Book Review: Fire & Blood by George R. R. Martin

 

With all the fire and fury fans have come to expect from internationally bestselling author George R. R. Martin, this is the first volume of the definitive two-part history of the Targaryens in Westeros.

Centuries before the events of A Game of Thrones, House Targaryen—the only family of dragonlords to survive the Doom of Valyria—took up residence on Dragonstone. Fire and Blood begins their tale with the legendary Aegon the Conqueror, creator of the Iron Throne, and goes on to recount the generations of Targaryens who fought to hold that iconic seat, all the way up to the civil war that nearly tore their dynasty apart.

What really happened during the Dance of the Dragons? Why did it become so deadly to visit Valyria after the Doom? What is the origin of Daenerys’s three dragon eggs? These are but a few of the questions answered in this essential chronicle, as related by a learned maester of the Citadel and featuring more than eighty all-new black-and-white illustrations by artist Doug Wheatley. Readers have glimpsed small parts of this narrative in such volumes as The World of Ice & Fire, but now, for the first time, the full tapestry of Targaryen history is revealed.

With all the scope and grandeur of Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Fire and Blood is the ultimate game of thrones, giving readers a whole new appreciation for the dynamic, often bloody, and always fascinating history of Westeros.

This massive 700+ page book is not for the faint of heart or noncommitted. By no means an easy read, Fire & Blood takes determination to get through — but now that I’ve finished it, I’d say the effort is well worth it.

You know how people often describe great non-fiction as “reads like fiction”? Well, here the opposite is true. While a work of fiction (to the best of my knowledge, Westeros and Valyeria are not real places, although after soldiering through this book, they certainly feel real to me), Fire & Blood is written as a work of history, not as a novel, and reading it definitely feels like reading a densely researched piece of non-fiction. There are no overarching plotlines, and little in the way of dialogue or character development. Instead, Fire & Blood is a history of the reign of the Targaryens, starting at a point some 300 years prior to the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire, as the first Targaryen king, Aegon the Conqueror, flies on dragon-back from Dragonstone to Westeros to claim a kingdom.

The amount of detail in this book is staggering. Written as a history book from the pen of an Archmaester of Oldtown, Fire & Blood takes us through the bloody, violent years from the conquest through the early period of the reign of Aegon III, leaving off with still over a century to go before the events that begin A Game of Thrones.

Don’t even attempt to read this book without a strategically placed bookmark on the chart of the Targaryen Lineage at the back of the book. I must have flipped back to it at least once every 10 – 20 pages, from start to finish. The names are mind-boggling to try to keep straight. Among the Targaryens in this 130 year period are notable women such as Rhaenys, Rhaena, Rhaella, and Rhaenyra, not to mention Alysanne, Alyssa, and Alicent. Men’s names are just as hard to keep straight, like Jacaerys and Jaehaerys, or the numerous Aegons, Aemons, and Baelons. Unfortunately, this book does not include a map of Westeros or a guide to the many dragons, but luckily I had a copy of The World of Ice and Fire on hand for quick reference.

Fire & Blood is a fascinating read. While I’ve read the five novels published to date in the ASoIaF series, I haven’t delved much beyond these book in terms of additional histories and the myriad of supplemental materials out there in the fandom. As a first encounter with a Westerosi history, my reading experience was intense but ultimately enjoyable. I can’t even begin to fathom the intricate working of George R. R. Martin’s mind, to be able to come up with a world so complete that its history makes for compelling reading, with no details left unexplored.

While I sometimes felt like I’d be reading this book FOREVER, once I got into the rhythm of it, it didn’t take me nearly as long as I’d imagined. Parts go more slowly than others, and there are a lot of lords and ladies, houses, bannermen, etc to keep track of. The most compelling (and horrifying) part of the book is the section about the war of succession known as the Dance of the Dragons. Lasting a relatively brief number of years, it inflicted devastation upon the kingdom and its people, and brought about the destruction of nearly all of the Targaryen dragons. Maybe it should be obvious from the title — Fire & Blood is very heavy on war and death and horrible cruelty, and like any account of war, while the names remembered are those of the knights and the rulers who set the course of battle, it’s the common people who consistently pay the largest price.

Fire & Blood is part one of a two-part history, and while I’m afraid that we’ll end up waiting years for the next installment, I’m definitely committed to wanting to read part two. This was really an engrossing, rewarding read… and has had the added side-effect of making me even more excited for the final season of the GoT TV series. What a world George R. R. Martin has created! If you’re a fan, don’t miss Fire & Blood.

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The details:

Title: Fire & Blood
Author: George R. R. Martin
Publisher: Bantam
Publication date: November 20, 2018
Length: 706 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased

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Shelf Control #36: His Majesty’s Dragon

Shelves final

Welcome to the newest weekly feature here at Bookshelf Fantasies… Shelf Control!

Shelf Control is all about the books we want to read — and already own! Consider this a variation of a Wishing & Waiting post… but looking at books already available, and in most cases, sitting right there on our shelves and e-readers.

Want to join in? See the guidelines and linky at the bottom of the post, and jump on board! Let’s take control of our shelves!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Temeraire 1Title: His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire, #1)
Author: Naomi Novik
Published: 2006
Length: 353 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors ride mighty fighting dragons, bred for size or speed. When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes the precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Captain Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future – and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

How I got it:

I bought it!

When I got it:

Last year, right after I finished reading Uprooted.

Why I want to read it:

Uprooted was one of my very favorite books last year, and as soon as I finished, I knew I needed to read more by Naomi Novik. I picked up book one in the Temeraire series (which is 9 books in all, I think), and just need to finally read it!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link below!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and have fun!


For more on why I’ve started Shelf Control, check out my introductory post here, or read all about my out-of-control book inventory, here.

And if you’d like to post a Shelf Control button on your own blog, here’s an image to download (with my gratitude, of course!):

Shelf Control

Eragon: A book with the kiddo, & a book review with a twist

EragonThis started out as a straight-forward book review, but I think it’s now turning into more of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” deal. I wrote a review. Then I thought about a completely different angle. And thought I’d include both! So, choose which version you want to read, or read both! Either way, you’ll hear my mouthy opinion, for better or for worse.

Version #1:

Eragon (book #1 of the four-part Inheritance Cycle) is a good old-fashioned epic fantasy quest, filled with dragons, monsters, good guys and bad guys, swords with names, wise old mentors, and one very special young man who spends the book discovering that he may in fact be the Chosen One.

I’ve always enjoyed reading with my son, and now that he’s 12, our reading time has changed. We still hang out and read together, but we’re often looking for books that we can read in parallel, then chat about for a while. Eragon is LONG book, well over 500 pages in our paperback copy, and I’d say it took us close to five months to get through the whole thing. Because I wanted this to be a shared experience, I did not read ahead — and when we had days or even weeks when my kiddo was distracted or just not into it, we both went without.

Consequently, I think, my enjoyment of the story was already a bit lower than it might have been if I’d just read straight through. More on this later.

In terms of plot, Eragon more or less follows along well-trodden paths. We start with 15-year-old Eragon as an ordinary boy, being raised by his uncle on a simple farm. When Eragon finds a dragon egg, it sets in motion a series of life-changing events, some tragic, some full of promise.

When the egg finally hatches, out comes a cute baby dragon with whom Eragon immediately bonds. The two share a psychic link, and Eragon discovers that her name is Saphira, and that they can have full conversations in their heads. But there are dangerous foes who want the dragon too, and when Eragon’s uncle is brutally murdered, Eragon and Saphira flee for their lives, along with the town storyteller, an old man named Brom who has plenty of secrets and wisdom to share with Eragon.

There’s a road trip of sorts, as Ergaon, Saphira and Brom chase the bad guys who killed the uncle. More than that, though, Brom starts to teach Eragon about his true heritage and calling: Eragon is a Dragon Rider, one of an ancient line with magical powers, thought to be more or less extinct. The evil king Galbatorix would surely kill him if he could, and they spend much of the book moving from place to place, pursued by nasty creatures, always in danger, and busy making sure that Eragon is transformed from simple farm boy to magic-wielding powerhouse.

So. What did I think? Well, for starters, this is a tough book to read in small chunks. Eragon is highly detailed, and the telling of the backstory and mythology is uneven and occasionally awkward. Brom tells Eragon about the Riders and how the king became so evil in a single story, about three pages long, early on in the book — and yet this informs almost everything that comes later. Should a reader really be expected to keep all the details straight hundreds of pages later? It seems a bit daunting, especially considering that this is supposedly a kids’ book.

Reading it as I did, no more than a chapter at a time, sometimes with days in between, it was hard to maintain the flow of the story. But even so, I do think I might have felt similarly if I’d read it straight through. The chapters are long, and the entire plot is one episode of danger after another, often with very little natural flow between scenes or locations.

Much has been made of the fact that the author, Christopher Paolini, was only 15 when he wrote this book, which is utterly remarkable in terms of a teen literary phenomenon. It’s pretty mind-boggling to me that someone his age could create such a large, densely packed book. But should a book be judged by the age of its author, or on the merit of its content, plot, characters, and overall effect?

If I ignore what I know about the author, I’m less impressed. Much of the story feels derivative. Young apprentice, old mentor? Check. Newly discovered magical powers? Check. Coming of age due to the death of the hero’s family/support system? Check. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Brom could be any one of a dozen or more wise, old, mysterious magical gurus from fantasy — Gandalf, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan Kenobi. There’s a magical elf girl, because of course there’s a magical elf-girl. Cities full of suspicious or untrustworthy residents. Dwarves, elves, mad kings… it’s like every fantasy epic, put into a blender and poured out into a new glass.

And then there’s the writing. Remember being in high school English classes, writing essays, and trying to use as many SAT-level words as possible in the attempt to impress your teacher with the power of your vocabulary, even if you had nothing much to say? Yeah. It’s like that. I stopped noticing quite so much after a while, but particularly early on, it’s irritating and distracting to be subjected to such overblown language constantly. The author’s approach seems to be: why use a one-syllable word when there’s a longer one that will do?

So did I enjoy Eragon? Yes and no. I enjoyed the experience of sharing it with my son, being able to talk about it with him, and seeing his less-jaded response to the plot and characters. He really liked it, which made me like it too. Left to my own devices, I’d probably say that it was at least a third longer than it needed to be, in dire need of editing, and overall a not terribly original remash of standard fantasy themes and plot elements.

Version #2:

I mentioned Obi-Wan Kenobi before, right? On further thought, a cup of tea and a shower later, I’ve started to think that the entire book of Eragon (and who knows, perhaps the rest of the Inheritance series as well) can be boiled down to “Star Wars with Dragons”.

We’ve got the story of a young man raised on a farm by his uncle. Parentage unknown. He unwittingly comes into possession of something sought after by the Empire. Agents of the Empire slaughter his uncle and destroy the farm. He has to flee. He receives a vision of a beautiful young woman who desperately needs his help. He is guided by an old man with mysterious knowledge and powers, who tells him that he himself has abilities he was unaware of, and that he belongs to a group with special abilities and — can we call magic “the force”? He begins to learn to use his powers and becomes a skilled flyer and fighter. His mentor ultimately dies, after setting the hero on his path. The hero allies himself with a rogue with a heart of gold, whose skills help him avoid capture…

Okay, it gets a bit murkier after that, since there’s no Death Star. But there is an epic battle at the end, and our hero emerges triumphantly, but with the knowledge that he needs further training in order to prepare for the challenges still to come. Which nicely sets us up for the next installment in the series.

So does this mean that Eragon’s father is really the evil king Galbatorix? It would fit. After all, Galbatorix was originally a Rider, before going mad from grief and pursuing total domination and dark powers.

Wow. Mind blown.

But do me a favor! If you’ve read the rest of the Inheritance series, don’t tell me if my Galbatorix theories are correct! I need to leave some mysteries to look forward to.

Wrapping it all up:

I tried to get my kiddo to contribute to this review, but apart from saying “it was good”, he wasn’t willing to play along. He does like my Star Wars theories! The kiddo, for all his middle-school cool, was actually pretty enthusiastic about the story, except for when it bogged down in chapters full of traveling from point A to point B to point C. He enjoyed it enough that he insisted that we start the second book, Eldest, right away… and so we have.

Sigh. We’re one chapter into Eldest so far, and I can tell we’re in for a long haul. 600+ pages! I don’t love this series so far, as you can probably tell, but it also hasn’t turned me off completely, and at this point, thanks to the kiddo, I’m involved enough to keep going. I’ve just got to see how it all works out!

And hey, who knows? Maybe there’ll be some Ewoks along the way.

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The details:

Title: Eragon (The Inheritance Cycle, book #1)
Author: Christopher Paolini
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 2002
Length: 528 pages
Genre: Fantasy (kids/teens)
Source: Purchased

 

Wishlist Wednesday

And now, for this week’s Wishlist Wednesday…

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Please consider adding the blog hop button to your blog somewhere, so others can find it easily and join in too! Help spread the word! The code will be at the bottom of the post under the linky.
  • Pick a book from your wishlist that you are dying to get to put on your shelves.
  • Do a post telling your readers about the book and why it’s on your wishlist.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to pen to paper (http://vogue-pentopaper.blogspot.com) somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

Paperback cover from 2009

Original hardcover design from 2003

Tooth And Claw by Jo Walton

From Amazon:

Here is a tale of a family dealing with the death of their father, a son who goes to court for his inheritance, a son who agonizes over his father’s deathbed confession, a daughter who falls in love, a daughter who becomes involved in the abolition movement, and a daughter sacrificing herself for her husband.Here is what sounds for all the world like an enjoyable Victorian novel, perhaps by Anthony Trollope…except that everyone in the story is a dragon, red in tooth and claw.Here are politics and train stations, churchmen and family retainers, courtship, and country houses…in which, on the death of an elder, family members gather to eat the body of the deceased. In which society’s high and mighty members avail themselves of the privilege of killing and eating the weaker children, which they do with ceremony and relish, growing stronger thereby.You have never read a novel like Tooth and Claw.

This may be one of my oddest wishlist selections yet. So why do I want to read this?

I’ve heard this book described as “Jane Austen with dragons”, which is probably an oversimplification — but still tickles my somewhat warped funny bone. It sounds just weird enough to appeal to my dark side, and yet is very much a story about social structure, family dynamics, class struggles… with dragons!

Definitely not your run-of-the-mill storyline! And I have absolute faith that the very talented Jo Walton can pull it off. Her Among Others was one of the most glorious books I read last year, combining science fiction, fantasy, and fairy tale into a powerful story of sisters, magic, and not incidentally, life as a book lover.

Tooth and Claw has been on my to-read list ever since I finished Among Others. I think it may be about time to bump Tooth and Claw to the top of the pile.

Has anyone read it yet? What did you think?

Quick note to Wishlist Wednesday bloggers: Come on back to Bookshelf Fantasies for Flashback Friday! Join me in celebrating the older gems hidden away on our bookshelves. See the introductory post for more details, and come back this Friday to add your flashback favorites!