It’s been six years now since the release of A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the books HBO’s Game of Thrones is based on. And the long-awaited sequel, The Winds of Winter is still nowhere in sight. Martin seemed filled with optimism following A Dance with Dragons. But the hope that he could release the sixth book within a few years eventually faded. In January 2016 he admitted he missed a key deadline to finish The Winds of Winter. Is it time to give up on The Winds of Winter altogether?
Some book fans have criticized the HBO TV version for having plot points that don’t align. But they might need to learn to love what the show is doing. GRRM has gone over a year without an official update on the status of Winds of Winter. Game of Thrones could very easily be the only conclusion to A Song of Ice and Fire that we’re ever going to get.
After six years of waiting for The Winds of Winter, the situation has only become less hopeful. Fans were already worried about GRRM’s health and ability to finish the series back before Game of Thrones premiered. As Martin has grown older his pace has only slowed down. With at least another book to go after Winds, a writer getting no younger, the odds of A Song of Ice and Fire actually being finished are getting less likely. It’s time for fans to lower their expectations and be happy with what we have.
Delays with Dragons
The last book in the series, A Dance with Dragons, was actually a worrying sign for the future of this series. The book ended on a series of jarring cliffhangers. Several seemed like shocking narrative devices, like Jon Snow’s betrayal. But others seemed like plots that simply never got to where they were meant to go. Characters do not complete their arcs, many never reach their destinations, and two major battles are about to begin when the story stops suddenly.
At the time all these cliffhangers were merely unsatisfying. Now I wonder if these interruptions were by design or deadline. Rather than leaving us on a clear break in the story, Dance just ends. It’s as if a publisher forced the book out.
Even Dance with Dragons’ very existence was a sign of problems in the series. The book was originally intended to be part of the prior novel, A Feast for Crows. The two books were split up in 2005 due to size constraints. GRRM seemed confident back then that he could wrap up the remaining content quickly and then move on to his finale. Dance instead dragged on for an eternity. Dance was a book that was never planned, yet went on for thousands of pages, took over half a decade to write, and did not accomplish very much narrative-wise.
Why the Troubles?
Writing A Song of Ice and Fire is surely not easy. It’s a huge story with thousands of characters. GRRM has created a gigantic universe with diverse cultures and mind-boggling detail.
The literary devices of the series also make things far more difficult to structure. A Song of Ice and Fire uses very few POV characters who can only see a small portion of the story. If Tyrion is the only character in a location you can only see the location through Tyrion’s own limited information. The audience has to be left in the dark from most of the grander intrigue and backstabs before they come.
This all means that these books are written with a lot of precision. POVs cannot be placed at random. GRRM has to keep track the entire chronology and must determine how to present all the information to the reader the right way. This is why, for example, just figuring out the order in which characters were to reach Meereen in Dance with Dragons became a massive concern. That issue was eventually dubbed the “Meereenese Knot,” a writing block that plagued GRRM for six years.
Martin has assured us that after Dance with Dragons the knot was solved. Yet Meereen is still an unfinished storyline. Daenerys isn’t even in the city when Dance concludes. It seems in the six years since Dance was released, GRRM has fallen from one knot to another. The Meereen storyline has been running for over seventeen years now. We seem no closer to its conclusion.
And Meereen is only one part of a giant storyline, every part of which must work in concert in order for A Song of Ice and Fire to work.
Game of Thrones Breaking Free
Game of Thrones spent years waiting for the author to finish Winds of Winter before it jumped into the final act of the story. Seasons four and five, in particular, feel like they were designed to stall for time while GRRM finished Winds. That’s why the television series has been moving slower and slower. By last year, it was obvious that Martin would never be able to keep any kind of pace. His grim January announcement made that clear.
This is why the sixth season finale feels like such an impressive piece of work in comparison. It demolished years of backlogged storylines like Meereen all at once. Game of Thrones simply cut the Meereenese Knot with a five-minute battle scene and moved Daenerys on to Westeros. In one hour the TV show liberated itself from GRRM and could move forward all on its own.
George R.R. Martin can’t just end Meereen in the books like that. Too much has been invested in that part of the universe for an anticlimax. But he can’t spend an entire novel finishing the story there if he wants to finish the books in two more episodes. It’s these types of issues that may legitimately become unsolvable.
What Does the Future Hold?
Without being able to read his mind (or his story notes), it’s unknown what GRRM’s plan for the future is for the series. Fans have spent years speculating. There’s an incredible amount of detail to this series and A Song of Ice and Fire is unpredictable because of it. Almost anything can happen.
The other problem is that GRRM’s plans might change radically. A Feast for Crows was supposed to occur after a five-year time skip. Instead, it occurs immediately after Storm of Swords.
With all the deviations Game of Thrones has made from A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s unclear how much of what will air on HBO was intended to make it on the page. Game of Thrones is in a weird situation that we usually only see in anime series that overtake their manga. The first Fullmetal Alchemist anime had a second half that was nothing like the manga it was originally adapting, for example.
We can’t be sure anything Game of Thrones has shown us in Season 6 was part of GRRM’s plan. And the ending planned for the show might be nothing like the ending GRRM has in his mind. The showrunners have had more access than any of us into the greater plans of the series. Even with that, they’re creating largely their own universe. They might not have lost faith in Martin. Yet they have no choice but to move on without him.
The bigger worry is whether or not George R.R. Martin still knows the plan at all. Years of fan speculation has not solved the puzzle of how to end A Song of Ice and Fire. What ending even could be satisfying? No wonder he’s taking his time.
Appreciate What We Have
A Dance with Dragons ended with Jon Snow being stabbed in the back by his own men. In 2011 that was a stunning twist. Fans waited almost half a decade to learn what happened to the character. Eventually, they were given an answer, even if it wasn’t in the form they wanted. Game of Thrones in Season 6 finally showed us what happened next. Maybe that was not George R.R. Martin’s exact vision, but it’s something.
GRRM is not failing to finish the series out of malice. The struggles he’s having represent serious dedication to getting the story exactly right. If he had lost interest in the series, he could have finished the books years ago, without a care for the final outcome.
There’s no sign that Winds is coming anytime soon. That’s disappointing for fans and surely disappointing for Martin. It’s definitely a disappointment for his publisher.
So, let’s enjoy what’s left of Game of Thrones and hope for the best. After all, what choice do we have?