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Where Are They Now: One Year After the ‘Game of Thrones’ Finale, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ Readers Are Still Waiting for Their Ending

Since Season 8 concluded, ravenous book readers have parsed the internet for clues like George R.R. Martin’s characters searching for signs in a comet-strewn sky. But is ‘The Winds of Winter’ ever coming? 

Daniel Zalkus

A year ago this week, Tyrion Lannister gave his now-famous speech, Bran became Bran the Broken and the king of Westeros, Jon Snow ventured north, and Game of Thrones came to an end. In honor of the conclusion of the last piece of monoculture, The Ringer will spend all week looking back on Thrones—focusing not just on its final season, but celebrating its entire eight-season run, reminiscing about its host of memorable characters, and pondering where some of them may be one year later.

After Khal Drogo dies, after Ned Stark’s head separates from his body, a blood-red comet burns across the sky. Above the arid sands of the vast Dothraki Sea, above the calm harbors surrounding King’s Landing, above Dragonstone and the Riverlands and the sturdy castles in the North, the comet streaks, “splendid and scary,” thinks Arya, “all at once.”

All the world over, characters in A Song of Ice and Fire interpret the meaning of this magnificent astronomical event as it suits their own ends. Melisandre thinks it a herald for her king, Stannis Baratheon; Northmen think the same but for their liege, Robb Stark; a member of the Kingsguard thinks it honors Joffrey, recently crowned, and presages triumph over his enemies. Characters ranging from Daenerys to Theon claim the comet as their own, in times of great opportunity. Old Nan, never failing with her mystic tales, says it means only one thing: “dragons.”

The point of the comet in George R.R. Martin’s story is that human beings twist their interpretations of mysteries for self-serving purposes. They want to see a signal for something, so they do. I can sympathize: I’ve enacted the same sort of self-serving haruspices in my long wait for the sixth book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series—the literary series on which the TV show Game of Thrones is based—since the fifth book’s release in 2011.

If you don’t know what I mean, well, consider yourself lucky. You would be forgiven, for instance, if you weren’t aware of the grand George R.R. Martin website theory about Winds of Winter from last December. To quickly summarize: A group of ASoIaF fans noticed changes to Martin’s website, such as the addition of a line reading “Check back soon for information on future releases” and behind-the-scenes updates that might have hinted at an important announcement, which naturally led to a frenzied belief that a book release was imminent.

Such rampant speculation was wrong, of course, and reminiscent of the absurdity of college football coach plane tracking, or the detective work around LeBron James’s free agency in 2014, when some Very Online sports fans tried to discern whether coloring clues on his personal website hinted toward his decision. But as in those conspiracies—which are sometimes right! LeBron really did become a Cavalier again!—it was also wedded to just enough plausibility to inspire excitement, and even readers who had all but given up on the hope that they’d ever read the sixth book in the series couldn’t help but start to believe. “Just when I thought I was out,” read a top Reddit comment about the website discovery, “they pull me back in.”

Trust me, I understand how strange it sounds to be scrutinizing IP addresses and quoting Reddit commenters who are themselves quoting iconic movie lines. I realize I’m at risk of typing “PEPE SILVIA” in all caps. But at this point, a year after a much-mocked finale, with no real end to a nine-year wait in sight, that’s all A Song of Ice and Fire readers have.

Since the TV series finale 12 months ago, I haven’t rewatched a single Thrones episode, nor even any individual scenes. (I still listen to the score, though, especially while working. Want to write a quick blog? “Light of the Seven” will force your mind into a frenzy.) Occasionally, I’ll remember a stray detail from the final season, like David Benioff’s admission that “Dany kind of forgot about the Iron Fleet” before she lost a dragon, and grow frustrated about the ending all over again.

To many Thrones obsessives who viewed their fandom through a lens of both entertainment and scholarship, Season 8 proved a resounding disappointment. To casual fans, too, the plot holes gaped, and the yo-yoing character arcs swung too far, too fast. As The Ringer documented last year, based on IMDb ratings, Thrones’s final season and final episode rank among the most despised, relative to earlier seasons and episodes, for any show ever made.

Yet Season 8’s misfires were not wholly the fault of Benioff and co-showrunner D.B. Weiss. The lack of fully written source material harmed the product on a surface level—while previous moments like Jon’s battle at Hardhome and Cersei’s sept explosion shone outside Martin’s writing, the plot often faltered when stretched beyond Martin’s detailed map—but it also mattered on a meta level. Much of the negative reaction to Season 8 tied to anxiety that the show’s stumbles at the finish line represent the only ending to this story we’ll ever see. For comparison, I found the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 film lacking, but I had already enjoyed the source material and could return to those pages and do so again. That’s not an option with Thrones.

Even beyond the aesthetic impulse to read more of Martin’s writing, the obsessive desire for more ASoIaF books stems from a craving for the ending of a story that so many fans have spent so much time pondering. And even though the broad strokes of the book finale likely will mimic those of the show—Martin said before Season 8, “I don’t think Dan and Dave’s ending is going to be that different from my ending”—there’s enough of a separation between the two mediums for a different presentation of that ending.

As Martin wrote in January 2016, in a post full of anguish over not finishing the book in time for Season 6 of the show, “When you ask me, ‘will the show spoil the books,’ all I can do is say, ‘yes and no,’ and mumble once again about the butterfly effect. Those pretty little butterflies have grown into mighty dragons. Some of the ‘spoilers’ you may encounter in season six may not be spoilers at all... because the show and the books have diverged, and will continue to do so.”

After the finale, he wrote again, “How will it all end? I hear people asking. The same ending as the show? Different? Well… yes. And no. And yes. And no. And yes. And no. And yes.” And in an interview this January, he said, “People know an ending—but not the ending.”

And anyway, wondering specifically whether the final pages of the book series will look like the final minutes of the show misses the point. Like Jaime traveling through the Riverlands in A Feast for Crows, the journey, and all the wonderful little moments realized along the way, is more important than the destination. So even if, say, Bran becomes king in the books—he probably will; it would contain definite thematic resonance, and the showrunners have confirmed it as Martin’s plan—the books will surely contain more clues and character development to help that ultimate turn land with more logic and grace.

The question then becomes: Can those clues and developmental bits ever actually arrive in book form? Through nine long years, fans have wound up to kick that Lucy-held football time and time again.

In the week leading up to the Season 7 premiere in July 2017, after Davos Seaworth actor Liam Cunningham had teased that the premiere feature “something special,” Martin posted a one-sentence blog—sorry, a one-sentence not-a-blog—that read, “Alas, alas, that great city Valyria, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come.” His “current mood” when he wrote the post? “Enigmatic.” I believed. I was wrong.

Last August, the Twitter account posted a graphic that read, “Something’s coming…” and asked in the caption, “Something carried on the winds...of winter?” Nope! A day later, the account clarified that the “something” in question wasn’t Winds at all. Then in November, the official show account posted, with no explanation, “Winter is coming.” The news came the next day—and it concerned the release of the Season 8 Blu-ray in time for holiday shopping. I semi-believed, twice. I was wrong again, twice.

And those are just some of the more recent examples, to say nothing of all the other false alarms from earlier in the near-decadelong drought. A generous interpretation of deadlines was also a trait of the ASoIaF series even before those nine years began. Martin ended up splitting his material after A Storm of Swords—the third book in the series—into two volumes because he wrote too much to be bound in a single book. At the end of A Feast for Crows, published in 2005, Martin added a note in which he predicted the second half of the post-Storm adventures would be “along next year (I devoutly hope) in A Dance with Dragons.” Dance didn’t reach shelves until 2011.

Yet for all the angst about Winds’ release, the larger problem isn’t even Winds. The problem is what comes after Winds—because Martin has a whole extra book planned after the sixth, and given how long this penultimate entry has already taken, it’s impossible to fathom the time he’d need to write the concluding novel.

Or, gulp, multiple more novels. Seven is Martin’s plan, and also a number with symbolic meaning given the story. Yet he’s made such expansive changes before. The series was originally going to be a trilogy, per Martin’s first outline; then it grew. The fourth book split into two. One-year deadlines became two-year deadlines became eons between projects. (In that second link, Martin predicted “the ultimate end of the series, in five or six years.” That was in the year 2000.)

It’s already difficult to imagine how Martin will fit everything he needs into Winds, given all the characters and plots to service. Winds is effectively a sequel to not one book but two—both Feast and Dance, which each detailed the ongoing adventures of about half of the series’ key characters. And Martin already needed to move chapters originally intended for Dance to the next book, including the entire Battles of Ice (in Winterfell) and Fire (in Meereen). Material originally intended for Book 6 might then bump to Book 7, meaning further ripples that expand the overall book count once more.

So as I yearn, and wait, and wait some more for Winds, I do so knowing full well that even if Winds emerges in some miracle in the coming months or years, there will still be a whole ensuing decade to come, at minimum, before resolution in book form. By that point, who knows what the Thrones world will look like given HBO prequels and spinoffs and Martin’s other in-universe projects, like the Fire & Blood histories and Dunk and Egg novellas? Or who knows how reading the conclusion to a series that peaked in popularity more than a decade prior will affect the experience?

At least Winds would provide a spark—as another new volume of Martin’s prose, as an excuse to revisit the earlier entries and once again derive joy from the series after a bitter last year, as a catalyst for more theorizing, which was once the lifeblood of the ASoIaF internet but has since grown stagnant, with all the best possibilities already postulated and well picked over.

Thus we wait, and hope, and grow frustrated anew every time a possible hint at a publication date fizzles. I still believe I will read Martin’s The Winds of Winter some day. A Dream of Spring, though? Snarks and grumkins, I fear, have as much a chance of existing as that novel.

So where are ASoIaF readers now, a year after the conclusion of the TV adaptation that transformed the series into a phenomenon and inspired legions more—myself included—to join the book fandom? We’re in the same place we were last year and the year before; the same place we’ll be a year from now, and a year after that, and for many more to come. We’re stuck in this loop, parsing cryptic not-a-blog comments and web data, divining forecasts from a comet lighting the skies overhead.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.