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The fantasy king

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George R.R. Martin is surrounded by warriors.

There are thousands of armored medieval knights circling the author, weapons drawn, poised for combat. Luckily, Martin can handle them — they’re only a few inches high. The intricately painted figurines, which line the shelves of his study, represent centuries of warfare. They’re also the inspiration behind his best-selling A Song of Ice and Fire series.

”The concept of knighthood always interested me,” says Martin, 62, giving a tour of the enviable geek retreat he’s created in a suburban Santa Fe, N.M., house across the street from where he lives. ”Chivalry in the Middle Ages was among the most idealistic codes the human race has ever come up with for a warrior. These are men who were sworn to defend the weak. Then you look at the reality, and their brutality was extreme.”

Martin was already a successful fantasy and sci-fi author and TV writer when he decided to attempt an epic fantasy. It was a quest that would eventually result in five novels (two more are planned) with more than 8.5 million copies of the books in this country alone; a breakout HBO series, Game of Thrones; and acclaim that borders on fantasy blasphemy: Time magazine anointed him ”The American Tolkien.”

Initially, Martin knew only that he wanted to write a ”big” novel that would let him indulge in all the elements Hollywood executives told him were impossible to produce in the TV show he worked on: global stakes, graphic sex and violence, giant battles, and a ton of characters — in short, a tale that would shatter all the romanticized clichés inspired by medieval Europe and instead depict the period’s barbaric reality. ”Pretty soon I was 100 pages into the book and I was making maps and genealogies,” he says.

The result was 1996’s A Game of Thrones, a genre-busting saga of warring families set in a medieval-like world where seasons last for years. Though his publisher expected a best-seller, the book was a disappointment. Yet as Martin continued the complex story in subsequent volumes (A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords), the series’ popularity skyrocketed. The fourth installment, A Feast for Crows, went straight to No. 1 on the best-seller list when it was released in 2005.

And then…six years passed. A date was announced for a new Ice and Fire book, then retracted. His publisher grew impatient. Some of Martin’s worshipful fans turned into wolves — whimpering, then howling. Everybody wondered: What happened?

Driving George R.R. Martin to lunch in Santa Fe is really nerve-racking. You’re acutely aware of transporting valuable literary cargo. Should another driver run a red light, you don’t want to have to explain to millions of fans why they’re never going to find out what happened next to Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister.

Martin fumes when he sees a hideous new Taco Bell has sprouted next to his favorite local taqueria. ”It just boggles the mind,” he says. ”Why would anybody go to a Taco Bell when you have 47 other places nearby with superior tacos?”

After he sits down at a table for lunch, the waitress says she’s ordered his new book, A Dance With Dragons. This sort of reaction is increasingly common for Martin, who’s pleased about the number of new readers HBO’s April-launched series Game of Thrones has brought to his work, but less comfortable with his rising level of fame. He used to be able to browse the bins at Comic-Con and to mock TV shows on his blog in relative anonymity. But an idle comment to The New Yorker a few months back about how he didn’t want to ”do a Lost” and screw up the ending of the Ice and Fire series had a stunning boomerang effect when one of the show’s executive producers, Damon Lindelof, took umbrage and the media jumped on the story.

Though thrilled with the TV adaptation, Martin does wish the show had a larger budget. The first book’s climactic fight was cut, and the second book demands pricey CG dragons, unnatural-size wolves, and a massive war sequence involving a fleet of ships. Ironically, trying to escape the confines of TV writing has led Martin right back to the small screen, where executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss have tasked him with scripting season 2’s battle. ”David and Dan must hate me,” Martin admits. ”It’s very tough because we don’t have the budget to do the battle in the book. We just don’t.”

Fans, meanwhile, fret about the possibility that the show — which so far is covering one book per season — will ultimately overtake Martin’s recent glacial publishing pace. ”I’m still in denial about that,” he says. ”I’m telling myself that won’t happen. I have a considerable head start on them.”

So what did happen during those six years, when fan impatience became so intense that a mere blog post by Martin suggesting he was doing anything other than writing Dance drew outraged rants? ”I never had the sort of writer’s block where I didn’t go near the typewriter,” Martin says. ”But I had days where I would sit there and couldn’t write and I would spend all day answering emails, or I would rewrite and couldn’t go forward.”

One issue was that Martin had created a world so detailed and sprawling that the story became unwieldy. Hardcore fantasy lovers sometimes become lost in mythical worlds, but this is a case where the author himself seemed mired in his own complex plotline. After a cohort of minor characters seized command of the story in book 4, Martin wrestled his narrative back on track in Dragons.

”I do sometimes think I’ve thrown too many balls in the air, but having thrown them in the air, it’s my obligation to juggle them,” Martin says, then jokes: ”Why did I have to make it the Seven Kingdoms? Wouldn’t Five Kingdoms have been sufficiently complicated?”

Dance is heavily stocked with such favorites as Jon, Daenerys, and Tyrion, along with plenty of Martin’s trademark shocking twists and the surprise return of one tragic character. The author’s ruthlessness about killing beloved characters who make poor decisions has been a hallmark of the series, and has famously led fans to throw their books across the room — only to go pick them up again. Martin credits Tolkien with inspiring him to stun readers with character deaths. ”I remember when I was 13 years old and read that Gandalf fell into the pit. It was devastating,” he says. ”Gandalf can’t die! But it was so great that he did die. And what the f— are they going to do now? Gandalf is the one with all the answers!”

At 1,040 pages, Dance is Martin’s longest book in the series, yet is actually shorter than the author intended in terms of the amount of story that’s covered. There’s at least one large battle sequence that Martin didn’t have time to include, and several character threads end in tantalizing cliff-hangers. In other words, as satisfyingly huge as Dance is, you’re going to want more. Which leads to the dreadful question: When can the devoted expect book 6?

”I’m not going to say,” Martin says. ”I’ve gotten in constant trouble for that. There’s an element of fans who don’t seem to realize I’m making estimates. I’ve repeatedly been guilty of an excess of optimism.” He says he’s already made some headway on The Winds of Winter and expects to return to it in January. And fans can reassure themselves that Martin is working toward a conclusion, since he’s often said he’ll end the series with the seventh novel…right?

”I’m as firm as I am,” Martin says, ”until I decide not to be firm.”

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