What if George R. R. Martin wrote a new Song of Ice and Fire book… and no one wanted it?
Fire & Blood, the first doorstopper in a planned two-volume history of the entire Targaryen royal line of Westeros, arrives during a strained point in the relationship between author George R. R. Martin and readers of A Song of Ice and Fire. In the last 7 years, a steady stream of stop-gap book releases—The Lands of Ice and Fire, The World of Ice and Fire, The Wit and Wisdom of Tyrion Lannister, and so forth—have continually teased the possibility of a new ASOIAF book from the author while never actually delivering such, baking in the expectation that The Winds of Winter, touted as the next installment in the Song of Ice and Fire series, will never actually arrive.
The widespread popularity of HBO’s Game of Thrones has given that expectation a monstrous momentum far beyond the series’ core readership. Mention George R. R. Martin or The Winds of Winter in any conversation, regardless of context, and the immediate response is typically some version of “Finish the book!” Due to the rapidity of pop culture and the repetitive nature of the internet, the “finish the book!” response is now practically expected and, as a result, tedious.
That tedium pervades any discussion of George R. R. Martin and his works right now, regardless of how one feels about them, and into that context steps Fire & Blood. As a result, few fans of the Song of Ice and Fire series seem to even want the book: The pre-release hype thread for it on the ASOIAF subreddit is buried under speculation about The Winds of Winter and the most popular question on Goodreads about the title is, literally… “Does anyone actually want this?”
And, you know, they might not. Which would be a shame, because I haven’t enjoyed a Song of Ice and Fire book this much since A Storm of Swords.
Even without the present-day context, Fire & Blood is an ambitious angle for George R. R. Martin to tackle. It’s technically a prequel to the main series, and the very idea of a prequel risks frustrating readers (or viewers) of an epic fantasy that has previously only provided a forward-traveling linear experience, like A Song of Ice and Fire. A prequel can feel cohesive if a saga is non-linear, like L.E. Modesitt, Jr’s Recluce, or if the linear saga itself has some big questions about the overall story or world that could only be properly conveyed by shifting the timeframe, like Star Wars. Although even then it can be a bit dodgy if the prequel focuses on stuff that just doesn’t seem all that important in comparison to long-standing questions that the fanbase naturally gravitate towards. (Was anyone…wondering…where to find the fantastic beasts?)
As if that weren’t a tall enough mountain for George R. R. Martin to scale, Fire & Blood is also written in a different style of prose than the primary Song of Ice and Fire novels; featuring a dry, staid, objective tone that even the book’s own promotional copy dubs in line with “the scope and grandeur of [Edward] Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
So… buckle the fuck up, readers…is what I assume is being communicated here.
For all of the above reasons, I was initially dubious about the worthiness of Fire & Blood. Tor.com has been even been hosting an excerpt of one of its chapters for over five years now. Called “The Princess and The Queen (Or, The Blacks and The Greens),” it doesn’t really capture the thrill of the Song of Ice and Fire novels:
There were two principal claimants to the Iron Throne upon the death of King Viserys I Targaryen: his daughter Rhaenyra, the only surviving child of his first marriage, and Aegon, his eldest son by his second wife. Amidst the chaos and carnage brought on by their rivalry, other would-be kings would stake claims as well, strutting about like mummers on a stage for a fortnight or a moon’s turn, only to fall as swiftly as they had arisen.
Even with the commentary, that is some stiff exposition, so I was understandably skeptical about an entire book’s worth of that. But I needn’t have worried. While that paragraph from “The Princess and The Queen” is in Fire & Blood largely unaltered, it’s not really indicative of the book as a whole. While the prose is exactly as shown above, the overall narrative of the book is wonderfully fluid. The details of the Targaryens’ history start simple and pure, building and building so that by the time you get to the above paragraph you’ve well internalized the expository details, allowing Martin’s funnier, looser-tongued characterizations to shine through.
Fire & Blood also benefits enormously from adhering to a strictly chronological telling of the Targaryen dynasty, which evokes the same propulsive storytelling we’re accustomed to from the main novels of A Song of Ice and Fire. (And which we lost a bit of, thanks to the mixed narratives of A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons; hence my enjoyment of Fire & Blood over those two volumes.) Each chapter transfers clearly to the next, king to king, era to era, and this clarity in itself creates an interesting dramatic tension, because we’re not at all accustomed to events in Westeros being that clear-cut. When the Targaryens themselves finally overwhelm the narrative, it comes almost as a relief. (Is it too late to change that chapter’s name to “Too Many Targaryens!”, George? Asking for a friend. For me. Asking for me. I’m your friend.) Such is the magic of Fire & Blood that, by that point in the story, dragons furiously and repeatedly fighting each other feels like the most politically realistic turn of events possible. (Bonus in that it’s a dragon fight that we may never get in the main sequence novels.)
Something that many readers may overlook in considering Fire & Blood, but which I am overjoyed that George R. R. Martin did not, is that telling a history of the Targaryens also means telling the history of the technological and sociocultural development of Westeros itself. There’s constant worldbuilding activity chronicled within Fire & Blood because, well, most of the Targaryen kings are literally building their world. They impose infrastructure, economic and trade policies, and institute sweeping law reforms. They dance delicately and indelicately with the high kings of Westeros, the church, Dorne, and other city-states of the world. One Targaryen king comes stunningly close to instituting a successful prototype of constitutional monarchy. Fire & Blood almost reads like a history of the United States of America, as the events and overall tone of the reigns of many of the initial Targaryens coincide with broad eras in the history of the U.S., from the Founding era, to the Era of Good Feelings, to Jacksonian democracy, to the Civil War, and so on.
There are also lots and lots of Easter eggs scattered throughout the text for readers who have really pored through the Song of Ice and Fire novels and their associated materials. Martin seemingly answers a lot of open questions about his world (including many I’ve asked outright here on Tor.com, such as how Targaryen dragons make the flight over the Narrow Sea), giving greater detail but leaving the question open just enough to encourage further speculation. These Easter eggs tend to be located within quick secondary tales about notable figures associated with a specific Targaryen family, but they come so often and so rapidly that you’re never sure what’s going to get revealed next. The surprises, some of which have massive implications, keep the text lively.
And there are mysteries, as well, even in stories like these where the ending is known. But we can delve into them later.
Fire & Blood was a great surprise to me. I found myself becoming deeply emotionally invested in the Targaryens, thrilling when they achieved great victories and lamenting when they succumbed to their more idiotic desires. (And they have a lot of idiotic desires.) This book feels like A Song of Ice and Fire. And you know how I know?
Because I want the next book right away.
Chris Lough is the Director of Tor.com.