George RR Martin has described Fire And Blood as his equivalent of JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. It is a backstory, telling the events that happened in Westeros 300 years before the events in A Song Of Ice And Fire. But there are significant differences. Tolkien’s work was written before The Lord Of The Rings, submitted for publication, rejected and published posthumously. In addition, it dealt with god-like entities and creation myths. The rejection of The Silmarillion (“too Celtic” according to the publisher; actually ersatz Norse) spurred him into telling a different story in the world he had built. Martin’s work is an extension to the stories already told in various spin-off books – The World Of Ice And Fire, the various short stories in Rogues and Dangerous Women. It is as if, having built his sandpit and played with his toys for a time, he now has set himself to engrave, elaborately, the railway-sleepers of the framework. Most fans will pounce on the book; more would rather they have The Winds Of Winter. But with the television series having outstripped the novels, and with HBO announcing a prequel series, at least they will have a good deal of material with which to work.
And it is work. With the novels comprising A Song Of Ice And Fire, Martin cleverly used a tightly focalised form, with the reader perched on the shoulder of different characters. It meant that readers developed an emotional attachment to what happened to Ned Stark, or Samwell Tarly, or Brienne of Tarth. Fire And Blood tacks in the opposite direction, and the best parts of it are about the history of the Targaryen dynasty. But could any reader feel any twinge of sympathy with sentences like “The lords and knights who came were largely westermen and riverlords; the Lords Tarbeck, Roote, Vance, Charlton, Frey, Paege, Parren, Farman, and Westerlings were among them too, together with Lord Corbray of the Vale, the Bastard of Barrowtown, and the fourth son of the Lord of Griffin’s Roost”. Tell me why I should care about what happens to any of them.
The style affects a cod-archaic: “oft”, “ne’er”, “dastards”, “pot shops”, “member”. (Yes, despite some speeches in favour of female emancipation, there is still a great deal of rape, brothels, women dying in childbirth and suchlike). Many characters will intone in echoes of the King James Bible. Parts of it seem like rather juvenile in-jokes – calling a character Ser Kermit Tully and then having someone else comment that he is “as green as spring grass” is not perhaps the book’s most serious or interesting moment. A reference to “William Stackspear” is perhaps supposed to be funny in a book which features, among other incidents, someone being drowned in a vat of ale. I should add that the book has many illustrations, and they all look like the bad tattoos a second division footballer would have of his new paramour.
The most successful parts of it are the sometimes comically conflicting accounts of previous histories; one by the pious Archmaester Munkun, the other by a court fool called Mushroom. There are two plot lines across this sprawling book which stand out, and neither involves dragons. The first is a recurring obsession with religious fanaticism; time and again politics is pitted against theology. The second is a section towards the end when a foreign princess invites her relatives to set up, in effect, the first Ponzi scheme in Westeros.
Towards the end I realised the game in which I was. This is a work of self-homage, and a sop to producers. We have a Stark coming to King’s Landing to solve a crime (Cregan, this time, not Ned). We have, in Mushroom, a cynical, lascivious, drunken and yet perceptive dwarf (Tyrion checked off). There is a brave, boisterous dragon-riding girl (that takes care of Arya and Daenarys). There is a sinister Lannister, wearing a silk mask to disguise his injuries, who is Hand of the King (can we call Charles Dance to see if he fancies a reprise? If not, at least we have a mask). One-handed knight – yup. Kings poisoned and royals who defenestrate themselves – all good to go. When I read the sentence that one of the supposed sources claims is “plausibly… the product of several hands for the style of the prose varies greatly from episode to episode”, I actually laughed aloud. But not in a good way. Readers keen to find out more about the mythology – the White Walkers, the Children of the Forest, what lies beyond the Sunset Sea, the Doom of Valyria – might find themselves disappointed.
You could make up this stuff the live-long day. “When Ser Duglass took the black and Ser Gordyn, called the Lord of the Lilly and the Leaf, was given a white cloak, their eldest brother Stiward Qelly, a man both maester and septon, was said to say in his cups that he had chains of iron, gold, silver, platinum and Valyrian steel to my brethren’s black and white.” It’s almost an invitation to fan fiction. - Stuart Kelly
Fire And Blood, by George RR Martin, Harper Voyager, £25