A few days ago on his blog “Not a Blog,” George R.R. Martin wrote to a commenter that “Fire and Blood” will be the next book he publishes. “Fire and Blood” is to be a history of the Targaryen family, who are the central dragon riders of Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels and feature prominently in the immensely popular HBO series “Game of Thrones.” For fans of the book series, though, this was not cause for celebration. Beginning in 1996 with “A Game of Thrones,” for over 20 years Martin has strung readers along with the promise of a conclusion to his expansive saga, a journey that has become all the more agonizing in the past decade with the emergence of “Game of Thrones” as a pop culture TV phenomenon. The fifth volume “A Dance With Dragons” was published in 2011, the same year the TV series began. Since then, Martin’s readers have waited patiently for the sixth book in the planned seven-book series. Readers have openly wondered whether Martin, at the age of 69, writing a book every six to eight years, will die before he reaches the end. Many have criticized these demanding readers for acting as though Martin owes them anything. In my eyes, he absolutely does.
When you begin telling a story, you sign a social contract with the people listening. You agree to an unspoken rule that you will tell them how the story ends. The only way you can escape from this agreement is if something external happens that makes it impossible for you to continue the story. A TV show being canceled, for example. No such situation exists for Martin. It does not matter how long it takes him to write. He has had time to write “Game of Thrones” spin-off books, so surely he has had time to write the main saga. Fans don’t want the history of the Targaryens, or at least, they don’t want it as much as they want the next book in the series. If Martin is simply no longer interested in finishing the story, he should just come out and say so. Better to announce that the series will never be concluded than to continue stringing his devoted readers along for years on end.
It is becoming increasingly likely that in the time between Martin publishing “A Dance With Dragons” and the forthcoming “The Winds of Winter,” HBO will have told the entire story in eight seasons of “Game of Thrones.” Certainly, no one could have predicted when the show started how popular it would become and certainly no one could have predicted that by the time the show ended Martin still wouldn’t have released his next book, but that is where we are. Starting with season six, the show entered territory that few book to screen adaptations have ever had to face, continuing the story without the original source material to draw upon. Now your mileage may vary as it comes to the post season four/five episodes of “Thrones.” The show continues to be enormously well received, but amongst the most hardcore of book readers and show-watchers, the tides have slowly shifted.
The most recent season was widely and rightly criticized for ridiculous storytelling that at times asked audiences to suspend every ounce of disbelief they had left. Characters made the distance across continents looks like a walk across the street. Long awaited revelations and moments were handled in the clumsiest of fashions. Main characters appeared to have death proof shields that allowed them to survive even the most unlikely of circumstances. “Game of Thrones,” the show that built its reputation of the death of its first season main character, had suddenly become safe. If you ask the average show-watcher, they might tell you that this season was a disappointment, but if you ask a book-reader, they will tell you that the problems began long ago.
Without Martin to go on, it became clear to me that D.B. Weiss and David Benioff had no idea what they were doing. As far back as season five, they began making story and character decisions that seemed to defy even basic reason or rationale. A lot of the characters (Jaime Lannister in particular, but also Ayra Stark, Sansa Stark and to an extent Tyrion Lannister) no longer bear almost any resemblance to the people portrayed in Martin’s books. The story has veered so far away from not just the events Martin was portraying, but moreover the themes that he was writing about, that it’s hard for anyone who has read the books to see how “Game of Thrones” can ever end in a way that will leave those still waiting for Martin’s next tome satisfied.
It’s hard to say why George R.R. Martin appears to be writing at the pace of a snail. It’s possible that he’s become uninterested in the story and has been for some time. It’s possible that he lost a significant amount of motivation when he realized that the show would beat him to the punch. It’s possible that he just writes slow. Regardless of the reason, one of the greatest fantasy stories of all time seems destined to have an unsatisfying ending. Fans of the book series will likely never see what Martin intended for his final volumes and fans of the TV show will get an ending that is based on Weiss and Benioff’s late-season blunders, not what was promised in the inherent premise of the show when it began in season one. For many involved, the story will end happily. Benioff and Weiss have a future making “Star Wars” to look forward to. Many actors from the HBO series have jump-started their careers and will have many more great performances to come. HBO itself will continue pumping out “Game of Thrones” spinoffs for as long as they make money. Audiences will move on to the next thing. But for Martin and his fans, the ones who began reading his books at any point between 1996 and now, this story will sadly end like the late Robb Stark’s, with a betrayal from his allies and in a personal tragedy of his own for failing to finish what he started. Valar Morghulis.