Season 5 of Game of Thrones starts in a few hours in the United States and starts airing tomorrow night in the UK, so here's a handy quick look at the state of play as of the first episode.
The State of Play
The War of the Five Kings has raged for well over two years and brought ruin to much of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Tens of thousands of soldiers and smallfolk have died, banditry runs rampant in the Riverlands and many towns and great castles have been razed. The game of thrones has cost the realm dear, and it needs time to rebuild.
Unfortunately, it might not get it. The Lannister-Tyrell alliance smashed the armies of Stannis Baratheon at the epic Battle of the Blackwater, but Stannis escaped north to the Wall and has won a crushing victory there against the invading wildling forces of Mance Rayder. This has secured Stannis the reluctant support of the Night's Watch and stands him in good stead to ally with northern houses and sweep back south to take his crown.
Standing in his way are the Boltons, former vassals of House Stark who brutally betrayed them at the Red Wedding. Although the support for the Boltons amongst the northern houses is shaky, they have pledged allegiance to the Iron Throne, received some support from their fellow conspirators in House Frey and have retaken the ancestral Stark capital at Winterfell. Both Roose Bolton and Stannis Baratheon are canny, seasoned generals and their inevitable confrontation will decide who will rule the North...just in time for the victor to face the threat of the oncoming winter.
In the south things would appear to be more secure, but behind the scenes tensions are rising. The Lannisters have apparently won the war, with Queen Cersei Lannister's son Tommen Baratheon sitting the Iron Throne. However, the deaths of King Joffrey and Lord Tywin Lannister in rapid succession have left the family looking weak and vulnerable. The Lannister armies may have been victorious, but only after being bled in a series of successive defeats to the Starks and Tullys and they urgently need rest and reinforcing. On the other hand, the much larger forces of House Tyrell remain intact, almost unbloodied, and the Lady Margaery Tyrell, betrothed to King Tommen, has won great influence over him. The Tyrell-Lannister alliance is on shaky ground, and it would not take much to test it.
However, the two houses may decide to unify against a mutual threat. Twenty years ago, House Martell developed a feud against the Lannisters when Princess Elia Martell was brutally murdered by the Lannister vassal Gregor Clegane during the closing moments of Robert's Rebellion. The Martells burned for justice for decades until Tyrion Lannister won their allegiance by pledging the hand of Tommen's sister Myrcella to Prince Trystane Martell in marriage and promising justice. Instead, Ser Gregor defeated and killed Prince Oberyn Martell in King's Landing when he came to collect that justice. With Myrcella an effective hostage in Sunspear and the Dornish people - particularly Prince Oberyn's bastard daughters, the 'Sand Snakes' - clamouring for vengeance, the situation could yet escalate into open warfare.
Other threats are also on the horizon. The Iron Bank of Braavos has withdrawn its financial support from King's Landing, instead throwing its backing behind Stannis Baratheon. The rise of banditry has caused millions of smallfolk to renew their faith to the Seven, giving the septons and septas more power and influence than they have enjoyed for decades. The lucrative slave trade on the eastern continent of Essos is in danger of collapse, affecting markets and purses over thousands of miles. The Night's Watch is trying to forge an alliance with the surviving wildlings of Mance Rayder's army in the face of some greater threat to the north. And it has been reported that Daenerys Targaryen has conquered the cities of Slaver's Bay with an army of Unsullied and three dragons. Sooner or later, she must return to Westeros to claim her father's throne, and take vengeance on those who betrayed her family.
Players in the Game
Houses Stark and Tully
Strongholds: Winterfell (fallen), Tully (besieged)
House Stark has been ruined by war and betrayal. Winterfell has been razed and is now being rebuilt by the Boltons. Eddard, Catelyn and Robb are dead, Bran and Rickon are believed dead and Sansa and Arya are both missing. On the Tully side of the family, Edmure is a captive of Walder Frey and Brynden 'Blackfish' Tully has escaped, his whereabouts unknown. The two houses are broken, but their names remain powerful and the return of some or more of their scions could spur a new war.
Houses Frey and Bolton
Strongholds: The Twins (Frey) and the Dreadfort (Bolton)
Leaders: Roose Bolton, Lord of the Dreadfort and Walder Frey, Lord of the Twins
At the Red Wedding, Houses Frey and Bolton turned on their lieges, the Tullys and Starks, and betrayed them in one night of infamy. Both houses have been richly rewarded by the Lannisters, being given overlordship of their former lieges' lands and full pardons for their earlier rebellions. However, both houses face resistance from their vassals, who are not best pleased by the manner in which they came to power. The Boltons, in particular, face major problems in trying to secure a territory as vast as the North in the face of the oncoming winter, opposition from rebellious houses and of course the newly-arisen threat of Stannis Baratheon at the Wall.
Leader: Balon Greyjoy, King of the Isles
House Greyjoy acheived some stunning victories during the War of the Five Kings, seizing Deepwood Motte and Moat Cailin, raiding Torrhen's Square and even capturing Winterfell. However, it overreached, Winterfell was razed by the Boltons and Moat Cailin was retaken after Theon Greyjoy betrayed its garrison. The Greyjoys still hold Deepwood Motte, but between Stannis and the Boltons, it is likely to fall soon. The Greyjoys still maintaining a formidable fleet and strength of arms on the Iron Islands themselves, but with Westeros being consolidated under the leadership of Tommen it is unclear how they can prevail. Balon Greyjoy may be forced to sue for peace in the light of his numerical disadvantage.
Houses Lannister, Tyrell and Baratheon (under Tommen)
Strongholds: King's Landing (Tommen), Storm's End (Tommen), Casterly Rock (Lannister), Highgarden (Tyrell)
Leader: Tommen Baratheon, the King on the Iron Throne
House Lannister has apparently won a stunning victory in the War of the Five Kings, but that victory has come at a very high cost. The Lannisters suffered a series of devastating defeats (at the Whispering Wood, Oxcross, the Stone Mill and more) at Robb Stark's hands and faced further losses in retaking control of the Riverlands and at the Blackwater. Although far from spent, the Lannister armies have been bloodied and have spent too long in the field. In addition, the murder of Tywin Lannister by his own son Tyrion and the assassination of King Joffrey Baratheon have left the family looking weaker and more vulnerable than ever before. In contrast, the massive armies of House Tyrell are relatively unscathed by the war, Margaery Tyrell has seemingly won great influence over young King Tommen and the Tyrell heartlands in the Reach will prove an important source of food in the coming winter.
House Baratheon (under Stannis)
Strongholds: Dragonstone, Castle Black
Leader: Stannis Baratheon, the King in the Narrow Sea, the King at the Wall
Stannis Baratheon's sun apparently set on the Blackwater when his army was smashed by the combined forces of the Lannisters and Tyrells. However, Stannis surprised everyone by regrouping, winning vital financial backing from the Iron Bank of Braavos and then moving his army north to the Wall, where he defeated the invading army of Mance Rayder, the King-beyond-the-Wall. This move has won Stannis the support (if reluctant) of the Night's Watch and may prove influential as he seeks to win the northmen to his cause. Many of the northern houses are furious at the betrayal of the Starks by the Boltons. If Stannis can secure an alliance with them, defeat the Boltons and ride out the winter, he may be able to gain enough traction to make another play for the Iron Throne. But it will not be easy.
Stronghold: The Eyrie
Leader: Robin Arryn, Lord of the Eyrie
House Arryn chose a neutral course during the War of the Five Kings and has remained untouched by the fighting. As the war ended, Lady Lysa Arryn married Lord Petyr 'Littlefinger' Baelish only to suffer a mishap a short time later. Lord Baelish, acting as Lord Protector of the Vale, has moved to align the Arryns with the Lannister cause and secure Lord Robin's rule. However, the Arryns and their bannermen were closely allied to the houses of the North and the Riverlands during Robert's Rebellion and are less than thrilled to be forced into working with such dishonourable forces as the Lannisters, Freys and Boltons. What comes of this remains to be seen.
Leader: Doran Martell, Prince of Dorne
House Martell sat out the War of the Five Kings, accepting neutrality in return for a betrothal between Princess Myrcella Baratheon and Prince Trystane Martell and justice in the form of the head of Gregor Clegane, the knight who murdered Princess Elia Martell during Robert's Rebellion. Myrcella has been an honoured guest at Sunspear ever since. Unfortunately, relations with the Lannister/Tyrell alliance have grown frosty since Prince Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper, was killed seeking justice for his sister. The cautious Prince Doran apparently seeks to avoid war, but the people of Dorne are less placid and the desire for revenge - especially from Prince Oberyn's bastard daughters, the 'Sand Snakes' - is growing.
Leader: Daenerys Targaryen, the Queen Across the Water
In not quite three years, Daenerys Targaryen has achieved a series of stunning victories. She has hatched the first three dragons seen in the world in two centuries, crossed the Red Waste, survived the machinations of the warlocks of Qarth and has now conquered the great cities of Slaver's Bay: Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen, where she now makes her seat. However, Daenerys is unwilling to abandon her new conquests for fear of them falling into anarchy, civil war and ruin. Instead she hopes to rule and establish a new government that will survive when she departs for Westeros. With insurgents such as the Sons of the Harpy striking against her soldiers on the streets, this seems a remote prospect. More dangerously, until now Daenerys has been protected by her dragons and by her mobility. With her dragons apparently too unruly to be controlled and with her forces bogged down in Slaver's Bay, it gives time and the opportunity for her enemies to unify against her.