George R.R. Martin is surrounded by warriors.
There are thousands of armored medieval knights circling the author, weapons drawn, poised for combat. Luckily, Martin can handle them they're only a few inches high. The intricately painted figurines, which line the shelves of his study, represent centuries of warfare. They're also the inspiration behind his best-selling A Song of Ice and Fire series.
''The concept of knighthood always interested me,'' says Martin, 62, giving a tour of the enviable geek retreat he's created in a suburban Santa Fe, N.M., house across the street from where he lives. ''Chivalry in the Middle Ages was among the most idealistic codes the human race has ever come up with for a warrior. These are men who were sworn to defend the weak. Then you look at the reality, and their brutality was extreme.''
Martin was already a successful fantasy and sci-fi author and TV writer when he decided to attempt an epic fantasy. It was a quest that would eventually result in five novels (two more are planned) with more than 8.5 million copies of the books in this country alone; a breakout HBO series, Game of Thrones; and acclaim that borders on fantasy blasphemy: Time magazine anointed him ''The American Tolkien.''
Initially, Martin knew only that he wanted to write a ''big'' novel that would let him indulge in all the elements Hollywood executives told him were impossible to produce in the TV show he worked on: global stakes, graphic sex and violence, giant battles, and a ton of characters in short, a tale that would shatter all the romanticized clichés inspired by medieval Europe and instead depict the period's barbaric reality. ''Pretty soon I was 100 pages into the book and I was making maps and genealogies,'' he says.
The result was 1996's A Game of Thrones, a genre-busting saga of warring families set in a medieval-like world where seasons last for years. Though his publisher expected a best-seller, the book was a disappointment. Yet as Martin continued the complex story in subsequent volumes (A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords), the series' popularity skyrocketed. The fourth installment, A Feast for Crows, went straight to No. 1 on the best-seller list when it was released in 2005.
And then...six years passed. A date was announced for a new Ice and Fire book, then retracted. His publisher grew impatient. Some of Martin's worshipful fans turned into wolves whimpering, then howling. Everybody wondered: What happened?