Since pretty much page one of A Game of Thrones, a terrible threat has been hanging over the land of Westeros — the Others, those supernatural butchers who raise the dead. And now at last, in his new book The World of Ice & Fire, George R.R. Martin gives us details about what would happen if the Others win. Spoilers ahead...

Top image: Hyrkoon the Hero with Lightbringer in hand, leading the virtuous into battle - artist is Jordi González Escamilla.

At first glance, Martin's new book might seem like just a throwaway tie-in volume, a drip of methadone for everyone who's in withdrawal symptoms awaiting the next novel in the series, The Winds of Winter. But The World of Ice & Fire is surprisingly jam-packed with information, and does a lot to flesh out the already rich world-building of Martin's series. And there are tons of gorgeous illustrations, some of which we're featuring here.

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(The book is also coauthored by Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson, editors of the fansite Westeros.org — we've quoted Garcia in a few of our articles speculating about how the books are being adapted for future seasons of the HBO TV show.)

Image: The Red Keep, art by Ted Naismith

Plus the book outright explains or states a lot of things that fans of Martin's books have only guessed or wondered at — including exactly what happens if the Others, the snowbound monsters north of the Wall, get into Westeros and overrun everything.

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The answer comes in an early chapter of the book, where Martin talks about the Long Night — there's a revolting image of the Others riding on Ice Spiders. And we find out just what the world would be like if the Others took over. (Hint: Very dark, and very cold. Forever.) That's kind of what we'd suspected all along, but I think this might be the first actual details about the Others' endgame.

Image: Winterfell, art by Ted Naismith

In other words, this book actually seems to raise the stakes considerably for Martin's saga, or at least clarify them somewhat. (Maybe I missed some more hints in the actual Ice and Fire novels, but I don't think so.)

Incidentally, Martin's "historian" voice is pretty hilarious — again and again, he mentions supernatural or uncanny things that we, the readers, know to be true. Like, that the Others had the power to raise the dead. And then he'll sniffily say that this is probably just the historical record exaggerating, and it's probably just that some people changed sides. Heh.

Aegon the Conqueror upon Balerion, the Black Dread – art by Jordi González Escamilla

So basically The World of Ice & Fire is a more or less complete history of Westeros and Essos, leading up to the start of A Game of Thrones. If you've ever wondered how Braavos became a free city when so many other cities were slaver cities, or who the Andals and the First Men were, or what the heck is the deal with the Children of the Forest, this book has you covered.

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Martin's obsession with realpolitik, and his canny sense of the way things really work in the world, are on full display in this book, which is basically just a litany of anecdotes and weird facts about Westeros and Essos — which come to seem much more interconnected and more of a closed system than they already did.

Dragonstone, art by Philip Straub

Among other things, we learn much more about the Old Gods, and the connection between those weirwood trees and the Children of the Forest. We discover just what happened when the Andals came to conquer Westeros, and how the worship of the Seven supplanted the Old Gods in most of the land. (The Andals sound a bit like the Angles, who conquered Britain in a similar fashion and eventually imposed Christianity on everyone.)

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We also learn way more about the Doom of Valyria, and exactly what brought down the mightiest empire the world has ever seen (which at one point sent three THOUSAND dragons into battle.) And how it came to be that Aegon the Conqueror survived and came to conquer Westeros instead of suffering the same fate as the rest of Westeros.

The Iron Throne, art by Marc Simonetti

There are tons and tons of weird, fascinating details about all the various Targaryen Kings of Westeros, including another account of the Dance of the Dragons, that notorious succession struggle. And a lot of info about Maegor the Cruel, the king who fought with the church of the Seven Gods and more or less put an end to the Faith Militant... until the rise of Queen Cersei, that is.

And there is a load of details about the reign of the Mad King, Aerys Targaryen, and just what made him so mad. (Among other things, he wanted to replace King's Landing with a brand new capital, made entirely of white marble. And he wanted to build a new Wall, 100 miles north of the current Wall, and claim all the territory in between. He also wanted to make war on Braavos instead of paying back the crown's debts.) The unlikely relationship between Aerys and his hand, Tywin Lannister, is also fleshed out considerably — and you get some more hints as to how Tywin became the hard-ass we know and love to hate in the books. There's also a full account of Robert's Rebellion, including a few precious hints about just what went on between Prince Rhaegar Targaryen and Ned Stark's sister Lyanna.

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The rest of the book is a really terrific travelogue of all the lands of Westeros and Essos — with a lot of details about the Red God and those slaver cities that Daenerys has spent so much time in lately. Not to mention some previously unknown details about the lands to the East of Vaes Dothrak, where we've never really visited.

And the artwork in the book includes some really lavish illustrations of not just dragons and castles, but also some stuff we've never really seen — like the illustration up top, which is previously unavailable online and featuers Hyrkoon the Hero, wielding Lightbringer and leading the virtuous into battle.

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Also, here's an io9 exclusive: a previously unavailable video where George R.R. Martin talks about the background of the Rains of Castermere:

The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and The Game of Thrones is on sale tomorrow.