Book Review: Fire and Blood by George RR Martin

“But it worked out all right for you, didn’t it? It always does. If you were dice, you’d always roll sixes. Gods help the little people who are around when a big destiny is alive in the world, bending every poor bugger around itself… “

– Terry Pratchett (by way of Samuel Vimes)

A Song of Ice and Fire, and its hit television adaptation, A Game of Thrones has always been the must subtle satire in modern fantasy. I should clarify my meaning. Unlike a parody of a subject, a satire doesn’t need to be “funny,” instead it only needs to deconstruct and have a point in doing so. To me, A Song of Ice and Fire has always been about how even in a world of magic and dragons, human drama is always more engaging and interesting than our fantasies. So it’s fascinating to me that in the last few years, Martin and his publishers have put out a pair of books entirely dedicated to the most fantastical aspects of the Westeros setting. The first was A World of Ice and Fire, which was apparently a beautiful harcover volume full of art and intricate world-building details. In amidst the various facts and art spreads, A World of Ice and Fire was meant to include a history of House Targaryen, the former rulers of the Seven Kingdoms, in which the books take place. Apparently, that initial book was already so dense that the familial history was excised and turned into its own chronicle, Fire and Blood, which was released this November.

Fire and Blood is a strange volume. In intent (especially when paired with its predecessor) the best comparison I can make is to Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Both books serve as histories to provide greater context for the central thread of stories in their respective canons. But where The Silmarillion was mythic, Fire and Blood is historical and pragmatic. It’s actually a book in-universe, that is to say the title page lists the authors as Archmaester Gyldayn (Maesters being learned men and scribes in the setting) and that it was only “transcribed,” by Martin. In this respect, while the book attempts to be The Silmarillion it also bears more then a passing resemblance to the popular histories of the 21st century. I was reminded of authors like Ian W Toll and Doris Kearns Goodwin while reading the book because much like those popular historians, Martin’s prose is often far more fun to read than a “history,” has any right to be. Within the text, the author cites multiple competing sources and often discredits them or concedes to their points with a wry wit. Whoever Gyldayn is, we actually get a pretty strong sense of his character. The same is true for his subjects, House Targaryen, late of Old Valyeria and soon to be kings and queens of Westeros.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never “gotten,” the Targaryens in the largest context of Game of Thrones. Martin has always seemed to be a little too enamored of his silver-haired creations. They never seemed to fit neatly into the greater story that Martin was telling, hence why the only living Targaryen (that we know of for like 90% of the series) isn’t directly part of the action. For just one example, their defining flaw of pride as portrayed by recurring incest never felt like it was properly dealt with. But Fire and Blood finally made it click with me. The Targaryens are the only real fantastical characters in this fantasy setting. I don’t mean for this to be a “fan theory,” but hear me out. The Targaryens are frequently described as being impossibly beautiful, violet-eyed and silver-haired. They’re from a lost, dead kingdom in the East. And of course, they have dragons, which aren’t naturally occurring in Westeros. All of this combines to say that essentially, the Targaryens exert more Agency on the world than anyone else. In the books it’s said that when a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin with greatness on one side and madness on the other. Throughout Fire and Blood we see the Targaryens as heroes, villains, conquerors and every other sort of protagonist in a dozen different stories. The Targaryens star in political dramas, accounts of war, comedies, tragedies and even a handful of scandalous romances. One even becomes the tragic hero in a Lovecraftian tale of eldritch horror, albeit briefly. What’s more, they’re often fighting against family members in these stories.

Within the context of the stories, it’s taken as writ that the Targaryens are more akin to gods than they are to mortal men. This is even used as a political ploy by one of the kings, Jaehaerys I in order to secure his own incestuous marriage. When a member of the Targaryen family dies of a pox that ravages the kingdom, it’s said to shake the royal family. Targaryens aren’t even supposed to get sick like mortal men. Sufficed to say, Targaryens are different and that’s not always great. The bottom line is that when the heroes, villains and other grand destinies of the fantasy genre exist in a world close to our own, as the Targaryens do in Westeros, the rest of the world suffers for it. The Targaryens warp the world around them. It’s not quite the same satire and themes as in the main line series but it does enhance them. In many ways, the core cast of A Song of Ice and Fire are still chasing the dream of the Targaryens and this book goes a great deal towards understanding why. There’s also a dash of Nietzsche in there as Martin seems to make the history of Westeros more than a little cyclical. I’d even argue that Fire and Blood does a better job of justifying the cringe-worthy incest angle of the books by showing the damage and political fallout of that Targaryen pride.

That’s not to say Fire and Blood is without its flaws. For one, it does simply end after about 700 pages of good history. I understand that this is supposed to be the first of a two part series but Martin still picks a very unsatisfying note to end on. That said, fans of Martin are used to waiting by this point so I guess there’s nothing that can be done about it. More substantially, is the risk this book poses. Fire and Blood is currently very near the top of the New York Times Bestsellers’ List and I’m honestly unsure of how the bulk of fans will receive it. I’m the type of dyed-in-the-wool fantasy nerd that will get a kick out of a fictional history like this but I can understand if a lot of people are frustrated that this isn’t a traditional narrative. A lot of people are going to be disappointed in the seemingly dry prose and endless references and digressions. What’s more, even hardcore fans of the genre are going to have a hard time keeping up with names this time. I think it’s safe to say that George RR Martin’s star has waned in the past few years. Even since 2011 when the first season of the show debuted and he released A Dance With Dragons, the wait for the next installment in his series has dragged on. I can see Fire and Blood not making that wait any easier for a certain stripe of fan. I’m going to be especially interested in seeing how the most devout fans of A Song of Ice and Fire react. Such fans are usually the most anxious to read what happens next, but I suspect a large contingent are going to get a kick out of even more backstory.

The Silmarillion has sold less than 1 million copies worldwide. For a really long time, even if you were a die-hard fan of Lord of the Rings, it was somewhat likely that you hadn’t read Tolkien’s passion project. But The Silmarillion was first published before the advent of the Internet and the age of the hardcore, dedicated fan base. In many ways, Fire and Blood should be a book of niche appeal, but in this day and age, every niche has mass appeal. And while I certainly got a kick out of this book for its fun prose, surprisingly excellent pacing and for the thoughts it made me think, I think this one is going to be a risky one. I’d recommend it if you have the time and inclination, but don’t expect the next installment in the great fantasy series of our age.

Fire and Blood is now available from Bantam Books and HarperCollins Publishing.

Thanks for reading.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s