Ah George R. R. Martin, you sneaky old badger. Every time we think that you’re about to (finally!) release the next book in A Song of Ice and Fire series, you do something like Fire And Blood: A History Of The Targaryen Kings From Aegon The Conqueror To Aegon III – in a direct, literal, example, release a 700-page backstory of the Targaryen family that is only Part 1 of that History, which will necessitate the release of another doorstopper of similar magnitude. Probably also before Winds of Winter comes out. It’s a bold move George R. R. Martin, I’ll give you that, keeping us on our toes like that for 8 years now, and counting.
If none of that makes sense to you, although I hope it does, allow me to elucidate – A Song of Ice and Fire is a popular fantasy book series that had its last main entry release in 2011, the same year as its first television adaptation series, Game of Thrones, had its first season. Game of Thrones will have had 8 seasons that tell a complete story, and which has changed the landscape of big-budget television for a generation to come, and the next actual release in the books that started the whole thing has not yet been given a release date in all that time. A slipped writing schedule is forgivable, but when it seems like the author is doing so much additional work in that same universe rather than the core series, it starts to seem more annoying than anything.
I am here to review a specific book, and therefore this backstory may not be necessary, as I should just that book on its own merits. But it is worth mentioning for the sake of context – there is only so much goodwill left to be milked from long-time fans, and the well of that is possibly running dry. For, ultimately, a book such as this can only survive on the interest it offers to a very niche group of fans.
Firstly, you must be interested in huge, 700-page books. Its typeface is relatively large I will admit, but it still weighs a good amount and could be used to destroy a burglar who breaks into your home. Secondly, you must be an avid super-fan of the A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones universe, the kind that will care about an in-depth, exhaustive history of a fictional family living in a fictional universe. Thirdly, you must be willing to read some material for the second time, as portions of this book have been used before by George R. R. Martin in previous writings and short stories telling the history of this world.
If all those criteria are met, you may well have a very good time with this book, and I shall now expand upon its character and nature and bouquet, as one might do with wine. I myself am a huge History nerd, in both physical size and extensive reading of literature, and I also have been known to develop a near-obsessive level of interest in world-building for a particular fandom or universe, every now and again. As such, I feel I am quite qualified to speak on how this book measures up in those areas.
Let’s first talk about the structure of the writing. The main series books and their adaptation as Game of Thrones have made great success from telling its stories in a certain way: multiple characters carrying multiple threads of their own adventures that criss-cross in each other’s lives, and a distinct focus on down-to-the ground storytelling, where we are seeing something from one person’s point of view at a time, and we really get to know them and get invested in their stories. It’s the only way that the constant sudden deaths and violence make such an impact on us, because we care about the characters involved.
Fire and Blood is different: It is framed as a history book in-universe, written by a Maester of the Citadel and only transcribed by George R. R. Martin. This gives it a different style of writing: it is strictly chronological, written from a position of being an overview, and covers a much larger space of time, and far more people. You will need to be able to learn names very well and track them very well, especially when so many families only use about two or three names, or all use names that start with an “A’ or similar sound. It is possible to get used to this style of writing, and George R. R. Martin has made an admirable effort, but it will not always be for everyone. Personally, I think he should have stuck to it harder – he falls back on some stylistic mistakes that perhaps reflect his more usual way of writing, but which tonally are just wrong here. The biggest example is the liberal use of First Person speech, as it doesn’t quite fit to have so many direct quotations written that way, coming straight out of the mouths of people who supposedly said such things. It turns it back into a novel, and earlier we were busy trying to be a formal history book, so it basically breaks its own immersion at those points.
You do get sort of a feeling that he is indulging the unreliable narrator part of the framing structure – that this is a book written by a real person in this world, and therefore certain embellishments are created by the historian writing this all. The problem with that is that this is our only “primary source” for this information. We cannot refer to any other material to check for bias because it’s all fictional. We have to accept whatever is said on these pages, and therefore there is no reason to try and make a game of it with us.
I have one more small collection of nit-picks before I go and try and be more positive for once. Fandom is either blind love or ceaseless criticism, so please indulge me as I tend towards the latter end of the scale today. It has to do with ease of use and verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is basically the feeling you have that you can buy into something, that it bears all the small details that make it feel believable on a subconscious level. It’s also about which elements are most needed to achieve this, and which are superfluous and detracting. A couple small aspects could have been improved in this regard, seeing as this book is meant to be an informative history book – firstly, the content page is substandard for the structure of the book. The chapter titles lack years or dating of any kind to divide them, and feel like chapter headings from a novel rather than a history book. Several main chapter headings could have had sub-sections grouped below them. To be honest, it looks a bit like someone who couldn’t figure out how to use the Numbering Indents on Microsoft Word.
Next, at the end of the book is a couple of reference tools – allow me to be pedantic about those too, because I can. The list of Targaryen kings is useful, as it reminds you exactly which one was ruling, what their years of rule were, and any notable facts about them. The next page is slightly less useful. It is a family tree of the Targaryen clan, and the big problem with it is that it is made to look like it came straight from the original Maester’s medieval-level text. Its darkened and yellow, and the text is made to look like some kind of Ye Olde Englishe gothic cursive script. This is now going too far the other way – we would have bought in and believed in such a family tree just through its existing, but now it has been rendered difficult to read and use for the sake of trying to look authentic, in a way that isn’t necessary, seeing as every other page in the book except for one at the start is written in normal printed form. Seeing as half this family is married to their sister or brother, what was already a difficult thing to keep track of now challenges us through sheer legibility.
My final point on the structure is that an index would have been invaluable here at the end – there is not one, and it would have been useful not only for believability, but for the use of the fan who wants to refer to specific pages. As mentioned, the content page is inadequate, and now if you want to find or read back on specific topics, you are required to vaguely remember which chapter it was in and flick through and scan the pages on your own. It’s a missed opportunity to bring this all together.
Moving on to content now, which is probably what most of you care about anyway. In truth, at its worst, it’s just more of the same kinds of stories we are familiar with from the show and book series. You will see the same families with people who share the same names as their descendants 300 years later doing things to each other that remind us of other events. Human nature has only so many desires to draw upon, power, greed and so on, that you will start to notice patterns emerge here as well.
At its best, the writing gets us very excited and interested in events that were only hinted at in the show – the notable one in this instalment being the “Dance of the Dragons,” a civil war that drew the Targaryens to their lowest point and led to the eventual death of their last dragons during the time of Aegon III, which is where this title ends for now. Bearing in mind that we don’t have the same character focus on a protagonist, for reasons I described earlier, where this book rises above and becomes very interesting is when it discusses or goes into depth about details in the world and the governance of the Targaryens over Westeros. This book is in many ways the story of Westeros itself, for it may not include every specific story, but it does focus on the main movers and shakers of events, and describes what happens to the realm at different points. Viewing it as a history of the entire country, in other words, gives an extra dimension to the value of this title as a whole. For anyone who felt that 2014’s The World of Ice and Fire was too much of an overview and too breezy, well, you’re getting your wish about the level of detail we reach here.
Another huge positive that I must credit goes to the illustrations provided by Doug Wheatley. They are magnificent. I would buy an entire artwork book for this world done by him, if I could. There are about 50 pictures throughout the book (I didn’t count, but I was told this by the marketing department), and I would love to see some of them done up in a larger format and in colour. They really are a highlight.
The inside jacket of the hardcover edition describes this book as being in a similar vein to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I found amusing, because Gibbon’s work greatest value was in being the springboard for other writers who were more balanced than he was, and it is largely the considered opinion of people today that although that work was exhaustive in scope, it is too biased to be of much use in telling the true story today; aside from which it is a “ponderous tome,” (a line I take from Game of Thrones itself). It’s therefore kind of funny that this pseudo-history book wants to link itself to a real-life history work that is largely not used today for reasons of being biased and long-winded.
Anyway, that’s beside the point. If you’re still with me at this point, after I spent half a page talking about a Contents Page, let it be known that I don’t think Fire and Blood is a bad effort, on average. I think there is definite room for improvement, largely in terms of style and presentation, but the actual content is entertaining enough. However, it is fundamentally unnecessary, and comes out at a time where this feels more grinding than it would at any other point in this franchise’s history. I personally like the fact that an author takes so much interest in expanding their own world, so that we don’t all have to fanfiction it out for ourselves and it can be more definitive for decades to come. However, this does remain one for the superfans only – if you count yourself amongst them, go ahead. Feel free, you will find excitement here for you. However, if you want a good example of fictional history writing, or even top-notch history writing about a real-life topic (even better, in my opinion), you have many more options to choose from than this effort.
The score I give Fire And Blood: A History Of The Targaryen Kings From Aegon The Conqueror To Aegon III is reflective of what I feel it aimed to do and how well it achieved those goals. In essence, how good of a fictional history book was it? Add two points if you have a Targaryen pillow-case and have been spamming “R+L=J” on message-boards since 2007.
Fire And Blood: A History Of The Targaryen Kings From Aegon The Conqueror To Aegon III
At its best, the writing gets us very excited and interested in events that were only hinted at in the show – the notable one in this instalment being the “Dance of the Dragons,” a civil war that drew the Targaryens to their lowest point and led to the eventual death of their last dragons during the time of Aegon III, which is where this title ends for now.