Martin remains as resolute as ever: His ending is coming. In a post published on his blog Monday, he assured readers that work continues on The Winds of Winter, though he knows better than to set a deadline. And he noted how different his conclusion would be from that of the show, which only “had six hours for this final season. I expect these last two books of mine will fill 3,000 manuscript pages between them before I’m done.” He mentioned characters from his books who never even got introduced on-screen, and the resulting “butterfly effect” that would set his ending apart.
Still, the TV writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss got to conclude Martin’s epic saga first by working off what Martin had told them about his presumed endgame. “We just sat down with him and literally went through every character,” Benioff said back in 2014. “I can give them the broad strokes of what I intend to write, but the details aren’t there yet,” Martin added. Whatever broad strokes he gave them translated into a final season in which one crucial character, Daenerys Targaryen, wreaked fiery chaos on the continent of Westeros; her lover and ally, Jon Snow, killed her in the aftermath; and, in a twist, the psychic seer Bran Stark became the new king.
To give an idea of just how removed the books are from the TV story lines, at the end of A Dance With Dragons (the latest entry, published in 2011), Jon has barely heard of Daenerys, Bran has only begun to amass the magical powers he demonstrated on the show, and Daenerys’s dragons haven’t yet come close to Westeros. Roose and Ramsay Bolton, villains who were dispatched in Game of Thrones’ sixth season, are still very much alive, as are major characters such as Stannis Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell, who also long ago died on the show. Tyrion Lannister, who spent the last three TV seasons wrestling with his allegiance to Daenerys, has yet to meet her in the novels.
In one way, this divergence speaks to a golden opportunity for Martin: Even if he trusted Benioff and Weiss with the broad strokes of his narrative arc, he can now gauge the public reaction to his biggest developments and adjust accordingly, producing a finale that still manages to surprise. Of course, it’s more likely that Martin’s struggle to wrap things up runs deeper than fan reactions to the show. A Song of Ice and Fire has always been lauded for its emphasis on detail and plausibility, for the tremendous craft Martin puts into setting up and foreshadowing every big development, and for the author’s continued skill at defying expectations. Indeed, some of the key points of HBO’s Game of Thrones finale—Daenerys dying, Bran becoming king—are the sort of against-the-grain ideas one can imagine Martin working toward.
For that to happen, his books will have to pick up the pace considerably; unfortunately, they’ve trended in the opposite direction for more than a decade. Martin initially planned his series as three books, before expanding his scope to six. Then his proposed fourth entry became so long that he split it into two, the first part published in 2005 and the second in 2011. He claims that only two novels are left on the docket—The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring—while also allowing that he’s “repeatedly been guilty of an excess of optimism.”