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‘Game of Thrones’ Review: HBO Fantasy Epic’s Split From Books Will Shock Readers

Despite some clever departures from the source material, there’s still everything to love about the Season 5 kickoff

Ardent “Game of Thrones” fans are wishing, crossing fingers and praying to the Seven that — even with some of their favorite characters having gone the way of Ned Stark — the show’s creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss won’t let them down in the HBO fantasy series’ fifth season, which premieres on Sunday.

They’re also hoping that the show doesn’t depart so much from George R.R. Martin’s beloved “Song of Ice and Fire” books that the storylines will become unrecognizable.

First the bad news: Some of the changes will jar avid readers out of their couch thrones — just press pause and breathe deeply — wondering How is this character going to get to that point if he/she takes this path? Or, worse: They just spoiled future books.

I thought both at different times while watching the first four episodes of Season 5.

The good news: Even the most rabid fan can recognize a clever shortcut when they see one.

Even better news: All of our favorite dysfunctional characters are in top form, getting better in some cases. Sure, there will be some grumbling because certain characters don’t get enough screen time — or any, as has been widely reported about Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Hodor (Kristian Nairn).

While you’re bellyaching about such things, let’s just take a moment to remember those we lost in Season 4 — Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), Ygritte (Rose Leslie), Shae (Sibel Kekilli), Jojen Reed (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) and, of course, Joffrey “I Am The King” Baratheon (Jack Gleeson). (I refuse to believe that Rory McCann’s the Hound is dead — just no. Nope. No.)

They are missed.

“As soon as they see the stones on his eyes, they’ll set to work on tearing us apart,” Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) tells his lover-sister-queen Cersei (Lena Headey) at the funeral for their father at the outset of episode 1, foreshadowing a theme that we can expect will run through the entire season and very likely beyond. (Book readers, resist the urge to spoil. Gift friends a copy of Martin’s “A Feast for Crows” if they beg for Lannister intelligence.)

Cersei begins the season where she left off, ranting about their brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) being responsible for her father’s and son’s deaths. Her emotional thrashing promises to be one of the most entertaining elements of the season — also one of the deadliest. But most everyone agrees that the Lannisters have it coming — that Lannister, at least.

The first episodes start off at a brisk trot, checking in on the lives of a dizzying number of characters. The series cannot be picked up here by newbies. Season 5’s premiere is for true believers who’ve invested in earlier seasons and recognize the striking changes in some characters, like vagrant Tyrion on the road to Volantis, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) in Braavos, dark Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and even mewling milksop Lancel Lannister (Eugene Simon).

Meanwhile, others remain remarkably unchanged — though unhinged — and seemingly unfazed by the tumult surrounding them; Varys (Conleth Hill), Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) and the dynamic duo of Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and her trusty squire Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman). Some people are reliably constant — even if devious and manipulative.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) both display measured growth, as if slowly simmering to a boil.

Qyburn (Anton Lesser) is still the mad Dr. Frankenstein of the bunch, and King Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) still wears his stone face for everyone except sweet Princess Shireen (Kerry Ingram), a portion of whose face really has turned to stone.

Exciting new faces include the Red Viper’s fierce daughters (the Sand Snakes) and brother Prince Doran Martell (Alexander Siddig) in sunny Dorne.

There’s also one returning face that’s tremendously spoilerific — a face that will launch a million tweets. Fans will know it when they see it.

The best news? That the investment in “Game of Thrones'” people and power plays once again pays off.

“Game of Thrones” Season 5 premieres on Sunday, April 12 at 9 p.m. on HBO

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