Are you ready for the biggest fantasy news since HBO decided to make a TV show called Game of Thrones?

The next book in George R.R. Martin’s bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire series has a publication date.

Yes, we swear, after waiting six long years since the release of the last novel in the saga, the fabled Book 5 A Dance With Dragons is close enough to being finished* for Martin’s publisher to set a release date. We have that date, exclusively, along with a first look at the book’s cover art and an interview with the man himself.

A Dance With Dragons will be published by Bantam on July 12, 2011. The manuscript is huge — the publisher estimates the hardcover edition will run more than 900 pages, putting it about the same length as the longest book in the series, A Storm of Swords. Schedule your summer vacation accordingly.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What took so long?

GEORGE R. R. MARTIN: I’m not sure I have a good answer. If I did, I would have taken less time. It’s enormous. It’s as long as A Storm of Swords. It’s very complicated. I have a lot of characters and points of view. And I’ve been doing a ton of rewriting, trying to get it where I wanted it to be. Some of these chapters I’ve rewritten more times than I can count before I’m satisfied with them.

Can you tease something from the book?

I don’t want to spoil any surprises. I can say all the characters people have been waiting for are there: Daenerys, Jon Snow, and Tyrion. There’s also new characters, and viewpoints from characters who did not have viewpoints before.

For more of Martin’s interview — where he compares Dragons to the previous four books, and weighs in on the HBO adaptation — pick up this week’s print edition of Entertainment Weekly.

*That the author is still writing might worry some longtime fans (giving Martin a deadline is a bit like making a photo request of J.D. Salinger) but his publisher assures us the date is firm. Winter, and A Dance With Dragons, is coming.

Also: ‘Game of Thrones’ on Facebook

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Game of Thrones

HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.

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