Incest, fratricide, rape, murder, corruption—no, not The Borgias, even if there is a family resemblance between the Renaissance poisoners and the viciously perverse aristocratic killers of Game of Thrones. But there’s more of everything sex-and-blood in this 10-hour series, debuting on HBO on April 17. Producers working with the first book in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy, A Song of Ice and Fire, weren’t constrained by any sort of historical record—they weren’t even constrained by Martin’s record. The novel opens with the discovery of a group of dead people in a wintery landscape, all lying peacefully as if they had perished from the cold; the TV version prefers to have their heads stuck on stakes, except, that is, for the little girl nailed to a tree. This is HBO, after all, and not only are there buckets of blood—beheadings are full-screen experiences—the whores (and the odd heroine) get to bounce around topless.
They do their bouncing in a faux-medieval world in which seven great noble families jockey for power in a realm recently racked by civil war and now ruled by a parvenu king. It’s hard to say much more about Martin’s saga without posting all-cap SPOILER ALERTS every few lines. Martin is a master plot-maker with a penchant for killing off characters, even ones who seem vital to the story, even the ones fans love best. His other guiding principle is that no good deed goes unpunished: mercy and folly are much alike.
Oddly enough, it’s what’s missing in any summary of Martin’s saga that stands out: the most talked-about fantasy series going actually has little in the way of traditional fantasy elements in its early stages. (The series promises more in the future: the Others, ice-cold malevolent beings from the North, haven’t been seen in 8,000 years; as any fantasy reader knows, that means they’ll be disembowelling unlucky peasants soon enough.) Thrones, inspired by England’s 15th-century War of the Roses, relies on real-world treachery and sex for its appeal. The TV version’s closest comparison is actually HBO’s earlier series Rome, often referred to as “Sopranos on the Tiber,” in tribute to the series that was the making of HBO; Thrones could be called “Sopranos in Camelot.” For the network, the low fantasy quotient must be a bonus. Thrones will capture Martin’s rabid fan base—seven million copies sold of the four volumes he’s published so far—without risking Rome fans tuning out a show derived from one of publishing’s most disparaged (if lucrative) genres.
In one central respect, though, Martin’s saga is very much in tune with other fantasy writing—tales, as Tolkien famously said, that grow in the telling. Most authors in the genre try hard to cram every detail of their imaginary worlds into the main story, bloating it and—more importantly—delaying future volumes. Jean Auel, 75, author of the popular Earth’s Children series, released its sixth and final instalment last month, 31 years after the first. The time lags between later books—12 years from volume four to five—led her mostly female fans to speculate endlessly over possible health problems.
A vocal group among Martin’s more testosterone-fuelled readers hasn’t been as kind: they think he’s slacking off. The way he seems to abandon all else for NFL-watching every fall drives them into paroxysms of frustration. For every fan who argues readers have no call on an author—neatly summed up by writer Neil Gaiman’s declaration, “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch”—another claims Martin promised a story in 1996 when Thrones was released, and still hasn’t delivered.
Looming over the shouting is the fate of author Robert Jordan, whose lengthy Wheel of Time series was unfinished at his death in 2007. That Martin, 62 years old and far from fit, might “pull a Jordan,” echoes through online forums. The idea of an Auel-like 31 years from start to finish—that is, another 16 years—is too much for fans to contemplate. They don’t think Martin has another 16 years. After a brief honeymoon this summer—now that the long-awaited fifth book has been given a firm July release date—Martin will surely start hearing from them again in the fall. Just about when the NFL kicks off a new season.