Follow-ups novels to successful first ones are tricky beasts. Having set the bar and thus expectations high with Game of Thrones, it was always going to be difficult for George R. R. Martin to satisfy hungry and demanding readers who fell in love with the intricate world and in-depth characters of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. The good news is that Martin does not disappoint, nor does he compromise his standards. On the contrary, he not only meets but exceeds anticipation as he dives once more into the world and wars of the Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons and Targaryans (however it’s spelled – sorry), the Night Watch, the Wildings and the Others.
Commencing where the action finished in Game of Thrones, the reader is once more swept along in the battle for supremacy between warring sers, lords and their various factions. Only, where there was once a single king under which to rally men, lands and armies, there are now four at large in the Kingdom – a Kingdom divided, afraid and, as war creeps into every corner and power is continually contested, fraught with danger and the plagues of broad-scale conflict: famine, disease and petty crime – particularly in the city where death and destruction come from within as much as from attacking enemies.
Martin uses the same shifting points of view to tell this tale as he did in the first book and we jump from Bran, to Catelyn, Theon, Tyrion, Danys and some other characters as well, allowing us greater insights into their motivation and personal weaknesses and strengths. So fine is the writing and so skilled is Martin that while it’s sometimes a wrench to leave a character, you soon segue into a different mindset with ease and plunge into his or her story feeling bereft when you are momentarily pulled away again. Sometimes the action from one chapter to the next is parallel, other times, it occurs in a different zone and time, but not once do you lose the pace or sense of urgency that haunts these pages and keeps you reading.
Martin’s world is a dark, corrupt one where spirituality and secular power both collude and collide and where no-one is safe – not a warrior knight, a beautiful queen, an innocent peasant, a loyal maester or even a child. He exposes war and the struggle for hegemony for what it is: ugly and damaging for everyone – the lower classes particularly, who suffer the whims, machinations and anger of their overlords, though the mighty are not spared hardship or heartache either.
Unrelenting and fabulous, I highly recommend this second book and, having already jumped straight into the third, I know the standards are just as high and the narrative equally compelling.