Fire & Blood: Or how I learned to stop waiting for Winds of Winter and love Westeros (4 stars)

Fire & Blood: Or how I learned to stop waiting for Winds of Winter and love Westeros

GRRM's latest book rewards patient Game of Thrones fans

In case you missed it, there's a new book set in the world of Westeros, home to the biggest entertainment property this side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars. It's not the book George RR Martin fans have been clamouring for, nor is it going to answer the burning questions still hanging for A Song of Ice and Fire series book readers. But for those not bitter and twisted over the long-delayed Winds of Winter installment, Fire & Blood is a wonderful deep dive into the history of the Seven Kingdoms.

Game of Thrones debuted on HBO in April of 2011 and the fifth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance of Dragons, followed in quick suit in July, ending a six year wait for new material and cashing in on the wildly popular season one. Few predicted a medieval palace intrigue fantasy series would come to dominate television, the ones who did have earned their weight in gold dragons. And while the long wait for Winter of Winter continues, of late a noisy element of the ASOIAF fandom has become increasingly entitled and toxic. The result is that Martin can't stick his head above the parapets of Winterfell without being assaulted by a chorus demanding he get back in his writing shed.

Which brings us to Fire & Blood, volume one of Martin's fictional history of 300 years of Targaryen through the writing of Archmaester Gyldayn, charting the rise of Aegon the Conqueror through to Aegon III 150 years later (part two will tell the second half). As Gyldayn, Martin writes his unreliable Westerosi narrator with no small amount of wit and sly ambiguity. Gyldayn himself is writing based on a variety of resources, such as The Testimony of Mushroom the court jester, adding further to the point-of-view layers Martin loves to play with.

Some of the text has been taken from other books and essays Martin has released through the years, like the World of Ice and Fire Book and novellas such as The Princess and the Queen, however, while these sections enjoy some fleshing out, the highlight of the book is the dense section of new writing dedicated to the rule of King Jaehaerys and Queen Alysanne. There's a famous quote from Martin about the writer to whom he is most compared, JRR Tolkien. In it Martin quibbles with the idea that a good man means good king of a prosperous land. But in reality ruling is hard.

'Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn't ask the question: What was Aragorn's tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them?'

It's a terrifically fun quote, and the truth of the matter is these are questions he's not tackled himself in the main ASOIAF series. In Fire & Blood's exploration of the reign of Jaehaerys, Martin immerses us in the nuances of ruling the kingdom from a Westeros New Deal to Church and State relations – for nerdy, podcast-listening, wiki-reading fans it's enough to keep the fandom going for years. Sure, there are loads of dragons, more mysteries, court conniving, adventure and heroes, if you dig that kind of thing, but again we see that the great strength of Martin's writing is his world building and the interconnectivity of his weaving stories, with many of the historic figures acting as cyphers for his ASOIAF characters whose fates are as yet unknown.

Like King Aragorn, we'll probably never learn what King Jon or Queen Daenery's tax policies are (assuming they survive to mount the Iron Throne), but with Fire & Blood at least Martin gets to have his cake and eat it too. And for those with enough sense to enjoy a good thing when you're gifted it, Fire & Blood is a timely reminder of why we all fell in love with Westeros in the first place.

Fire & Blood is out now from Harper Collins UK.

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