I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, June 21, 2019

Fire & Blood (book review)

Okay, this one is going to be nasty, brutish and short.

I haven't written book reviews in a while, but I feel compelled to write this one.

Fire & Blood is the latest book from George R. R. Martin, of "Game of Thrones" fame.

I've read lots and lots of stuff from GRRM, and I really like it. All of A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), the Dunk and Egg books (very good), but also lots of short stories, novellas, etc. To be honest, when I started reading ASOIAF I had to throw away a setting I as working on, just because it felt so lame when compared to GRRM's world-building.

Like most ASOIAF fans, I was eagerly waiting for the next book in the series (a little less eager every year, and a lot less interested after the TV show ended awfully).

Anyway, I found Fire & Blood on a sale and decided to try it...


The book is written "in-universe" by a scholar studying old documents. It starts with the conquering of Westeros by Aegon Targaryen. This is probably the best part in the book - it deals with wars, dragons, alliances, backstabbing... All the thing ASOIAF fans would love.

As for the rest of the book... GRRM once said this to Rolling Stone (in 2014 maybe):

Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. 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?

Well, Fire & Blood spends a lot of time discussing tax policy. Worse, it feels like it does so from a modern point of view. Good kings, it seems, are those who can rule medieval kingdoms with a modern mind: make roads, tax the rich, allow women into "universities" (apparently the university of Bologna had more success than dragon-riding kings to achieve that; oh well, I guess at least they got the church to legalize incest...), make reasonable laws for divorce, etc. Unfortunately, they are too primitive to agree on any simples rules for succession, so they must war against each other all the time.

But the book is not all about medieval kingdom administration. It contains plenty of sex and violence, maybe more so than the ASOIAF books, and lots of dragons (certainly a lot more than the ASOIAF books).

This doesn't make the book any better; on the contrary. The sex is often gratuitous (apparently GRRM thought it was a good idea to use a sex-crazed dwarf as one of the three main narrators narrators for fun and color; it wasn't). You can easily become desensitized by the violence, as it becomes more and more commonplace (ordinary peasants rip a baby to pieces for no reason in one scene) and there are not many interesting characters to root for (or to hate; everyone is kinda dumb and evil). And the dragons become a lot less impressive once you seem a bunch of them waltzing around with references to piles of dragon shit.

After the conquest, the main part of the book is the "Dance of Dragons". The legendary war of ASOIF is disappointing. Heirs die like flies, important allies change side for no reason, and both sides are so evil (and kinda dumb) that you only hope they find someone better for the throne.

The book doesn't take itself seriously. It spends many paragraphs planing a tour that never happens. The narrator continuously mention possibilities or sources just to tell you they are false or exaggerated (while I continuously asked myself "what's the point?"). It also contains a scene in which a character makes a seemingly absurd decision after reading a mysterious letter. The contents? "We will never know". If you don't find this irritating, well, maybe you could like this book.

What about the world-building? It doesn't add much to ASOIAF. The economical and political systems of Westeros seems to revolves mainly around prostitution. There are some new characters like Elmo, Kermit, and Grover (no, really), but nothing like the cool, nuanced characters of the original books. Some parts of the book had been published before, abridged versions. I think I liked the abridged versions better.

In short... not my favorite GRRM book.

What to read instead?

If you like ASOIAF, try Tales of Dunk and Egg; it has a similar feel to the ASOIF stories, while being shorter and lighter in tone. The comic book versions are also very good (unlike the comic book adaptations of ASOIF, that seem to have a wrong tone).

If you like GRRM's writing, he has lots of great books. I am a big fan of Dreamsongs, a collection of shorter stories.

If you like GRRM's world-building, A World of Ice and Fire is very good. It is written as a manual, not a story, but it is often a better read than Fire & Blood. It is also a beautiful book, full of great art... and, honestly, makes a great RPG setting out of the box.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for warning! I was considering reading this book. Now I'm not. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My pleasure! If you haven't read the ones I mentioned in the end of the post, it might be worth a look.

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  2. I've considered picking up the two Dreamsongs a couple of times, but haven't pulled the trigger.

    Allan.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was really impressed with some of the stories, seems like GRRM has been an amazing writer for a long, long time.

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