'Game of Thrones'
'Game of Thrones'

"Much historical fiction," Ed West writes, "features characters with essentially modern ideas and sensibilities, such as a belief in individual liberty, romantic idealism and a sense of the brotherhood of man, in a setting where such ideas would have been totally alien. No one before the 18th century would have thought like that and many people outside the West still don’t. Martin never makes that mistake." His books are more historically accurate, in other words, than a lot of fiction that calls itself historical.

In the fourth "Ice and Fire" novel, "A Feast for Crows," Martin describes a new board game that is catching on fast on the adjacent continent of Essos: "Cyvasse, the game was called... The Dornish court was mad for it. Ser Arys just found it maddening. There were ten different pieces, each with its own attributes and powers, and the board would change from game to game, depending on how the players arrayed their home squares." Hard not to see this as a wink toward Martin's brand of pull-out-the-rug storytelling.

Years ago, reading a long series of British novels called a "A Dance to the Music of Time" (not a fantasy epic, despite the title), I was impressed by some sequences set during the Blitz in London. On several occasions, major characters were wiped out seemingly at random, leaving the survivors in the reconfigured cast to keep calm and carry on. Martin has done things like that to us twice already, just in the portions of the story we've seen on television. Incidents such as the execution of Ned Stark, and The Red Wedding, were shocking not only because they eliminated popular characters--people the ordinary rules of genre entertainment tempted us to assume were safe--but because they "changed the board." Suddenly we were playing by a different set of rules, reading a whole different book.

At the moment the tide of Westerosi history seems to be carrying Daenerys, Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow and Arya Stark toward some sort of cataclysmic convergence, an occurrence Martin has suggested may be reserved for a big budget feature film after the series wraps. But it would be foolish to assume that any of the characters we are currently following will survive that long, or will survive unchanged. One of the more shocking revelations of the early episodes this season, for example, is the extent to which Arya has been hardened by her association with traveling companion Sandor Clagane. Is she still the plucky warrior princess we've been rooting for?

Martin says he set up the books to maintain suspense and keep his readers off guard, to make us afraid to turn the pages. Who could deny that he's succeeded in generating radical uncertainty, and what could be more like real life than that?