As the world waits expectantly for the eighth and final series of the fantasy epic Game of Thrones to appear on TV next April, its creator George RR Martin has finally released a new book. But rather than the oft-delayed sixth Thrones novel, The Winds of Winter – which will itself be preceded by the finale of the show – he has produced the first in a separate two-part saga. Fire and Blood deals with the rise of the Targaryen dynasty throughout Westeros, beginning with Aegon the Conqueror and ending with his descendant Aegon III. In between come a host of other kings and queens, usually conniving to assure their grip on the notorious iron throne, and near endless betrayals, hideous deaths and sex scenes (often incestuous, given the Targaryen penchant for brother marrying sister to “‘keep the line pure”).
Martin jokingly referred to this book and its forthcoming sequel as the “GRRMarillion”, a wry allusion to JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which itself was a posthumously published attempt to fill out the history of Middle Earth. To understand the disappointment with which Fire and Blood will inevitably be greeted by all but the most committed Martin aficionados, imagine Tolkien choosing to follow The Two Towers with an almost decade-long wait for a sequel, and releasing The Silmarillion in between.
However, Fire and Blood must be judged on its own merits – that is, as a carefully conceived and exhaustive (to say nothing of exhausting) examination of a fantastical historical world.
Told from the perspective of the historical chronicler Archmaester Gyldayn, which offers Martin the opportunity to play with an unreliable narrator, the saga is a rich and dark one, full of both the title’s promised elements. It is partly inspired by British medieval history; many of the main characters are analogous to real-life kings, with Aegon the Conqueror not a million miles away from near namesake William, and the heroic Daenerys owing much to Henry II. The narrative drive and bold characterisation of the other Game of Thrones books thus gives way to something more discursive. At its most tedious, the book lists names for paragraphs on end. There will be a core group of Martin’s readers for whom the volume answers countless much-debated questions and riddles, but the average fan is less likely to care. The prospect of a second, equally lengthy book offering more of the same might strike dread, rather than excitement, into more agnostic hearts.
Nonetheless, there is much to enjoy here. Martin’s usual sense of richly irreverent humour is present throughout, whether it’s the maimed Lord Orys Baratheon declaring: “The King’s Hand should have a hand… I will not have men speaking of the King’s Stump”, or some especially droll death scenes, such as one involving a woman who perishes while having congress with a horse, or the many characters disposed of by “gelding”, plague or torture. If this book took itself more seriously, it would become a chore to plough through; as it is, its author is clearly in on the joke when writing such lines as: “Lord Rogar performed his husbandly duties with vigour, cheered on by his drunken brothers”, or when he comes up with ludicrous character names, such as a dragon called Sheepstealer or a dwarf (and rival chronicler) named Mushroom.
Had Fire and Blood been half the length and covered the entire Targaryen saga, it would be hard not to commend it as an indispensable and enjoyable addition to the Game of Thrones universe. Instead, reading it sometimes has the feel of studying for an especially exacting exam, in preparation for questions such as: “Who belonged to Aegon II’s small council?” or: “Who was the first child of Queen Rhaenyra?” and so on. Still, as Martin-as-Gyldayn notes: “the game of thrones takes many a queer turn”. It’s hard not to thrill to the descriptions of dragons engaging in airborne combat, or the dilemma of whether defeated rulers should “bend the knee”, “take the black” and join the Night’s Watch, or simply meet an inventive and horrible end.
At the very least, Fire and Blood will reward loyal devotees holding their breath for The Winds of Winter.
• Fire and Blood by George RR Martin is published by Harper Voyage (£25). To order a copy for £22 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian