Possible spoilers for book one but not this book, but they will be highlighted such that one can avoid them!
This book two in Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series and is an extremely long read (though I hear A Dance With Dragons is longer still). It is continuation of every and all events from book one and is just as hard-hitting and, in some ways, wonderfully deplorable. In my opinion, it is the better of the two since I was much more interested in events than in book one.
The plot in this series, for anyone who hasn't read the books, is a sprawling mess of utter chaos. The best analogy is to imagine a plate of spaghetti, and each string of spaghetti is a plot line and reading it is like trying to find the other end of the spaghetti WITHOUT yanking it out. It is utter madness sometimes. You seem to have your main plot and about 4 other sub-plots, per viewpoint. And then there are around 6 view points. So you have a grand total of around 30 plots which you have to try, in vain to keep straight. Early on in the book, it's even worse. I commend Martin for not just tying off the old plots and moving on, but the start of the book holds onto about half of the plots for about a third of the book, but still insists on bringing in more. What I'm saying is that these are highly confusing books a lot of the time, and sometimes you'd be reading something and only realise about 3 pages in which plot it pertains to.
This same issue is with the characters, though it is less pronounced. The back of the book lists every major and minor character of the major factions on the book, and I seriously believe that every one of them is important in some way. Finishing the book, I astounded myself with how many characters I managed to keep straight in my head. Admittedly, I just had to keep reading blind sometimes and hope this character wasn't too important.
It's a credit to Martin, I have to say, that despite being occasionally muddled I managed to know what was going on. How I think he does it is by defining everything with certain events of names. Practically all the characters have a defining a feature- some are "the Knight of X", they may be named "The [noun]" or they were involved in some conquest- and they will be the only ones associated with this. It's fantastically done when I think about it.
Anyway, down to specifics.
Once again, one of the things is disliked was the wanton brutality of the books, and the banalisation of rape and prostitution. I read some response Martin gave on these fronts (I'm not the only one who is disturbed by it) and he defends it by saying that it is historical and medieval England was like this. He doesn't like it any more than we do, but he has to right a realistic, truthful story. If that means it must be gritty and disturbing, so be it. I can accept that since he's right to be honest in his story, but I'm retaining the right to dislike it. It is too often brought up, in my opinion, and hate that the men are often so flippant about it. It doesn't usually detract from the story, but I think that if anyone has particular sensibilities or particular revulsion to these things, stop while you're ahead; since I expect it to get worse as the book continues and fighting grows. I wonder if I would have ever opted to read these books had I known they were so....so like this.
**** SPOILERS FOR BOOK ONE IN NEXT PARAGRAPHS UNTIL I SAY OTHERWISE!!! ****
I actually got more invested in various stories this time around. Last time, stories such as Jon Snow's, Sansa's or Arya's were just not at all interesting. However, at the end of book one, Arya has fled the castle, Sansa dislikes Joffrey (and, forgive me, has finally gotten some sense) while Jon has learnt that the Night's Watch are to go beyond the wall. In book one, I could read Jon's chapters easily enough for the same reasons I could read Catelyn's and Bran's: because despite not being terribly interesting, they were written and I liked the voice's. Also, they both had points were they were actually interesting. With Jon, I felt his story had so much potential to be interesting, but it just wasn't. I understand they had to train, set up loyalties and what not but there was wasted opportunity, in my opinion. There was always the feeling of a growing threat and it infuriated me that it was never realised story-wise.
Tyrion and Daenerys are both just as good though, if not better. Tyrion is whimsical and despite being a Lannister, I'm actually going to accuse him of having a great deal of sense and even a few morals. In some ways, he often strikes me as the most human of the characters and even though he has his weaknesses and short-comings (no pun intended), he is probably the only Lannister I would want to be King. I think he has the good sense to look past his own life and desires and do what is right for the kingdom as a whole.
Daenerys disappointed me a little since very little happened in her story besides a lot of wandering around, hopeless, and sitting about dreaming about her future. I think she had fewer chapters than last time as well so we didn't see her as much. But the dragons....man, do I love them! I squirm with happiness whenever they do anything and, at one point, it says how she was reclining in cushions with her dragons around her. Bliss, utter bliss.
There are two new views as well: Ser Davos, a Knight of Stannis, and Theon Greyjoy. Davos had a nice voice, and I did like him, but I was more interested in him because Melisandre and the magic (?) she suggested she had. Theon is more interesting, but only because I hate him from the bottom of my heart. I feel sorry for him since he feels abandoned by his own family, but does he need to be such a debased and detestable individual? He has no value for women or anyone less than himself. In so many ways, he is just like a Lannister in his overwhelming idea of self worth and importance. And the things he does- the way he is- just disgusts me. The bit with Bran and Rickon...I just had to stop reading for a short while. I felt my heart stop; I stopped breathing in shock. I was just blown away at how much I could hate a character.
**** SPOILERS OVER ****
Overall, I was impressed with this book. If you read book one and were a bit dubious, I think this book will set your mind at ease that this is likely to be an enjoyable series and that you should definitely keep reading. I only warn you to expect to be reading this for a while; my copy was around 900 pages.