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Fire & Blood and The Rise of the Dragon: A Book Review of Targaryen History

My interest in the Song of Ice and Fire universe started in the summer of 2012. The YouTube reviewer AngryJoeShow, of which I was a faithful viewer back then, released a video about a unique new show with unexpected twists called Game of Thrones. He strongly recommended reading the book series that the adaptation was based on. Due to that, I held off on watching the show but quickly forgot about the series. When visiting Italy later that summer, I stumbled upon a bookshop advertising the first installment. This marked the beginning of an emotional rollercoaster lasting countless hours as I walked out of the bookstore one book richer and my mother’s wallet a bit lighter.

As you can imagine, I am a fan of George R.R. Martin’s work, which is why I decided to purchase both Fire & Blood and Rise of the Dragon when the latter was released earlier this month. Both of these books expand the history of Westeros, the continent on which A Song of Ice and Fire primarily takes place, through the lens of several in-universe historians chronicling the Targaryen dynasty. The content of both books is very similar, with Fire & Blood containing more detail and comprising Martin’s prose. At the same time, Rise of the Dragon has more illustrations and is formatted as a condensed encyclopedia by two of his associates, Elio M. García Jr. and Linda Antonsson.

I’ll head into spoiler territory soon, but my verdict is that these two books are definitely worth it if you are a huge lore buff like myself. If that’s not the case, these books are a bit of a harder sell as they are clearly written for that target audience. The saving grace of F&B is the humor sprinkled across the book, which can be appreciated by everyone. What’s good to know if your interest is/will be piqued after reading the review is that these books cover the same content, so buying both is a bit redundant. If F&B seems a bit overwhelming due to its size (736 pages), I recommend Rise of the Dragon, as it also has many beautiful illustrations (352 pages illustrations inc.). F&B is otherwise more suited if you’d love to be engrossed in the nitty-gritty of the world.

Cover of "The Rise of the Dragon". Written by George R.R. Martin, Elio M. Garcia JR., and Linda Antonsson. Published by Penguin Random House & TenSpeed Press. Drawn by Ertaç Altinöz: Artstation

Delving into the content of the books, I´ll divide the review into sections based on the major Targaryen reigns covered and add my thoughts & critique on the characters. The history of the Targaryen dynasty is summarized by Archmaester Gyldayn. The stories also expand into indirect conflicts and events that came in motion through the royal family, giving room for interesting tidbits about major and minor noble houses mentioned throughout the series. This review will conclude with the resolution of the Dance of the Dragons.

Artwork from "The Rise of the Dragon"© George R. R. Martin. Publisher: Penguin Random House / TenSpeed Press. Drawn by René Aigner: Artstation

The history of the Targaryen reigns is told from a few witnesses living during each era, all summarized by Archmaester Gyldayn. The stories expand into indirect conflicts and events that came in motion through the royal family, giving room for interesting tidbits about major and minor noble houses mentioned throughout the series. Both books begin with the retelling of Aegon I Targaryen's conquest and reign of the Seven Kingdoms. The character is loosely based on the English monarch William the Conqueror, with Aegon I having the same moniker. The conquest depicted in the book also bears similarities to its historical counterpart, with one kingdom being left unconquered at the time of the event (Dorne/Wales). The story of Aegon I was always going to be underwhelming from a narrative perspective, as he is intentionally depicted as a larger-than-life character known as one of the best kings and the patriarch of Westeros. That the conquest essentially goes without a hitch reflects this, which should be somewhat expected as he and his two sister-wives, Visenya and Rhaenys Targaryen, has dragons. The issue comes from the fact that there is no tension and that Aegon’s depiction is without any noticeable flaw. Aegon is a just, handsome, and faithful king, popular among lords and peasants, a mighty warrior and wise regent. He does not display any thoughts or actions that a modern reader would dislike but would be common during the medieval era (e.g., proponent of forced marriage). The only issue would be the incestuous polyamory marriage with his sisters, which is not unique to him and consented to by all parties. Not every character needs to be fully fleshed out, but it leaves the initial episode underwhelming and only of interest from a pure lore perspective. Fans have petitioned for a tv adaptation of Aegon’s conquest due to the success of House of the Dragon. However, given the issues mentioned earlier, constructing a compelling narrative while being faithful to the original material will be challenging for showrunners.

The two other main characters during his reign, Visenya, and Rhaenys, suffer from similar problems as Aegon I. Rhaenys is the younger sister, described as a slim, beautiful silver blonde who is kind, graceful, playful, curious, and flirty. She loves music, dancing & poetry and is said to be a feminine woman loved by all who meet her. In contrast, the older sister Visenya is described as a masculine woman of “harsh beauty”. Personality-wise, she is stern, serious, and unforgiving. The historical accounts in the books tell of her having had few friends in court and that Aegon could not tolerate her presence, instead preferring Rhaenys. Martin has a clear bias when writing about the first reign, as the only morally questionable part of Rhaenys is the implication of her possibly having cheated on Aegon I.

Meanwhile, Visenya is consistently sinister and advocates cruel actions throughout the reigns she lives through.

Once I noticed these depictions, which won’t take long for most people, it dampened the enjoyment a bit as Martins’s normally nuanced characters drew me into ASOIAF in the first place. That disappointment stems from my expectations before reading the book, though, rather than an author’s bias being a bad thing in itself. With all this said, Visenya is by far the most interesting character of this period, as she is the only main one with any depth. There are sprinkles of moments that give a little nuance to her, and despite her flaws, she is a character that I find compelling, partially due to the potential she would have if she were fleshed out more.

Artwork from "The Rise of the Dragon"© George R. R. Martin. Publisher: Penguin Random House / TenSpeed Press. Drawn by Bastien Lecouffe-Deharme: Artstation

The next reign of interest is Maegor I Targaryens, who succeeded Aegon’s I firstborn son Aenys I. Also known as Meagor the Cruel in the books, he is most likely based on Henry VIII, as his main conflict is the lack of success in producing issues. He is depicted as a less-than-ideal monarch who committed countless comically evil acts and left very little wiggle room for a positive interpretation of his reign. Nepoticide, massacres, and torture are a few of the many things he did to earn his nickname. Maegor is Visenyas’ only son, of course, and does not leave any heirs himself. It is, instead, Rhaenys descendants who inherit the Iron Throne for the rest of the book. This again highlights the bias Martin holds against and towards certain characters, which later becomes a bit unbearable to the point where I actively rooted against them. Maegor is still the most tantalizing character during his part, as his cruel side does not become apparent until a particular incident occurs. Furthermore, it seems that some of his evil acts were necessities that allowed his successor to have a successful reign. Just as Visenya, however, this is a character that could have done the end-justifies-the-means archetype well if he wasn’t written to be so irredeemably evil.

Artwork from "The Rise of the Dragon" © George R. R. Martin. Publisher: Penguin Random House / TenSpeed Press. Drawn by Joshua Cairós: Website

Directly after Maegor comes Jaehaerys I Targaryen reign, the grandson of Aenys I, and the great-grandson of Rhaenys. In contrast to the previous episodes, the heroic characters are the most interesting this time. Jaehaerys I reign is described as a co-rule with his wife, the Good Queen Alysanne, and resulted in an unprecedented peaceful era where the Seven Kingdoms flourished, despite the brutal period of the previous monarch. Jaehaerys reign is the second strongest episode in the books, only beaten by the penultimate one. In the aftermath of Maegors cruel reign, many interesting characters begin to shine and develop, leading to intriguing storylines and page-turning events. The main character is a well-written version of Aegon I as, despite Jaehaerys strengths and unquestionable good reign, he has flaws that negatively impact his family and the longevity of the Targaryen dynasty. Alysanne reigns in his misogynistic side at the beginning of their rule, but over time, Jaehaerys aversion to women as heirs and adherence to viewing daughters as political tools leads to internal conflict with tragic outcomes. To add a mischievous form of irony, one of the last actions of Jaehaerys reign was enacting a ruling that eventually led to the succession crisis between his great-grandchildren.

Artwork from "The Rise of the Dragon" © George R. R. Martin. Publisher: Penguin Random House / TenSpeed Press. Drawn by Chase Stone. Website

The successor of Jaeharerys I is Viserys I. During his reign, the Targaryen dynasty is described as being at its peak, with the realm being wealthy, the Targaryen having the most dragons in generations, and Viserys I hosting several lavish feasts and tournaments. He inherited the peace and prosperity of his grandfather, and it continued during his reign. It is, however, Viserys I that inadvertently watered the seeds for the impending succession crisis. Given George R.R. Martins's comment about how House of the Dragon portrayed Viserys better than he wrote the character in F&B, I'll keep the description brief. Viserys is described as a good-hearted but weak leader, but he is shown to have had regal moments. One of Jaehaerys I last acts was The Great Council of 101 AC, a pseudo-election for all the lords to choose his successor, as his son's passing left several claimants but no indisputable heir. The outcome of this led to Viserys I inheriting the Iron Throne, instead of his cousins, among others who otherwise might have had a stronger claim. This ruling also set the precedent that a son goes before a daughter.

Despite Viserys I being crowned on this account, he later goes against this ruling as his daughter Rhaenyra continues to be his chosen successor after his eldest son is born*. This, along with the temporary exile of his brother Daemon, shows a more assertive side of him. Compared to his grandfather, he falls victim to a different kind of irony as going against his leading character trait of complacency leads to his house's self-inflicted doom. After this, F&B begins to shift focus from him and instead introduces the actors and leading events of the coming episode.

*Choosing Rhaenyra as an heir was initially done to prevent his brother from inheriting the Iron Throne, though Rhaenyra eventually marries Daemon, which adds another layer to the later succession crisis.

The death of Viserys I is the catalyst for the succession crisis known in-universe as the Dance of Dragons, the source material of House of the Dragon. The Dance of Dragons is the climax of F&B/RotD and what I consider the strongest episode in the book. What separates the Dance of Dragons from previous episodes is that the story is told through the perspective of three clashing testimonies of characters with different allegiances, conjoined by the in-universe author Archmaester Gyldayn. Septon Eustace, a priest whose allegiance leaned towards Aegon II, Grand Maester Orwyle, whose allegiance leaned towards Rhaenyra since he wrote his testimony while awaiting execution by her side (which funnily enough embellishes his loyalty to her), and Mushroom, a dwarven court fool whose absurdly sexual testimony strongly leaned towards Rhaenyra. These different testimonials leave much room for speculation about how the Dance of Dragons actually occurred, which the Archmaester often points out. I enjoyed this storytelling style as it naturally gave the characters more nuance and allowed for varied interpretations of the characters, as seen in discussions about F&B.

Artwork from "A World of Ice and Fire"© George R. R. Martin. Publisher: Penguin Random House / TenSpeed Press. Drawn by Chase Stone: Website

The Dance of Dragons is about the two claimants Rhaenyra Targaryen, chosen heir by Viserys I whose side is considered the Blacks, and Aegon II Targaryen, the eldest son of Viserys I, whose side is considered as the Greens. Since the precedent set by Jahaerys and the Great Council of 101 AC ruled that sons go before daughters, the Greens go against the previous king's wishes and secretly coronate Aegon directly after Viserys I death. Both sides begin amassing allies while hoping the dispute does not escalate, but when two dragon-riding Targaryens of opposing sides encounter each other, the conflict escalates to the point of no return. The first and foremost conclusion that can be drawn about both sides is that the leading characters are tragic but awful people. Aegon II is insinuated to have been a drunken whoremonger who, towards the end of the dance, was vengeful, sadistic, and cruel. There are a few redeeming qualities, such as his reluctance to usurp his sister, his close bond with his dragon, and his negative characteristic resulting from traumatizing events. Though in the end, his actions far outweigh the little he has going for him. Rhaenyra is instead shown to be paranoid and cowardly, refusing to directly assist her vassals in the war or let her dragon-riding sons participate in any meaningful way, and later alienating all her close allies. She also displays similar qualities as Aegon II, such as overt cruelty and vengefulness. There is even a case of hypocrisy, as she favors a son over the eldest daughter in a different inheritance dispute, citing her situation as an exception. Although in her favor, her worse qualities came after the war began, and she was not the aggressor but rather the victim of a misogynist court. Martin wrote this story to be morally grey, and when it comes to the two heirs, he does it excellently. Both claimants are given opportunities in the story to do good, but neither choose that road.

Despite their central role in the conflict, Rhaenyra and Aegon II rarely drove the civil war forward. Instead, secondary characters such as Daemon Targaraeyen and Otto/Alicent Hightower conspire, executes plots, and force the conflict to escalate. It is here where Martin does a less-than-stellar job portraying two morally ambiguous sides with multifaceted characters. The Blacks are almost always the clear winners of conflicts, and the Green characters are often negative flat stereotypes (Alicent being an evil stepmother, Otto the power-hungry lord, etc.). At the same time, the Blacks have an unproportionate amount of saints, and their characters are often shown to do ridiculous feats that lost me my suspension of disbelief at times (the most blatant being a 13-year-old boy commanding an army and being a "brilliant strategist"). However, there are also quite a few ancillary characters with interesting but very grim storylines on both sides.

The Dance of Dragons is a very dark episode that might not appeal to every reader, but the incredibly hilarious testimony of Mushroom with his bizarre quips helps alleviate the gloom story. Overall, the nuanced plot and entertaining dialogue in the Dance of Dragons cement this episode as my favorite one in the book.

Artwork from "The Rise of the Dragon"© George R. R. Martin. Publisher: Penguin Random House / TenSpeed Press. Drawn by Hristo Chukov: Artstation

Fire & Blood/Rise of the Dragon is an exciting book that people who are drawn to historical fiction will enjoy reading. Some of George R.R. Martins’ flaws that ASOIAF has been critiqued for can also be seen here, but they don’t dampen the experience besides a couple of instances where it is a little bit too overt. If I had to pick which one of the two books to recommend to someone of similar taste, I’d recommend Fire & Blood. Rise of the Dragon misses out on many world-building details and entertaining quips/dialogue that is unique to George R.R. Martin’s writing. Though no matter what, you can’t go wrong with either of them.

Until next time!

Other works by George R.R. Martin that might be of interest:

  • A Game of Thrones

  • A Clash of Kings

  • A Storm of Swords

  • A Feast for Crows

  • A Dance with Dragons

  • Winds of Winter (lol)

  • A World of Ice and Fire

  • Tales of Dunk & Egg

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Leo Lilja
Leo Lilja
Nov 29, 2022

This article really set fire to my blood

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