George R.R. Martin – Fire & Blood (2018) Review


What bloody use is fictional history? I think it is a just question to ask. These places and people don’t even exist. In regular fantasy fiction you at least have characters to follow with motivations and journeys and character arcs. It turns out, fictional history can be fun; but history writing is a different beast than fiction writing and the payoffs are different. Now, in the real world, narrative history needs to uphold some standards for factuality. For fantasy history, all that goes out the window and all we can really ask from it is that it entertains us. Does Martin succeed in that here, and if so, how does he achieve that?

I am one of those weird people who adored J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and in part that is because it is just bloody beautiful, but it is also because it is a work that can stand on its own and can be enjoyed as its own thing, without reference to The Lord of the Rings. In fact, that more famous trilogy can be seen as an extension of The Silmarillion. Does George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood have the same effect? What bloody use is this book?

This book can be roughly divided into four parts. We start with a short history on the first Targaryen to set foot on Westeros and conquer it, Aegon the Conqueror, and his children and grandchildren. These 100 pages teach us a lot: how King’s Landing was founded, and the Kingsguard and the Hand of the King and the Iron Throne, etc. And how the mighty castle Harrenhal came to its doom. It’s fun learning these things and for someone like me who hasn’t read the Ice and Fire books in years, it’s a nice reminder of much of the worldbuilding of the series. The main joy of this opening part is however dependent on the reader being familiar with Martin’s main series. Then comes a novel sized part about the eventful reign of King Jaehaerys I, then another novel sized part on the civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons, and finally its aftermath. 

Much like real histories of medieval times, there is a confusing mess of interbreeding nobles, with countless sons, daughters, nephews, cousins and bastards, all with similar names. And like real history, people sometimes randomly fall ill and die. There’s much incestuous drama, which brings the Targaryens into conflict with the church, I mean the Faith. It was not hard to follow the generations of Targaryens from chapter to chapter, even though sons are named after their grandfathers sometimes. But with all the names of the lords and knights my eyes glazed over, even though some of them have funny names like Lord Meadows of the Grassy Vale or Poxy Jayne Poore. It all becomes a wash of names but the general direction of the history remains clear and spicy enough to keep reading.

And if you pay enough attention, you’ll notice that there are many things that Martin doesn’t tell you outright but only hints at. For instance, when one queen is rumored to be a witch and over time all her rivals die in mysterious circumstances. It might just slip past if you’re not looking out for these hidden plot threads. But it isn’t simply Martin who is selective in what he wants to tell and wants to conceal, because the conceit is that this is a history told by some Maester who is loyal to the crown. The text receives an extra layer of interpretation here where the Maester decides what he wants to tell, or to suggest, and he is being gossipy about it too.

The important thing is that Martin sounds like he is having fun. He doesn’t take this history so very seriously and adds funny characters, droll names and smutty imaginary historical texts, and that makes this weighty, dense tome so much more pleasant to read. 

Much has been made of Martin’s apparent disinterest in finishing his A Song of Ice and Fire series, but I can’t escape the impression that Fire & Blood is a labor of love. Why else would he put in so much time and energy to write down this entire history? Through all the little details and asides that Martin put into these stories he shows that he wanted to make something entertaining and worthwhile, and not deliver some hack work. He clearly wanted to deliver a story that is just as complex and surprising as real history. You can’t write a history like this with half a mind on other things. And it is important to note that Martin’s aim of writing something akin to real history makes Fire & Blood tonally completely different from The Silmarillion, because that one is written in a mythopoetic mode. Fire & Blood isn’t written as if it is the King James Bible, but as a work by a gossipy historian.

But what impresses the most is how Martin is able to sketch out loads of colorful, lively characters with just a couple of lines and details. And how he comes up with new storylines again and again. One gets the impression that Westeros is a world full of worthwhile, untold tales when he recounts all these incidents with crazy knights, bastard daughters who secretly become warriors, dragon-riding princesses with life histories full of tragedy, romantic flights and true loves of a forbidden kind… The book is chock-full of romantic and epic storytelling. This relentless drive of Martin to tell stories is, I suggest, what led to the sprawl of characters and plotlines in the later A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but in Fire and Blood this same drive works to his advantage; it showcases his talent and fits into the mode of narrative history. 

Martin could even mine this book for narratives that focus on the lives of a few characters each, the way that the recent Tolkien books of The Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien and The Fall of Gondolin are expansions on abridged histories in the Silmarillion, Martin could write individual epics for characters like the tragic Rhaena Targaryen and her daughter Aerea and her journey. In extension of this, Fire & Blood is a significant addition to his A Song of Ice and Fire world if you are a fan of that. It adds a deeper understanding and richness to that world, the same way that the Silmarillion adds that to our understanding of Middle-Earth. Can Fire & Blood stand on its own without knowing about the rest of the books? Probably, but being familiar with the rest will make it more rewarding.

I went into this with skepticism – I thought I was done with this world – but ended up quite impressed and even delighted with Martin’s stories. Do I have nothing bad to say about it? No, it is far too long, and ends abruptly. It’s so exhaustive with details that the impact of battles gets muddled up in a wash of names. I had to put the book down more than once and read other books in between in order not to get burned out. But I still enjoyed reading it and I am glad I did. So, what is the use of fictional history? Well, for a talented writer it offers an opportunity to go all out in the diversity and variety of stories to tell, and that happens to be something that Martin is very good at. It is a thick, rich layer cake of stories. 

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14 Responses to George R.R. Martin – Fire & Blood (2018) Review

  1. piotrek says:

    You give me hope I might also like it, as I’m a fan of Silmarillon… but I swore I will not read anything by GRRM until he finishes the saga, so I don’t know 😉

    Liked by 3 people

  2. bormgans says:

    You seem to enjoy these big books – think Mazalan. I don’t think I’m fit for the anymore, and either way the last couple of seasons of GOT simply ruined all things Westeros for me. I tried the new series, but gave up after 3 episodes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was thinking about that yesterday – about reading big books – and I’ve actually become very hesitant to pick them up. Only when I go on a holiday trip and have lots of reading time on my hands I’ll try one of those fat fantasy paperbacks. Malazan was an exception, and those are very rich books.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This book has been sitting on my TBR for quite some time now: my constant procrastinating is due in part to my falling out of patience with GRRM and his unending (?) main saga, and in part to some reviews I read that labeled it as dry and somewhat boring. Even the recent translation to a TV series did not help me much. But now that I’ve read your review I think I might enjoy Fire And Blood: your definition of a labor of love gives me hope that I might happily lose myself in its pages – even though it’s only the first part of his ancient chronicles and I know I might be in for *another* long wait for the second book…
    PS: I love the Silmarillion very, very much too! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is really hard to recommend this book because it is so unlike normal fantasy books. I have no idea if you would like it. If you give it a chance, it might work for you. I lost interest in Martin’s world after books 4 and 5 of the series, which I didn’t like as much as the first three. But Fire and Blood made me a bit excited again, and there are good stories inside of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ola G says:

    LOL, we seem to be mental twins on this one, Jeroen.
    I read it right after it was published, mostly out of curiosity – I had a feel that this type of book might be more up GRRM’s alley, since he always seemed obsessed by history in his ASOIAF novels – and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s not a jaw-dropping masterpiece, but somehow it reads better than ASOIAF books from the 4th onward – the gossipy historian persona GRRM affects here is a nice stylistic choice and lends it a bit more life 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • When this book came out, I was not interested in it at all. I was done with Martin. But when the show came out I had another look at it and then doubted a long time about reading it. But then I found a handy little mass market paperback that was perfect for bringing along on a solo city trip. I was glad I read it. It fits Martin’s style very well.

      Liked by 1 person

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