Jul 30 2013 9:00am

Valyrian Roots: A Non-Spoiler Review of George R. R. Martin’s “The Princess and The Queen, Or, The Blacks and The Greens”

Dangerous Women 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.

Deana Whitney
1. Braid_Tug
Oh the speculation this story will raise!
We'll be on a Part 6 of the GRRM spoiler thread before long.

Thank you Bridget!
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
Braid_Tug@1:Is this a safe review and story for someone who is following the reread pace to look at?
3. WoetotheUsurper
Sounds great. Just curious, do you have a page or word count for it?
Deana Whitney
4. Braid_Tug
@2, Steven, Yes. The review is safe.
But might raise some questions you have not thought about yet while reading with Leigh.
Can't say what will happen in the comments however.
Chris Nelly
5. Aeryl
Steven, there are hints about stuff in later novels, but you have to have read them to get them.
Bridget McGovern
6. BMcGovern
@Braid_Tug: Agreed! (and it was my pleasure :)

@Steven: I think Braid_Tug and Aeryl have it right (but I'd steer clear of the comments to be on the safe side!)

@WoetotheUsurper: I don't have a word count handy, but the PDF was 85 pages--it's the longest piece in Dangerous Women.
7. Martina Frammartino
The longest piece in Dangerous Women? As usually George R.R. Martin cant't be short.
I can't wait!
8. Gardner Dozois
"The Princess and the Queen" is 33,718 words long.
Maiane Bakroeva
9. Isilel
Great, it is nice to get a chunk of Westeros again! It will be one long, hard wait until December, though...
Scott Silver
10. hihosilver28
HO-LEE-CRAP! That definitely lends some SERIOUS credence to some fan theories. One of which I was very skeptical, and now sounds not just possible, but plausible.
Chris Nelly
11. Aeryl
@9, December? WOW have a release date, and I miss it?

@10, I KNOW!!!
Scott Silver
12. hihosilver28
December is the release date for Dangerous Women.
Chris Nelly
13. Aeryl
Oh, I thought this was out already.
14. A-Gone
@10, @11
Could you give a hint at what theories you're reffering too?
15. Bookworm1398
The release is in December? Wouldn't it have made more sense to have this review series in oct or nov?
16. Zuzu's Petals
A Night Watch Lord Commander, some Dornish (although one Martell should have let sleeping dragons lie), a crew member of a boat in the Sorrows MAY, inter alia, have dragon blood traces. Saddle up!
Chris Nelly
17. Aeryl
@14, Why Tyrion thinks he can be a dragon rider, knowing that only Targs can ride them. SPOILERS IN WHITE BELOW, SCROLL TO READ

The theory is that somehow, Aegon, who once wanted to claim "king's rights" on Tywin's wife Joanna on their wedding, raped Joanna Lannister and impregnanted her with Tyrion.
Daniel Castellanos
18. TheEightChandrian
You know what's really the interesting part? It's written by a maester and in this war many dragons died. Now at FfC it was hinted that the maesters had something to do with the extinction of the dragon race.

"Kill him (Aemon)? Sam asked, shocked. "Why?"

"If I tell you, they may need to kill you too." Marwyn smiled a ghastly
smile, the juice of the sourleaf running red between his teeth. "Who do
you think killed all the dragons the last time around? Gallant
dragonslayers armed with swords?"

So did they somehow influenced this war to happen so the number of dragons diminished? I think we may find very subtle hints at the text in a cool way (Gyldayn trying to hide something). But of course this is all hypotetical based in a theory.
Chris Nelly
19. Aeryl
@18, There are a few mentions that the maesters may not be on the up and up in ADwD too, Lady Dustin is convinced that the former Maester of Winterfell helped to foment the rebellion that eventually evolved into Robert's Rebellion.
Eugenie Delaney
20. EmpressMaude
Want. Also the telling of the tale in teh voice of archmaester reminds of Stephen Brust when he writes as Paarfi of Roundwood.
21. Lilys
Great write up! Just one note however. Incest and polygamy were not Valyrian practices. They were exclusive to the Targaryens. Originally that family wished to keep their blood pure so they wed brother to sister. It's also interesting to note that before conquering Westeros, the married brother and sister ruled together and this was even continued when Aegon the Conquerer took the Seven Kingdoms. He allowed his sisters to rule in his stead. He is also the first to practice polygamy by marrying both of his sisters instead of just Visenya. We also don't know as of yet if any other Targaryen kings took multiple wives aside from him and Maegar the Cruel.

But anyway, what I find most interesting about this story is how it shows that even though the Targaryens conquered Westeros, they were the ones who had to assimilate in many ways to the dominant culture of the Seven Kingdoms. Like I noted previously, according to GRRM, the Targaryen brother and sister formally ruled together as equals (which could contribute to why Viserys I didn't see a problem with naming his daughter as heir instead of his oldest son). But this story seems like a step further into the misogynistic belief system of the Andals. It's also ironic that this step seems to be spearheaded by a woman in Alicent Hightower.
Bridget McGovern
22. BMcGovern
Lilys @21: Thanks! I'm actually getting the bit about incest as a Valyrian practice (not just limited to House Targaryen) from the Wiki of Ice and Fire (I think--I was fact checking on the go quite a bit :) The article on the Valyrian Freehold mentions that incest was a common practice before the Doom, but without a copy of A Clash of Kings at hand, I'm not able to check their reference.

But yes, you may be absolutely right, and I certainly agree with your reading: I took away the same sense of Targaryens as outsiders, which is intriguing in light of Daenerys's journey further and further away from Westeros in her quest for the Iron Throne, incorporating all sorts of "foreign" customs and ideas into her identity as a ruler. It's also interesting that she has yet to really wrangle with a woman of comparable status--she's generally surrounded by men as both advisors and adversaries; the only female adversary she's encountered so far was Mirri Maz Duur, and that relationship...did not go well for anyone. So it will be interesting to see what happens when (if?) Daenerys comes into contact with someone like Cersei or Melisandre, both of whom fill more of an Alicent-like role as the power behind a male ruler.
Maiane Bakroeva
23. Isilel
Lilys @21:

You are wrong.
"The dragon kings had wed brother to sister, but they were the blood of old Valyria where such practices had been common, and like their dragons the Targaryens answered to neither gods nor men."
A Clash of Kings, Chapter 33 (Catelyn)
It makes sense that women who have already bonded to one of the family's dragons couldn't be allowed to marry an outsider and deprive their birth family of a dragon.
24. Nessa
So it was the Queen who originally wanted her son as king? I always thought was Cristin Cole. Nice tidbit of info there. It looks like this story would be fun to read. I’m still not convinced that you absolutely need to be a Targaryen to ride a dragon, though. GRRM is writing from the POV of the Archmaester, but just because the AM believes something is true doesn’t make it true. As is already pointed out in the review, Gyldayn already seems to elevate the Targaryens to “god” status. His belief that only Targs can control dragons may be an extension of that. I think that a powerful warg like Bran Stark can easily control a dragon if he chooses.
@21: You’re half-right. Incest was indeed a Valyrian custom. Polygamy is Targaryen in origin, however, started by Aegon the Conqueror who took both his sisters as wives, when Valyrian custom dictated he only take Visenya (the elder sister).
25. droopymcjackass

The timing of that theory doesn't actually make much sense, considering Tyrion is the third-born child. Happening again at a later date, though...
Chris Nelly
26. Aeryl
@25, No, I am not stating it did, just that it's implied that was a thwarted desire of Aerys', which could have led to other actions later.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment