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Game of Thrones season four begins with no end in sight for book series

Are you tired of waiting for the rest of George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire?

HBO’s Game of Thrones is the Jägerbomb to Tolkien’s ginger beer. How else to describe a fantasy series in which a moment of interrupted incest leads to civil war and the threat of human extinction at the hands of spectral frost monsters? It’s bloody, political and raunchy, populated by a well-drawn cast of sociopaths and misfits. And whilst it pales against the character-driven dramas like Breaking Bad and House of Cards to which we’ve recently been treated, Walter White’s shenanigans never involved dragons and full-frontal nudity.

Season four of the show premieres today. That’s exciting news for aficionados. But another sad milestone for fans of the cycle of novels from which Game of Thrones is adapted – A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin – which remains incomplete after eighteen years of prevarication and delay.

Frank Underwood never ate a raw horse heart. Image: HBO

Here’s the timeline. Game of Thrones (the book) was released in 1996. A Clash of Kings followed in 1999, as did A Storm of Swords a year later. Then things started to go wrong, probably when Martin’s editors stopped speaking truth to power – the man is known to hold a grudge against their tribe. Fans waited five years for A Feast for Crows. Then six years for A Dance with Dragons. Three years on and The Winds of Winter still lacks a publication date. Fragments of the manuscript are occasionally leaked to Martin’s website, but like Chinese water torture this irregular trickle has driven readers to despair. They are desperate to know whether Martin is capable of redeeming himself after Crows and Dragons, which were by most accounts poorly paced and occasionally dull. Don't ask about A Dream of Spring, which will complete the heptalogy in some ineffably distant future.

The more impatient members of Martin’s entourage call themselves “GRRuMblers”. They are an entitled and obnoxious lot, given to venting their frustrations in whinging blog pieces and message board posts. But Martin also has defenders amongst those who argue that buying a book does not create an implicit contract for the delivery of future services. In the words of Neil Gaiman, “George R R Martin is not your bitch”.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. Image: HBO

One assumes that Martin has good reason to avoid a J K Rowling-paced publication schedule. The pressure to satisfy a fan base Vulture calls the most devoted in pop culture must be nerve-shattering. He certainly does not seem hurried by a fear of looming mortality, unlike those readers who like comparing Martin’s age (65) to that of fellow fantasy novelist Robert Jordan (58), who died in 2007 midway through concluding his epic Wheel of Time series. (Why must we be so fearful of Martin shuffling off anyway? Many unfinished works are considerably better than hurriedly completed ones. Compare Kafka’s The Trial to the autobiography of Jade Goody etc.)

Martin's great error was appending a note to the back of A Feast For Crows which assured readers that a sequel would be along the next year. That surely created some kind of obligation. As it happened, A Dance with Dragons took Martin longer to complete than the ministry of Jesus, Magellan’s circumnavigation, Paradise Lost and the Manhattan Project.

Giants and dragons and direwolves, oh my! Image: HBO

Game of Thrones season four will be thrilling. But it will also remind fans of the books they are missing. HBO executives will no doubt push hard for A Song of Ice and Fire to be completed now their series has caught up with Martin’s pen (here's speculation as to what might happen if they fail to crack the whip). For readers who have inhabited the world of Westeros since the first Clinton administration, a long wait for resolution may soon be approaching the beginning of the end. 

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit