This is the final chapter of Maester Wolf, in that I envisioned three parts. This concludes Part 1 - the War in the Riverlands. When I started, I had mapped out the battles but the story grew more complex with time. I will try to address the questions in one final note.
There are several ways of playing the Game of Thrones. The obvious one is the "Bend the knee or I will crush you" approach of the Rains of Castamere. As Tywin finds out, rule by fear can end abruptly. The second is the "Play the right cards" approach as the Tyrells sink their tendrils. The odds would favor them - big army, alliances, wealth - but the accountant's approach to power grabbing doesn't work well in fiction. Then there is the third "I am a sneaky little devil (evil laugh)" of Baelish and Varys. And that does work, until the writers make you dumb as a doorknob - Season 7 and 8, and your plots (Sansa verus Arya) blow up.
Jon Snow is not playing the Game of Thrones. He doesn't in the book, and he is not doing it here. He wants to rescue his sisters, and serve his brother. The story would be different if Robb wanted to sit on the Iron Throne. If Jon was playing the Game, Chap 36 would be different and more conventional. He might have released some, and kept others - negotiated for favors, etc. But the Starks are not motivated by power.
These factors drive the prisoner release. 1) He swore an oath at the Golden Tooth. 2) As Owen repeats often, Jon Snow is not cruel to women and children. Killing everyone "Faceless Men style" is neat on TV - but it would violate Owen's thesis. 3) The military strategy should have been clearer. "If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak." Sun Tzu. The Riverlands have no natural boundaries and are hard to defend. Putting small garrisons everywhere is a recipe for disaster - Edmure Tully, and dumbed down Robb Stark. Jon doesn't want to lose any more men or women from the weakened Northern army. I would have made this explicit if Jon and Robb discussed strategy.
Baelish and Tywin's PR people will spin this as a victory for the Iron Throne. Hence, Rickard Karstark is concerned that the North will be seen as cowards. The key word is spin.
1. The Lannisters are in bad shape. Their bannermen know that Tywin was happy to sacrifice them all. (Lancel's speech) Tywin bet that the Freys would get back his lords. He lost. Jon's final message to the Westermen was the Mountain's burnt head and the Freys in a large box. Everyone from Casterly Rock to Dorne will know that soldiers sent to the Riverlands are dead men walking.
2. There will be a major schism between the Reach and the Westerlands. The Reach did not want to fight at the God's Eye but were forced to by Joffrey and Baelish. Their lords have sworn to protect the Riverlands, and why not? They have nothing to gain from fighting and keeping the peace will make the North happy. Also Jon and Robb have friends in the Reach - Jon at the Citadel, Robb at Bitterbridge.
3. There are serious issues with the Faith for the Lannisters. Blasphemy is not a trivial matter in the medieval world. That is why getting Lothar's letters was important. Of course, Tywin has his own pet septons, but this should have real consequences. And unlike the TV show, there is no wildfire to blow them up, in one fell swoop.
4. The North is going to get stronger. Blast furnaces, water wheels, roads, ships, steel, trade. Consolidate the gains and let the South bicker. Jon's plan is to build the North, rest the troops, reward the knights and lords, and then assess. He has no desire to hold hostages or haggle over their release.
Now the question will be how do people react to Jon's mercy? The final snapshots at KL - the Lannisters, the Martells, and the Reach (I enjoyed writing the Tyrells) - show that they fully expect the North to extract a high toll. And that is certainly what Tywin or the Freys or most people would have done.
The interesting thing is that different groups will react differently.
1. Tywin and Joffrey will be livid about their humiliation. Jon is essentially imposing a ceasefire, so that is like a red flag to a bull.
2. The nobles from the Westerlands could go either way. Some will want revenge, but others will say why face the North again? The clear message of Gregor Clegane's head is that you will die by fire the next time. And quite a few will whisper that Tywin has lost a step. Castamere was 40 years ago, and the Starks are not the Reynes.
3. The Tyrells are hemmed in by their bannermen. In feudal society, kings had problems with powerful lords. That was the case until tax codes changed and strong kings with central armies rose. The Tyrells can't offend their power base, who see no problem with leaving the rivermen alone.
4. The Faith will declare that it was thanks to their prayers that the women, children, knights and lords were spared. Of course, they will take credit - and their eyes will turn to the Lannisters.
5. There are other power groups in play. The Vale will know that Ser Mychel fought bravely, and was showered with honor and land. The Rivermen will have to walk a tightrope, but the Starks bargained for peace. As for the Dornish, who knows? Obara is bloodthirsty but Oberyn and Doran are harder to read. There are lesser reactions too - the Citadel, Stannis, and Essos - Iron Bank, Slaver's Bay.
So, is releasing the Lannister prisoners risky? Sure. Would most people have done it differently? Yes. Could it go wrong in the future? Of course. But as Clegane points out to Arya, your brother is crazy. He is rolling the dice, and taking a large risk. He might be resented for his mercy, from allies and enemies. Then again, he might not be.
But Jon Snow doesn't really care that much about what other people think. He is not fighting for his reputation. His reputation - Bloody Wolf, God of War, warg, sorcerer, bastard - is what it is.
Now, as to the potential paths from here. There are lots of interesting subplots bubbling under their surface. Off the top of my head, I can think of half a dozen - Jon's identity reveal, Jaime telling Tyrion about his wife and son, the Tyrell reaction - specifically Olenna and Mace, the anger against the Lannisters, the Freys (both in marriages, and whether Baelish/Tywin tries to find traitors there), the Owen Fossoway favor (which will be unexpected), etc. And yes, he will get a dragon, and the hardest scene to write (I think) will be the trip to Valyria.
I am not going to continue the story. I have certain scenes for Part 2 - Essos, and Part 3 - White Walkers in mind. But there are a couple problems.
1. Maester Wolf is driven by the battle scenes. There won't be much action going forward. A "Howl from the North" scenario where Jon has unlimited steel forges and Robb is planning tactics would not have much suspense, particularly because the attack would come from a different direction than expected. Euron Greyjoy is not going to bail out the Iron Throne. I actually know exactly how Robb will crush the Iron Fleet.
2. Because the big fight scenes are finished, Part 2 would be very different. As would Part 3. Part 2 would have a greater focus on court intrigue and Jon doing maester-like things. Magic begins to pop up in Part 2 and becomes even more important in Part 3. The start of Part 2 would be a huge plot twist. And if people complained about Jon's mercy, they will only continue to do so.
3. Because the focus changes so much, I am sure to get a lot of flames and nasty comments. The potential outcomes begin to diverge, and Jon is not following the Aegon the Conqueror route. So people who expect him to lop heads and march to the Iron Throne won't be happy. And I am sure people will claim he is too overpowered. Negative reviews don't bother me that much, but nobody enjoys reading how your decisions are terrible, how you stink as a writer, and how with a few changes, they would have written something far better.
I enjoyed writing the story and I appreciate all the positive reviews. I really do. Many comments have been thoughtful and accurate. But unless I can drive the story forward in a way consistent to the character, Part 2 and Part 3 will just be a bunch of neat scenes in my head. I think that consistency is important to the craft of writing.
Thank you for your support.