If I were a better man I would have spent the summer reading Proust, but with a 16-month-old baby at home it’s hard enough to stay awake during the day, so I read all five Song of Ice and Fire books instead. The post below contains massive spoilers.
I think the key to understanding the series–and the source of my disappointment with A Dance With Dragons–is that it’s structured more like a trilogy than it seems. A Game of Thrones is essentially a Hobbit-like prologue, along these lines:
“300 years ago the seven kingdoms of Westeros were united under the rule of dragon-riding Aegon the Conqueror. House Targaryen, descended from the great doomed civilization of Valyria, ruled from the Iron Throne for centuries until lust and madness led to Lord Robert Baratheon rising up in rebellion and usurping the throne. Robert married badly and turned out to be a better warrior than king. Palace intrigue led to the death of Robert and his noble friend Ned Stark. Now the resulting power vacuum is threatening to tear the realm apart as House Lannister grasps for the Iron Throne and the children of House Stark are scattered throughout the lands. Meanwhile, winter is coming and an ancient evil is rising in the North. And far to the West, the last living Targaryen, a teenage girl named Daenerys, has become a widow queen and hatched the only three dragons in the world.”
It’s a great set-up! A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords are, together, Act One. And they lead to a series of satisfying first act conclusions: Jon Snow and Daenerys both rise to rule, Tyrion comes to grips with the fact that, despite his intelligence and pedigree, he will always be seen as a monster, Robb Stark takes after his father in the best and worst possible ways, Sansa escapes the gilded cage of court, Arya realizes there is no place for her in Westeros, Caitlin becomes the embodiment of her rage, Bran moves toward some kind of mystical destiny. Meanwhile, appealing characters like Davos, Samwell and Brienne show the story from the ground level and fill in the details of a kingdom in flames.
A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons are, together, Act Two. The problem is that, a decade and several thousands pages later, act two still isn’t finished. At the conclusion, Meereen is still at war, Daenerys is standing with her dragon in the middle of the Dothraki Sea and her old khalasar approaching, Tyrion gets all the way across the world only to accomplish nothing and start back with a company of sellswords, Bran is hanging out underground north of the Wall learning to fly, Brienne is leading Jaime toward what I imagine will be an extremely awkward meeting with Zombie Caitlin, Cersei is counting on Zombie Gregor to keep her alive long enough to plot some kind of fantastically bitchy revenge, Stannis may be dead, Jon is lying face down in the snow waiting for the most obvious resurrection since Superman didn’t actually kick the bucket, Arya is training to become a ninja assassin, reeky Theon is in the snow somewhere, Sansa is hanging out with ultra-creepy but (for Westeros) unusually sane and competent Littlefinger, and Davos is off to fetch Rikon, who hasn’t been seen in roughly 3,000 pages. Oh, and now there’s another heir to House Targaryen who also wants to be king. Meanwhile, a bunch of semi-related stuff is happening with House Dorne, the Iron Islanders, and various other characters with delusions of grandeur.
If George R. R. Martin actually plans to wrap this thing up in two more books (i.e. Act Three) that means he has about 150 point-of-view chapters left. It’s weird to say so, but that’s really not a lot of room to work. It seems like it would be a good idea to lay the chapters out on a big piece of paper and figure out how to (A) Resolve the various dangling plot threads above, (B) Get everyone the hell back to Westeros, and (C) move the story toward a conclusion that will involve (I’m guessing) something along these lines:
- Mellisandre resurrects Jon Snow and together they have a huge battle with the Others on and around the Wall.
- Jaime and Cersei both end up dying for their sins.
- Ninja assassin Arya returns to kill someone at a dramatically crucial moment.
- Varys and Littlefinger duke it out for the scheming courtier championship of Westeros.
- Daenerys finally lands in Westeros with her dragons, the Unsullied, a huge Dothraki khalasar, and an army of freed slaves. She joins the battle with the Others, fire wins out over ice, and she restores House Targaryen to the Iron Throne
- Bran restores Winterfell and reigns in the North under a new regime of harmony between Westerosi, animals, wildlings, and the Children of the Forest. The Wall is destroyed forever.
- Tyrion brings down House Lannister as a final f— you to his dad and lives happily ever after.
To pull this off — note that it took 7 bullet points just to describe a plausible ending, there are only 150 chapters left, and Martin can’t entirely ignore characters like Samwell, Theon, Davos, Caitlin, Sansa, Barristan Selmy, and Brienne– I recommend that the prologue to The Winds of Winter involve a huge sit-down meeting on Dragonstone, in which House Dorne, House Greyjoy, and the Golden Company meet in the map room to plot their collective conquest of Westeros, at which point Mellisandre psychically triggers a hidden switch inside the castle, the entire island drops into the ocean, and they all die.