So after about eight months of reading, I've finally finished the fourth and fifth books of George R.R. Martin's sprawling fantasy saga, A Song of Ice & Fire. And boy, did a lot of stuff happen there. Spoilers beware.
Before I go into detail about my reactions to the latest developments in the series, I think it is worth noting that I read A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons together, using the reading order found here. Given how things turn out in both books I think this was ultimately a wise decision on my part, but it undoubtedly had an effect on how I perceived the events of the books relative to how people who’d read the two sequentially did. So bear that in mind.
"Meereen" by lVlorf3us
1) Running a kingdom is hard work; so you'd best listen to your advisers. One predominant theme in both books is that running a large kingdom is hard (and often unrewarding) work. Which honestly, shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anything who's familiar with politics. Even in an absolute monarchy - which the Seven Kingdoms are in name if not always in fact - there's still an enormous amount of pressure to keep your immediate inferiors pleased (or at least obedient), elsewise there's always the threat of a coup or a rebellion. Over the course of the story Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister, and Roose Bolton all struggle with the burdens of command and the expectations of those they lead, although how they react reflects their own goals, values, and fears.
Martin already showed in previous books that he has a fair degree of savvy regarding the problems of governing a large realm and it should come as no surprise that this continues to be a major focus throughout A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. However, whereas many of the problems Martin's characters face in the first three books are the result of an ongoing (and very violent) civil war, the Seven Kingdoms are (mostly) at peace this time round and the biggest problem facing Westeros' rulers (as well as Daenerys) is how to keep the peace, once it's already been made.
None of the characters find this particularly easy, in no small part because it's fairly evident in every case that the underlying tensions resulting from the previous war(s) have still not been resolved. Of all the character Jon and Roose seem to handle things most effectively, but it's clear by the end of ADwD that both are sitting on a powder keg (and in Jon's case, the powder keg appears to have finally gone off). Comparatively, Cersei and Daenerys experience more difficulty, although for the opposite reasons: Cersei is far too ruthless and Daenerys is much too gentle. However, if there is one flaw that all of the rulers (except possibly Roose) seem to share, it's that none of them really heed the counsel of their advisers and instead act unilaterally. Sometimes this works well and they are wise to reject (bad) advice. But as often as not, this seems to get them into trouble.
The lesson here seems to be that no one can run a kingdom (or a brotherhood numbering in the thousands) by themselves, no matter how intelligent or well-intentioned they believe themselves to be.
"Brienne of Tarth" by Rene Aigner
2) Being good sucks most of the time, but some people will try anyway. Several characters in both books - Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Jaime Lannister, Brienne Tarth, and Davos Seaworth - stand out as people who try to do what they believe is right, even when everyone around them is telling them not to. If any of the (remaining) characters in A Song of Ice & Fire are truly good in the classical sense of the term, these are the ones to qualify. To a lesser extent, Theon Greyjoy, Tyrion Lannister, and Quentyn Martell could also be added to the list, though their motives appear a bit more complicated.
In any case, while few of the series' characters (and virtually none of the POV characters) believe themselves to be evil, these are people who go beyond mere self-righteousness and really do try to help those in worse circumstances themselves, even when it isn't to their benefit. And boy, do they get nothing but trouble for their efforts. Jon's best efforts to save the Wildlings from the Others cost him the loyalty of the Watch's senior officers (and quite possibly his life), Daenerys' desire to avoid bloodshed results in a conspiracy to remove her from office, Jaime is estranged from his sister and continually loathed by those he's trying to help, Brienne is captured and sentenced to die by the Brotherhood without Banners for crimes she did not commit, and Davos very nearly is executed before instead being sent off on a suicide mission to retrieve a boy who may not even be alive. None of the characters are really rewarded for their good will and all of them suffer greatly.
And yet... the series feels oddly affirming on this point. Yes, things are sucking pretty massively for the character's most morally pure characters but the fact remains that despite their continual hardship most of them continue to stay true to their ideals, knowing full well the costs that may result. These people are literally willing to die for the good of others which, while from a strictly cynical point of view is bizarrely irrational, is actually kind of inspirational. Jon knows he may go down as a traitor but continues to try and save the Wildlings anyway; Daenerys neither loves nor trusts Hizdahr but she marries him anyway in the hopes it will secure peace for Meereen; Jaime is well-aware that he will always be loathed and feared as "the Kingslayer" but tries to be a true and noble knight anyway; Brienne knows that as a female knight she'll never be respected as much as she deserves but tries all the same to be a champion of chivalry; Davos fears that Stannis may be a lost cause, both as a claimant to the throne and a good ruler, but still tries to help him anyway.
Martin's series may have a reputation for cynicism and killing beloved characters, but virtue in the face of adversity is a romantic message if ever there was one. The fact that the characters continue to do good, even when they are unrewarded for their beneficence, is if anything more poignant than if good things always happened to them.
"Ramsay Bolton" by Demutti
3) On the flip side, petty evil is self-destructive in the long run, perhaps even more than foolish nobility. Everyone who's familiar with the series knows well the fate of Ned Stark, the incorruptible and noble lord who appeared at first to be the story's central protagonist before he was cruelly cut down at the end of the first novel. Because of that - and later the Red Wedding - it's understandable that many readers are pretty jaded about the fortunes of the series' protagonists and are continually watching out for Martin to slay another beloved character. However, what people often seem to forget is that the death rate for the series' antagonists is also pretty high and often it is the worst (or at least, the stupidest) villains whose deaths come quickest.
It was not long after Robb Stark's end at the Red Wedding that Joffrey - an adolescent tyrant whose short reign consisted largely of petty cruelties done to those who displeased him - met an even fouler death at his own wedding, choking slowly to death in terror. Viserys, in more than one ways a parallel to Joffrey (but powerless), burned to death when he pushed things too far with Khal Drogo and Daenerys. Vargo Hoat, who cut off Jaime's hand and nearly sanctioned the gang rape of Brienne (before instead sending her to die in a rigged fight against a bear) was cut into pieces, forced to cannibalize his own body, and then beheaded. Gregor Clegane, a complete monster infamous in-universe for rape and murder, died a slow and agonizing death by poison before becoming the subject of Qyburn's unsettling experiments.
This pattern continues throughout A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. In the former, Cersei's vindictiveness and belief that everyone who does not obey her unquestioningly is her enemy results in her dethronement, imprisonment, and eventual humiliation, to the point that she seems very nearly (if not entirely) broken by the end of the latter book. In ADWD, Ramsay Bolton quickly establishes himself as a vicious and cruel bastard (pun intended) who takes the greatest joy in the suffering of others. But while he remains alive and well at the story's end (as far as we know), it's extremely clear that his behavior is self-destructive, a fact that his father Roose lets him know in no uncertain terms, telling him (essentially) that being evil is all well and good, but you really should do it where no one can see or hear you. "A peaceful land, a quiet people," Roose tells his son, ultimately to no avail. If Ramsay's unfettered sadism doesn't get him into (potentially fatal) trouble by the end of The Winds of Winter, I will be very surprised.
And then there's the Freys. Walder Frey may well have pulled off (with the help of Roose Bolton and Tywin Lannister) the series' most devastating coup d'etat but it quickly becomes clear this has not been without a substantial cost to his family. Regarded before as proud upstarts, House Frey is now seen as the most treacherous and untrustworthy lot around, despised by even their allies and hated with an uncompromising passion by their enemies. As a consequence, the Brotherhood without Banners (under Lady Stoneheart) and House Manderly, among others, have taken to hunting down and killing as many members of the clan as they can, often in cruel or unusual ways, and the Freys' appeals for aid have fallen on deaf ears. Walder Frey may well live to die peacefully in his sleep, but the same cannot be said for many of his conspirators and his house's gains may be ultimately short-lived.
"Melisandre of Asshai" by jezebel
4) Prophecy's like a poorly labeled box of chocolates: you sort of know what you're going to get, but not how or when. This is hardly unique to A Song of Ice & Fire; everything from Dune to Babylon 5 to Greek mythology features misinterpreted prophecies. Fictional prophecies are almost always riddles, since it helps to maintain a decent level of suspense even when the audience "knows" what's going to happen. Additionally, there's often an element of dramatic irony present wherein some characters attempt to avoid the prophecy's fruition only for their actions to lead directly to said fulfillment. Writers love this stuff and Martin is no exception.
That being said, even though ironic/mysterious prophecies are unique to neither the series nor AFFC/ADWD in particular Martin's use of prophecy in these two books bears mentioning, if only because the number of prophecies active increases substantially, as does the indication that most characters are interpreting them incorrectly. As of the end of ADWD, these are the prophecies and visions which are potentially active: most of those from the House of the Undying in Qarth, those made by Quaithe in both Qarth and Meereen, the prophecy of Azor Azhai's return, the prophecy of the Prince Who Was Promised, the future foretold for Cersei by Maggy the Frog, several of Bran's visions, several of Melisandre's, Moqorro's visions, potentially some of Daenerys' dreams, possibly one of Jon's, potentially Mirri Maz Duur's words to Daenerys about her fertility and Khal Drogo, and probably a few I'm missing. Some of the conditions (though not all) of these prophecies appear to have been fulfilled, but only rarely in the way that the characters expected.
Of the prophecies which remain in place, the most important seem to be the dueling messiahs of R'hllor and the Targaryens, which may or may not refer to the same person. Melisandre is absolutely convinced that Stannis fulfills the conditions of both prophecies, but we know from her POV chapter that she's forced those conditions in a few places, which in most stories is about as futile as trying to avoid a prophecy entirely. Additionally, there's a fair amount of evidence that the returned Azor Azhai might be someone else entirely (with one leading candidate being Jon Snow) while the Prince Who Was Promised is probably Daenerys (the most crucial piece of evidence being that she has, in fact, brought back the dragons as the prophecy foretold). The potential for Melisandre's misinterpretation is shown when she tells Jon Snow that a "girl in grey on a dying horse" will flee to the Wall, telling him that the girl is his sister Arya. But while the letter of the prophecy is fulfilled, her interpretation is not: the girl is not Arya but Alys Karstark. As such, we are shown that while Melisandre is indisputably gifted when it comes to seeing the future, her interpretations are not infallible.
Another prophecy which has almost certainly been misinterpreted is the one delivered by Maggy the Frog to the young Cersei. We know the prophecy is almost certainly true, since several of its predictions have already come to pass (Cersei's marriage as well as the number and identity of her children). However, Cersei's interpretation of the remaining events is highly suspect, in no small part because of her certainty. She is absolutely convinced that Tyrion is the valonqar described in Maggy's prophecy and yet she is completely blind to the fact that Jaime is also her younger sibling and has reason to hate her as well. Likewise, Cersei is certain without a doubt that Margaery Tyrell is the "younger and more beautiful queen" who will replace her, whereas the audience is aware that Daenerys is another possible candidate. Lastly, as in Melisandre's case we're given evidence to regard Cersei's interpretation as suspect: she's misinterpreted the prophecy before, as she believed Maggy's statement that she would marry the king instead of the prince meant she and Rhaegar would be married after he succeeded his father, never suspecting that she wouldn't marry Rhaegar (as Maggy implied).
It will be interesting to see how the remaining prophecies play out The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the prophecies go silently fulfilled, without much fanfare, but the prophecies outlined above will almost certainly have important (and potentially surprising) consequences for the narrative.
"A Dance with Dragons" by Marc Simonetti
5) Things seem to be coming together... but very slowly. It is commonly understood that after A Game of Thrones, Martin's narrative has continually branched and expanded, to the point of becoming somewhat unwieldy. This problem has already manifested itself in the TV adaptation, where each episode spends so much time switching back and forth between different characters that casual viewers easily become confused. The sprawling nature of the series arguably reaches its peak during A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons - which were originally one book before being split into two for this very reason - but it also appears to be the point at which the sprawl begins to shrink, so that by the end of the two books things are arguably slightly more condensed than they were at the end of A Storm of Swords.
At the start of AFFC/ADWD, we have fourteen major story arcs: the Wildlings vs. the Watch, the return of the Others, Bran's quest, the ascendancy of the Boltons and the Freys, the Greyjoy succession dispute, Littlefinger's plotting in the Vale, Cersei vs. the Tyrells in King's Landing, Brienne's search for Catelyn's daughters, Stannis vs. the Iron Throne, the troubles in Dorne, Arya's training as a Faceless (Wo)man, Tyrion's flight from Westeros, and Daenerys' queenship in Meereen. In addition we have an innumerable number of subplots or side stories. However, by the end of AFFC/ADWD, we only have ten: the war at the Wall (Jon and the Wildings vs. Watch traditionalists vs. the Others), Bran's quest, the war in the North (Stannis vs. the Boltons vs. the Greyjoys), Euron vs. Victarion, Littleflinger's plotting, Cersei vs. the Tyrells, the invasion of Aegon and the Golden Company, the Maesters' conspiracy, Arya's training, and the war in Meereen. True, each of those story arcs is broken up in part by shifts in perspective from one character to another, but these tend to be different lenses rather than entirely different pictures. The story, remarkably enough, has actually begun to simplify.
That isn't to say that there doesn't remain an enormous amount of work ahead for Martin: he has just two books (barring the possibility of elongating the series even further) to tie up those remaining eight and there's always the temptation to add still more. That being said, things do appear to be weaving towards a conclusion and it's even possible to guess now at where things are heading (though guesswork is always risky with this series). I do not envy Martin his enormous task but I do feel confident he'll pull things together.