This is the second book in the Song of Ice and Fire series (after A Game of Thrones and before A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons, The Winds of Winter (forthcoming) and A Dream of Spring (forthcoming)).
After the events of A Game of Thrones, the Seven Kingdoms are divided. Chaos reigns as several protagonists claim their right to the Iron Throne, refusing to bow to the young and capricious King Joffrey: Robert's brothers Stannis and Renly, Ned Stark's eldest son Robb, even Cersei's father Tywin Lannister.
While all armies move to conquer castles and loyalties, Catelyn tries to parley with Renly to join forces with Robb, Sansa, betrothed to Joffrey, is stuck in Casterly Rock with Queen Cersei, and Arya is fleeing with Yoren and a bunch of cutthroats bound for the Wall. As for Bran and Rickon, they're left to fend for themselves in Winterfell.
In the North, Jon Snow leaves for the Frostfangs beyond the Wall, scouting for clues of what happened to his uncle Benjen Stark and information about the mysterious and ghastly Others.
In the East, Daenerys Targaryen, with Jorah Mormont and her Dothraki, tries to come closer to the Narrow Sea, looking for ships to cross back to Westeros with her newborn dragons.
Again, I found that the fact that each and every character is named and described more confusing than worthwhile, distracting me from the plot, and making for a laborious reading. However, thanks to striking characters such as Tyrion the Imp, Bran or Arya, the intrigue is still very engrossing, even though it took me months to finish this heavy, small-font volume.