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The Winds of Winter, explained: what we know about the next Game of Thrones book

The book has been in the works for nearly eight years — but George R.R. Martin still isn’t done.

George R.R. Martin attends the Season 8 premiere of “Game of Thrones” at Radio City Music Hall on April 3, 2019
George R.R. Martin attends the Season 8 premiere of “Game of Thrones” at Radio City Music Hall on April 3, 2019
Taylor Hill/Getty

Game of Thrones has come to a polarizing conclusion with its series finale “The Iron Throne” — but the books the HBO series is based on, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, remain unfinished, with no end in sight.

The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in what Martin hopes will be a seven-book series, still has no planned release date. Martin says he will only set a release date once he’s close to finished with the book — and he’s still not finished, he confirmed again on Sunday, not long before the show aired its finale.

Martin’s progress has been so slow that Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have filmed and aired seven full seasons of their HBO adaptation since the last book came out in July 2011 (the show debuted just a few months earlier, that April). In the process, they zoomed past Martin in his own story and revealed several major twists that the author has been planning for years and even decades — including, it now seems, the long-planned ending for the series.

“I don’t think Dan and Dave’s ending is gonna be that different from my ending,” Martin told 60 Minutes last month. He explained that, years ago, he walked the pair through his plan for how the books will end. (However, Benioff and Weiss have made changes to Martin’s source material, so some of what we’ve seen may not be book spoilers at all.)

One small consolation to fans who’ve been waiting for years, however, is that a decent chunk of The Winds of Winter has actually already been released. Martin has posted the full text of seven chapters, and read another four aloud at various events.

So here’s a guide to the latest information on the release date, why it’s taking Martin so long to finish writing, which chapters the author has already published (and where to find them), and how much of the book the show seems to have already “spoiled.”

1) When will The Winds of Winter come out?

We don’t know.

Martin’s most recent update on the book came Sunday, May 19, when he posted on his website that, contrary to recent erroneous reports, The Winds of Winter “has NOT been finished” — and that he is “working on” it.

He has not been particularly forthcoming about his progress on the book or how close he thinks he is to finishing. It has now been nearly eight years since the most recent book in the series, A Dance with Dragons, was released.

2) Why is it taking Martin so long to write The Winds of Winter?

Clinton Gilders/FilmMagic/Getty

Martin himself is the only one who can say, and in his telling, the biggest reason for the delay is that he has been struggling with the writing itself.

”You can blame my travels or my blog posts or the distractions of other projects and [his movie theater] the Cocteau and whatever, maybe all that had an impact,” Martin wrote in a lengthy, self-flagellating blog post all the way back in January 2016. “You can blame my age, and maybe that had an impact too.” But, he continued, “If truth be told, sometimes the writing goes well and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Indeed, to rebut accusations that he’s lost interest in the series, Martin wrote that he was desperate to get The Winds of Winter out before Game of Thrones season six aired in spring 2016, and even set several deadlines to that effect. “Unfortunately, the writing did not go as fast or as well as I would have liked,” he continued. “As the suspicion grew that I would not make it after all, a gloom set in, and I found myself struggling even more. The fewer the days, the greater the stress, and the slower the pace of my writing became.”

It’s worth noting that this slowness is not exactly new for Martin, though no book in the series has taken this long. He finished the first three relatively quickly, but then took five years to write book four (A Feast for Crows) and nearly six years to write book five (A Dance With Dragons).

I think it’s also noteworthy that in book four and book five, Martin’s writing style seemed to change. The first three books were taut, fast-paced thrillers, but beginning with A Feast for Crows, the pace of the main story slowed down. Martin added a plethora of new point-of-view characters and subplots, and seemed to grow more interested in cerebral, complex explorations of themes like the difficulty of governance and the aftermath of war.

Some readers love this new style and others find it dull, but whatever the case, it may well be slowing down Martin’s writing, as he now seems less interested in simply getting from point A of the plot to point B efficiently, and more obsessed with perfecting (in his mind) the work that it’s now clear he’ll be remembered for. (Especially now that the TV series has revealed many of his points B.)

3) But wait, aren’t there some chapters from The Winds of Winter floating around on the internet?

Indeed there are! Martin has officially released the full text of seven completed chapters as previews for the book. He also read another four chapters aloud at conventions — and their contents have been dutifully summarized and posted on the internet by fans who attended those events.

We don’t know the order of these chapters in the final book — and the book will begin with a prologue that Martin hasn’t yet released — but if you want to devour the full-text versions right now, here’s where to find them:

  1. Theon Greyjoy
  2. Arya Stark (“Mercy”)
  3. Sansa Stark (“Alayne”)
  4. Arianne Martell (first chapter)
  5. Arianne Martell (second chapter)
  6. Barristan Selmy: Released in the US paperback version of A Dance With Dragons
  7. Tyrion Lannister: Available for free in the World of Ice and Fire app on iTunes or Google Play

The other chapters that Martin has read aloud at events, but not officially released the full text for, are:

Since Martin’s longest book in the series so far contains 82 chapters, the fact that we’ve already seen 11 from Winds could mean that about a seventh of the book is already publicly available in some form.

4) I need my Game of Thrones fix, so I’m going to read these chapters, but it’s been years since I’ve read the books. Can you remind me how things left off, in comparison with the show?

Sure — here’s where the major characters and storylines were at the conclusion of A Dance With Dragons:

In the North of Westeros:

Jon Snow, still Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, has just been repeatedly stabbed by his own brothers after vowing to march south with an army of wildlings to fight Ramsay Bolton. His fate is unclear. Melisandre, Stannis’s wife Selyse, and his daughter Shireen are all alive and still at the Wall, never having ridden south with Stannis’s army.

Stannis Baratheon is also alive, and preparing for battle against Roose and Ramsay Bolton near Bolton-held Winterfell. Theon Greyjoy just escaped the Boltons’ abuse alongside Ramsay’s bride — who isn’t Sansa but instead a Northern girl named Jeyne Poole who’s being passed off as “Arya Stark.” These fugitives are now in Stannis’s camp alongside Theon’s sister, Asha (not Yara) Greyjoy. Also, several Northern lords ostensibly in the Boltons’ camp are plotting against them. One, Lord Wyman Manderly, has sent Davos Seaworth on a mission to find the long-missing youngest Stark sibling, Rickon, and bring him out of hiding.

Bran Stark has traveled north of the Wall to the cave of the Children of the Forest and the Three-Eyed Crow. He was last seen exploring his magical powers — skinchanging into animals, speaking through trees, and seeing visions of the past. Hodor and Summer remain alive and well, as does Jojen Reed (or does he)? The White Walkers themselves, meanwhile, have not been seen on the page since book three.

In the South of Westeros:

Sansa Stark remains safe — well, relatively — in the Vale with Littlefinger, but since she’s a wanted fugitive from the Iron Throne, she’s posing as his bastard daughter “Alayne Stone.” Littlefinger has increasingly gained influence over the Vale, and is plotting to marry Sansa not to Ramsay Bolton, but to “Harry the Heir,” a strapping young lad who will become Lord of the Vale should anything unfortunate befall the young and sickly Robert “Sweetrobin” Arryn. Littlefinger has also suggested that he plans to restore Sansa to power in the North.

Jaime Lannister has been estranged from his sister Cersei since discovering that she had had affairs with other men. Then, after retaking Riverrun, Jaime was unexpectedly reunited with Brienne of Tarth, who claimed to have finally found the long-missing Sansa Stark. But this is a lie — Brienne instead appears to be unwillingly leading Jaime into a trap set by Lady Stoneheart, the resurrected Catelyn Stark. Stoneheart is now leading the Brotherhood Without Banners and is hell-bent on revenge against the Lannisters and Freys for the Red Wedding, and she holds Podrick Payne hostage. (Stoneheart was cut from the TV adaptation.)

Queen Dowager Cersei Lannister has just been subjected to her “walk of atonement” (the one we saw onscreen in Game of Thrones’ season five finale) and is now sidelined from power in King’s Landing and awaiting trial by the Faith (though she has the undead Gregor Clegane to protect her). Margaery Tyrell is also awaiting trial in the capital, but the Tyrell army has occupied the city to try to ensure her acquittal. Her brother Loras is said to have been badly burned in battle.

King Tommen, Cersei’s son, is still on the throne, but he’s much younger and not at all an independent actor in the books. Cersei’s uncle Kevan Lannister had really been running the show in King’s Landing, but at the conclusion of the fifth book, he was murdered by Varys, who announced that he hoped to deliver the Iron Throne not to Daenerys but to...

Aegon Targaryen! Wait, who’s that? (Not Jon Snow!) Well, if you’ll recall, back during Robert’s Rebellion, Dany’s late older brother Rhaegar had two young children who were murdered by the Lannisters — or so we thought. Varys is now claiming that he, in fact, managed to spirit baby Aegon to safety and has had him raised and educated in secret, so that he could be prepared to take over Westeros. Aegon is backed by the Golden Company, a formidable group of mercenaries. He was supposed to travel east and ally with Daenerys, but he instead decided to turn west and invade Westeros without her. There is much fan debate about whether Aegon truly is who he claims to be, and this storyline, which was cut completely from the TV show, looks to be a major part of The Winds of Winter.

In Dorne, Prince Doran Martell had a secret plan to ally with Daenerys Targaryen against the Lannisters, and sent his son Quentyn to propose marriage to her — but his plan went awry when Quentyn died in Meereen. So Doran and his daughter Arianne Martell (another character cut from the show) must now decide whether to ally with Aegon instead. Meanwhile, some of the Sand Snakes are on their way to King’s Landing alongside Cersei’s daughter Princess Myrcella (who is alive but had her face badly scarred in an assassination attempt).

Euron Greyjoy — who in the books is a less clownish and much more sinister figure, with seeming magical ambitions — won the kingsmoot and was named king of the Iron Islands. He says he wants to marry Daenerys and use her dragons to conquer Westeros. But first, he and his Ironborn are pillaging the Tyrells’ kingdom, the Reach — and they’re threatening to take over Oldtown, the city where Samwell Tarly has just arrived to begin his training as a maester. The Faceless Man Jaqen H’ghar (Arya’s old friend) has also infiltrated the maesters’ headquarters, for reasons unknown.

In Essos, the Eastern continent:

Arya Stark remains in assassin training with the Faceless Men of Braavos, having just carried out her first successful assassination for them. She often has dreams of her direwolf, Nymeria, who is leading an enormous wolfpack back in Westeros.

Daenerys Targaryen, after having flown away from Meereen on dragonback, is somewhere in the plains far away from the city. She has just been discovered by a group of Dothraki, but unlike on the TV show, this encounter takes place while she’s standing proudly beside her dragon, so she may not end up in their captivity.

Barristan Selmy is alive and well and trying his best to run the city of Meereen, which is besieged by the slave masters in Dany’s absence. Meanwhile, Euron Greyjoy’s vicious but simple brother Victarion Greyjoy is sailing toward Meereen with the Iron Fleet, hoping to spoil Euron’s plans by claiming Dany for himself. He has in his possession a magical horn given to him by Euron that can supposedly control dragons. We’ll see if it works.

As for Tyrion Lannister, he’s currently in the camp of the slave masters who are besieging Meereen, but he recently escaped bondage by making a deal with a mercenary company, the Second Sons. Tyrion’s companions at this point are Jorah Mormont (who does not have greyscale) and a female dwarf named Penny. Tyrion hasn’t actually managed to meet Dany yet, and he’s currently trying to convince the Second Sons to defect and fight with Dany’s forces during the upcoming Battle of Meereen.

5) How much of The Winds of Winter has the HBO series spoiled?

It’s difficult to say. We know that Martin told Benioff and Weiss in some detail about his plans for the major characters and the ultimate ending he had in mind for the series. “We sat just down with him and literally went through every character and said, “So what’s the destination for Daenerys? And Arya?” Benioff revealed to Vanity Fair back in 2014.

(Warning, there are SPOILERS AHEAD if you have only read the books and haven’t watched recent seasons of the TV show.)

And indeed, Benioff and Weiss have confirmed that certain twists in recent seasons of the show — like Shireen Baratheon’s death by burning and Hodor’s origin story — came directly from Martin. Jon Snow’s resurrection, his true parentage, and his love affair with Daenerys are likely in this category too, as is the pair’s ultimate fate.

However, there are three caveats here. First, the context and specifics of how these twists happen in the book may be different. For instance, Martin reportedly said at an event that the big Hodor reveal will happen in a different way in the books.

Second, Martin may not have had solid plans for many characters and storylines when the show was filming. He does make up a lot as he goes along, and Benioff and Weiss have confirmed that when he told them about his future plans for the series, he left certain storylines ”more open” than others. So for some characters, the showrunners could well have been making things up themselves, in the absence of a detailed plan from Martin. (Benioff and Weiss said in an interview with Deadline that they were working largely from scratch in season six, the first mostly post-books season, “other than a few key things.”)

Finally, Benioff and Weiss made a great many changes to the plot of the novels. They’ve dropped some seemingly important subplots and characters (like Aegon “Young Griff” Targaryen and Lady Stoneheart) entirely, and condensed others. So it’s possible that Martin told Benioff and Weiss of his plans for some storylines, but that they decided to take their own tale in a different direction.

Furthermore, nearly all of the chapters that have been released from The Winds of Winter are wildly different from anything we’ve seen on the show to date. The Battle of Meereen, for instance, was dispensed with in about 15 minutes in season six of the TV show, but there are already five sample chapters of The Winds of Winter devoted to it, with very different characters taking key roles. If all you care about is who wins the battle, well, the show probably spoiled that fact (not that the outcome was seriously in question). But practically every detail of how it will play out in the books will likely be new.

So even though some of Martin’s biggest twists may have lost a bit of surprise by the time we finally see them on the page, I’m looking forward to reading them regardless — and hopefully we’ll have the chance to do so someday soon. Or ever.