Note, if you are watching the TV series alone this article contains spoilers of such an apocalyptic magnitude they will cause your eyes to melt and dribble out of your sockets. Do not read on unless you want the entire second season spoiled for you a year before it's on screen.
A Game of Thrones
In the 298th year after Aegon's Landing, the fourteenth year of King Robert Baratheon's rule, the Seven Kingdoms once again began slipping into chaos and war.
The original 1996 US hardcover of A Game of Thrones, which is now worth quite a bit. Art by Tom Hallman.
Robert's younger brother Stannis, Lord of Dragonstone, served on the king's small council as master of ships and the commander of the royal fleet. Stannis developed a suspicion that his brother's three children - Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen - were not Robert's offspring at all, but possibly the product of a liaison between Queen Cersei Lannister and her own twin brother, Jaime, the Kingslayer. Stannis was aware that if he went to Robert with this information, it would appear to be self-serving: if Robert's children were not his, then Stannis became the heir to the Iron Throne. Stannis enlisted the aid of Lord Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, in proving the truth of the matter and they undertook an investigation. Jon visited several of Robert's bastards and noted their close physical resemblance to their father. He also investigated the histories and lineages of the Seven Kingdoms, and discovered that in every match between Lannister and Baratheon (and there had been a few over the centuries), the Baratheon features won out over the Lannisters. Yet Robert's children were fair-haired.
Convinced that the Lannisters had betrayed the king, Stannis returned to Dragonstone and began gathering his supporters and bannermen. Jon Arryn remained in King's Landing, gathering enough evidence to convince even Robert, but Stannis and Jon made a surreptitious deal to foster Jon's young son Robert Arryn on Dragonstone with Stannis, a plan that Jon's wife Lysa (who was notoriously over-protective of her son) objected to most strenuously. During this period Jon Arryn fell ill and died, apparently of a fever, but Stannis was sure it was an assassination arranged by the Lannisters. Lysa apparently felt the same way, sending a letter to her sister Catelyn, the wife of Lord Eddard Stark, warning her of this.
In the meantime, King Robert, oblivious to these machinations, travelled to Winterfell with his entourage to ask Eddard to take up the role of Hand of the King to replace Jon Arryn. Eddard agreed as a means of investigating the situation in King's Landing and seeing if there was any danger to the king. He also accepted Robert's proposal that they marry Robert's son Joffrey to Eddard's daughter Sansa. However, Eddard's son Bran, who liked to climb, discovered Jaime and Cersei in bed and was discovered. Jaime threw him from the tower, but Bran survived, albeit with no memory of the incident.
Eddard set out south with the king's part and his daughters, Sansa and Arya. He left his eldest son and heir Robb to rule Winterfell in his stead, along with his younger sons Bran and Rickon. Eddard's bastard son, Jon Snow, was not welcome at Winterfell in his absence, so Jon elected to join Eddard's brother Benjen on the Wall, taking the black and joining the Night's Watch. All of the Stark children had pet direwolves, found as pups after Eddard had beheaded a deserter from the Watch (babbling nonsense about seeing the Others beyond the Wall), and these accompanied them to their respective destinations.
Meanwhile, in the Free City of Pentos, the wealthy merchant lord Illyrio Mopatis and the exiled Beggar King, Viserys Targaryen, conspired to return the Targaryens to the Iron Throne. They arranged for Viserys' younger sister Daenerys to marry Khal Drogo, the warlord or khal of a Dothraki khalasar, a horde of forty thousand warriors. In return, Drogo would support Viserys' play for the Iron Throne. But before that could be done, Dothraki custom demanded that Drogo return to Vaes Dothrak with his new bride and present her to the old crones of the city for their blessing. This involved a long journey eastwards through the Free Cities, the Forest of Qohor and the vast grass-steppes of the Dothraki sea. Viserys and Daenerys were joined on this journey by Ser Jorah Mormont, an exiled knight of Westeros who had sworn loyalty to Viserys. Viserys chafed at the slow pace of the journey, the fact that he was heading in the wrong direction, and most of all at his sister's growing pride and independence in her new position of power and authority. Eventually, Viserys' arrogance proved too much and ended with Khal Drogo upending a pot of molten gold over his head, killing him.
Eddard and the royal party made their way slowly south, delayed by the queen's ridiculously huge and slow wheel-carriage. At Castle Darry, there was an altercation between Arya and Joffrey when he found her practicing at swordplay with a butcher's son, Myach. The incident ended with Joffrey's hand being bitten by Arya's direwolf, Nymeria, and his sword being thrown in the river. Arya drove Nymeria off, knowing that she'd be punished, so the queen suggested that Sansa's direwolf, Lady, be killed instead, to Sansa's fury. Sandor Clegane, Joffrey's sworn sword and bodyguard, killed Mycah as well, earning Arya's enmity.
Back in Winterfell, an assassin armed with an elaborate dagger tried to kill the crippled Bran, and was only stopped by the intervention of Catelyn and Bran's direwolf, Summer. Examining the dagger, Catelyn and her advisors realised that it was an ornate and unique weapon. By tracking down its owner, they may get a clue to the identity of the people who wanted Bran dead. Catelyn set out for King's Landing by sea to bring Eddard this news.
The royal party pressed on to King's Landing, where Eddard found a den of vipers waiting for him. Between the king's spymaster, the eunuch Varys, and his master of coin, Petyr 'Littlefinger' Baelish, and their intrigues, Eddard did not know who to trust. This indecision was solved when Catelyn, who had beaten him to the city, put her trust in Littlefinger, an old childhood friend. Littlefinger confirmed that the dagger belonged to Tyrion Lannister, the Imp, the deformed and misshapen younger brother of Cersei and Jaime. Tyrion had travelled to Winterfell with the rest of the royal party, but had elected to go north to see the Wall before returning to the capital.
At the Wall, Jon Snow found that the Night's Watch consisted mostly of criminals, rapists and thieves who had chosen the Wall over castration or having a hand cut off. A few good men were to be found, but for the most part it was a harsh, old institution whose glory days had long passed. Tyrion warned Jon Snow this would be the case, but he had not listened. Nevertheless, Tyrion's advice enabled Jon to make friends with some of the other recruits and make a good impression on Maester Aemon and Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, though it also earned him the enmity of the trainer of new recruits, Ser Alliser Thorne. Tyrion left to return to King's Landing, and soon after a new recruit, Samwell Tarly, arrived at the Wall. A fat, soft, southern boy from the Reach, Sam was easy prey for Thorne and his cruel jibes, but Jon helped him survive.
Meanwhile, Robert Baratheon had learned of Daenerys Targaryen's wedding and that she had subsequently become pregnant. He ordered that an assassin be sent to kill her, to Eddard's disgust. The assassin caught up with Daenerys in Vaes Dothrak and tried to poison her, but he was exposed by Ser Jorah Mormont (actually a spy for Varys, but one who had started to develop some loyalty towards Daenerys due to her courage). Due to this attempt on his wife and unborn son's lives, Khal Drogo flew into a rage and swore an oath to lead his khalasar to the Seven Kingdoms and conquer the realm for his son.
Elsewhere in the capital the king's youngest brother, Renly Baratheon, was intriguing against the Lannisters, whom he despised. Renly's plan was for Robert to put aside Cersei and marry the sister of his best friend (and lover) Ser Loras Tyrell. Lord Mace Tyrell had already agreed to back the scheme with his vast army should the Lannisters object.
Departing King's Landing, Catelyn was in the Crossroads Inn when Tyrion happened to arrive. Acting on instinct, Catelyn called upon several knights sworn to her father's bannermen, as well as some sellswords, to help her take Tyrion prisoner. She loudly announced that she was taking him north to Winterfell to await the king's justice, but instead took him east into the Vale of Arryn, to her sister Lysa's seat at the Eyrie. At the Eyrie Catelyn found her sister in the grip of paranoid fear that people meant to harm her son Robert. They put Tyrion on trial, but Tyrion claimed trial by battle to prove his innocence. One of the sellswords, Bronn, agreed to take Tyrion's part, and defeated Lysa's champion, Ser Vardis Egen. Lysa turned them both out, not expecting them to survive an unescorted journey through the foothills of the Mountains of the Moon, where hostile tribesmen roamed. However, Tyrion was able to convince the mountain clans that House Lannister could be a powerful ally and gained a strong escort back into the Riverlands.
Back in King's Landing, Eddard set out on the same trail as Jon Arryn and Stannis Baratheon, finding several of Robert's bastards and a dull book on the history and lineages of the great houses. News of Catelyn's arrest of Tyrion reached the city and Jaime Lannister had his guardsmen severely wound Eddard and kill several of his bodyguards before fleeing the city. Eddard's attempts to bring Jaime to justice were stymied by Robert, who demanded peace between the two houses. Robert then took off on a long boar hunt in the Kingswood, expecting the situation to be rectified by the time he returned. Instead, at Casterly Rock Lord Tywin called his banners, summoned a large army, and began moving towards the Riverlands, sending his ferocious knight, Ser Gregor Clegane, ahead to cause as much chaos as possible. When news of this reached Eddard, he commanded a young lord from the Dornish Marches, Beric Dondarrion, to take a strong force to arrest Gregor Clegane.
Due to a chance remark by Sansa, Eddard realised that no previous Baratheon-Lannister pairing had produced blonde children. He confronted Cersei, who confirmed his suspicions: the three children were all Jaime's. Eddard gave her a chance to flee before Robert returned, but Cersei did not take him up on the offer. When Robert did return, it was on his back: his squire, Lancel Lannister, he given him too much wine and he'd been gored by the boar. As he lay dying, Robert named Eddard as Lord Protector of the Realm, to rule until his heir came of age. Robert's youngest brother, Renly, urged Eddard to strike and imprison Cersei and her children before it was too late, but Eddard refused. Renly fled the city, his own plan for Robert to marry Margaery Tyrell in tatters and his own personal safety in question.
Robert passed away, and immediately Cersei put Joffrey on the Iron Throne. Eddard presented his warrant to serve as Lord Protector, but Cersei tore it up. Eddard, having used to Littlefinger to buy the loyalty of the City Watch's commander, Janos Slynt, moved to have Cersei and Joffrey arrested, but Littlefinger and Slynt betrayed him. The remaining Stark guards were killed and Eddard was taken into custody. Sansa was likewise held, but Arya managed to escape onto the streets of the city.
With Eddard a prisoner, Robb Stark called the banners of the North and led a signficiant army south. At Moat Cailin, he was joined by his mother, Catelyn. They debated strategy: Tywin Lannister had invaded the Riverlands in force, leaving half his army under Jaime to invest Riverrun and leading the rest to the Trident to stop Robb from advancing on King's Landing. After some discussion, Robb decided to also split his army in half. He ordered Lord Roose Bolton, a Northern lord of sinister repute, to lead his footmen to engage Tywin, whilst he would ride hard for Riverrun with his cavalry. This required getting across the Green Fork of the Trident. The only crossing was at the Twins, held by House Frey, bannermen to the Tullys but of dubious loyalty. Catelyn won the Freys to Robb's cause by promising his hand in marriage to one of Lord Walder Frey's offspring.
Tyrion Lannister descended from the mountains with his clan warriors and joined Tywin's host. Tywin placed Tyrion and his wildmen in the vanguard with Gregor Clegane, thinking that they would break and set up a trap for the Starks that Tywin's pikemen could exploit. As it stood, the wildemen held their line. During the engagement - the Battle of the Green Fork - Roose Bolton held his lines and his nerve and was able to retreat in good order once the Lannisters gained the upper hand. Tywin was initially pleased with the victory, but furious once he learned that he had been deceived.
In King's Landing, Eddard was aghast to hear that Robb was leading an army into battle. Varys, claiming to serve the realm and to serve peace, asked Eddard to falsely confess to treason. In return for this he would be allowed to take the black and join the Night's Watch, whilst Sansa would be left unharmed. Eddard reluctantly agreed and, on the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor, made his false confession. Joffrey, wanting to give the crowd a show, betrayed the agreement and ordered that Eddard be beheaded.
On the Wall, Jon Snow saved the life of Lord Commander Mormont from a wight, a dead ranger that had risen in the night. Mormont, hearing reports of the wildlings gathering in vast numbers in the far north, decided that he would not wait meekly for the winter to come. Instead, he planned to lead the Night's Watch in force against the Others, the wildlings and whatever else was out there. Jon, despite being tempted to join Robb's war, agreed to serve this cause.
The Stark army won a great double-pronged victory over the Lannisters. At the Whispering Wood, they lured Jaime Lannister and a small detachment of his army into a trap, and Jaime was captured. Then the Stark army, aided by forces of the Riverlands, smashed the Lannister siege of Riverrun. A small Lannister force retreated to the border with the Westerlands in good order, but the damage was done. Riverrun opened its gates and the forces loyal to Lord Hoster Tully joined forces with the Starks. When word of Eddard's death reached them, along with the news that Renly had been crowned King of the Seven Kingdoms in Highgarden, they debated what to do next, about whether to declare for Renly or wait to see what Stannis, Robert's true heir would do. In the end, they decided against being ruled from the south any further. Both the northern and river lords declared Robb Stark the King in the North, and swore their fealty to him.
Khal Drogo's army moved south-east to Lhazar, the land of the lamb-men, where Drogo planned to take many slaves to sell in Slaver's Bay to fund the crossing to Westeros. However, Drogo took a wound in battle which festered. Daenerys asked a local healer, Mirri Maz Duur, to aid Drogo in return for sparing her life. Duur agreed...but her ministrations left Drogo a vegetable, his khalasar scattered in civil conflict and Daenerys childless, her son stillborn. Furious, Daenerys smothered Drogo, tied Duur to his funeral pyre, and burned them both. On a whim Daenerys put three old dragon eggs - gifts from Illyrio in Pentos - on the pyre, and stepped into the flames herself. Once the fire and ashes cleared, Daenerys was revealed unharmed...along with three dragon hatchlings, the first seen anywhere in the world for a century and a half.
A Clash of Kings
On the island of Dragonstone, Stannis Baratheon, the younger brother of the late King Robert and the older brother of Lord Renly, claimed the Iron Throne of Westeros, sending a letter to every lord in the Seven Kingdoms claiming that Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen were bastards born of incest and treachery. He called his banners and his fleet, but he was stymied by the tactical situation: he controlled the sea lanes around the capital but his actual army was tiny, only a few thousand, not enough to assault King's Landing. In addition Stannis had the problem of dealing with his younger brother in Highgarden, who had won all of the Reach and the Stormlands to his cause, giving him an army almost as large as the Lannisters and Starks combined. Stannis had a new advisor, a red priest of R'hllor named Melisandre, who could see certain things in her flames. At her suggestion, Stannis moved his fleet and army south to besiege his own ancestral castle at Storm's End, now loyal to Renly.
Meanwhile, Tyrion arrived in King's Landing and set to putting things right. He removed Slynt, who had been made Lord of Harrenhal, and sent him to the Wall, instead placing the City Watch under the command of a steadier officer. Tyrion also won the assistance of Varys, keeping Littlefinger wisely at arm's length. With the city vulnerable to Renly's army, which had begun slowly marching on the capital, Tyrion set about organising a defence. He had a chain built to seal off the mouth of the Blackwater Rush and fortified the city in earnest. He also began shoring up political alliances, and in a bold move won the allegiance of Dorne by promising the hand of Princess Myrcella to Prince Trystane Martell.
On the battlefront, Tywin Lannister had retreated to Harrenhal, leaving his army centrally placed to move against either Robb or Renly, as the situation demanded. Robb wanted Tywin to come west, allowing Renly to attack King's Landing unimpeded, so Robb led his army into the Westerlands, assaulting a whole string of castles loyal to the Lannisters. With the Stark army doing tremendous damage to the homeland of the Lannisters and their vassals, Tywin was forced to appease his lords by leading his army in pursuit. Unfortunately, Robb had not informed his uncle Edmure, who was holding Riverrun, of the plan. Edmure led a stalwart defence of the fords over the Red Fork that the Lannisters needed to cross to get home, and repulsed the attack.
Arya Stark had managed to escape from King's Landing with a band of Night's Watch recruits gathered by Yoren, but Yoren was killed in an altercation on the shores of Gods Eye. Arya and her cohorts were escorted to Harrenhal and forced to serve the Lannisters as servants. Once Tywin had departed, Roose Bolton led the rest of the Stark host down and occupied the castle. Arya pondered revealing her true identity, but Roose's odd manner and sinister reputation convined her to keep her head down. Another one of the ex-recuits, a Lorathi named Jaqen H'Ghar, turned out to be a Faceless Man, one of a sect of assassins who were capable of changing his appearance at will. H'Ghar helped Arya escape from Harrenhal, and she began making her way towards Riverrun.
In the North, the lands had been left almost defenceless after Robb Stark had led his army south. Lord Balon Greyjoy took advantage of this, declaring himself King of the Iron Islands once again. Theon Greyjoy had returned to him as a messenger from Robb proposing an alliance, but Balon disdained such a notion. Instead, he commanded Theon, his daughter Asha and several loyal warriors to raid heavily along the coast of the North and then strike inland to seize Moat Cailin, Torrhen's Squre and Deepwood Motte. This was successful, but Theon modified the plan. He took another forces and managed to capture the under-defended castle of Winterfell itself. Foolishly, he tried to hang onto his prize despite it being militarily untenable as the other lords gathered more troops to repulse him. The situation worsened when Rickon and Bran Stark attempted to escape the castle and Theon executed them...though in reality he had let them go and killed two other children instead. The other Northern lords were suddenly attacked by the forces of House Bolton, led by Roose's bastard son Ramsay. Theon opened the gates in gratitude, only for Ramsay to take him prisoner and order the castle burned.
In the south, Renly's army abruptly veered off eastwards to meet the threat of Stannis. Renly and Stannis met under a flag of truce, adjudicated by Catelyn Stark, who had travelled south to try to arrange an alliance between Robb and the Baratheons. The talks came to nothing, and it looked like Renly was poised for a famous victory...until, at Melisandre's command, the very shadows in Renly's tent came alive and killed him. Catelyn and one of Renly's 'Rainbow Guard', a female warrior named Brienne of Tarth, were the only ones present when Renly died, so they were blamed for the murder. They fled, and managed to escape all the way back to Riverrun.
Upon Renly's death, the storm lords went over to Stannis, who almost immediately began marching on the capital, but in King's Landing Tyrion saw an opportunity. Renly had had to leave most of the Reach lords behind in his determination to get to Storm's End. Tyrion sent Littlefinger to treat with Lord Mace Tyrell, who was no friend to Stannis (during Robert's Rebellion, Mace had besieged Stannis in Storm's End for a year). Littlefinger suggested that Joffrey could marry Margaery Tyrell in Renly's stead, and Mace Tyrell agreed. When word of this reached Tywin, he marched his army south to the headwaters of the Blackwater Rush and used boats to transport his army down to the capital.
This resulted in the Battle of the Blackwater. Stannis' fleet assaulted the city from the bay and river, whilst his army began making plans to cross the river. Tyrion had placed wildfire barrels under the waterline, and once Stannis' fleet was fully committed Tyrion released the wildfire and lifted the chain. The resulted in the near-annihilation of Stannis' fleet as it was trapped in the river. Unfortunately, what looked like a significant victory came close to turning to defeat when Stannis' army started using the resulting wreckage as a bridge to cross the river. Tyrion himself led a sortie to repulse the attack, but was badly injured in the process. Still, Tyrion's actions had given Mace Tyrell and Tywin Lannister enough time to gather their forces and hit Stannis' army in the flank. Though Stannis and some troops managed to escape by sea, the bulk of his army was defeated and surrendered.
Meanwhile, Daenerys Targaryen, her newly-hatched dragons and the few remnants of the Drogo's khalasar who had remained behind, journeyed south and east across the forbidding Red Waste, eventually coming out of the far side near the great city of Qarth, which guarded the straits into the Jade Sea. The Qartheen feted Daenerys and treated her well, but the city's merchant lords were greedy for her dragons. Daenerys decided to seek the advice of the Warlocks of Qarth at the House of the Undying, and was left battered by a bemusing series of visions (including of a man with a wolf's head, and a vision of her brother Rhaegar and his wife Elia cooing over their son Aegon and Rhaegar saying, "The dragon has three heads," and "His is the song of ice and fire,"). Her dragons burned the House of the Undying down. Aware that she had outstayed her welcome in the city, Daenerys was assisted by the timely arrival of two warriors sent by Illyrio to escort her home: a eunuch warrior named Strong Belwas, and an old warrior of Westeros, Ser Arstan Whitebeard (who is really Ser Barristan Selmy, former Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, forcibly retired on Cersei's orders). They took ship for Pentos.
Beyond the Wall, the forces of the Night's Watch advanced to the Fist of the First Men, an old hill fort abandoned thousands of years ago. From there, Mormont sent a scouting force led by Qhorin Halfhand and also including Jon Snow to reconnitor the Skirling Pass. There they were cornered by a wildling raiding party. Qhorin sacrificed his life, letting Jon kill him so Jon could pose as a turncloak and learn the wildlings' true plans. The wildlings bought the deception (mainly due to a young woman, Ygritte, who had taken a shine to Snow) and decided to bring Jon Snow before the King-beyond-the-Wall, Mance Rayder, to prove his worth.
That covers the first two books in the series. The next one will cover Storm and Crows and hopefully bring us up to date.