I am not a fantasy fan. I liked Narnia as a kid because talking animals are very cool, but in general the whole swords and sorcerers thing never grabbed me. However, I am a massive Peter Dinklage fan, and HBO wisely featured him on their ads for Game of Thrones. They also pushed Sean Bean and a scantily clad Emilia Clarke, but Peter Dinklage on a horse and making snide remarks: I wasn't going to miss it.
So I watched and I wasn't exactly thrilled. The world seems very much like medieval England and there are four main families with power: The Lannisters, the Starks, the Baratheons, and the much hated Targaryens. The first episode has all the fantasy trappings, plus the White Walkers who are somewhat like zombies. "Winter is coming" was announced many times in ponderous tones by Sean Bean and other greasy men with long hair and chain mail. Arrows were shot, swords swung, heads chopped off, and a princess-like girl gets married off to a "barbarian" for political reasons. There are at least a dozen important characters and most of them look similar (other than Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke with her white-blonde wig).
But the show hooked me with dramatic endings and sudden deaths. The acting is solid, especially the child actors, and the production looks expensive, with expensive vistas and impressive sets. Only the Wall looks like an obvious computer graphic. I won't give away plot points because the unfolding of the story is, of course, one of the pleasures of the series, but so far, the political maneuverings of the characters are more important than battle scenes. If a character seems random just trust the writers for now, because no minute is wasted. They need to condense an eight hundred page book to ten episodes. (Place your hold on the DVD now!)
At the moment there are five books in the series written by George RR Martin. The first book is also called Game of Thrones, beginning what Martin calls “A Song of Ice and Fire.” The subtitle gave me pause because it sounds pretentious, but my curiosity won out. I just had to know what happened and couldn’t wait ten months for season two, so I read the books. I wish I had waited. Time Magazine reviewer Lev Grossman pronounced Martin an "American Tolkien." Tolkien fans should protest.
The first three books expanded Martin's fantasy world in interesting ways, but the pacing was dreadful. What held me are the two main families--The Lannisters and the Starks. It's not quite good versus evil; Martin deals in shades of gray with most of his characters, even if the character development is slow and often obvious. Martin loves a cliffhanger ending, but when it takes another five hundred pages to get resolved, the urgency is gone. Finally, Martin keeps adding more and more characters, making it all too complex when really I just want to find out what happens to two or three characters. It's as if he's paid by how many new characters he can cram into each novel. The last two books have been mostly filler, presumably leading up to a flashy conclusion in the final two volumes.
My opinion is, of course, in the minority. Martin has a rabid fan base that is very active online. All of the books are bestsellers and generally well-reviewed. The author also has a very good website explaining his universe, and you can find it here. He really loves all the heraldry in his world. You've been warned.
My hope is that the television producers and writers condense the action and combine characters to make the whole enterprise faster, tidier, and more satisfying. I don't need them to go soft and change what happens to the characters even if I hate some of Martin's choices, but I want them to cut the bloat and give core characters more screen time. Their deaths or triumphs will have more impact if the audience remembers who the characters are and what purpose they serve to the larger story.
And of course, they need to keep giving Peter Dinklage all the good lines. And give this guy more screen time.
Cynthia R. read three of the Dune novels before realizing the series would never end. And yes, she knows Dune is science fiction and not fantasy. Only Anne McCaffrey can combine dragons and space travel. Except there's Timothy Zahn, but his series isn't quite so epic.