Set in the world of the Song of Ice and Fire series, Fire & Blood by George R. R. Martin is volume one of a history of House Targaryen’s reign over Westeros, including over 75 black-and-white illustrations by Dough Wheatley. Set about 300 years before the first novel, A Game of Thrones, it begins with Aegon I the Conqueror and concludes after the end of the Regency of Aegon III. This book is uniquely set apart from the main novel series because it is written as a historical text from that literary universe, rather than the narrative form fans of the series are accustomed to. As such we see this history through the lens of Archmaester Gyldayn, about whom we know little as a person, yet he serves as a passive in-universe perspective who offers academic commentary and brief tangents when appropriate.
Admittedly, as I’ve seen others expressed, I couldn’t help feeling a little salty when I found out this book was coming out. Like many other fans I’ve been languishing to some extent waiting for The Winds of Winter to finally be published, so to learn that a prequel was incoming was disappointing. I had misgivings about getting the book, but all the same I’m a fan of his work and the world so I picked it up anyway. When I found out that it was written as a historical text rather than a novel I was troubled more so. With 700 pages ahead of me I was afraid I was in for a drier and more tiresome read than what I’m used to from Martin.
Fortunately, my apprehension was quelled fairly quickly. While it definitely does lack the more intimate perspective into the mind of his characters that we’re used to, he actually made the early history of the Targaryen reign in Westeros pretty gripping. The timeline of the book is marked primarily by Aegon the Conqueror’s conquest of the continent, divided by BC (Before Conquest) and AC (After Conquest). Some amount of time is spent discussing the BC period to establish who the Targaryens are, how they came to the island of Dragonstone, and their decision to begin their conquest, but the bulk of the book is spent in the AC years, after detailing how Aegon I and his sisters went about getting the Seven Kingdoms under their rule. So, the book begins roughly at the start of the conquest and ends at the year 136 AC.
As you can see, that is a lot of history for the book to cover and it does so rather thoroughly. Despite the daunting scope, however, I do feel that different periods of history are compartmentalized really well. As I’ve heard has scared off many, there is in fact a whirlwind of names throughout, with problems especially coming in when surnames are thrown around (“Wait, which Lord Hightower is this?”), not to mention the Targaryens’ love for names like Rhaenys, Rhaella, Rhaena, Rhaenyra, etc.…but rarely, if ever, are you dealing with all such named people occupying one space at one time, or even the same time period. I couldn’t recite all the names now, but they became familiar to my eyes during the reading enough that keeping people straight was less of a chore than I thought it would be.
More to the point of compartmentalization, each period really did start to feel like its own self-contained thing as I went along the book. The conquest of Aegon I, his love for his wives, and the places and institutions he established in Westeros before his death were fascinating as I read them, but when moving on to his successors I was not taxed by having to retain intimate knowledge of his story, beyond what surviving parties mattered to the events on hand. Their lives end and history drives ever forward, but each really did feel like a new beginning to me rather than a continuous, exhaustive recounting of history. Though some are more entwined with their preceding sections than others, each had their own sense of finality.
While we’re not in the characters’ heads directly, there’s still plenty of salacious dealings, intrigue, and glory on hand to enjoy as well. Though told through the lens of history, these figures get up to a lot, for good or ill, that kept me hooked and eager to learn as much as I could about them and their fates. Certain developments especially had me glued to the book as I was reading them, such as when Princess Aerea rode off on Balerion, the oldest and largest dragon and disappeared for over a year without any sightings of the two. Eventually they returned to King’s Landing, with the dragon sporting huge scars and injuries and the girl emaciated and infested with something infernal. It was a section unlike any other in the book, but I loved the hint at the darker forces that lurk in secret in this world.
Be they times of peace, where wise and competent kings build up infrastructure, institutions, and lay down laws, or the times of unrest where succession is brought into question none really paled in comparison to the others, though in the latter case some atrocities committed were so gripping that they’ll stay with me more than other moments. There are certainly sections I enjoyed more than others overall too, but the writing was consistent throughout. The exploits of the Kings’ Hands, council members, Lords, knights, and many others are expounded upon as well, showing that there really is so much more to this world than the Targaryens.
As a fictional historical text, I really appreciate the effort Martin put into making that feel as authentic as possible. Though maesters in this world seem to keep historical records of their lords really well, there are many moments when the author of this text must inform us that the historical record is unclear of how or why certain things played out, though the end result is known. During the period dubbed “The Dying of the Dragons,” he routinely refers to three separate sources who wrote about the period after the fact, providing the differing accounts from each and which of them he believes is the most likely and why. I really liked how authentic and speculative this made the text feel, rather than being uncannily cut-and-dried.
Fire & Blood is enough of a departure from the norm that I understand why some fans may stay away, but I’m surprised with how much I loved this book. The flurry of names was dizzying, and for all its exciting history it was still tiresomely dense sometimes, but the vast majority of the time I was thoroughly taken in. The world of Westeros is known to be a harsh, deceitful, lusty, and violent place, but this book did well to balance the negative with the positive, showing how good things can be during the worst of times and how badly things can turn when it seems nothing can go wrong. Wheatley’s art is fantastic as well, breathing further life into the world. It’s honestly a touch I wish the main series of books would include too.
To close out, I want to share a wonderful little bit of writing; the type of flourish that I simply love Martin for and always keeps me coming back. It’s the little things.
“A bull of a man, nigh on seven feet tall, Largent was rumored to have once killed a warhorse with a single punch.”
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5