I had been fully engaged with what was going on, by the time I got to the end of it I really could not face going on to book three for quite a while after. I needed a break to recover a bit.
This book was not quite as good as book one for me as there was too much focus on individual battles and quite a lot of cruelty. I think it could have done with a little bit of lightening up in places to ease the flow of it. It's a necessary read to understand the overall plot, but it is not as easy to read as other books in the series.