Book review: A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms by George RR Martin

The politics of Martin's fantasy world show a debt to the work of Scott and Shakespeare. Photograph: Alberto E Rodriguez/Getty
The politics of Martin's fantasy world show a debt to the work of Scott and Shakespeare. Photograph: Alberto E Rodriguez/Getty
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An honest knight and a monarch in waiting offer the perfect stopgap for impatient Game Of Thrones fans

A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms by George RR Martin | Harper Voyager, £20

As House Stark’s words run in A Song Of Ice And Fire, winter is coming, even if Winds Of Winter, the next instalment of George RR Martin’s epic work of fantasy, seems a very long time a-coming.

Desperate fans will at least get some new narrative when the sixth season of the Game Of Thrones TV series airs next year, although it has already diverged from the books. Here, to tide us over, we have A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms, three novellas originally published in the two Legends anthologies and the Warriors anthology, and collected together here for the first time. They are almost – almost – like an introduction to the mythos of Westeros written for young people. Beautifully illustrated by Gary Gianni, they showcase Martin’s skills at world-building.

Set 100 years before A Game Of Thrones, each of the novellas features Ser Duncan The Tall, a “hedge knight” a little shy of seven feet tall and commonly known as Dunk. Taken on by Ser Arlan of Pennytrees as his squire, he is inculcated with all the knightly virtues and intends to uphold them in an increasingly unchivalrous age. The first novella, The Hedge Knight, has him burying his mentor having been himself knighted (perhaps). He intends to fight at a tourney to win both cash and acclaim, and acquires a squire of his own. Egg is a shaven-headed lad, who is a bit of a know-it-all. The big reveal is that he is really Aegon Targaryen, great-grandfather of Daenerys in the books, and will one day sit on the Iron Throne as Aegon V – a clear wink at Shakespeare’s incognito Prince Hal.

Much of the interest of the novels is in the Machiavellian intrigues and the poisonous court politics. By contrast the Dunk and Egg novellas hark back to a simpler, better time. Dunk, aware that he isn’t the sharpest tool in the box, is wholeheartedly committed to honour, defending the defenceless and keeping his vows. Egg persuades his family to allow him to ramble around Westeros with a penniless knight in part because he wants as little as possible to do with his proud, scheming and incestuous kin. In the first novella, by defending an innocent (and very pretty) puppeteer from the temper of Egg’s eldest brother, the Crown Prince Aerion, Dunk ends up on a seven-a-side melee with the best knights in the kingdom. In The Sworn Sword, Dunk has taken service with the elderly and impecunious Ser Eustace Osgrey. At the height of a scorching summer, his neighbour, Lady Rohanne of Coldmoat, a woman who has apparently seen off four ex-husbands, has dammed a river that irrigates the meagre crops his peasants tend. In trying to resolve the issue, Dunk comes to realise that not everyone holds to his high standards. Finally, in The Mystery Knight, Dunk attends another tourney, and blunders into a plot involving the theft of a dragon’s egg.

Each story has a kind of Scooby-Doo feel of two innocents abroad unriddling a mystery, and they would be an ideal introduction to Westeros for younger readers were it not for the unnecessary use of the c-word in the final story. The sexual violence of A Song Of Ice And Fire is purposeful – unlike the “sexplanation” scenes in the TV series – but the casual swearing here grates.

The political reality of the feudal world is done with as much vigour and gusto as in the novels. This is where Martin shows his debt to Sir Walter Scott and Stevenson as much as to Shakespeare. Loyalties are not fixed; rebellion simmers after pardons and there is even a reference to the custom of having one side fight on either side of a conflict, the driving dilemma in Stevenson’s The Master Of Ballantrae.

Over it all looms Brynden Rivers, Lord Bloodraven, a man with “a thousand eyes and one”, the uncle of the king and his chief adviser. Fans of the TV shows will be curious to read of his activities – especially as he is about to be played on screen by Max von Sydow.

With such an extensive backstory now in place, HBO will surely be pleased that they have much more to dramatise from Martin’s hand. Fans will love it; those unacquainted as yet with the world Martin has created are given a gentle if melancholy introduction to his concerns. Dunk is the perfect counterpoint to the brutal realities and shabby facades of the aristocracy of Westeros. And the convincing depiction of a genuinely good man is a real achievement. If you do follow all the meandering backstory, you will know that one day Egg will be King and Dunk will be the head of his Kingsguard – a position that requires virgin status. On the basis of these stories, I hope he fibbed.