The next big thing from US blockbuster TV network HBO premieres next month in the US, and it’s based on the bestselling epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin.

Don’t let the generic-sounding name fool you, however. This is nothing like the clichéd, high magic universe of most works in the genre, with their stock Tolkienesque racial archetypes and rigid, black and white morality apart from the occasional wild card, Gollum-like character. This is a low magic, ultra-gritty universe with so many shades of grey that it actively defies any simplistic moral compass.

Drawing inspiration from the 15th century War of the Roses period, the series revels in the cut-throat intrigue and violence that plays out between contesting noble Houses on the continent of Westeros, with much of the action centred on the rivalry between House Lannister and House Stark. As the story begins, the Hand of the King has died, and the head of House Stark, Eddard Stark (to be played by Sean Bean in the TV series) is commanded south to replace him. Thus, the more straightforward and politically aloof Starks are drawn out from their northern stronghold, Winterfell, into the murky, Byzantine plots that constantly surround the Iron Throne.

Meanwhile, two outside threats are stirring: the exiled descendants of the former royal dynasty, the Targaryens, now dwell among the savage, Mongul-like Drothraki nomads and plot to retake their former kingdom; and a supernatural force gathers beyond the northern border of the kingdom called The Wall, where the kingdom’s bastards and criminals are sent to for permanent guard duty, far away from civilised society.

On the surface, Westeros features many safe and familiar cultural paradigms of chivalry and heroism. But Martin’s writing is notorious for its unflinching in-your-face portrayal of medieval brutality, including incest, assassination, r-pe and prost-tution, just for starters. Not even main viewpoint characters are spared gross indignities and death. This is fantasy for adults, and few fans of the books believe any other network could do it justice.

Like True Blood, HBO is covering one novel per season arc. But unlike True Blood, where Alan Ball has taken many understandable liberties with the pulpy Southern Vampire series, it is expected that the show will hew pretty closely to the source material. There are five novels in the series, with a sixth on the way. So, subject to successful ratings, expectations are high for an extended television opus, reportedly costing $US45 million an episode.

Those interested in getting more acquainted with the series in anticipation of the big release should consider ordering the books online, or from their local surviving bookshop. The hardcore following for the series also ensures there are several good fan sites and blogs that provide useful glossaries, analysis and recaps to help keep track of the complicated plots and counter-plots, as well as the rich array of characters. (I particularly recommend Leigh Butler’s non-spoilerific effort at for those first-timers of a liberal disposition; her feminist perspective is a useful counter-point to the realistically grim depiction of gender roles in Martin’s universe, which might otherwise be quite confronting for some readers.)

The details: The A Song of Ice and Fire books are available online. HBO series A Game of Thrones premieres in the US on April 17.