Why, you might ask, is George R.R. Martin offering us a new book (The World of Ice and Fire) that's not the new book (The Winds of Winter)? Because he can't stop writing about Westeros! (Along with Essos, Sothoryos, and Ulthos, of course.) "I was supposed to write 50,000 words of text for sidebars, and then I wrote 300,000!" Martin told us recently, laughing over a slice of pizza. "The more I wrote, the more stories were coming, and it just got to be hundreds of pages long."
Anyone upset that the new book — a sort of compendium of historical information about Martin’s fictional world — doesn't advance the story in progress is missing the chance to have a deeper understanding of the Targaryens' long-lost hold on the Seven Kingdoms and the world around them. (As is Daenerys, who was given the histories of her world as a wedding gift and neglected to read them.) "But you know who does know a lot of [the history]?" Martin teased. "Tyrion." Tyrion, who likes to make sure the royals in his vicinity have the benefit of a good education, might be inclined to share what he's learned, but without his influence in King's Landing, Cersei, the Queen Regent, is ruling blindly.
"That's accurate to history, of course," Martin said about Cersei’s unintentional myopia. "During the War of the Roses, the Lancasters and the Yorks were concerned about each other, and to an extent, what was going on in France, and to a lesser extent, what was going on in Spain and Germany. They knew Hungary and Morocco existed, but they didn't really care what was happening beyond that. 'What the hell is south of Morocco?' 'What is going on past Russia?' They didn't care."
So, unless you want to be as oblivious as Cersei, it might be worth taking the very deep dive, so long as you keep in mind that The World shouldn't necessarily be taken as gospel. The book is written from the viewpoint of a maester at the Citadel, one who hopes to pass its knowledge on to someone sitting on the Iron Throne. As such, the author may have ... rearranged events to suit the interests of a particular royal family. "So who knows if it's really true or not!" Martin chuckled. Furthermore, the maester's knowledge comes from other scrolls that, in turn, may be unreliable. The narrative unreliability is reminiscent of Westeros's first tell-all author, the court jester Mushroom, who claims intimate knowledge of various Targaryen bedroom secrets. "And he may be making up a lot of this shit," Martin said. "That possibility is there, because he's an old guy telling tales, and embroidering them, making them more sexual, suggestive, and violent." Martin likens Mushroom to Suetonius, "the great gossip of ancient Rome," whose stories helped shape I, Claudius. "It's full of things like [Claudius's third wife] Messalina having a fucking contest with a prostitute, and there's no source for that! Unless you believe Suetonius," Martin said. "People do know things, but the things they 'know' may not be right."
How many of the book’s stories should be understood as pure myth, rather than history? What about the green-tinged people of the Thousand Islands, who file the teeth of their females into sharp points? "Some of that is, Here there be dragons," Martin cautioned. "It's beyond the world they know." Of the other continents yet to be explored, Martin said he "deliberately" kept Sothoryos mysterious, to echo real-life history: "Even though Africa was known to Europe from the earliest days of ancient Greece,” he said, “we knew relatively little about sub-Saharan Africa." He chuckles at the complaints he gets from fans about the lack of boundaries on his maps: "What's this Ulthos thing over here? Is it just a big island? Or is it another continent?"
Despite this, some of the history contained within The World of Ice and Fire is enlightening, like the passages about the Others and the Children of the Forest. And then there are the stories of the Targaryens — how Aegon the Conqueror and his sisters actually conquered Westeros, how Aerys II the Mad King lost his grip on the Seven Kingdoms. "What's cool about writing history is that history is continuous," Martin said. "You read Thomas B. Costain's four-volume history of the Plantagenets, and it covers a couple of centuries, starting with William the Conqueror. The characters are coming and going, being born and and dying, and it never stops. By the end of the fourth volume, everyone in the first volume is long dead. And sometimes we lose sight of that." Too often, he said, a fantasy story or a fairy tale might begin with a king on the throne, without us knowing what made him the way he is. "If he's a noble king, why is he noble? If he's a selfish king, why is he selfish?" Martin asked. "So you go back to his parents, and their parents, and their parents. Everything leads to everything else."
But even the dense, weighty The World of Ice and Fire can't contain all the history that Martin hopes to share about his world. An even more detailed version, which he refers to as "the GRRMarillion" (à la Tolkien's Silmarillion) but which will actually be called Fire and Blood, is still in the works. Some of that book will be an expansion on these newly revealed stories, Martin said, but the subject matter will "strictly" be about the Targaryen kings and their reigns. As he was with the new work, Martin will again be aided by Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson, who serve as his official memory bank. "I couldn't do it myself," Martin admitted. "There's such an enormous amount of information. So we'll do that later, but first I've got to finish Winds." And after Winds, who knows? He won't say if the Game of Thrones saga will expand to include a total of eight volumes. "I hesitate to open that can of worms!" he laughed. "We'll see. Let's get to seven first." Someday, too, Martin suggested, his imagination might move beyond the world that’s made him famous. "I don't want to write only about Westeros forever," he said. "There are lots of books I want to write."