As with last year, here's a brief catch-up guide to the state of play at the start of Season 3 of Game of Thrones. As usual, spoilers for those who haven't watched the first two seasons or read the first two books.
The State of Play
The War of the Five Kings grips the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros in full fury.
Robb Stark's armies have invaded the Westerlands, the home of House Lannister, and captured several Lannister castles. However, even Stark's armies are insufficient to threaten the formidable defences of Casterly Rock itself. Whilst Robb's invasion has caused dissent and anger amongst Tywin Lannister's bannermen, it has also freed Tywin's army from being directly threatened in the field. This has allowed Tywin to take his army to King's Landing.
Meanwhile, Stannis and Renly Baratheon have clashed for the Iron Throne. However, a major battle was averted when Renly was assassinated under murky circumstances. Stannis inherited his brother's army from the Stormlands, bust most of the Reach lords followed the lead of Ser Loras Tyrell and his sister Margaery in refusing to join Stannis's forces. Stannis attacked King's Landing, whilst Petyr 'Baelish' Littlefinger negotiated with the Tyrells and convinced them into an alliance with the Lannisters, with Margaery set to marry Prince Joffrey. The Tyrell army joined with Tywin's forces and then smashed Stannis's forces in the epic Battle of the Blackwater. Stannis and a remnant of his host escaped by sea. Acting Hand of the King Tyrion Lannister was severely wounded during the battle and his father Tywin took up the mantle of Hand soon afterwards.
These actions have left the Lannister-Tyrell alliance in command of the largest army in the Seven Kingdoms, exceeding 100,000 men in strength. The Starks and their allies, the Tullys, command less than half of that. With House Arryn remaining neutral, the situation does not look good for the Starks.
Even worse, House Greyjoy has joined the war. Though not formally allied with the Lannisters, they have attacked House Stark's homeland, the North. Ships under the command of Yara Greyjoy have seized the coastal castle Deepwood Motte and surrounding lands, whilst a raiding force commanded by Theon Greyjoy struck far inland and took the castle of Torrhen's Square. When Stark forces rode to its relief, Theon slipped behind their lines and seized Winterfell itself. After an occupation lasting months, the castle was besieged by a Stark relief force commanded by Ramsay Snow, the bastard son of Lord Roose Bolton. Theon's own men seized Theon and sold him to Ramsay Snow in return for their freedom. However, Winterfell was later set ablaze by persons and for purposes unknown. Contrary to popular belief, Bran and Rickon Stark escaped the castle with several loyal retainers.
Far to the east, Daenerys Targaryen found a safe haven in the city of Qarth, where she could rest and let her dragons grow. However, she fell prey to a conspiracy involving the merchant lord Xaro Xhoan Daxos and the Undying, the famed warlocks of Qarth. Daxos seized control of the city and the Undying captured Daenerys's dragons and slew several of her most loyal followers. Daenerys retook her dragons and slew the leader of the Undying. She also locked Daxos in a vault to starve to death. Stealing Daxos's valuables, she was able to secure a ship bound westwards. Whilst her 'army' remains extremely small, her dragons are growing and becoming more formidable.
In the furthest north, the Night's Watch has marched into the heart of wildling territory, securing a camp atop the Fist of the First Men. Whilst Jon Snow has been captured by the forces of the wildling King-beyond-the-Wall, Mance Rayder, the Night's Watch force has come under attack by the supposedly mythical White Walkers.
Players in the Game
Houses Stark & Tully
Leader: Robb Stark, the King in the North
House Stark finds itself in a difficult position. Whilst Robb Stark has won every battle he's fought, the overall situation has deteriorated. Winterfell has been sacked and two of his bannermen's castles are under ironborn occupation. His invasion of the Westerlands has been a military success, but has failed to draw the Lannisters into a decisive engagement. Unwisely, Robb has also broken his treaty of alliance with House Frey by marrying another woman, Talisa Maegyr. Several of his bannermen, most notably Lord Rickard Karstark, are also angry over Robb's mother Catelyn releasing the Kingslayer, Ser Jaime Lannister, from custody. Now severely outnumbered, with his allies dwindling and bannermen no longer as happy as they were, Robb has a difficult course to follow if he wants to achieve victory.
Leader: Balon Greyjoy, the King of the Isles
Balon Greyjoy has taken vengeance for his failed rebellion of a decade ago, seizing two castles in the North and making war on the Stark homelands. Though Theon's occupation of Winterfell has been defeated, it has humiliated Robb Stark and made his position in the Riverlands and Westerlands more difficult to sustain. However, given the Greyjoy's relatively limited manpower and inability to fight far from the sea (as Theon has shown), it is unclear what their long-term goal is, unless Balon can reach an accommodation with the Lannisters.
Houses Lannister, Tyrell & Baratheon (under Joffrey)
Strongholds: King's Landing (Joffrey), Storm's End (Joffrey), Casterly Rock (Lannister) and Highgarden (Tyrell)
Leader: Joffrey Baratheon, the King on the Iron Throne
Following Renly Baratheon's death, House Tyrell has secured an alliance with the Lannisters in support of Joffrey Baratheon's claim to the Iron Throne. Joffrey has set aside his engagement to Sansa Stark and will instead marry Margaery Tyrell. This gives Joffrey a vast army commanded by his grandfather, Tywin Lannister, one of the most formidable generals in Westeros, with which he can quickly and decisively end the war. With overwhelming superiority of numbers, Joffrey's victory appears imminent, but his own unpredictable behaviour remains the alliance's greatest weakness.
House Baratheon (under Stannis)
Leader: Stannis Baratheon, the King in the Narrow Sea
Stannis Baratheon has failed to take King's Landing and only barely escaped the battle with his life. Most of his army surrendered and joined the Lannister-Tyrell alliance, whilst most of the rest (and almost all of his fleet) was obliterated by the wildfire explosion in Blackwater Bay. Only a few mercenaries, loyal retainers and the freesail fleet under Salladhor Saan remain under Stannis's command, far too few to challenge the might of the Lannister-Tyrell alliance. However, Stannis's greatest and most formidable weapon remains the red sorceress, Melisandre of Asshai, who may yet be able to turn the tide of the conflict.
Stronghold: The Eyrie
Leader: Robin Arryn, Lord of the Eyrie
House Arryn has so far refused to take part in the war, the Lady Regent Lysa Arryn fearing the risk of defeat. Unless either Robb Stark or the Lannisters can convince her to join them, Lysa and the formidable knights of the Vale will continue to sit out the war.
Leader: Doran Martell, Prince of Dorne
Dorne has continued to pursue its path of isolation during the war. However, Tyrion Lannister, as Acting Hand of the King, has successfully negotiated a marriage pact between Princess Myrcella Baratheon, Joffrey's sister, and Prince Trystane Martell, the youngest son of Prince Doran Martell, the ruler of Dorne. Pending Myrcella's arrival and marriage, the Martells are therefore poised to join the Lannister-Tyrell alliance and strengthen it even further. Given the Martells' long-standing alliance with the Targaryens, the slaughter of members of their house by Lannister forces during Robert's Rebellion and their ancient enmity towards the Tyrells, this is a significant diplomatic coup.
Leader: Daenerys Targaryen, the Queen Across the Water
Daenerys Targaryen has evaded a trap set for her in Qarth and now plans to take ship for the west. However, although her dragons are growing larger and more formidable, they are still not ready for war. Daenerys needs to find an army that will be loyal to her. The path westwards to the Free Cities leads through Slaver's Bay, where such armies may be found...for a price.
Season 3 of Game of Thrones starts airing this Sunday on HBO in the United States, and the following day on Sky Atlantic in the UK.