Murder, cannibalism, rape and bloodshed: let’s face it, with it liberal amounts of each of these and more, Games of Thrones isn’t exactly a fairy tale. But it’s always completely compelling viewing.

Season four, the most anticipated to date, is about to drop, and as one of the lucky ones to score a three-episode preview from HBO I can assure you that the wait has been worth it.

Previews have been sought after but hard to come by, but with prominent fans like Madonna and President Obama (one of the lucky ones to request and receive an early copy) singing the show’s praises, you know it’s already become an international phenomenon.

For once Ireland (in particular Northern Ireland) has benefited to the tune of £65 million from the ever-growing film production and the PR bonanza that surrounds it. The show, which is primarily filmed in the North, has also meant worldwide exposure for some of its most scenic locations.

One local Irish car hire company has set up its stall early, printing a popular Game of Thrones visitors map that includes directions to previous show locations in counties Derry, Antrim and Down.

Even Vanity Fair has gotten in on the Game of Thrones act this month by placing central characters from the epic series in front of the dark and atmospheric Antrim Coast Road in a memorable photograph taken by Annie Leibovitz. It’s the kind of tourism publicity that money just can’t buy.

Best of all, outstanding Irish actors like Aiden Gillen and Conleth Hill (as Lord Baelish and Lord Varys, their bitchy to the point of camp confrontations with each other are the highlight of the show) make up the cast and remind us how world class our film and acting industries are.

Fans of George R.R. Martin’s epic novels may already know what to expect from the fourth season, but for the rest of us the first few episodes contain jaw-droppingly dramatic new developments, not the least of which involve almost grown dragons and spectacular (and unexpected) deaths.

What’s most remarkable about the Kingdoms that Martin has created is that anyone wants to rule them at all. After all, the average life span in Martin’s blood soaked tales is almost always brutally short.

More to the point, as actress Masie Williams (who plays Arya Stark) has often pointed out, whatever you want to happen to the characters you’re following in the show almost certainly will not.

One by one young Arya has watched almost every member of her family mown down as the Starks lose each battle to the more powerful Lannisters. Cut off from her old life, her troubles keep multiplying and in the new season that’s not changing, yet.

“I feel like Arya deserves something good to happen,” Williams told the press at the season premiere party.

“She’s the most unfortunate character. Nothing is going her way. She has powerful scenes, but not without a lot of mess-ups.

“It’s frustrating for me to never have an accomplishing scene and I think frustrating for the audience as well. But I think that’s coming soon.”

As the first few episodes make clear, there are dark times ahead for her character in the coming season, and that’s pretty much assured as long as Arya continues traveling with the lethal soldier known as the Hound.

“How many of your family have to die before you understand what life is?” he asks her. That question really hangs over all four seasons of the show.

About to become the most watched series in HBO’s history, Game of Thrones’ popularity is due in part to a plot so thick a spoon could stand up in it, and the dynamism of Martin’s storytelling which is only rivaled by The Lord of the Rings in the high fantasy stakes.

Now broadcasting in 200 countries, there is talk of a film version of the series in the near future. First though, season four takes us back to meet major players in King’s Landing, the capital city of Westeros, where the wedding of Joffrey, the psychopathic and cruel young king is scheduled to begin.

The new season introduces us to some new faces too, in particular to the bisexual Prince Oberyn Martell, the handsome royal who’s nicknamed the Red Viper. Martell has come to the capital to attend Joffrey’s wedding but, this being a tale by Martin, he has hidden motives.

As Oberyn, newcomer Pedro Pascal is sensational, the ideal embodiment of an already beloved character from the Game of Thrones books. His presence is electrifying in each scene, and he brings an added layer of menace to an already lethal capital city.

Meanwhile, with one missing his sword hand Jaime Lannister has been diminished by his misfortune, and his brother Tyrion is also diminished and running out of allies.

Their sister Cersei is reduced to taking order from head of the family Tywin and Cersei’s half unhinged son, the universally despised King Joffrey. Season four contains some long anticipated developments for each member of the most powerful family in the Kingdoms, and many of those developments will startle you.

“If you think this has a happy ending you haven’t been paying attention,” said Theon Greyjoy’s tormentor in season three.

The words sound prophetic about the whole trajectory of Game of Thrones itself. How on earth will Martin wrap up a plot this complex, involving multiple clans, nations and wars?

In interviews he has said the books were in part inspired by the real life War of the Roses, which indicated how ambitious his plans for the series have always been. Apparently that plan could now include some stand-alone films to compliment the television serial.

In March he told The Hollywood Reporter that turning Game of Thrones into a movie could be the best way to wrap up his multi-layered saga.

“It all depends on how long the series runs,” he said. “Do we run for seven years? Do we run for eight? Do we run for 10? The books get bigger and bigger. We might need a feature film to tie things up.”

Looking at season four, it’s already clear that HBO is up to the task if Martin decides to end the way he started. The special effects are so superior that you’ll have no trouble accepting that dragons are real and that magic exists.

In particular the dreaded white walkers, the phantom creatures from beyond the wall who can reanimate the dead, are a source of real terror as the season progresses. From the beginning Martin has gradually introduced the show’s supernatural elements, but in the forth season they burst to life like never before.

Season four’s motto is “all men must die,” and from viewing the first three episodes I can tell you that is not a theme to be taken lightly.

If you suspected the show would run out of steam by its fourth outing, be prepared to be astonished this Sunday when the show returns to our screens.

Game of Thrones will air on Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.