Welcome back to A Read of Ice and Fire! Please join me as I read and react, for the very first time, to George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.
Today’s entry is Part 1 of “The Princess and the Queen, Or, The Blacks and the Greens: Being A History of the Causes, Origins, Battles, and Betrayals of that Most Tragic Bloodletting Known as the Dance of the Dragons, as set down by Archmaester Gyldayn of the Citadel of Oldtown”, (deep breath) which originally appeared in the anthology Dangerous Women, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.
Previous entries of the Read are located in the Index. The only spoilers in the post itself will be for the actual section covered and for the material covered previous to this post. As for the comments, please note that the Powers That Be have provided you a lovely spoiler thread here on Tor.com. Any spoileriffic discussion should go there, where I won’t see it. Non-spoiler comments go below, in the comments to the post itself.
And now, the post!
[Note: This part covers pages 703-730 in the Kindle ebook edition of the anthology, to the paragraph ending with “The date he chose for the attack was the first full moon of the new year.” Sorry if that pagination doesn’t match your particular edition. Also, please see the end of the post for a scheduling note.]
The Princess and the Queen: Part 1
The rather misnamed “Dance of the Dragons” is the account of the internecine struggle for the Iron Throne after the death of King Viserys I between his named heir, Princess Rhaenyra, his daughter from his first marriage, and Aegon, his eldest son by his second wife, the ultimate result of which was the diminishment of both the Targaryen dynasty and the dragons they commanded. The war was unusual in that it was largely fought not on land, but on the sea and in the air, and also via stealth and poison.
When King Viserys died, Queen Alicent and her “greens” (as opposed to Princess Rhaenyra’s “blacks,” so referred to by the color dress each woman had worn to a tourney years before) determined not to announce the king’s death until the question of succession had been settled. Lord Beesbury, the Master of Coin, reminded the small council that Princess Rhaenyra was Viserys’s named heir and the eldest of his living children, but Lord Jasper “Ironrod” Wylde, Master of Laws, countered that the rights of a trueborn son must always come before that of a mere daughter. Ser Otto Hightower, the King’s Hand, adds that if Rhaenyra comes to the throne it will truly be her husband Prince Daemon who will rule, and he and Queen Alicent both aver that Daemon’s first move will be to execute Ser Otto, Queen Alicent, and all her children. Ser Criston Cole, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, thinks that Rhaenyra and Daemon will turn King’s Landing into “a brothel,” and that her heir, Jacaerys Velaryon, is bastard-born and cannot be allowed to rule. Grand Maester Orwyle points out that crowning Aegon will lead to war. Lord Beesbury declares that he will not forget his oath of loyalty to the princess, and makes to leave, but Ser Criston Cole pushes him down and slits his throat, making him the first casualty of the war.
Rhaenyra being in confinement on Dragonstone, about to give birth, gives Alicent’s greens the advantage, and they move to secure their allies and delay the announcement of the king’s death as long as possible. Prince Aegon at first resists the idea of usurping his half-sister’s birthright, but Ser Criston convinces him that Rhaenyra will kill him and all his siblings if she comes to power, and so he agrees to be crowned. The council assesses their allies and those who are more likely to support Rhaenyra, and send Prince Aemond on his dragon Vhagar, the largest of the dragons in Westeros, to secure the allegiance of Lord Borros Baratheon at Storm’s End by wedding one of his daughters. Soon the dead king becomes too pungent to hide any more, and the announcement is made and Prince Aegon is crowned King Aegon II, and his wife and sister Helaena is crowned queen. Ser Steffon Darklyn of the Kingsguard is not present, having defected the night before, taking with him King Viserys’s crown (Aegon chose to use another one).
Meanwhile, Rhaenyra is in labor, screaming curses against her half-brothers and Queen Alicent and her own unborn child. The babe is stillborn and deformed, and Rhaenyra declares that it was murdered by the news of her family’s treachery. She calls a council of her own, but her advantages at first seem slight against Aegon’s. However, she has the support of Corlys Velaryon of Driftmark, called the Sea Snake, which means she has the advantage of Aegon at sea, and Corlys’s wife Princess Rhaenys points out that they have more dragons, especially if they can find riders for the six riderless dragons at Dragonstone. They discuss their allies, and Rhaenys is sure the Baratheons will stand with them. Daemon hopes to secure Lady Arryn of the Vale, and perhaps even the Iron Islands, though he knows Aegon will be pursuing them as well. They decide to send Daemon on his dragon Caraxes to seize Harrenhal and from there secure the allegiance of the river lords, while Velaryon’s fleet bottles up King’s Landing. Rhaenyra’s eldest son Jacaerys will fly to the Eyrie, then White Harbor, then Winterfell, while his younger brother Lucerys is sent to Storm’s End, where they are sure he will have a warm welcome.
When King Aegon hears of his half-sister’s coronation, he wants her head, and is only reluctantly convinced to send Orwyle with peace terms instead. The terms are generous, in fact, but Queen Rhaenyra will not accept them, and tells Orwyle to tell Aegon that she will have the throne or his head. Aegon is enraged by this, and the war of words is on. Daemon defeats Harrenhal easily, and Prince Jacaerys secures the support of the Vale, White Harbor, and Winterfell with no trouble, but Prince Lucerys comes to Storm’s End to find that Prince Aemond has beaten him there. Lucerys delivers his message to Lord Borros calmly despite Aemond’s taunts. Borros asks which of his daughters Lucerys will marry to secure the alliance, but Lucerys regretfully replies that he is already pledged to his cousin Rhaena, whereupon Borros kicks him out rudely. But Aemond is not satisfied with this, and follows Lucerys into the sky on his dragon, and kills them both, and thus brings to an end any possibility of avoiding wholesale bloodshed.
Prince Daemon, in retaliation, contacts certain low criminals of his acquaintance from his misspent youth in King’s Landing, today only known as Blood and Cheese, who sneak into the Red Keep and waylay the Dowager Queen Alicent and the present Queen Helaena both, with Helaena’s children: Jaehaerys and Jaehaera were six, Maelor two. They tell Helaena that a son is required in payment for Lucerys’s death, and force her to choose between Jaehaerys and Maelor. Weeping, Helaena picks Maelor, and the men grin and behead her older son Jaehaerys instead. Helaena’s mind does not survive this horror, and Alicent takes in Maelor to raise him instead.
Aegon II begins to realize his position is not nearly as secure as he had supposed, and in his impatience ousts Ser Otto Hightower as Hand and replaces him with Ser Criston Cole, who immediately moves against the more vulnerable lords supporting Rhaenyra, including Lord Staunton at Rook’s Rest, who calls for aid. It is answered by Princess Rhaenys and her formidable dragon Meleys, but it turns out to be a trap: the king and his dragon Sunfyre and his brother Aemond with Vhagar engage Rhaenys. She and Meleys do not survive the battle, but both Aegon and his dragon are grievously wounded, and Ser Cole tells Aemond that he must rule in his brother’s stead. Meanwhile Rhaenyra and her allies are thrown into disarray and infighting by the loss of Lucerys and Rhaenys, but Prince Jacaerys makes peace among them. He sends his younger brother Joffrey to Gulltown to keep him safe, and his half-brothers, Aegon the Younger and Viserys, to be fostered in Pentos.
Jacaerys is hesitant to confront Aemond and his dragon Vhagar head on, and decides to find riders for the six unmounted dragons in Dragonstone by searching among the many byblows of the Targaryen lords among the populace in the area, called “dragonseed” or just “seeds”. Many of them die or suffer grievous wounds in their attempts to master the riderless dragons, but eventually all but the two wildest dragons find riders, including a sixteen-year-old girl named Netty. Jacaerys determines that his attack will commence on the first full moon of the new year.
Well, it’s definitely an ASOIAF story. Westeros: a continental experiment in proving Murphy’s Law, ad infinitum.
The format’s a lot different, though. I rather feel like (though obviously I could be wrong) that this was pulled more or less wholesale from Martin’s no doubt copious background notes for the main story. Which is sort of a fun thing to contemplate, for those (like me) who like glimpses of the process—the “behind the scenes” aspects of writing, so to speak.
That said, the historical style of the prose, along with the fact that we are being introduced to an entirely new cast of characters, made it a little difficult to get into at first. However, the framework of familiar surnames, and the sort of broad character traits we have been taught to associate with them (Martin isn’t quite guilty of making his noble Houses Planets of Hats, but he definitely has tendencies in that direction), eased the way. I would really not recommend that anyone should read this as their first introduction to ASOIAF, though. I’m definitely glad that I read all of what’s currently available of the series proper and the Dunk & Egg stories first, otherwise this would have been hopelessly confusing, and probably off-putting.
But I did read all that other stuff first, fortunately, if at a glacial weekly blog pace, so I have at least some notion of how all these people fit together and what their deal is. I’m not entirely clear on how long before the events of the series proper this is, so…
Well. Actually, it occurs to me that I can just go and Google that now, can’t I? Golly. So, hang on.
Ah, okay, so this is about 170 years before the events of the series proper, and about 80 years before the Dunk & Egg stories. Cool.
It was interesting to read about the Targaryens at what I presume was the height of their power (or the tail end of the height of their power, anyway), all just casually riding dragons around like it ain’t no thang. Also done like it ain’t no thang: siblings (and uncles and nieces) getting married. Yeek. So much inbreeding, so little time.
When the babe at last came forth, she proved indeed a monster: a stillborn girl, twisted and malformed, with a hole in her chest where her heart should have been and a stubby, scaled tail.
Q.E.D. Although the actual dragon blood may have played a part there as well, I suppose. (Though I’m still unclear on whether that’s supposed to be literally true, though I think it is. And if so, I’m resolutely failing to consider how that, er, outcrossing happened in the first place, because woowwwwwwwww.)
Anyway, the Targaryens are as delightfully unstable as always. It might make me a terrible person, but I found the mental image of Rhaenyra (and wow is that an annoying name to type over and over) screaming insults at absolutely everyone while in labor, including at her own unborn child, to be kind of awesomely horrible, if that makes any sense.
“Awesomely horrible” sums up the Targaryens in general, I think. Though sometimes the emphasis is less on the “awesome” and more on the “horrible,” of course. Like the little digression in this section about their indulgence in “the ancient law of the first night”:
Though this custom was greatly resented elsewhere in the Seven Kingdoms, by men of a jealous temperament who did not grasp the honor being conferred upon them, such feelings were muted upon Dragonstone, where Targaryens were rightly regarded as being closer to gods than the common run of men.
Uh-huh. Well, I’m sure that’s what they told themselves.
Or, hey, it might even be true—people have believed stupider things, and honored even more reprehensible traditions than that of droit du seigneur. Although I must note that most modern historians think that droit du seigneur is a myth made up by earlier historians, who were either (a) trying to demonize the Middle Ages or (b) indulging in a male power fantasy, and that it was never actually a thing in real life.
But naturally a horrible thing that is only an urban legend in the real world would turn out to be completely true in Westeros, because ASOIAF. Lord.
It’s also a neat sort of reminder that Martin is himself playing the role of an obviously biased historian, here, and that therefore we must treat the events told in the story as coming from the equivalent of an unreliable narrator. Heh.
I also have to note that as often as the Targaryens do horrible things to other people, it apparently doesn’t hold a candle to the horrific things they’ll do to each other. That Blood and Cheese business… wow. I don’t even have words.
Anyway, this first part is a pretty deft demonstration of (a) why governments should not consist almost entirely of people related to each other, especially inbred people who are really really related to each other, and (b) how easy it is for things to go from zero to FUBAR in the blink of an eye. Forcing an entire nation to deal with the fact that you and your stepmother can’t stand each other, what a concept.
And just in time for Thanksgiving! FAMILY TOGETHERNESS FTW.
And speaking of: I, like most Americans, will be enduring my own iteration of eating too much food in the company of people related to me next Thursday. Thus, there will be no ROIAF post on November 26th . I will return with Part II of TPATQ (which I pronounce in my head as “Tee-PAT-quah”, because I am odd) the following Thursday, December 3rd.
Ergo, have a lovely holiday week for those so geographically and culturally inclined, and I’ll see alla y’all in two weeks! Whoo!