In A Song of Ice and Fire each POV character has a very incomplete view of events and they often find themselves surprised, overtaken, or impacted by actions, intrigues and battles they have no knowledge of. Distance and secrecy are the two major limiting factors. Often events are far away and communicated only by hints and rumors. Just as often actions are close by but intentionally hidden by other actors. Then there are inequities in power, intelligence, and reliable sources information as well as dissimilarities in needs, desires, and ideology which can create mental distance in place of physical distance. The reader has greater knowledge of the political and magical events, but only up to a point, as this knowledge is based on a haphazard synthesis of incomplete (sometimes delusional) perspectives.
Similarly, every one of the POV characters of A Song of Ice and Fire has a very limited perception of the world system in which they live, what Illyrio Mopatis’s refers to as the “one great web.” All the factors that impede their knowledge of political and magical events also prevent them from seeing the disparities that exist between the different sections of the world in their economic relationships, political and technological development, and acquisition of knowledge. The Jade Sea, Southros, and Summer Isles are extremely far away. The Free Cities are only a short trip across the Narrow Sea, but the high lords, ladies, and learned of Westeros are largely ignorant of their inner workings and social complexity, which they generally perceive as far away and unimportant to their own society and its power struggles. Whenever they think of Near Essos they see only a ready source of mercenaries, ships, and capital, or a land of disgraced exiles and petty wars. The position these same lords and ladies occupy in world trade is principally limited to that of supplier, customer, and tax authority, with actual commerce left to lesser men. Most of the POVs are highborn Westerosi and hence on the periphery of the world system, physically and/or mentally. Consequently, the plans of those who reside at the center of the system or between the center and periphery, the merchant-bankers, corsair-kings, religious leaders, and spymasters of the Narrow Sea and East, are never discovered by the POVs, only revealed to them. And these revelations are fairly miserly ones at that, for it would not serve their purposes to fully confide the extent of their power or their ambitions to those they consider their instruments and victims (nor are they ones to normally confide in each other).
Readers are therefore largely informed about the East through Westerosi who have little understanding of Illyrio’s great web and consequently we see only the briefest of glimpses of the world system at work. Naturally these observations and interactions are very cursory in nature and often come off as relatively unimportant within the larger story: traders arguing in a marketplace, ships in a harbor, a list of goods, the citizenship of a lone sailor in a brothel, the ingredients of a dish, the outfits worn at court, the title of an office, the words chosen by an envoy, the offhand comment of a mercenary. But just as the reader gets a better sense of political and magical events as the story progresses, so the structures and movement of Illyrio’s occasionally glimpsed web come more and more into view as these fragmentary pieces of information accumulate. Picked out of the text and assembled together they form a mosaic of an underlying order upon which the events of the War of Five Kings and Daenerys’s Emancipation War play out.
When it comes to firsthand accounts of Eastern society, life and institutions the information we have is particularly limited. We find ourselves almost completely dependent upon the POV chapters of Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, and Arya Stark. While all three are highly intelligent observers, they are ultimately very problematic sources.
In the abstract Daenerys’s chapters should be the most informative. She grew up in Near Essos and fluently speaks the Valyrian dialects of the Free Cities and the Dothraki tongue. By the end of the fifth book she has resided in the Free Cities, Vaes Dothrak, Qarth, and Meereen. However, at the beginning of the story she is young and inexperienced, and although she quickly gains experience she remains a teenager. Having been a high status beggar for most of her life she knows little of trade or finance. Her view of Vaes Dothrak is excellent and insightful, but following Drogo’s death Daenerys’s is forced to flee into the Red Wastes and her focus is narrowed by the demands of day to day survival. From that moment on she increasingly concentrates on the goals that are directly in front of her at the expense of her perceptions of the larger world and its workings. Pursuing these goals her natural quickness twists itself into a propensity for snap judgments and her imagination confines itself to the ways of war and treachery. Daenerys’s weakness as an observer can be summed up by the fact that she is surprised when Qarth comes to the aid of Yunkai despite having resided in that city and witnessed firsthand the economic and cultural importance of Ghiscari slavery to the Qartheen. She obviously learned little from her time with Xaro Xhoan Daxos, one of the world’s most eminent merchant princes. The unnamed Qartheen trader encountered the end of A Storm of Swords, horrified by Astapor and desiring to purchase slaves, obviously made no lasting impression on her, even though it foreshadowed the united reaction of the Qartheen ruling class and every other slave owner in the Summer Sea. So the dragon queen touches the strands of the web without understanding any of them and the reader often learns of the results only through other, more distant characters.
Tyrion Lannister is in many ways the opposite of Daenerys. He is a keen and voracious observer who has many rewarding conversations with Magister Illyrio Mopatis, Ser Jorah Mormant, and Brown Ben Plum over the course of his Eastern adventure. He provides an excellent portrait of Volantis and the Rhoyne and supplements Daenerys’s time in Pentos. But he is very much an outsider. He knows only dead High Valyrian and a smattering of the dialects of the Free Cities. Therefore he can converse with only a few people in his journey from Pentos to Slavers Bay. Just as importantly, he remains a southron Westerosi noble not all that dissimilar from his conservative father, scornful of the commercial world and those who inhabit it.
Our view of Braavos largely comes from Arya Stark. Ayra is a curious and precocious girl who over the course of the fourth book learns to fluently speak the Braavosi dialect. She provides an excellent view of daily life in Braavos and the inner workings of the secretive order of the Faceless Men. However, when all is said and done she is still only an eleven year old who sees only surfaces.
Lastly, we understand that our exercise has a dual character. Sometimes we will be merely discovering things GRRM clearly considered and intended. Other times our role will be more creative, giving thought to aspects of the story that were of only secondary importance when it was originally written. There is no way of distinguishing the two. However, as GRRM’s goal was to create a deep, multilayered fantasy world, this is no doubt evidence of his success.