After a long silence (Portraits of his Children, stories, 1987), the author of the cult The Armageddon Rag (1983) returns with the first of a fantasy series entitled, insipidly enough, A Song of Ice and Fire. In the Seven Kingdoms, where the unpredictable seasons may last decades, three powerful families allied themselves in order to smash the ruling Targaryens and depose their mad king, Rhaegar. Robert Baratheon claimed the throne and took to wife Tywin Lannister's daughter, Cersei; Ned Stark returned north to gloomy Winterfell with its massive, ancient Wall that keeps wildings and unspeakable creatures from invading. Some years later, Robert, now drunk and grossly fat, asks Ned to come south and help him govern; reluctantly, since he mistrusts the treacherous Lannisters, Ned complies. Honorable Ned soon finds himself caught up in a whirl of plots, espionage, whispers, and double-dealing and learns to his horror that the royal heir, Joffrey, isn't Robert's son at all but, rather, the product of an incestuous union between the Queen and her brother Jaime--he murdered Rhaegar despite the latter's surrender. Ned attempts to bargain with Cersei and steels himself to tell Robert--but too late. Swiftly the Lannisters murder the King, consign Ned to a dungeon, and prepare to seize the throne, opposed only by the remaining Starks and Baratheons. On the mainland, meanwhile, the brutal and stupid Viserys Targaryen sells his sister Dany to a barbarian horse-warrior in return for a promise of armies to help him reconquer the Seven Kingdoms. A vast, rich saga, with splendid characters and an intricate plot flawlessly articulated against a backdrop of real depth and texture. Still, after 672 dense pages, were you expecting a satisfying resolution? You won't get it: Be prepared for a lengthy series with an indefinitely deferred conclusion.