Book Review: The Frustrating Pleasures of “Fire and Blood” (by George R.R. Martin)

Let me preface this review by saying how frustrated I am by this book’s publication history. For almost 8 years I have waited very impatiently for The Winds of Winter to finally see the light of day, and when I heard that instead we were going to get the first part of a two-part history of the Targaryen Dynasty, I was quite annoyed. I even contemplated not even buying this book as a (undoubtedly futile) form of protest.

Unfortunately, for all of his flaws, Martin is one hell of a world-builder and, since I really did enjoy both The World of Ice and Fire and A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, I found myself drawn inexorably toward Fire and Blood.

Though I am still deeply frustrated, I have to admit that this book was a true pleasure to read. I, like many other fantasy aficionados, always find that the histories of secondary worlds are (all too often) more interesting than the actual stories sent in those worlds. Fire and Blood succeeds precisely because it shows us the sinners and saints, the benevolent monarchs and cruel tyrants, that shaped, and continue to shape, the destiny of those living in Westeros.

This history reveals that the Targaryens are some sort of unholy combination of Julio-Claudian and Ptolemaic Dynasties, with all of the associations those two families in the ancient world possessed. We also are left with the distinct sense that, in Westeros as in the real world, the actions of one generation continue to influence their descendants, often in ways that they could never have predicted. Just as importantly, Fire and Blood reveals that this universe is one of both great beauty and unspeakable cruelty.

Some have criticized Fire and Blood for being too much like a history textbook (and thus boring). For me, that’s precisely what makes it so much fun to read. It also reveals just how vast Martin’s creative vision is, how much effort he has put into his secondary creation. Whatever the flaws of A Song of Ice and Fire (and they are substantial), there is no doubt that this is still a world with its own internal consistency and its own contradictions.

Indeed, that is one of the most compelling aspects of the book. Gyldayn (the book’s fictional narrator) seems, at first blush, to be merely transmitting information to us, his readers, but he also makes clear at several points that our understanding of the past is necessarily shaped (or misshaped) by the sources available to us. In his case, he has to rely on both eyewitness accounts of the events of the past as well as less reputable reports (some of the most amusing snippets come from the fool known as Mushroom). History, as Gyldayn reminds us, is ultimately written by the victors, and it would be a mistake (or, at least, Martin wants us to believe it would be a mistake) to view anything in the volume as the absolute truth.

That being said, I do have a few critiques. First, while I appreciate that the people of Westeros have a very biting sense of humour, it gets a bit repetitive to continue hearing about the sundry nicknames that they grant their superiors. Unfortunately, this tendency to find a device or turn of phrase and beat it to death with overuse has become something of a thing with Martin (see also “where do whores go?” in A Dance with Dragons). When it’s used sparingly it can be very effective and conveying the particular characteristics of the Westerosi, but in Fire and Blood it starts to become rather irritating.

Likewise, the (to my mind unnecessarily) convoluted family true of the Targaryens makes keeping them all straight something of a chore. This unfortunate problem is exacerbated by the bewildering similarity of their names. If you want my advice, focus on the absolute major characters (mostly the regnants), and you should be fine.

The larger criticism is that much of this material is a retread of what we’ve seen before in various places, both in A World of Ice and Fire and in the numerous edited collections to which Martin has contributed over the years. Admittedly, it’s been supplemented, but it does lead a cynical mind to wonder whether this is just another cash-grab for Martin while he flounders his way through the narrative morass that is the main thread of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Because I hate ending a review with a negative, let me reaffirm that this is definitely a must-read for fans of the novels who want to gain a richer, deeper understanding of the blood-soaked past of Westeros and its most infamous dynasty.

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