GAME OF THRONES. 9 p.m. Sunday, HBO.

WINTER is coming.

And for once, it's not just TV weather-people who are breathless with excitement.

The motto of the House of Stark, whose members figure among the major players in George R.R. Martin's best-selling fantasy series "A Song of Ice and Fire," warning of an impending cold that will be much more than a snap, is also a rallying cry to Martin's fans, who've been waiting to see his Seven Kingdoms come to life in Sunday's premiere of HBO's new series "Game of Thrones."

I'm a straggler on the road to Westeros - as I write this, I'm only 462 pages, or a little more than halfway, into the series' first book, Game of Thrones - so I'm probably never going to be able to hold my own in a fanboy/girl discussion of the modern-fantasy genre, much of which until now has struck me as warmed-over Tolkien.

I think I can speak, though, to those HBO subscribers who wonder why the network that brought them "The Sopranos" and "Deadwood" and "The Wire" is trying to interest them in fictional kings and warlords, in direwolves and wildlings and other things that go bump in the night:

Because it can.

Because a great TV series, like a great book, opens up an unfamiliar world and accords it enough respect that we can come to see ourselves in strangers, be they middle-aged mobsters, Wild West saloon-keepers or West Baltimore drug dealers.

Or even Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), lord of Winterfell and the boyhood friend of King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), whose kingdom he helped win and which he must now help guard from threats without and within.

It's giving little away to say that there's a wicked queen (Lena Headey), a lecherous dwarf (Peter Dinklage, seemingly the only possible choice for a pivotal role that demands much, much more than mere lack of height) and a scheming knight (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and that these three are siblings.

Or that Stark has some of the most interesting children to be seen on HBO since Meadow and A.J. Soprano.

There's also murder and intrigue and a considerable amount of sex (more about the sex later) and a story that in the six episodes I've seen sticks to Martin's book without feeling like a slavish re-enactment.

It helps that there's a story worth sticking to.

Unlike HBO's "True Blood," in which creator Alan Ball took a not-particularly-distinguished series about a telepath who attracts vampires and massaged it into something people who wouldn't be caught dead reading about the undead might be willing to watch, "Game of Thrones" is a show worth watching based on a book worth reading.

(So far, at least. Maybe I'll have made it through the fourth book of Martin's series by the time the long-awaited No. 5, A Dance with Dragons, is published July 12.)

"One incredible luxury that Dan [executive producer D.B. Weiss] and I have had working on this is that we're not making it up as we go along," executive producer David Benioff told reporters in January. "We're going into it knowing that we have an incredibly well-mapped-out, well-plotted story line that's going to continue for, if we're lucky, season after season, and George has already done so much of the work for us."

Martin, a longtime sci-fi and fantasy author who spent time in the trenches himself as a script writer - his TV credits include, not surprisingly, "Beauty and the Beast" - even wrote the eighth episode of "Games."

"It had been 10 years since I wrote a teleplay or a screenplay," Martin said, "so when the time came for me to sit down and do my script, 'Boy, I hope I still know how to do this.' What do you know? I did. The biggest challenge was actually mastering the new software, because screenwriting programs had changed."

"There's part of me that would love to be more involved, that would love to write several episodes per season and be there every day on the set with these guys. On the other hand, I still have the books to finish, and the books are 1,500 pages long and take me years, and I have a mob outside of my house with pitchforks and torches that are already very irritated about Book 5 being late, and after that, I have Books 6 and 7," he said. "I think I better stay where I am and finish the books because, of course, the real scary thing is if these guys [Benioff and Weiss] catch up with me."

This being HBO, that's not the only scary thing, of course.

I did promise to tell you about the sex, didn't I?

Parents who wonder whether their fantasy-mad kids are ready for a fleshed-out version of "Game of Thrones" that lingers longer than Martin tends to on his sex scenes (and is at least as graphic in the choreography of his often far-more-detailed descriptions of violence) should know that the customs of the country seem to run to rear-entry copulation (always a boon to premium cable, which likes to keep the breasts out front where everyone can see them), and that brothels get visited pretty regularly.

Much of this applies to other HBO series, but how many kids are demanding to watch, say, "Boardwalk Empire," a show about Atlantic City during Prohibition?

"Game of Thrones" isn't "Harry Potter," and no one involved is pretending it is.

As Benioff puts it, "George's fantasy is not a for-children fantasy. It's sexy and it's violent and it's brutal, and none of the characters are safe.

"And, truly, none of the characters. Characters that you might think are going to go on for six seasons meet an early end, and you think of all those shows that have done that kind of putting-character-in-jeopardy drama, who has done it best? It's been HBO in 'The Sopranos.' And one of the things that was so exciting about tuning in to 'The Sopranos' or 'The Wire' is you never knew who was going to get whacked. We're not a gangster show, but it's got elements of that within it."

So, winter is coming. If you're old enough to feel a chill at the thought, you're probably old enough for this bedtime story. *

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