Naturally, there are bloody enormous spoilers for the first four books. So, if you just watched A Game of Thrones and are just getting into the series, stop reading. Unless you like spoilers, obviously.
King Robert Baratheon asks Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and his best mate, to become his Hand (effectively, doing all the work of kingship but without the shiny hat). Eddard agrees, despite his predecessor dying rather suddenly.
Unsurprisingly, Robert ends up dead and his son Joffrey (of House Lannister) gets the job. Eddard discovers the three kids are illegitimate and that Stannis, Robert’s younger brother, ought to be king.
Meanwhile, Renly, Stannis’ younger brother, contests the throne and Robb Stark, Eddard’s son, is pronounced King of an independent northern kingdom.
Eddard got the chop in A Game of Thrones (rather predictably), and George RR Martin has a rather splendid bloody red streak running through his plots. Likewise, almost all contenders for the throne (including Joffrey) end up dead one way or another (the death of Renly was pretty damned good even by Mr. Martin’s exalted standards), except for Stannis, who is a miserable bugger (imagine a competent, decent person with the charisma of Gordon Brown).
The throne is sat upon by the unlikely and, if my fuzzy memory is right, quite likeable Tommen, a little boy and brother of Joffrey.
Stannis, being miserable, gets little support from the nobility of the realm and heads north to The Wall, where he seeks to protect the kingdom. It’s an action of both self-interest and responsibility.
The Wall is, er, a wall. A bloody enormous wall erected to keep out horrid things (the Others) from the far north, and manned by the Night’s Watch. Joining the Night’s Watch is meant to be an honour, but quite often people end up there when convicted of a serious crime and given the choice between that and death. Jon Snow, a bastard son of Eddard, rises to become the leader of the Night Watch.
All of this has occurred in Westeros, which is a large continent of Seven Kingdoms, with Winterfell, in the north, being the biggest. The other part of the story takes place in Essos.
Robert took over as king from Aerys II, a Targaryen with the Caligulan nickname of The Mad King. The sole two Targaryen scions remaining, Daenerys and her elder brother, escaped the death of their dynasty eastward. She marries a powerful warlord, who in turn killed her brother (don’t be sad, her brother was an arsehead).
Daenerys, however, lost her husband to sickness and gradually rose to become a power to be reckoned with in her own right. She also has three dragons, a Targaryen tradition.
NB: I’ve obviously missed tons out, and only covered the basics. If you want more info, there’s plenty on wikipedia:
Whereas the first three books developed these three storylines together, the fourth (A Feast For Crows) only looked at half of the cast of the series, and I think A Dance With Dragons will do likewise, but for the other half.
There are thought to be two more books that will finish off the series, although it would be a brave man who tried to predict when that would be.
I am really looking forward to A Dance With Dragons. I absolutely loved the first three books, and whilst A Feast For Crows was not quite so excellent, I still enjoyed it.
Went hunting for a picture to use, and came across this post by Mr. Martin. It’s a good reminder that good writers are often rejected repeatedly and may then have a slow-burn success rather than a Harry Potter-style big bang: