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A Clash of Kings By George R.R. Martin (Bantam, $25.95)

When it comes to writing epic fantasy, George R.R.

Martin has definitely raised the bar a few notches. In 1996

he produced the massive "A Game of Thrones," which introduced

readers to his series "A Song of Ice and Fire." Now he

follows up with a story of civil war. The king is dead. His

son and widow, contending for power, are but one of five

factions which are tearing the kingdom apart.

Martin is able to balance multiple story lines. He keeps

readers balanced on a sword's edge as we see not only the

squabbles of politics and war that rend the land but the

dangers of a returning winter that may last for decades.

The second book in a multi-volume series can be a tricky

project for any writer. Martin manages with "A Clash of

Kings" to have produced a novel that does three important

things. It grips the reader whether or not they read the

earlier book, tells a satisfying story and leaves the

reader wanting the next book as soon as possible.

When you wish upon a star

Stardust By Neil Gaiman (Avon/Spike Books, $22)

Neil Gaiman is an amazing writer. He has already

produced an award-winning body of work, scripted a

groundbreaking comic series in the early 90s, produced film

scripts and excellent short fiction. With his third novel,

"Stardust," he manages to produce an amazingly quirky fantasy

novel.

Set in a tiny English village called Wall, early in the

rule of Queen Victoria, this is a tale of high adventure

that echos traditional fairy tales of the period. One of

the unique things about the village is that the realm of

Faire touches the human world.

It is into this realm that Tristran Thorn must venture.

He is in search of a star that has come plummeting out of

the heavens. He has lost his heart to a beautiful village

girl, Victoria. She promises him his heart's desire, if he

will retrieve the fallen star.

As one might expect Tristran is not the only one to seek

the fallen star, which turns out to be something more than

anyone expected. Each his own agenda and is willing to go

to any length to achieve it. "Stardust" is not your

ordinary fantasy, it will definitely leave readers feeling

as if they have been entertained by a master storyteller.

Following a giant's footsteps

Foundation's Triumph By David Brin (Harper Prism, $25)

Stepping into the shoes of Isaac Asimov is no easy task.

But David Brin, already a major voice in science fiction,

does it with a style and panache that Asimov would have

approved of. Picked, along with Greg Bear and Gregory

Benford, to tell more stories from Asimov's famous

"Foundation" series, it falls to Brin the job to tell the

final days of the hero of those tales, Hari Seldon.

In order to save civilization in the wake of the fall of

a galactic Empire, Seldon has created a secret foundation,

armed with a science that allows them to predict and

influence the course of history. As his plan is about to be

launched, and his own life nearing its end, Seldon

discovers that there are threats against his organization

that he had not anticipated. It is up to him, and a few

trusted companions, to face these threats and discover,

perhaps, if his life's work will bear fruit.

Brin is a sharp writer who imbues his characters with

depth. The story he has spun is one that will intrigue new

readers and please veterans of both his own and Asimov's

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