A history of the Targaryen dynasty set hundreds of years before HBO’s Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin’s new 736-page epic Fire and Blood covers generations of conquest, duels, betrayals, and — for all you romantics — a fair bit of incest. It’s a rousing, dragon-stuffed concentrated dose of Westerosi drama to tide us over as our long watch continues for his sixth Ice and Fire novel, The Winds of Winter, which fans have been waiting seven years to read. We spoke to Martin about the new book, his struggle to finish Winds (“I’ve pounded my head against the keyboard…”), and even learned something new about the Thrones prequel project (no dragons!). But before we could ask our first question, Martin wanted you to know something up front…
GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: One thing I want to be clear in the piece here, this is not a traditional novel. I don’t want people buying it thinking they’re going to get something like A Game of Thrones or Dance With Dragons. This is an imaginary history. It’s written in the style of a textbook as you’ve seen, which is quite a different style and is deliberately that way. That’s what I’ve set out to do and that’s what I’ve done and, hopefully, people enjoy it on that basis. I don’t want to mislead people into thinking they’re getting a traditional novel. It’s a generational story, it covers 150 years, there’s a large cast of characters who are born, grow up and die, and are succeeded by their children.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It is a very different style and it takes a few pages to get used to that. But once you do and the story starts to take off it works on its own terms. Let’s start with the backstory here, though. You didn’t even intend to write this book, it just came out of working on 2014’s The World of Ice and Fire companion book, right?
MARTIN: Yes, that’s correct. World of Ice and Fire was to be a big coffee table book with full-color art on every page and the text was supposed to be a slight fleshing out of the background that’s in the [Ice and Fire] novels. So [Elio García and Linda Antonsson] — my friends and fans from Westeros.org — went through all my published books and pulled out everything I’ve mentioned about the history and past kings. Then I was supposed to take that and polish it and expand it a little, and write a few sidebars of interesting bits of history that I knew but hadn’t been put in any of the [Ice and Fire ] books. Just like in real life, we know that Millard Filmore existed, but he doesn’t come up in conversation a lot. So the idea was 50,000 words of text. Even by the time Elio and Linda were finished, it was 70,000 words of text. Then I started writing these sidebars and, you know, when I’m really going I get carried away. Next thing I knew I had written 300,000 words of sidebars and only got up to Aegon III. My editors said, “This is going to ruin the entire concept of the book, we already spent the entire art budget, we can’t have art on every page of the book.” So we pulled out all the sidebars and I joked this was my Silmarillion — the GRRM-arillion — and we would publish it later. So The World of Ice and Fire was published close to its original conception…and Fire and Blood is the first time I’ve been able to present the material as it was originally written. Plus, I wrote additional material for it.
What was interesting from The Guardian interview you did, is this book — as daunting as it would seem for most authors to attempt, and as tough as Winds has been for you — this was curiously easy for you to write.
Yes. Partly because it’s linear. Although it covers 150 years or so, it’s very straightforward — here’s what happened in the year 30, here’s what happened in 25. In Winds, I have like 10 different novels and I’m juggling the timeline — here’s what’s happening to Tyrion, here’s what’s happening to Dany, and how they intersect. That’s far more complicated. And the history book, I only have one voice to do. It’s supposedly by the Archermaester Gyldayn who has his own particular voice; he’s a crotchety old academic. When I’m doing Winds, I switch voices every time I switch chapters. Each has their own style and voice and have their own cast of supporting characters in different places in the world.
You do shift voices somewhat in Fire and Blood too, right?
Yes. Like a historian today writing about the Civil War, they weren’t present during the Civil War. So they have to go back and look at the memories and court records and figure out what happened and sometimes there are contradictory accounts. So I had some fun with inventing imaginary primary sources, particularly in the case of the [Targaryen civil war] Dance of the Dragons. So I get to tell the same different events in three different ways, which was fun, and hopefully it will be fun for the reader too.
You could have done a history book on any aspect of the realm. What made the Targaryens right?
They’re distinctly different from every other Westerosi family. They’re kings. They’re practicing incest like the Ancient Egyptians to try to keep the bloodline pure. And they have the dragons, which nobody else has. You can never go wrong with a dragon. So sure, I could do a book about what was happening with the Tyrells at Highgarden, but I don’t think it would be as juicy. But who knows? If I ever got into that, maybe I could figure out some good stories to make it juicy.
Do you have a favorite character in this timeline?
I love gray characters. Daemon Targaryen, who is at the center of the Dance of Dragons, who switches sides several times, is the prototypical Westerosi gray character. He does some heroic things [and] some appalling, vile things. He’s a complicated guy and a lot of fun to write about. That said, the more recent work here is the stuff about Jaehaerys and Alysanne. I never wrote about them in the [World of Ice and Fire] because Jaehaerys ruled for half a century and it was a time of peace and prosperity. I skipped over that because peace and prosperity are boring. But when my publisher said they wanted this book next, I couldn’t skip it and had to flesh them out. I had a lot of fun investing some pretty cool stories for that period. Peace doesn’t have to be boring, I guess.
Are there any hints here in terms of what’s to come in your Ice and Fire saga?
There are a few that are definitely important, but I’m not going to flag them. Readers will have to find them and puzzle out whether they’re hints or red herrings.
There’s something sort of thrilling and horrifying about how cheap life is in Westeros. I’m not sure I’ve read a book with a higher body count than this one. Could this be your brutal tale given the concentrated nature of the storytelling?
Well, it does cover 150 years…nobody is living to 150 so by its nature it’s going to have a lot of that. But whenever anybody talks about the violence in my books, I always want to ask, have you read any real history? If anything, I’ve toned Westeros down compared to what actually happened during the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. The diseases and the wars…there are very few people during those 1,000 years who had a calm, peaceful, uneventful life from birth to death. History is written in blood, as somebody said. The human race is slowly staggering toward more peace and more morality and maybe in another thousand years we’ll get there.
This book takes place hundreds of years ago and Westeros seems pretty different than in Thrones. I wonder, since HBO’s prequel pilot takes place 10,000 years before Game of Thrones, will that world even be recognizable to fans as Westeros since there’s such a huge time jump?
“10,000 years” is mentioned in the novels. But you also have places where maesters say, “No, no, it wasn’t 10,000, it was 5,000.” Again, I’m trying to reflect real-life things that a lot of high fantasy doesn’t reflect. In the Bible, it has people living for hundreds of years and then people added up how long each lived and used that to figure out when events took place. Really? I don’t think so. Now we’re getting more realistic dating now from carbon dating and archeology. But Westeros doesn’t have that. They’re still in the stage of “my grandfather told me and his grandfather told him.” So I think it’s closer to 5,000 years. But you’re right. Westeros is a very different place. There’s no King’s Landing. There’s no Iron Throne. There are no Targaryens — Valyria has hardly begun to rise yet with its dragons and the great empire that it built. We’re dealing with a different and older world and hopefully that will be part of the fun of the series. [Prequel showrunner Jane Goldman] is a tremendous talent. She flew into Santa Fe and we spent a week talking about her ideas. She’s going into territory that I haven’t explored very much in the books. I’ve hinted about them. But she’s a major writer, I love her work.
Before we go, here’s a standard question I missed asking you at the start: What excites you most about Fire and Blood?
The book is a lot of fun. The people who are open to reading an imaginary history and not a novel — which I realize is not everybody — have enjoyed it so far. But honestly, the single thing that excites me most is that I finished it. I know there are a lot of people out there who are very angry with me that Winds of Winter isn’t finished. And I’m mad about that myself. I wished I finished it four years ago. I wished it was finished now. But it’s not. And I’ve had dark nights of the soul where I’ve pounded my head against the keyboard and said, “God, will I ever finish this? The show is going further and further forward and I’m falling further and further behind. What the hell is happening here? I’ve got to do this.” I just got the [Fire and Blood] copy and, holding it in my hand, it’s a beautiful book. The illustrations by Doug Wheatley are great. It’s been a long while since I had a new Westeros book and nobody knows that as well as I do. I know that just as much as the angriest of my hardcore fans. And I have continued to publish other things. It’s not like I’ve been on a seven-year vacation. I have Wild Cards books coming out every six months. But not like this, one that’s entirely my writing. So to finish a book that I’m proud of and excited by was emotionally a big lift for me.