Yow, there were, indeed, some surprises, most of them heart-rending and very insightful charaterizations.
I definitely did not see the Mirkwood fatalities coming (although maybe I should have guessed more of the major characters would be picked off here and there). And it's carried out beautifully - the pacing is perfect, you keep the reader on the edge of her seat, not knowing if this little sliver of hope means the character might pull through or - well, but in the last chapter, that other guy didn't make it.. .
I would never have guessed who the Presence was (nor did I figure out who/what the Mariner was in Hands of the King, so thank you for answering two questions). I think both major and lesser characters have been very well fleshed out, with some very touching characterizations.
Arwen is another nice surprise - really perceptive insights into what she might have been thinking, what her choice might mean, what options are still left to her. Best, her resolve to actively resist - this is a nice added touch that really deepens her character.
I had to laugh at poor Saruman. I w as kind of right, he kind of reformed, kind of, at least kind of a little.
Now it looks like you might not be finished? I hope not. A lot of things are left hanging, and one wants to know how things turn out.
More guesses/predictions (ridiculous to not exactly sublime):
- Elfhelm must die; seriously, you can't expect Faramir not to annoy his father by marrying a barbarian and giving Hurin a nervous breakdown.
- Arwen is gonna kick some major Sauron butt, and Gollum is gonna help out in some way he probably won't like.
- Saruman will get what's coming to him, almost, but will also be offered mercy. He and Boromir's ghost are sent to work with underprivileged students at a school run by Rhadaghast.
- And where IS Rhadaghast? He's out there, somewhere, as far as the reader knows.....