What’s so ominous about the phrase “Winter is coming”? Who is this Jon Snow and why does he know nothing? And why is everyone so in love with this HBO fantasy series? Allow us to explain…

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

HBO’s Emmy-laden adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling multi-book saga A Song of Ice and Fire is, simply put, a swords and castles epic set in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, where feuding families compete for control of the realm. And they will stop at nothing to sit on the Iron Throne. Know this: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”

WHAT TO EXPECT

The world of Westeros is modelled on the Dark Ages and historical conflicts like the War of the Roses, which means lots of treachery, political intrigue, blood feuds, shifting allegiances, and no small amount of gratuitous flesh and blood – Game of Thrones is R-rated for a good reason. Yes, it also has dragons and sorcery, but if you’re the type who runs a mile at the mere mention of hobbits, dwarves and wizards, fear not. GoT might feature these fantasy staples – as well as an army of ice zombies – but it’s not The Lord of the Rings. The fantasy elements are almost incidental; it’s the power play, politicking and unforgettable characters that will have you well and truly hooked.

The major players in the game of thrones are the Starks (noble northerners), the Lannisters (rich tyrants), the Targaryens (dragon-blooded tyrants), and the Baratheons (who are ruling when the series begins). There are plenty of other minor houses and players, with the most duplicitous being brothel owner Peter Baelish (aka Littlefinger).

The first thing you’ll love about the show is the ringtone-friendly opening theme (by composer Ramin Djawadi) and the superb title sequence, the latter an animated 3D map of Westeros (and also Essos to the east) that adds new locations to the geography as they are introduced.

The second is the well drawn cast of characters who will become your friends and foes over the course of a projected eight seasons. You’ll quickly choose a favourite, whether it’s the bastard Jon Snow (Kit Harington), the Mother of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the rebellious Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), the diminutive Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), or if you have a thing for bad boys, the Kingslayer Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). You might even decide to name your children after them, as many have.

Don’t become too attached to them though – a lot of characters, even the major players, are prone to dying violently on this show, often without warning.

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There is also a plethora of despicable villains you will love to hate, most notably the callous boy king Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), the sadistic Ramsey Bolton (Iwan Rheon), and queen bitch Cersei Lannister (Lena Heady). You’ll be itching for them to get what they truly deserve, but in GoT it’s usually the righteous that are punished – often at a wedding. Nuptials usually end in bloodshed and death, with the infamous ‘Red Wedding’ being a prime example.       

You’ll also be spellbound by the triumph of imaginary world-building that is Westeros and its surrounds. Like Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Westeros has its own distinct cultures, cities, religions, languages, diseases, and architecture, with location filming in Croatia, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Morocco bringing this vast world to vivid and exotic life. It’s a massive realm with a huge population of leading and supporting characters, but don’t be intimidated – after a season or two you’ll become familiar with the geography and the players. Expect to spend a lot of time in places called Kings Landing, Winterfell, The Wall, and Meereen.

A lot of those lines your GoT-addicted friends are constantly quoting will finally make sense, too, like “Winter is coming” (in Westeros, seasons last decades and winter portends the coming of the sinister White Walkers) and “You know nothing Jon Snow” (he actually knows a great deal, but his girlfriend Ygritte believes otherwise).

There are two more things you need to know before you begin your journey into the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. One is that GoT seasons rarely end with cliffhangers – the penultimate episode of a season is usually where the all heavy stuff goes down. The other is to avoid the internet and social media during a new season, where plot spoilers abound.

WHERE TO START

Now that you’re ready to play the game of thrones, you’ll obviously start with season one. Or you can read the books first. Both complement each other, and there are story arcs and characters that are exclusive to each. Of course Martin’s doorstop-sized volumes offer a richer and more detailed experience, but show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have done such a remarkable and faithful job in adapting them for television, the show can stand alone.

If you want to do both, however, the best and most rewarding way is to watch the first two seasons and then start reading. Not only will you be amazed at how faithful the series is to the first two novels, A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, you won’t need to constantly flip to the appendices at the back to keep track of which House is which, or the map at the front to remind yourself where Dorne is – the series has already done the groundwork. Moreover, you’ll better appreciate the creative licence taken by Benioff and Weiss, who frequently trim the fat and use existing players rather than introduce new ones (as Martin does) to further the narrative.

The majority, however, will dive straight into the series, which overtakes the books. Martin writes at a snail’s pace, so the Many-Faced God only knows when – and if – he’ll finally complete books six and seven.

As a newbie, you’re in the envious position of experiencing one of the all-time great television series and fantasy masterworks for the very first time. Enjoy the journey and remember, the night is dark and full of terrors…

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