I’m typically a voracious reader but at least to my standards I’ve noticed a bit of a drop off as we are in that era where tv and film are bringing so much of our favorite reads, be it from novels, comics or even short fiction (see: Arrival which was based on a Ted Chiang story – a film I find myself thinking about more and more) to us in a different form and adding binge to our vernacular.
I have, however, in the last couple of weeks knocked out The Ruin of Kings, a hyped debut epic fantasy series coming out next year by Jenn Lyons and Fire & Blood, the not Winds of Winter novel about Targaryens that came out last month from George R. R. Martin.
Because I’m fairly confident we are never going to see a conclusion to A Song of Ice and Fire in book-form and will just have to live with what Weiss and Benioff give us (which admittedly is not nearly a worst case scenario) I chose to devour what I can of GRRM writing in Westeros that I can. After all, I’ve been reading these novels since they’ve been coming out in the mid-90s and have reread them, not hyperbole, dozens of times. It is my opinion that they and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen are the finest examples of epic fantasy available to us.
Like I said with my thoughts on Into the Spider-Verse I will leave exhaustive reviews to people who are interested in them, and I’ve read some pretty laughable ones thus far, like the insinuation that Fire & Blood is better than A Dance with Dragons and A Feast for Crows which even in a world of subjective thought is patently ridiculous no matter how much you fluff out the opinion with longwinded rigmarole.
It’s completely silly but I did have some general thoughts about my experience. First, I was famished for more words in this world because I knocked it out in two days and wanted more, something I suspected must occur soon as it was clear to me while I was halfway into Fire & Blood that there was no way this was going to be able to tell the whole story of the Targaryens up to Robert’s Rebellion.
I didn’t know it was the first of two books prior to reading it but just so people know this first half doesn’t even get to the Blackfyre Rebellions. I mention that only because beyond Aegon the Conqueror’s subjugation of the continent that era seems to be one we know most about, probably because of how Blackfyres are central to so many popular forum reader theories throughout the decades regarding Illyrio, Young Griff, and obviously Bloodraven himself, not to mention being around the Dunk & Egg adventures
There is no dearth of Targaryens in Fire & Blood though so don’t worry, as GRRM I think successfully brings what feels like a series of Wikipedia pages to life which will inform the hell out of any passive reader of the series or Game of Thrones tv watcher with more detail than they’d ever want while giving just enough new revelations and nuance thrown in for those of us who scoured those aforementioned forums for years and who’ve read World of Ice and Fire multiple times and recite GRRM So Spakes off like Tolkien letter numbers. It’s probably much more of the former than the latter but I can respect the attempt at balance even as I wonder if this could ever be a book for non-heads and Martin has enough of those to make a Westeros-based book successful and give former Livejournal readers the hardcore minutia – what I call forum shit – that they crave.
There’s a playfulness in the writing, turns of phrases, that gave off a distinct authorial delight that makes me think this was a bit of palette cleanser for Martin who’d I’d imagine, just going by how long it’s taken, has found piecing Winds of Winter together to be at least partly a chore.While the story itself may lack whimsy completely, it is told in such a way makes the reading experience brisk and at times mischievous.
For myself I took two things away from my reading of it, both of which are almost certain to not be of interest to anyone searching for write-ups about the book. I’ll discuss one now and one in a future post*.
Some battles are won with swords and spears, others with quills and ravens. – Tywin Lannister
One of the things, perhaps the biggest thing, readers are going to be talking about from Fire & Blood is a letter Aegon the Conqueror received from Dorne that ended the war with Dorne with Aegon and the throne conceding to every Dorne stipulation. This would be a continuation of a discussion that’s been had for years as this was detailed in the aforementioned World of Ice and Fire (2014) but I think it will gain eyes outside of Westeros-specific circles because Fire & Blood is written during a time where HBO’s Game of Thrones is perhaps the last and maybe the greatest of the monoculture tv shows.
As a fan I’m interested in the details and the truth of this matter and theories range from offers of mercy killing of a captured and tortured Rhaenys, ensorcellment, threats of Faceless Men, whispered truths about the legitimacy Aegon’s heirs and beyond but for the purposes of this specific post I was taken by the power of the sternly written email, or in the case for Westeros the pigeon-sent letter, or if you want to add emojis of importance, send your daughter with a Dragon Skull.
This is a culture of conquerors and war, of kings with exclusive privilege to dragons that can level armies and castles, of dumb masses who prescribe to faith. Even just watchers of the show can see that this is a more often than not a cruel and violent world. The words of the family is the title of the book: Fire & Blood. It’s a family, especially in this generation, who doesn’t fuck around.
Yet Prince Nymor of Dorne disarms them completely with a message sent via his daughter the Princess Deria. A message that ends in blood on Aegon’s hands (though I’m not sure if that’s some colorful authorial license.)
The letter Aegon receives he destroys immediately, he takes a trip to Dragonstone, returns, and immediately acquiesces to every single one of Dorne’s demands. Deria would not only survive this night, a messenger unkilled, but would later become the ruling Princess of Dorne
Martin is a writer and obviously the power of words is not only something that means a lot to him, it’s his trade, it’s his art, it’s the thing in the world he resides in that has set him apart. You feel the power he gives to readers in A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin arms a dwarf and a fat soft kids in a martial world this curiosity and power. Kings clash, swords will storm, crows will feast, dragons will dance, but the power of the putting thought to writing is powerful and as a reader I was struck again later in Fire & Blood.
There is an event in the history of King’s Landing called the Hour of the Wolf. It takes places after the Dance of the Dragons and is more or less a six day period of time that epic badass Cregan Stark, who marched all the way from Winterfell with his men, assumes power of the realm and starts handing out justice after the rest of realm made a mess of shit. He would relinquish power immediately (something I will also get back to later) after he was done and head back North but not before he took off heads with his own sword, an echo from the future of words we hear from Ned Stark. Again, this is an event that was also depicted in World of Ice and Fire (I’m starting to wonder if it’s all just repeated lol).
Yet our way is the older way. The blood of the First Men still flows in the veins of the Starks, and we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.
It’s pretty hardcore and awesome, and is a dose of Starks that makes you feel good inside, but what I want to talk about is a throwaway line later in Fire & Blood regarding a simple and straightforward letter from the North sent to the Throne by Cregan Stark sharing that he wouldn’t view in a positive light a proposed wedding (when then Hand of the King Unwin Peake tried to marry his daughter into the Throne).
And the shit didn’t happen.
Sure, there were many reasons and many people who were against the idea, plots within plots, but the plainness and matter-of-fact way that GRRM wrote it had me, the reader, going back and recalling what Cregan did during the Hour of the Wolf.
In my head it was very much a Cregan saying: “you remember what happened the last time I had to come through? Please don’t make me have to come down there and do that again.”
In the book it was single simple nondescript sentence by Martin. There was no illustration of a letter or the cliffhanger. It was just a random sentence that screamed at me.
In both instances the messages came from opposite poles of the continent and 2 of the 3 houses (along with the Iron Born but honestly F them) that are markedly different from the rest of the houses in the continent. The people of the North can be viewed as heretics from the point of view of people who worship The Faith of Seven. Dorne often feels like it’s viewed in-story as the somewhat queer & foreign kingdom (which is probably why any sensible person of today would want to live in Dorne, minus the shit desert.) These are distinct cultural differences that make both houses feel like much more exotic flavors anytime they are introduced to the mix of the rest of the Seven Kingdoms and the methods of both messages given to us by Martin fit both those distinct thoughts.
Dorne is mysterious, exotic, unbowed, unbent, unbroken. There message may have been magical, carried a supernatural, or clandestine threat. It came with the skull of a dragon. The Starks were no frills. To the point. If they had to kneel they did. If they had to win a war they did. As much as we can ridicule the largest mistakes of both Ned & Rob Stark, both went to war and neither had ever lost a battle they commanded.
I just really loved how much the little, most base, things still get to me about Martin’s writing.
Next time I’ll get to my second point, about Uber in Westeros.
the top image is the Gary Gianni cover of the Subterranean Press version