One of the most eagerly anticipated books at the moment is “The Winds of Winter” by George RR Martin, part of the hugely popular A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) series. Millions of people are on the edge of their seats waiting to see what happens next in the series and the book will undoubtedly be a bestseller upon release. However, the long waiting time for each book has become legendary as fans grow weary waiting to find out what their favourite characters get up to. It seems the final resolution of this famous and much loved series is always receding further into the distance.
Martin has said that there will be seven books in the series, so after The Winds of Winter, A Dream of Spring will be the final book. However, considering everything that must happen, there is growing doubt as to whether this is true. Looking at the vast number of subplots, character arcs and other events that must happen, it seems impossible for all of it to be wrapped up in just two more books. So how many books will it really take to finish A Song of Ice and Fire?
Extending the series wouldn’t be unheard of, in fact Martin originally planned for the series to be a trilogy, before extending the plan to five books, before finally settling on seven books. He has repeatedly said that the story has grown much more than he originally planned and expanded in unexpected ways. A Dance With Dragons was originally meant to be the second book and later was labelled as the beginning of Act 2 of the series. It’s possible to view it as the core of the middle trilogy, with a final trilogy dealing with the final resolution of the story.
So, let’s list everything that probably will happen in the rest of the series, based on what we know from the TV show, Martin himself and an educated guess.
The battle of Meereen, Tyrion meets Dany, Dany assembles an army and invades Westeros, Aegon’s war in Westeros, battle between Stannis and the Boltons, Jon comes back to life, Jon possibly having a separate battle against the Boltons, Jon becomes lord of Winterfell, Bran studies under the three-eyed raven, Sansa in the Vale (she presumably will come North eventually), Rickon returns, Cersei gets revenge on the Faith Militant and possibly also the Tyrells, Ayra’s training ends and she returns to Westeros, Sam in Oldtown, the plots of Dorne, the Iron Islanders meet Dany, Jamie & Brienne meet Stoneheart, the Others attack the Wall, there is the final battle of Ice and Fire (presumably between the White Walkers and dragons), plus about a dozen other subplots.
So that’s a huge list and clearly there’s still an awful lot that needs to happen before the series ends. For comparison let’s look at what happened in the last two books:
Dany had trouble ruling Meereen, Tyrion travelled from King’s Landing almost to the point of Meereen, Jon had trouble ruling the Night’s Watch, Stannis had trouble invading the North, Aegon appeared, Sansa was in the Vale, Cersei alienated everyone around her, Brienne wandered the Riverlands, Jamie laid siege, Bran travelled North, Arya trained, Sam travelled, Theon in Winterfell, Dorne, the Iron Islands and Oldtown were introduced, Quentyn appeared and died.
Looking over this, it’s shocking how much of the books were spent on setup for later plots. Huge amounts of it were spent either traveling or dealing with management problems. At this pace, there is absolutely no way the story could be finished in two books, in fact it would probably take six.
But even if Martin quickened the pace and the setup began to pay off, it still couldn’t be done in two books. There would have to be a massive surge in speed and action, abandoning the previous world building and development. There would also have to be a massive cull of characters, far larger than even the Red Wedding and merging of multiple plotlines.
Neither seems likely as they would be too jarring of a shift with the previous tone. Likewise, a likely explanation for the delay in the publication of Winds is that the scope of the story has expanded far beyond the original plan and so more time is needed to flesh out the extra details. A condensed and streamlined book would be presumably easier and quicker to write than a sprawling and slowly developing one, so the large cast is probably slowing Martin down.
The fact that the show has now overtaken the book may slow things down even further. If the books are no longer in competition with the show, then there is no rush to reach the resolution. The show could be for those who are impatient for Dany to reach Westeros, while the books can be for those who want extra world building, character development and a larger cast. The show can race to the action while the books stop to smell the flowers.
Of course it’s hard to know what will happen in the future and what the characters will do as not even Martin himself knows that. I have no idea what will happen with Jamie & Brienne or where the plot with Bran will go. Even the plot points we do know will happen (like the resurrection of Jon) could be condensed into a single chapter or spread over half the book.
This is to say nothing of the new plots and characters that could be introduced. The number of POVs has massively expanded such that there are 16 in Dance alone (not counting the prologue and epilogue). Dorne and the Iron Islands are completely new areas and characters. The Oldtown plot was completely out of the blue and unexpected (at least to me). The Vale will probably be a new area receiving a lot of attention as Martin will probably give us an insight into all seven kingdoms. There will probably be new POVs to represent the Southern regions during the invasions of Aegon and Dany.
However, that being said there is at least one character arc that we have good idea of. The plot of Dany will have to follow a somewhat predictable line from which we can guess the overall pacing. At the end of Dance, she is surrounded by the Dothraki which is also how she finished season 6 of the TV show. It took her a season to get back to Meereen and the finale was her armada leaving for Westeros. While I hope that the ending of Winds is also her leaving Meereen, I think this is unlikely.
We must always remember that Martin loves providing detail and background. Characters and places don’t simply appear and then leave, we first get to know their background, history, relations to others and usually a subplot too. Martin wouldn’t have put Dany with the Dothraki just for a change of scenery, but to provide new details and serve an overall purpose. Perhaps she will have to choose what kind of ruler she will be, between being a Dothraki raider or a Meereen style compromiser? Either way, it won’t be rushed, she will spend a significant amount of time there.
Even once she gets back to Meereen, she won’t drop everything and set sail. Martin has spent far too much time building up Meereen and its problems to just ditch it like the show has. Dany cannot leave “her people”, the former slaves without knowing they will be cared for. If she just abandons Meereen, then her plot from the last two books will just seem pointless waste of time. Instead there will have to be some sort of resolution and this is probably contributing significantly to the delay. Plus she will have to meet Tyrion and Victorian, which will require plenty of suspicion and negotiation before any deal is made. Between the Dothraki and the Meereenese Knot, I don’t think her armada will leave until the end of the 7th book.
While I would like for her to quickly arrive in Westeros (which is probably what will happen in the show) I fear there could even be a whole book just of her voyage. Before you dismiss that as ridiculous, that’s all that Tyrion (and several other characters) did in the last book. Some people criticise the show because it frequently skips traveling scenes so that it seems characters can teleport or have jetpacks. Martin deliberately avoids this at the cost of writing very long travel scenes. Tyrion’s journey could have been simplified to a single chapter in Dance and so could Dany’s, but I fear it won’t be that simple.
Martin has planted a lot of seeds for future plot developments with the city of Volantis. Several characters have visited it, it’s been described in detail and it’s preparing an army against Dany. There are themes that fit into her plot arc like its massive slave population (which outnumbers the free population five to one) and the red priests who call her a god. It seems to me that she will probably attack the city on her way and spark a revolt. That would be her arc for the 8th book and she wouldn’t conquer Westeros until the 9th and then finally fight the White Walkers in the 10th.
I’ll admit that I’m a bit shocked writing this and don’t want to believe it, but ask yourself this: how could Martin shorten the conquest of Westeros? Do you really think it’s possible that he would race through this crucial event? Could she really arrive and go straight to the North? I think it’s far more in Martin’s style to list the names of every house that surrenders to her, who holds out, subplots based on how each province reacts to her etc. The whole point of the Meereen plot was to show how difficult ruling actually is and that it’s not as simple as conquering. It’s a dry run for the difficulties she will face if she rules Westeros, so it’s highly likely that Martin will devote a lot of attention to this issue. All of which would easily be a book.
A major problem with the pacing of ASOIAF is the huge number of POV characters. There are so many that they get in each others way and don’t have space on their own. This means that we could end up with a book where a large cast does little or Martin is forced to split books again, so some characters are focused on in one books but skipped over in the next one.
So, extra time could be given to speed up Dany’s plot and make her arrive faster, but that would come at the expense of other characters. You can only speed one character up by slowing everyone else down. Or you could kill off major characters and combine POVs but the trend is going in the opposite direction. The books have been expanding the number of POVs and locations, not condensing them. Not only is Martin not killing off major characters anymore, but since the Red Wedding his kill count is probably negative as he is more likely to bring someone back from the dead or fake their death.
A longer series has advantages and disadvantages. It allows greater character development and depth. We can learn more about the world of Westeros and the people in it. It allows for more complexity in the story and in people’s actions. However, some feel that there has been a shift in the series towards quantity instead of quality. Feast and Dance have been criticised for having hundreds of pages of characters doing nothing or wasting time in irrelevant subplots and unimportant minor characters. ASOIAF will certainly be longer but will it be better?
There is also the problem of actually seeing the extra books. If it takes more than five years to write each book, the idea that might be an extra four books left in the series instead of just two, could strike some with dread. While some might welcome the extra time devoted to the storyline, others might despair at having to wait another fifteen years until the ending is reached. Many worry if Martin will ever actually finish the series.
If I had to guess, I would estimate that there will be nine books in total, two more than are officially announced. Considering Martin’s slow and methodical writing style, plus the huge number of events that have to take place to the vast ensemble of characters, there is absolutely no way the story can be completed in just two more books. How long it takes for these books to appear (if they ever do) is a whole other question.