George R. R. Martin’s contribution to the Dangerous Women anthology purports to be an official history of one of the darkest and bloodiest chapters in the annals of the Seven Kingdoms, detailing the events of the infamous civil war known as The Dance of the Dragons. Given the relative darkness and bloodiness of most of the historical snippets strewn like grisly breadcrumbs throughout the Song of Ice and Fire novels, fans of the series should know enough to brace themselves for a wild ride…and Martin does not fail to deliver.
Set almost 170 years before the events of A Game of Thrones (80 years before the Dunk and Egg stories), the tale begins with the death of the king, Viserys I Targaryen. Viserys had long declared that his eldest daughter, Rhaenyra Targaryen, the only surviving child of his first marriage, would succeed him as heir to the Iron Throne. His second marriage had also produced children, however, including several adult sons, and upon his passing the newly widowed Queen claims the throne for her eldest son, Aegon. The stage is set for an epic war of succession between the two branches of House Targaryen, a conflict waged on land, sea, and in the air, as the competing royals turn their dragons against one another, bringing both dragons and the Targaryens themselves to the brink of extinction.
A note about spoilers: if you’ve been paying close attention to the novels, chances are you already know the outcome of the war, but I won’t reveal those kinds of story-specific details in this review—those who want a refresher on Targaryen history should check out this incredibly helpful timeline/family tree. Because the novella is set in the past, there are no spoilers for the series in the story itself, but you may want to stop reading before the comments if you’d like to avoid any speculation on how this story might relate to the plot of the books through A Dance With Dragons.
The first thing you might notice about this story is that it’s a bit of a departure from the novels and the Dunk and Egg stories in terms of voice. The full title actually reads “The Princess and The Queen, Or, The Blacks and The Greens: Being a History of the Causes, Origins, Battles, and Betrayals of the Most Tragic Bloodletting Known As the Dance of the Dragons, as set down by Archmaester Gyldayn of the Citadel of Oldtown ((here transcribed by George R. R. Martin)).” Martin seems to be having quite a good time inhabiting the stodgy, fussy voice of the Archmaester, who disdains the flowery and dramatic embroidering of poets, singers, and gossipmongers throughout the telling, yet somehow can’t seem to resist mentioning the kind of innuendos, rumors, and flourishes he claims to hold in such contempt, as a Serious Historian.
Martin had originally reported that the story appearing in this anthology would be the fourth installment of the Dunk and Egg series, with the rather intriguing working title of “The She-Wolves of Winterfell.” As much as I look forward to catching up with the further misadventures of Ser Duncan as soon as possible, I enjoyed “The Princess and the Queen” precisely because it presents a new facet into the world of Westeros and its history, and it’s an interesting change of pace from both the various POV characters who feature in the novels and the Dunk and Egg tales. In the books, we’ve gotten to know Daenerys as she’s grown from a frightened, abused, and isolated child to a warrior queen fighting to regain her throne. She believes herself to be the last Targaryen, and spending her life in exile has set her apart from both dynastic tradition and the family she never knew (except for her crazy brother—the less said about that guy, the better). We may not always agree with Dany’s decisions (or her taste in men), but we understand her and can sympathize with her.
In the Dunk and Egg stories, the earlier Targaryen royals are also humanized quite a bit through both the character of Egg and the eyes of Ser Duncan, the baseborn, brave, and often bewildered hedge knight who becomes entangled in the family’s affairs. Sure, they still practice incest and play with dragon eggs, and a spoiled royal sadist or a creepy sorcerer cousin might pop up once in a while at family reunions, but some of them are pretty okay, you know?
On the other hand, “The Princess and The Queen,” written as a history, is not particularly interested in humanizing Daenerys’s ancestors. Instead, it depicts the Targaryens as they were seen by the people they had conquered—remote, even magical figures, “rightly regarded as being closer to gods than the common run of men.” These characters are writ large: dragon-blooded titans plotting and clashing on a grand scale as the narrative swoops gleefully from high drama and intrigue to the basest folly and butchery. Both sides suffer horrific losses and stunning reversals of fortune, and time and time again we’re allowed to follow individual characters just long enough to get attached before some violent calamity befalls them. It should probably be noted that if you have problems with Very Bad Things happening to men, women, children, and dragons, lining up some potent unicorn chasers in advance might not be a bad idea. Be prepared for a body count that makes the end of Hamlet look like Care Bears on Ice.
In spite of the historical remove, fans of the series will recognize plenty of familiar names, themes, and situational parallels with the books. The Lannisters are rich and powerful, the Starks are grim and honorable, the Baratheons are proud and make trouble, the Greyjoys are belligerent and fickle, and some of the alliances made (or undone) during the Dance reflect the lines drawn during Robert’s Rebellion and the War of the Five Kings. There are also some interesting mother/son relationships, particularly in the case of Rhaenyra and her sons. Here’s a fun bit of a trivia for you that shouldn’t come as either a spoiler or a surprise: even back in olden times, the headstrong sons of Westeros staunchly refuse to listen to their mothers (much to their detriment).
Beyond all these little bits of Westerosi history repeating, we also get our first real glimpse of dragon-centric warfare, along with the problem of finding able riders. Since dragons will only accept and bond with riders of Targaryen blood, the story chronicles the search for bastard-born “dragonseeds” to join the fray (with mixed results)—a subplot which clearly holds some potential relevance for Daenerys and her trio of dragons as events continue to unfold in the novels…
The name of the anthology is, of course, Dangerous Women, and this novella is very intentionally framed as a conflict between the two powerful female entities mentioned in its title: Rhaenyra and the Dowager Queen Alicent. The Queen sets events in motion by refusing to recognize Rhaenyra’s succession and conspiring to put her own son Aegon on the throne (in spite of the fact that he initially has no interest in being king), but after that, she recedes into the background. Rhaenyra takes a more active role—the story paints her as far more of a warrior than previous references have allowed. But while the Dance of the Dragons unfolds on the battlefield, it is strongly suggested that the true origins of the war began at a ball held long before the king’s death. Rhaenyra wore black, the Queen wore green, and as their rivalry grew their opposing factions divided themselves up accordingly (hence the second half of the title).
I’m not giving anything away by saying that Martin seems to be constantly undermining the idea that an attempt at an objective, factual history can ever really capture the truth at the heart of a story—implying that the truth lies somewhere in the messy personal motivations, relationships, and grudges that can only be understood by getting more intimately acquainted with the players than a formal history will allow. We know what happened, but we may not ever truly know why; as satisfying as the story is, since we’re not told what transpired at the ball, the entire tale retains a note of mystery (which feels right—if House Martin ever needs a motto, it should be “There’s Always More To The Story…”).
This shadowy central relationship aside, we’re also introduced to several other imposing female characters who hold their own throughout the narrative: Princess Rhaenys Targaryen (known as “The Queen Who Never Was”), Baela Targaryen, the teenaged dragonrider called Nettles, and Alys Rivers, a seer. All are secondary characters, but they make quite an impression even in the midst of all the macho posturing, chest-thumping, limb-hacking, and throne-stealing.
Finally, it’s interesting to note that the entire conflict revolves around the question of male primogeniture—a custom that was not necessarily the rule with the Targaryens as it had been with other rulers of Westeros. Up to this point in history, the Targaryens played by their own set of rules as conquerors: they continued the Valyrian practices of incest and polygamy, for example, frowned upon by the other great houses of the Seven Kingdoms. They saw themselves as exceptional—the blood of dragons—and perhaps that’s why King Viserys named his daughter as his heir, rather than his firstborn son, breaking with the accepted customs. The old laws, the law of the Andals, demanded a king, however, and while the issue is complex and riddled with competing political claims and personal self-interest, in many ways The Dance of the Dragons boils down to whether or not a woman can truly rule Westeros. As we await the next installment of the Song of Ice and Fire, that’s a question that remains exactly as potent—and as dangerous—as the Mother of Dragons herself.
Bridget McGovern is the managing editor of Tor.com. She’s the kind of reader who gets really excited about mapping out the convoluted family trees of fictional characters, even when everyone is named “Aegon.” Just in case that wasn’t totally obvious.