It’s satisfying to see Martin bring so many scattered plot threads together over the last 300 pages of A Dance With Dragons, though it’s a bit maddening how many of those plots go unresolved by the end. The book is over, but Act II is not quite at an end, not before the battles at Meereen and Winterfell. If anything, the end of A Feast For Crows felt like a better stopping point–the last few hundred pages of Dance feel like they could more appropriately have been the first chunk of The Winds of Winter, the forthcoming sixth book. Not that I wish there was less of the book–it just feels like a weird place to cut the narrative. Imagine if The Empire Strikes Back ended with Luke leaving Dagobah for Cloud City, and the battle against Vader and the big “No, I am your father” reveal happened in the first twenty minutes of the next movie, which came out three years later. That’s what the end of Dance feels like.
A surprising amount of information about Winds has already been leaked, most by Martin himself. This includes two preview chapters (one for Theon and one for Arianne), as well as readings of chapters about Tyrion, Barristan and Victarion. I’m going to consider that all fair game–nothing big has happened yet in any of the preview chapters, but they do point the way forward, and it’s the future of this story I want to talk about today. But first let’s take a look at where everyone is coming out of book five:
The North Remembers: After Stannis takes Deepwood Motte from the Ironborn and captures Asha Greyjoy, he turns his army to Winterfell to rescue “Arya Stark” (Jeyne Pool), recently wedded to Ramsay Bolton. (The real Arya Stark remains in Braavos training with the Faceless Men for the book’s remainder.) Heavy snows soon reduce Stannis’ progress to a crawl, and finally he sets up camp by a frozen lake. In Winterfell, Theon listens as Bolton’s commanders bicker amongst themselves while Crowfood Umber’s vanguard sits outside the walls. Even inside the castle, Bolton’s supporters turn up murdered overnight with increasing frequency thanks to Mance Rayder and the spearwives, who entered the castle before the siege disguised as a minstrel and some “camp followers” (hookers). It’s Rayder’s group who finally put the steel in (or maybe to) Theon’s spine so he’ll help Jeyne Pool escape. Theon and Jeyne leap from Winterfall’s outer walls and are taken in by Crowfood’s forces. Crowfood Umber ships the pair off to Stannis’ host, and Stannis decides to execute Theon to appease his northern followers, though sister Asha attempts to sway Stannis from burning Theon as a sacrifice to R’hllor. Thus far the siege remains unresolved in the narrative, and the loyalties of several northern commanders to their respective sides can be called into question–especially if you believe in a fan theory called the Great Northern Conspiracy. We know from Alys Karstark that her uncle intends to betray Stannis, and Lord Manderly will gladly betray the Frey-Bolton alliance and join Stannis if Davos can retrieve Rickon Stark from the isle of Skagos. But that’s all another story to be told another time.
The Wall and the Wildlings: Many of Jon’s decisions, especially letting the rest of the wildlings through the Wall and using them to man its castles, are unpopular with the Night Watch’s hardliners. Queen Selyse Baratheon takes up residence at Castle Black after Stannis leaves and routinely bitches Jon out as well. There’s grumbling about Jon’s apparent support of Stannis too. Being in charge is fun, huh? On a positive note, a banker comes looking for Stannis because Cersei reneged on the crown’s debts, and Jon manages to secure funding for the Watch from the Iron Bank of Braavos. When a letter arrives from Ramsay claiming he captured Mance Rayder and defeated Stannis’ army, Jon decides to ride out and meet the Bolton forces, in violation of his oath to the Watch. Several of Jon’s sworn brothers turn on him and seem to stab him to death… but let’s be honest, we all know he’ll pull a Frodo and live. How? We’ll find out in book six.
The Fall of House Lannister: A course of isolation and sleep deprivation makes former-Queen Regent Cersei confess to most of the Faith’s accusations; afterward, she is allowed to return to the Red Keep to await trial. Oh, and she gets to walk there naked while the peasants yell and throw garbage at her. Though initially determined to remain proud and regal, Cersei breaks down during her walk of shame–but at the Red Keep’s gates she is rescued by the newest member of the Kingsguard, “Ser Robert Strong.” Her former champion, brother Jaime, opts to follow Brienne into a likely trap; his fate is one of the book’s many cliffhangers. Their uncle Kevan Lannister assumes the role of King’s Hand and quickly moves to clean up the King’s Council and set the realm back on the right track–earning him an assassination at the hands of Varys’ little birds. Meanwhile, Tyrion winds up enslaved outside the walls of Meereen. He survives a trip to the fighting pits, then uses a plague called the “pale mare” as cover so he, fellow dwarf Penny and Jorah Mormont can defect to the Second Sons. Tyrion plans to steer the sellsword company back to Dany’s side so he can meet the dragon queen, but first he has to buy his way into their favor with promises on paper, good when (and only ever if) he assumes his place as Lord of Casterly Rock.
Westeros in a Pincer: While Euron’s Ironborn threaten Oldtown and Highgarden in the southwest and Margaery’s trial draws the Tyrell forces back to King’s Landing, the Golden Company lands at Jon Connington’s ancestral seat, Griffin’s Roost, in the Stormlands. Connington’s ward “Young Griff” is supposedly Prince Aegon Targaryen, son of Rhaegar and heir to the Iron Throne–though there’s speculation as to whether this is the real Aegon or an unknowing impostor, a “mummer’s dragon,” planted by Varys and Illyrio. Believing Aegon is the real deal, Jon Connington’s final wish is to see Aegon take the throne before Jon succumbs to the greyscale infection he caught when he rescued Tyrion from drowning in the Rhoyne. In a preview chapter from book six, Arianne Martell travels north to meet the leaders of the Golden Company and hears that Young Griff has taken Storm’s End. The citizens of King’s Landing may soon find themselves caught between Ironborn from the west and an alleged Targaryen heir from the east.
The Meereenese Knot: Dany is unsatisfied in her political marriage to Hizdar, but it seems to bring peace, both within the city and with the armies at her gates. That ends the day the fighting pits reopen and the commotion attracts Drogon, largest of Dany’s draconic children, who has been
running flying wild the whole book. Dany attempts to tame Drogon during his rampage and winds up flying off on his back instead. She spends the rest of the book lost in the Dothraki Sea, where she eventually encounters Khal Jhaqo, one of the khals who split off Drogo’s khalasar. After Dany disappears, her husband Hizdar assumes greater power, and eventually he agrees to kill the remaining dragons, Rhaegal and Viserion, to appease the slaver armies. Convinced Hizdar and his allies meant to murder the queen, Captain of the Queensguard Ser Barristan Selmy, Grey Worm of the Unsullied and the Shavepate, leader of the Brazen Beasts, seize Hizdar and take charge of Meereen’s governance until Dany’s return. The same night, Quentyn Martell and crew enlist the aid of the Windblown to steal the other two dragons; he gets burninated, and the dragons escape confinement. Quentyn dies four days later. Meanwhile the iron suitor Victarion Greyjoy’s fleet creeps toward Meereen unaware Dany has disappeared, and they fish the red priest Moqorro from the sea (he was thrown overboard during a storm in an earlier Tyrion chapter). Moqorro heals Victarion’s festering wound and makes several accurate prophecies, earning Victarion’s trust as they race across Slaver’s Bay, determined to stay ahead of the fleet from Volantis. Soon the armies sieging Meereen decide they’ve given peace enough of a chance; they fling plague-ridden corpses over the walls, and Barristan knows he has a battle on his hands–though that battle doesn’t happen until Barristan’s opening POVs in book six. We don’t know the outcome yet, but preview chapters show Victarion’s Ironborn arriving to support Meereen during the battle, and with Tyrion whispering in their ears the Second Sons seem ready to quadruple-cross the Yunkai and go back to Dany.
Check out how the various plot lines are coming together, with various characters aligning on one side or the other of a handful of major conflicts that will set the stage for Act III. We don’t quite get to the turning point in book five, but we’re damn close.Literary blue balls is nothing new with this series, unfortunately, but the first few hundred pages of The Winds of Winter alone should be worth the wait. Act two is nearly over and done with, and the main event is, if still fuzzy, at least coming into focus. If you harbor any doubt, the epilogue to Dance makes it official: the Citadel says winter is here.
I almost feel the need to defend Feast and Dance; both books are derided for being too slow, having too many new POVs and bringing in too many new plots instead of sticking to what some fans think of as “the main story.” Maybe this comes from the abundance of Stark POVs in the first three books.When I read The Two Towers in the third grade, I thought the parts about the Elves, Rohan and Gondor distracted from the “main story” of Frodo headed for Mount Doom, but that’s because I was a stupid kid who didn’t understand mythology or story-arcs. When Tolkien created Middle Earth he thought of it as a “sub-creation,” and his goal was to develop a fully-realized culture and mythology. World-building is a major tradition in modern fantasy. Take a look at The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan’s dozen-volume magnum opus, referenced a handful of times throughout A Song of Ice and Fire. The longer Jordan’s story goes on the less “main” character Rand seems to appear, and plenty of “side” characters play pivotal roles in the Last Battle. Heck, if you want to argue, it’s more Sam and Gollum who get the Ring to its fate than Frodo. The fate of House Stark is one of many plots in these books, not the plot. If the first three books focus mainly on the Starks, the middle books are fairly Lannister-heavy, especially when you consider Brienne is ostensibly on Lannister business as well. But the Lannisters aren’t the “main” characters now, are they? Of course not. No one House is the “main” House, no story is the “main” story.
That’s not to say I don’t think there are “main” characters, by which I mean characters who seem to have major roles yet to play in the story and are presumably safe-ish until the last chunk of the tale. I’d put Jon (he’s alive and you know it), Dany, Bran, Arya and Tyrion on that list. You may protest: “But this is Martin! No character is ever safe!” Just so. But it’s still a fantasy story, and much as Martin loves to subvert tropes, he’s still beard-deep in mythology, which means certain archetypical roles will be filled. If any of the plots come close to being the “main” story, it’s the coming Other assault on Westeros. Sure, there’s been plenty of bickering over who sits the Iron Throne so far, but politics will take a back seat to survival when ice zombies pour out of the North.
The big question is how it all ends in the last two books. Here’s some wild guesses:
- Tyrion will get to meet a dragon. Maybe even ride one, though I kind of doubt it. Call it a hunch, but Tyrion’s knowledge of dragons might come in handy against Victarion’s dragon horn. He would be useful for Dany as a Westerosi political advisor as well. Queen’s Hand?
- I call shenanigans on Ramsay’s letter to Jon, though it may be Stannis pulling the shenanigans. My guess is Stannis used a raven from the traitorous Karstarks to convince the Boltons in Winterfell that his army was defeated as part of a sneaky plan to take Winterfell. Ramsay’s letter suggests he’s taking the bait–though the letter could be a diversion itself, knowing this series.
- Someone has to take down “Ser Robert Strong,” and Cersei with him/it. I’d like to believe the gravedigger Brienne notices in Feast is really Sandor Clegane, which means the Faith might call on the Hound as their champion to kill Franken-Mountain.
- Jon Connington may infect the Golden Company, and through conquest a good part of Westeros, with greyscale. With everything else going on all we need is a good plague that creates crazy people with stone for skin.
- Dorne will probably fall in line with the Golden Company, especially with hated Highgarden determined to hold King’s Landing against this latest dragon. That means a civil war in the southern half of Westeros just as shit hits the fan to the north. Even if the Others never get below the Riverlands, the Lannisters, Martells and Tyrells may all face ruin anyway, leaving the Iron Throne ripe for the taking.
- The Wall is coming down. It could be the horn Sam has been carrying around since book two is the real Horn of Winter. Chances are the Ironborn are going to hit Oldtown soon. What if Sam blew the horn to alert everybody during the attack… and thousands of miles away, the Wall suddenly collapsed for no discernible reason? Mwahahaha.
- If Jon dies but is later revived by Melisandre the same way Thoros resurrected Beric, hasn’t his Watch technically ended? It could be Jon Snow will have more options in the future. And at some point we’ll learn of his heritage. Jon will probably play a major role in fighting the Others in the North, but it may not be as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, especially after the Wall comes down. For one thing, Jon is legally Robb’s heir, and Howland Reed–a.k.a. the other guy besides Ned who knew the secret of Jon’s parentage–has a letter and witnesses to prove as much. The political situation in the North is still very much in motion, and if you ask me Roose Bolton and Stannis Baratheon are both nearing the ends of their lifespans.
- Speaking of Stannis, I think he still has a role to play in the final battle, but not on R’hllor’s side–and maybe not on humanity’s.
But it’s all building up to the main event, so here’s my big prediction: Dany aims for the Iron Throne, but she’ll never sit there. My guess is Dany is the key to turning back the Others and dealing with whatever magical imbalance we have going on in the story. Something kooky is going on with the gods of Westeros and Essos, old gods, fire god, faceless god, gods of horse and sea, god of death itself, and the gods love their blood. Something tells me Dany has a date with destiny, possibly in the Lands of Always Winter, and when she gets to Westeros she’ll head north instead of conquering King’s Landing. Only death pays for life–old lesson in magick, old lesson in fantasy literature.
That would leave Jon, heir of the Starks and Targaryens, in position to rule afterward–especially if he learns his true identity and marries Dany before she meets her end. It’s not too far a twist from the end of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, a series Martin called part of his inspiration to finally pen an epic fantasy. An older version of the same trope concerns a lad named Arthur, secret son of King Uther Pendragon. If Westeros is Martin’s own little version of medieval Europe, maybe Jon is the Arthurian hero who takes the throne at the end.
Who am I kidding, it will probably all be much more horrific than that. Maybe the Faceless Men send Arya to murder Dany, and Victarion steals one of the dragons so he can carve out his own empire in Slaver’s Bay under R’hllor’s banner. Maybe Jaime and Brienne team up to topple Stoneheart and take over the Brotherhood Without Banners, adventuring together as infamous outlaws until they both catch greyscale. Maybe the Boltons murder Stannis, but Stannis rises from the dead as the Night’s King, and Zombie Stannis leads his undead hordes to the capitol so he can finally stake his precious claim. And all your favorite characters die, and their pets too!
See y’all in book six.