At the end of A Game of Thrones, Westeros had become a battleground on which kings were primed to clash. And, oh boy, do they clash.
A Clash of Kings, by George R.R. Martin, carries over many of the strengths of the first book, although it's not quite as strong. The characters continue to be complex and interesting, but we are saddled with POV chapters from Theon, a vile misogynist whose chapters are uncomfortable to read, although they do sometimes contain his awesome sister. And the other new POV character, Davos, is good but incredibly underused. The returning characters are a mixed bag in some ways because there is very little overlap in their stories in this book, as they are scattered all over the continent to cover as much of the story as possible. Tyrion takes on the Eddard role in this book, and his chapters are perhaps the most consistently engaging, as he prepares King's Landing's defenses while trying to stay a step ahead of Cersei. Arya gets a considerable amount of character development through her adventures, but it does take a while for her story to really get going. Jon's adventures Beyond the Wall are disappointingly unexciting, although he, too, grows quite a bit by the end. Sansa is the big surprise, much more likable in this book. Catelyn continues to be a strong presence, but Bran is kind of boring and repetitive for most of the book. Daenerys finds some weird shit, but the ominous momentum of her march toward Westeros isn't as prominent here. One of the things I loved about A Game of Thrones was that Things Happened in every chapter. Not so with this book, which sometimes deploys a POV chapter to let us know that, actually, nothing much interesting is happening in this location.
Which is not to say nothing interesting ever happens because, hoo boy, while this book may have fewer shocking moments than the first book, it does have moments that are even more shocking and OMGWTF-y, thanks to the increased prominence of magic, which I know some readers disliked but I really loved. Especially after discovering how much of the basic plot comes directly from the War of the Roses, I want George R.R. Martin to bring more of his fantasy twist to the table! GRRM continues to be a master at surprising the reader with revelations, character deaths, and...and...whatever the hell that one scene was. Seriously, there is a scene in this book that caused my brain to melt, which the first book did not manage to do, so, bravo, GRRM. The man knows how to play with the reader's expectations and use the technique of differing POVs to deliver (or hide) information in clever ways.
It's impossible to truly judge each book until the end, however, when it becomes clear what stories were actually leading to the climax and what stories were taking their characters to a particular point over the course of this book to set them up for the next stage in their story. As I said before, the characters' stories are a little less intertwined, although everyone is touched by the conflict in Westeros: there are a great many people vying for the Iron Throne.
In many ways, A Clash of Kings feels like a transitional book. Though not as excellent as A Game of Thrones, it is nevertheless great.