George R.R. Martin's Fire & Blood is a great, big, imperfect pile of story: EW review
It’s been seven years since George R. R. Martin published his last proper fantasy novel. And 2011’s A Dance With Dragons was only part 5 of A Song of Ice and Fire, a planned seven-volume series. Now this decade has almost passed with no release date for part 6. Instead we have Fire & Blood, which — for a certain kind of ravenous Martin reader — must look infuriatingly like 700-plus pages in the wrong direction. The new book circles back three centuries pre-Arya, story-spinning a macrohistorical generational saga about various dudes named Aegon and their various sisters they marry.
I love it so much. Fire & Blood is Martin Unbound — imperfect by nature, a great big pile of story — and I couldn’t put it down. If you’re approaching this as a fan of Martin’s other Ice and Fire novels, or if you’re a human of Earth who enjoys Game of Thrones, you can sense the author having a bit of fun. Imagine Martin swivel-chairing away from work on the still-pending The Winds of Winter to outline some background information on a notepad: the name of some passerby lord’s great-great-grandfather, that elder ancestor’s children, did those children maybe not get along, was there a second wife in the picture, did his death cause a bloody inheritance feud, was his daughter a brilliant commander, at which battle did she perish? The notepad fills with incidental detail, enough to fill 10 old castles’ secrets. And as Raymond Chandler used to (almost) say: When in doubt, a door can open and a dragon can walk in.
Fire & Blood is very different from the mainline Westeros novels. Martin’s snappy dialogue co-exists with declamatory pronouncements. There are archaic-on-purpose turns of phrase: “whilst” and “must needs” and “many such.” One character gets sliced “from crest to gorget.” And Ser Forrest Frey, we learn, is a “most puissant knight.”
This is a softly meta text, nominally written by Archmaester Gyldayn, a scholar from Oldtown’s Citadel. Like any good (fictional) historian, Gyldayn hat-tips toward his (fictional) research material. He quotes primary-source legal documents written by untrustworthy officials and memoirs full of probable lies. He references popular songs mythologizing long-ago events and dismisses commoner folklore with a ring of truth.
Martin is a nut for history, with a special fascination for the grinding necessities of governance. So this is the kind of novel where godlike dragon-riders discuss tax reform. But there’s an addictive quality to the prose that’s outright gossipy. Gyldayn is frequently batting away (or grudgingly accepting) whispered rumors that Ser so-and-so was having sex with Lady so-and-so… who was probably bedding another Lady so-and-so… whose first husband was the elderly Lord so-and-so… though their son looked an awful lot like the man who became Lady so-and-so’s second husband after elderly Lord so-and-so accidentally tripped over the pointy end of someone else’s sword.
Fire & Blood is most clearly the story of the Targaryen family in Westeros. It starts with the arrival of Daenerys Targaryen’s greatest-grandfather-uncle Aegon, and then ends some 150 years later, halfway to the Thrones timeline. (A second volume is planned, ha!) You witness multiple generations rise into ruin and fall into legend. First come Conquering Aegon and his sister-wives, Visenya and Rhaenys, a Holy Blond Trinity of fantasy archetypes: one steady ruler, one imperial warrior, one dreamy explorer. We track their offspring’s offspring through the decades. There’s another Aegon who loves to party, a third who barely speaks, a fourth I lost track of. There are simpleton monarchs with no head for politicking, and devious keeners chessmatching quadruple-backstabs.
The obvious comparison here is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, because there aren’t a whole lot of other prequel meta-history texts for generation-defining fantasy sagas written by double-R author dudes. Martin himself made the comparison in an interview with our man in Westeros, James Hibberd, jokingly classifying Fire & Blood as a “GRRM-arillion.”
Martin’s an avowed Tolkien reader, but he’s written his text toward a very different purpose. Silmarillion drew from writings Tolkien never quite intended for publication; completed posthumously, it was significantly edited by the author’s son, Christopher. Right from the first sentence it sounds like a hymnal, all singsong exposition best read aloud:
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.
We’re in a time before time, and the main miracle of The Silmarillion is how it taps the mood of religious myth older than recognizable religion. Tolkien’s perspective doesn’t always stay god’s-eye mega-macro, and shifts personal in the more character-focused stories. But the visions he conjures always feel etched in worldstone: an island kingdom sunk under apocalyptic ambition, an armored shadowgod emerging from his mountain-sized fortress wielding a tectonic warhammer, a most puissant spider-godling autosarcophaging herself.
Fire & Blood starts with a precise opposite approach, the opening lines rooting us in a specific chronology:
The maesters of the Citadel who keep the histories of Westeros have used Aegon’s Conquest as their touchstone for the past three hundred years. Births, deaths, battles, and other events are dated either AC (After the Conquest) or BC (Before the Conquest).
But then the second paragraph zags into an opposite opposite approach, undercutting the conventional wisdom it only just established. “True scholars know that such dating is far from precise,” the text says. “Even the start date is a matter of some misconception.” In the wrong hands, all these semantics could be a parody of doddering historiography — or worse, the kind of High Pedantry you sometimes found in comment boards about Star Trek chronologies.
Instead, the thrill of Fire & Blood is the thrill of all Martin’s fantasy work: familiar myths debunked, the whole trope table flipped. Every fragile notion of Ned Starkian heroism gets thrown out the metaphorical window overlooking the metaphorical spike pit. Good intentions fail because accidents happen. Monstrous individuals surprise you with acts of nobility, and noble characters do something unforgivable. The book’s centerpiece saga unfurls the story of the Dance of the Dragons, a 19-ring circus of simmering feuds and upjumped hubristics. Initial motivations get lost in the bloodbath. Nobody who wins ever gets to feel victorious.
This all might sound “deconstructive,” lately a beloved critical phrase for any geeky property. Or — worse! — “realistic.” Martin’s fictional history isn’t better than Tolkien’s just because characters screw each other (over), nor a deeper experience just because Martin is less interested in magic. The commanding voice of The Silmarillion is its own heavy-metal kick.
But one essential foundational aspect of A Song of Ice and Fire is how Martin Rashomon-ized his fantasy landscape, splitting his story between different (often oppositional) viewpoints. The scope of Fire & Blood takes this structure even further. Writing centuries after the events he’s describing, the Gyldayn voice complicates this game of thrones with a clash of perspectives and a storm of debatable facts. Was Aegon II a hero, a druggy dunce, or a pawn-ish mama’s boy? Where did Princess Aerea go on her lonely dragon flight, and what strange pestilence did she bring back with her? Every lord’s mysterious death requires a two-page Agatha Christie mystery, a list of possible suspects with no ultimate solution. There are central characters who remain profoundly unknowable. Adding to the general confusion: All the Targaryens are at least a little crazy, this gorgeous lineage of incesty ubermenschen drawn to power like moths to blue zombie flame.
Maybe you could dismiss this as a simple embroidering of outline material, a clearout of authorial cardboard boxes in the long winter between Westeros volumes. There’s such a detail-drunk quality to the writing here, though, and a fabulous forward motion. Certain incidents resemble classically burly fantasy stuff: airborne dragon duels, swordplay diplomacy. But Martin has a love for realpolitik soap opera: There’s a government initiative to find one gloomy king a wife, and the fate of the realm depends on who gets pregnant when. There are throwaway images so surreal they could only properly exist in this half-sketched, heavily described format. A besieged king, desperate for more dragons, grabs a large purple-gold dragon egg and sits on it, a visual moment of totalitarian impotence that positively demands a Gary Larson cartoon.
The narrative turns gory, full of murder, warfare, epidemics of sexual assault. You wonder if Martin’s gotten more sensitive to the political readings of his work. There are still a lot of teenagers marrying old dudes, a semi-historical “reality” that the HBO series had to ignore on the legitimate principle of ewwwwwww. As a socially conscious counterweight, one of the unambiguously moral characters here is Queen Alysanne, who travels her country hosting local councils of female citizens. This leads her to an explicitly political awakening, demanding new rights for women and an end to the Braveheart-ian right of First Night.
It’s a moment of pure feminism, in a franchise that has inspired a treasure trove of complex feminist thinkpiecery. I don’t know, I guess what I’m talking around here is that anyone who thinks the HBO show had a minor rape fetish will be disturbed by certain tableaux in this book where whole cities become Hieronymus Bosch hellscapes of sexual pillaging and malicious ultraviolence. Really, the deep-history perspective is the only way to tell this story. There’s a phase in the Dance of the Dragons when every familiar character is either dead, scarred beyond recognition, or mad from grief. In direct narrative form, this would be unbearable.
I wonder, too, if Martin’s up to something especially sneaky here. There’s something transcendently offputting about the Targaryens themselves. We hear a lot about “pure Valyrian blood” and the family’s own exceptionalist belief that their pristine genetic history makes them invincible. And yet their fatal destiny is to implode, inbreeding themselves inward when they’re not actively devouring one another. The Targaryens writ large become some kind of ultra-colonial fantasy: a family history that’s one part Anglo-Saxon, one part “Trojans sail to Rome,” one part every subjugational thing modern scholarship thinks about Christopher Columbus.
Tricky to graft any of our own cultural readings onto this saga, maybe. And other regions outside Westeros can look hazy in this regard. I still just don’t really get the Free Cities’ whole deal, and distant locales like Yi Ti or the Summer Isles risk Robert E. Howard-ish ethnic typecasting. But there’s something truly corrosive (and oddly Romanoffs-y) in the burgeoning idea that the Targaryens represent some extreme depiction of eugenically narcissistic whitest whiteness, all these generations of proud lookalike parents freakishly planning their toddlers’ marriages to each other.
Parts of this book were published before, as breakaway novellas. Rereading them here adds context (so that’s who everyone was descended from!), but you could still read Fire & Blood as a series of separate stories, some book-length on their own, others just a few paragraphs. Sometimes Martin will pause for a luscious Dungeonmaster-ish character summary. There’s Racallio Ryndoon, the purple-haired pirate kingpin who bathes in lavender and rosewater. There’s the mysterious Shepherd, a one-armed preacher madman raising a prole army by sheer force of hobo rhetoric. And did I mention Racallio Ryndoon?
I am in the tank for this book, I guess, and for all of Martin’s Westeros writing. There’s a line of critical-fanboy thinking pinpointing a dramatic shift in A Song of Ice and Fire after the magnificent devastation of A Storm of Swords. In the later volumes, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, Martin has become a special fiend for bureaucratic details, and his gaze has wandered far afield from the Starks and Lannisters. Loving the last two volumes means loving the Greyjoys and Martells, character families whose cultural legacy has been let’s-say-complicated by certain decisions made in smalls-creen adaptation.
“Get back to Jon and Dany and Arya!” is an implicit rallying cry, one the show has happily answered. Is that the direction Martin’s story is going in too? I have no clue. He can seem way more interested in Arianne Martell. And I kinda love the later books’ embrace of civic complexity, the way epic battlefield protagonists get forced into legalistic Team of Rivals politicking. One of Martin’s main themes — easy to say but important to relearn every day — is that power is complicated, more so than triumphant battles or aspirational heroes. It’s fun to read about fire and blood, sure — but it’s purposeful, I think, that the Targaryen king Martin writes about most worshipfully is the guy who invests the most in infrastructure.
Some readers worry about his writing pace. Martin just turned 70 (which I maintain is the new 30), and frankly any talk in this direction gets ghoulish real quick. I don’t think the greatness of A Song of Ice and Fire depends on an ending. In fact, reading Fire & Blood made me wonder if an actual conclusion is beside (or against) the point. In this book, bleak finality preludes new beginnings, and golden-era joy preludes dissipating tragedy. Readers and viewers of Martin’s saga play the game of thrones at home, debating which character will wind up ruling Westeros. Fire & Blood proves that doesn’t really matter. Whoever “wins” will find that the real problems start the moment they sit on the Iron Throne. Few rulers last long up there. Even the most prosperous reign will dissolve into anarchy, a profound legacy slate-wiped away by one’s own squabbling children.
Heavy stuff, but Fire & Blood flies. My favorite tangent concerns the curious case of Lady Elissa Farman, who changes her name to Alys Westhill when she escapes courtly life. She becomes a sailor on the high seas, commanding a voyage of expedition, setting a course far away from the recognizable map of her world…
Between Westeros and the far eastern shores of Essos and Ulthos, she believed, lay other lands and other seas waiting to be discovered: another Essos, another Sothoryos, another Westeros. Her dreams were full of sundering rivers and windswept plains and towering mountains with their shoulders in the clouds, of green islands verdant in the sun, of strange beasts no man had tamed and queer fruits no man had tasted, of golden cities shining underneath strange stars.
Here’s a character from one person’s fantasy continent dreaming up her own fantasy continent. A bit meta, a bit autobiographical, but this passage also conjures the very essence of the fantasy genre: some half-remembered faraway land, savage with “untamed” majesty and also somehow anciently civilized enough to populate “golden cities,” plural.
We never quite find out what happens to Alys. Maybe she finds her wonderland. Or maybe she does the next best thing, and writes it into a book. A
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