Book two in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is A Clash of Kings, the second book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.
I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire after watching Game of Thrones, the television series based on the first book in the series, coincidentally called A Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones is one of the best and most faithful adaptations of a book I've ever seen, so there were very few surprises when I came to read the book. However, I came to book two in the series, A Clash of Kings (which the next series of Game of Thrones will be based on) with no idea of what would happen.
What happens is more brilliant storytelling, more of the brilliant world Martin has created with meticulous detail. If you thought Lord of the Rings was detailed, then wait until you read A Song of Ice and Fire. These books contain hundreds of different characters, and all are completely different to each other. Martin's ability to create a whole other world is astonishing - there are characters you only meet a few times who you feel you know because Martin has described them so well.
A Clash of Kings takes on much the same format as A Game of Thrones, with each chapter centred on a different character, although some characters do get more chapters than others. Chapters are largely chronological, meaning major events in one character's life are left untold because they've already happened by the time you come back to them. Rather than making me feel like I'd missed out on something, this method made me anticipate what was coming next even more, and try and guess myself what had happened (and I got it right with two of the major characters).
By focusing on a range of different characters Martin also shows how there is no black and white, rather everything is shades of grey. There are, of course, despicable characters - King Joffrey for one, who deserves a smack round the head - but they are largely seen through other people's eyes. There are other characters who we should dislike - like Tyrion, who is technically on Joffrey's side, and Theon, who betrays the people who brought him up - but they are actually likeable, or if not likeable, then we feel pity for them. Because chapters are told from their point of view, we learn there is more to them, and we get to judge them on who they are and not who they are fighting for.
True to form Martin illustrates once again he is not afraid to hurt his characters. It's a great trait in an author, as many choose to indulge themselves and their characters long after they have reached the point of usefulness. Much like in A Game of Thrones, where Martin dispensed with some highly important characters, we once again lose a few people in this book. It may be a shock, but since there are so many interesting, well-formed characters still alive, it's not necessarily a loss.
Many readers might be put off by the fact that Martin's books are fantasy, but despite the presence of dragons and strangely intuitive wolves (direwolves), these are books about human nature. At the heart of them is a struggle for power and dominance, something most of us want, even if we would never admit it. I challenge anyone not to be drawn into this world, even the most ardent fantasy-hater.
Among the characters at the centre of A Song of Ice and Fire are the Stark family, whose motto, if that is the right term to use, is: "Winter is coming." The slogan (used for the television show as well) may be dark, ominous and gloomy, but if the series carries on being as good as the first two books, I'm looking forward to winter.