By Christian Holub
May 21, 2019 at 12:36 PM EDT

This post has been updated to reflect the events of Game of Thrones’ series finale.  

It’s been eight years since George R.R. Martin published A Dance With Dragons, the most recent novel in his Song of Ice and Fire series, and no release date has yet been set for the promised sequel, The Winds of Winter. But Martin hasn’t exactly been idle in that time. In addition to compiling the encyclopedic The World of Ice & Fire, the author also recently published Fire & Blood, a fictional history of the early years of Targaryen rule in Westeros.

Although it’s set hundreds of years before the events of Game of Thrones’ final season, Fire & Blood has a lot of powerful resonances with its events — some of which might even explain the unexpected actions taken by characters like Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). There are so many resemblances, in fact, that it’s worth wondering if the reason Martin has devoted so much energy to telling Targaryen history in recent years, rather than plowing ahead with The Winds of Winter, is because Fire & Blood allowed him to remix similar elements from his long-planned endgame in a way that he currently finds more interesting.  

Here are some insights we can glean from the book. Warning: Spoilers for the ending of Game of Thrones.

Courtesy of HBO

Not all dragons are equally vulnerable — and the black ones are especially powerful

Why was Euron Greyjoy’s fleet of scorpions able to bring down the green dragon Rhaegal, only to prove utterly useless in the face of his brother Drogon? It’s a question that has probably confused viewers of Game of Thrones’ eighth season. While there is some whiplash in seeing the dragons’ power levels vary seemingly by the episode, this variance does have a corollary in Martin’s writing. Put simply, not all dragons are equally powerful — and therefore, not all of them are equally vulnerable.

Fire & Blood begins with Aegon Targaryen’s conquest of Westeros, a massive military campaign made possible by the simple fact that Aegon had three dragons, and his enemies had none. Even so, soldiers in Dorne (the only one of the Seven Kingdoms not to bend the knee to Aegon) were able to successfully bring down the dragon Meraxes with a well-placed scorpion bolt. Her rider, Aegon’s beloved sister-wife Rhaenys, died with her. As Martin writes, it’s all about chaos and contingency: “The Targaryen dragons, bred and trained to battle, had flown through storms of spears and arrows on many occasions, and suffered little harm. The scales of a full-grown dragon were harder than steel, and even those arrows that struck home seldom penetrated enough to do more than enrage the great beasts. But as Meraxes banked above the Hellholt, a defender atop the castle’s highest tower triggered a scorpion, and a yard-long iron bolt caught the queen’s dragon in the right eye. Meraxes did not die at once, but came crashing to earth in mortal agony.”

Aegon’s rage at the death of Rhaenys led to a period called the Dragon’s Wroth, when he and his surviving sister, Visenya, rode their dragons into Dorne again and again, bringing fire and blood until “the sands around the Hellholt were fused into glass in places, so hot was Balerion’s fiery breath.” When it comes to reactions to a dragon’s death, doesn’t that fiery rage sound… a little familiar?

Even so, the Dornish never again brought down a dragon. No one, in fact, ever managed to kill Balerion. The great black beast died of old age almost 100 years after Aegon’s Conquest… or did he? When Daenerys was first wandering the Red Waste and thinking of what to name her dragons, her bloodrider Aggo told her that Drogon was Balerion reborn. So far, Drogon has not yet reached Balerion’s massive size, but he is still only a few years old. Importantly, Drogon is the dragon ridden by Daenerys, the first Targaryen since Aegon seeking to completely conquer Westeros. Any comparison to Balerion is grounds enough to say that Drogon is significantly more powerful than his brothers ever were. Just as Balerion survived battles and weapons that brought down his sister, so too is it understandable that Drogon could incinerate the Iron Fleet that killed Rhaegal.

The season finale gave us even more reasons to see similarities between Balerion and Drogon. In Fire & Blood, it was Balerion who originally forged the Iron Throne, by using his fiery breath to melt down the swords of Aegon the Conqueror’s enemies. In “The Iron Throne,” it was Drogon who unmade it with his own fire. The Iron Throne was created by the Targaryens and their dragons, and ended by them. There will still be a king in Westeros, but it won’t be the same.

After he burns the throne, Drogon takes Daenerys’ body and flies off. His ultimate destination is unknown, but it does resemble an episode in Fire & Blood when Balerion flew a different Targaryen princess (Aerea) to the ruins of Valyria, homeland of the Targaryens and their dragons before it was mysteriously destroyed. That sequence is one of the most arresting in the book, and therefore best left unspoiled. But those wondering about Drogon’s ultimate destination are probably destined to come to the same conclusion as Septon Barth, Hand of the King: “From the very start we have asked, where did Aerea take Balerion? We should have been asking, Where did Balerion take Aerea? Only one answer makes sense.”

The last dragon has gone home.

Courtesy of HBO

Female leaders are not welcomed in Westeros — even female Targaryens

Game of Thrones is populated with many strong, complicated, equipped, and eccentric female characters, all of whom share elements of the same tragedy — namely, that they live in a feudal patriarchy that systematically exploits and oppresses them. Even dragon-riding Targaryen royals have found it hard to escape this system.

The longest-reigning king in Fire & Blood was King Jaehaerys, who ruled for 55 years and oversaw an age of conciliation and prosperity in Westeros. A big factor in this golden age was Jaehaerys’ happy marriage to his sister Alysanne, which produced nine adult children. Known as “Good Queen Alysanne,” Jaeherys’ sister-wife wielded more influence in government than almost any other Targaryen consort (at least since Visenya and Rhaenys would occasionally sit the Iron Throne while their brother Aegon traveled). She was able to convince her husband to abolish the tradition of “first night,” whereby lords were entitled to sex with any woman getting married in their lands.

But even the Good Queen could only push things so far. When her eldest son (and Jaehaerys’ heir), Aemon, was suddenly killed in battle, Jaehaerys had a choice between naming his next-eldest son, Baelon, as heir, or giving the honor to Aemon’s daughter, Rhaenys. He chose Baelon, and Alysanne briefly left him as a result, saying, “If Your Grace truly believes that women lack the wit to rule, plainly you have no further need of me.”

The question of whether daughters had equal rights to succession as sons was settled for good with the Dance of the Dragons, the Targaryen civil war that consumes the latter half of Fire & Blood. Jaehaerys’ grandson Viserys ultimately succeeded him on the Iron Throne, but Viserys had children by two wives before he died, making his succession a choice between his daughter Rhaenyra (his eldest child, and his designated heir) and his son Aegon (his eldest child by his second wife). After a long bloody conflict that killed many Targaryens and most of their dragons, the throne ultimately went to Rhaneyra’s son Aegon III. Yet it was worth noting that he was only able to ascend because the horrific Dance was ended by the actions of female leaders whose lordly husbands and fathers who had been killed in the fighting.

When it comes to the show’s final season, this explains why Daenerys is so undone by the revelation about Jon’s parentage. Jon himself thinks it’s fine as long as he doesn’t want the Iron Throne, but Daenerys knows differently. When there is a choice between a male claimant to the throne and a female one, the lords of Westeros have always opted for the former. It’s little wonder Daenerys comes to the conclusion that only a heavy dose of fire and blood can surmount that obstacle.

HBO

Wars get people killed — and not always the people you want or expect

Daenerys Targaryen’s sack of King’s Landing was upsetting for many reasons. Over the course of Game of Thrones, many viewers came to relate to the Mother of Dragons’ struggle for a better world. Of course, “a better world” has different meanings for the royals fighting for thrones and the common people who die in those fights, as Varys realized too late.

Rhaenyra saw her side in the Dance of the Dragons as a battle for justice, to prove that a woman could sit the throne just as well as any man. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of innocents died in the resulting carnage. The closest analog to the sack of King’s Landing was the awful sack of Tumbleton, a town in the Reach that was prosperous until events put it on the receiving end of fire from not one, but three dragons.

See if Martin’s description of Tumbleton’s fate reminds you of anything: “The sack that followed was as savage as any in the history of Westeros. Tumbleton, that prosperous market town, was reduced to ash and embers. Thousands burned, and as many died by drowning as they tried to swim the river. Some would later say they were the fortunate ones, for no mercy was shown the survivors. Lord Footly’s men threw down their swords and yielded, only to be bound and beheaded. Such townswomen as survived the fires were raped repeatedly, even girls as young as eight and ten. Old men and boys were put to the sword, whilst the dragons fed on the twisted, smoking carcasses of their victims.”

Whether it’s Martin’s books or Benioff and Weiss’ show, depictions of war in Westeros never shy away from the brutal reality of vengeance. It’s hard to read and it’s hard to watch, and it should be. War is hard.

HBO

Dragons will drive you crazy

Dragons are awesome. On that point, surely, we all agree. Or maybe we don’t anymore, after seeing Drogon’s fire unleashed on common people who did nothing to deserve it. Dragons look majestic when they’re soaring across the sky, reflecting the sunlight off their glittering scales — but when they’re raining down fire from the sky, they resemble nothing so much as fighter drones or nuclear bombs.

Fire & Blood contains more dragons than all five books of A Song of Ice and Fire combined, and as such gives readers a more comprehensive view of what it would be like to live in a world with dragons. The answer: pretty maddening!

At first, dragons were the symbol of Targaryen supremacy in Westeros, since only members of the royal bloodline seemed able to ride them. But over the course of the Dance of the Dragons, Targaryen numbers started dwindling, leaving many powerful dragons without riders. In order to balance the scales against King Aegon II, Queen Rhaenyra’s son Jacaerys invited anyone in Westeros to try their hand at taming a dragon. Many died in the attempt, but some prevailed. Two bastards, Hugh the Hammer and Ulf White, proved themselves capable of mounting Vermithor and Silverwing, the great dragons that had once borne King Jaehaerys and Good Queen Alysanne.

At first, Ulf and Hugh were content to ride their dragons into battle alongside Jacaerys and Rhaenyra’s other forces, but after a time they started to want more. After all, they were riding dragons just as Aegon the Conqueror had; didn’t they deserve the same reward? Martin writes that Ulf “desired no less a seat than Highgarden,” while Hugh “began to dream of crowns.” When Rhaenyra refused to give them anything more than knighthood, they switched over to Aegon II’s side, and played a major role in the brutal sack of Tumbleton. Who can command your allegiance when you ride a dragon?

As the Dance progressed, dragons continued ravage Westeros, and eventually the people of King’s Landing had enough. Driven mad by the chaos, a mob of people fell in line behind a crazed preacher called the Shepherd, who warned them, “This is their city. If you would make it yours, first must you destroy them. If you would cleanse yourself of sin first must you bathe in dragon’s blood. For only blood can quench the fires of hell.” Sure enough, the Shepherd’s mob stormed the Dragonpit and killed all four dragons that lived there. And yet, when the Dance was over and a semblance of stability returned, young Rhaena Targaryen arrived in King’s Landing with her baby dragon Morning. As Martin writes, “the smallfolk of King’s Landing, who not a year before had slaughtered every dragon in the city, now became rapturous at the sight of one.”

Dragons: They’ll make you crazy! No wonder that, sitting on the back of a particularly fearsome one, Daenerys decided she was justified in unleashing fire and blood against her perceived enemies.

Helen Sloan/HBO

Whoever wins, the Master of Whisperers loses

We all know the stakes of the game of thrones by now: You win or you die. This puts the realm’s spymasters in an awkward position, because no matter how good they are at political machinations, they’re ultimately not fighting for themselves, and that makes them vulnerable.

One of the most enigmatic players in the Dance of the Dragons was Lord Larys Strong, nicknamed Clubfoot for his limp. He served as Master of Whisperers first to King Viserys, and then continued in the role for King Aegon II. He mysteriously disappeared when Rhaenyra and her forces took King’s Landing, only to re-emerge to aid Aegon’s restoration — but then played a major role in poisoning that same king and ending the Dance. For that last part, he paid dearly. Lord Cregan Stark had marched from Winterfell with a great Northern host to end Aegon’s reign; finding him dead upon arrival, Stark instead opted to punish the king’s treacherous killers. He served as Hand of the King to young Aegon III for one brief day, known to Westeros history as “the Hour of the Wolf” — the only time that a member of House Stark had reigned supreme in King’s Landing until the ascension of King Bran the Broken.

Larys’ primary co-conspirator, Lord Corlys “the Sea Snake” Velaryon of Driftmark, was ultimately spared from Stark’s judgement due to his powerful allies. But then, he had never been Master of Whisperers. As Martin writes, “Larys Strong had always been a man who went his own way, kept his own counsel, and changed allegiances as other men changed cloaks. Once condemned, he stood friendless; not a voice was raised in his defense.” Stark lopped off his head with the greatsword Ice the next day.

So it was with Varys (Conleth Hill), who apparently shared more similarities with Lord Larys than just their rhyming names. The eunuch served several kings as Master of Whisperers, always promising that his ultimate allegiance was to the realm and its people. When he felt that the realm’s interests were at odds with Daenerys’, she condemned him — and once more, not a voice was raised in his defense. Larys died by Ice, and Varys died by fire. So it goes.

Helen Sloan/HBO

A broken king for a broken realm

The wars that followed the death of King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) in Game of Thrones ended up having a very similar outcome to the Dance of the Dragons in Fire & Blood. The final stage of the conflict, which pit exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen and her allies against the machinations of Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), even resembles the way the Dance began as a feud between Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen’s “black” faction and Queen Alicent Hightower’s “greens.” Both wars took a heavy toll on Westeros’ population and left the realm with few living claimants to the throne, and in both cases the lingering trauma was reflected in the installation of a “broken king.”

That’s right: Although “Bran the Broken” might seem like a strange sobriquet for a king, he’s not the first Westeros monarch to bear such a moniker. Aegon III, Rhaenyra’s son, was given the crown after both his mother and her male rivals died in the Dance. Since he was only 10 years old at the time of his ascension, Aegon’s authority was initially delegated to a council of regents. The initial lineup of regents (including the rule of the Vale, as well as representatives of high-ranking houses from the North, the Stormlands, and more) very much resembles the council that convened at the Dragonpit in the season finale to select Bran as their king.  

And who was the first man chosen as Aegon III’s Hand of the King? Why, a Lannister, of course. Just as Bran named Tyrion Lannister his Hand of the King so that the Imp might redeem himself for all the trouble he caused, so too did Ser Tyland Lannister serve as Aegon’s Hand to make up for his role in bringing about the Dance. Originally a member of Queen Alicent’s “green council,” Tyland had used his position as Master of Coin to split the royal treasury among allies in Oldtown, Casterly Rock, and Braavos. This left the crown in dire financial straits when Rhaenyra managed to take the throne, and her men brutally tortured Tyland for information about the missing money. As Martin writes, “He might have been expected to have emerged from his torments a bitter man intent upon revenge, but this proved far from true. Instead the Hand claimed a curious failure of memory, insisting that he could not recall who had een black and who green, whilst demonstrating a dogged loyalty to the son of the very queen who had sent him to the torturers.”

After a few more men come and go as Hand, Fire & Blood ends with Aegon III finally coming of age and dismissing his regents. The book’s last line very much resembles Tyrion’s proclamation of King Bran the Broken, though perhaps less triumphant: “And thus did the rule of the regents come whimpering to an end, as the broken reign of the Broken King began.”

Helen Sloan/HBO

Go west, young woman

No one knows what lies west of Westeros, but Arya Stark isn’t the first woman to ask. Over the course of Fire & Blood, a Targaryen princess named Rhaena becomes enamored of Elissa Farman, the daughter of Lord Farman of Fair Isle. But the same things that made Elissa attractive to the princess (her fearlessness, her ambition) made it impossible for her to stay in one place. Eventually she took the name “Alys Westhill” and embarked on a journey west aboard a magnificent ship she named the Sun Chaser. As Martin writes, “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.”

No doubt Arya is dreaming of similar things in the season finale as she leaves Westeros behind. To the degree that Westeros resembles medieval Europe, perhaps these women aren’t wrong to guess that an analogue to the American continent must also lie somewhere beyond the horizon. If it does, we’re never told for sure whether Elissa/Alys made it or not. Martin only gives us this tantalizing tease from Corlys Velaryon’s latter-day voyages on his ship the Sea Snake: “On his second voyage, Ser Corlys sailed even farther east, and became the first Westerosi ever to reach Asshai-by-the-Shadow, the bleak black city of the shadowbinders at the edge of the world. There he lost his love and half his crew, if the tales be true…and there as well, in Asshai’s harbor, he glimpsed an old and much weathered ship that he would swear forevermore could only have been the Sun Chaser.”

That’s not even the only important part Alys Westhill played in the history of Westeros. In order to finance her voyage, she stole three dragon eggs from the Targaryens and sold them in the Free Cities…eggs that would eventually, many years later, make their way to a different Targaryen princess. 

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