Let’s address the dragon-sized elephant in the room first – this is not the George R. R. Martin book we’ve been waiting for. The author has long delayed the sixth installment of his A Song Of Ice And Fire series (adapted into Game of Thrones) that he has been working on since 2010, much to fans’ ire. After announcing that it would not be published this year either, GRRM released this prequel instead.
Fire & Blood begins 300 years before the events of GoT, and traces the rise and fall, conquests and murky personal lives of House Targeryen since its arrival on the fictional continent of Westeros. By choosing to focus on the palace intrigue, GRRM takes the most interesting family in that universe (they have dragons! they’ve dabbled in the dark arts!) and roots them in a dull historical setting analogous to medieval England. To tell their story, he adopts the perspective of historical chronicler Archmaester Gyldaryn, which gives him the chance to play unreliable narrator. Gyldaryn measures his account of the Targaryens against conflicting sources ranging from the overtly salacious to the more trustworthy. It’s a clever way to pack what could have been an entirely dry, historical retelling with drama, wit, risqué humour and pathos, depending on whose account is being described.
Fair warning though, this book’s strictly for hardcore fans. GRRM assumes his readers are well-versed, or at least familiar with the topography of Westeros and the numerous families that inhabit it. The action shifts from Highgarden to Dorne to King’s Landing to The Fingers and many more places, none of which will make much sense to the uninitiated. There’s a wealth of anecdotes, from the thrilling (we find out how the Iron Throne was forged and where Daenerys’ three dragon eggs originate from) and some cheeky (we’re introduced to Coryanne Wylde, whose regret over her erotic adventures leads her to write a cautionary tale for young girls). Fans get many ah, that’s how that happened moments. Others might find themselves utterly lost. Those who enjoy the show might want to weigh their level of investment before picking up this text. While it contains a detailed look at the history of one of the show’s major characters, it’s hard to tell if any tidbits will have a bearing on the next season.
It’s one thing to have to remember the names of the reigning King and Queen, it’s another to recall that of their thirteen children, their children’s children, children’s children who are illegitimate and the scores of dragons, who make an appearance whenever the plot needs them to
The book’s title Fire & Blood, the Targaryen family motto, promises plenty of both. But while GRRM’s methods of killing off characters get more and more inventive – men are thrown out of windows, crunched by dragons and one slips on the entrails of a man he’s just disembowelled – his character names get increasingly unimaginative. The book has at least seven Aegons. There’s an Alyssa, an Alysanne, a woman using ‘Alys’ as a fake identity and an Alysanne Blackwood called ‘Black Aly’. There’s a Rhaenys, a Rhaena, a Rhaella and a Rhaenyra. At one point, it becomes hard to keep track of who’s whom. It’s one thing to have to remember the names of the reigning King and Queen, it’s another to recall that of their thirteen children, their children’s children, children’s children who are illegitimate and the scores of dragons, who make an appearance whenever the plot needs them to. Not reading the book in one sitting – a hard feat considering its 700-plus pages – means returning to find you’ve forgotten whose story the book is currently tracing. The Targeryen tradition of incestuous marriages, meant to keep bloodlines pure, complicates things further. There are sisters-slash-wives, uncles-slash-husbands and cousins-slash-spouses thrown into the mix.
Glimpses into the rich interior lives of tangential characters make for interesting reading initially, but get tedious as the book goes on. Since they have little bearing on the plot, it’s hard to care about their stories, which eventually become a distraction rather than a breather from the action. There are times GRRM dispenses with the stories altogether and just lists names on end. Sample this: By nightfall two thousand men were dead, amongst them many notables, including Lord Frey, Lord Lefford, Lord Bigglestone, Lord Charlton, Lord Swyft, Lord Reyne, Ser Clarent Crakehall, and Ser Emory Hill, the Bastard of Lannisport. His insistence on this minute and overabundant detailing is what makes the book lose steam. There are long and bloody wars that feature so many factions and so many men, I had to refer to the ASOIAF wiki to make sure I had my stories straight, like using the 21 Sets to supplement an SSC history textbook. The only respite comes in the form of comic book artist Doug Wheatley’s fantastic illustrations.
For a work of historical fantasy, Fire & Blood is heavy on the history. There’s reams of administrative information on public policy, plumbing, defence systems and taxation. While these no doubt add to the rich and inventive world building, they do get a bit taxing. The exhaustive nature of the book eventually becomes exhausting. The fact that the book is just one of a two-part series is thus cause for some alarm. However, for all its flaws, Fire & Blood is a comprehensive, largely evocative text from a master storyteller. It’s a placeholder, sure. But there are worse ways to procrastinate.