A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (2015) by George R. R. Martin

I originally read all three “Tales of Dunk and Egg” stories in the anthologies through which they were originally released, so I already had plenty of familiarity with (and love for) the stories themselves. But I am also an enormous fan of illustrations in literature, and am always enormously happy to see extensive illustrations included in a book. Fantasy literature in particular is so suited towards illustrations, yet barely ever indulges in them to such a great extent as this (Brandon Sanderson’s “The Stormlight Archive” is one of the few exceptions, and by now there is also an illustrated edition of “A Game of Thrones”). I was thrilled when this book was first announced, and am very happy with how it turned out.

Gary Gianni’s illustrations completely fit the tone of the stories. They’re charming, whimsical, yet more pained and stylistic when they need to be. While they’re usually fairly literal depictions of sequences in the stories, occasionally they’re more stylised, imaginative affairs, especially when it comes to Targaryen matters, prophecies, and animal symbolism of the various houses. They’re a truly fantastic addition to the stories, and this is by far the best possible way to experience them.

As for my thoughts on the three stories themselves, I’ll embed below my reviews of them individually. But for the collection itself, I give it four strips of hard salt beef, and a refreshing horn of ale.

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THE HEDGE KNIGHT

My first introduction to the writing of George R. R. Martin was nearly ten years ago now, through a copy of Robert Silverberg’s 1998 “Legends” fantasy short story and novella anthology, featuring stories by Robert Jordan, Terry Pratchett, and some authors I had never read, like George R. R. Martin. I was reading the anthology for the Robert Jordan story, which I enjoyed well enough, but I read the anthology cover to cover too. Most of the stories were quite good, with only one real dud in my view, but among them was a story so fantastic I’d read it again, and again, and again, and never get sick of it. That story was “The Hedge Knight”.

I was vaguely aware of “A Song of Ice and Fire” as a popular fantasy series, but I was more into the likes of Jordan and Tolkien back then. So much of “The Hedge Knight” felt so fresh to me. Even putting aside the actual story itself, the style, the genre specifics, were a compelling way to write fantasy that I hadn’t really seen before. In an introduction to the story in the collection “Dreamsongs”, Martin writes that ’The Hedge Knight’ is high fantasy, nothing could be plainer. Or could it? Doesn’t fantasy require, well…magic? I have dragons in “The Hedge Knight,” yes indeed…on helmet crests and banners. Plus one stuffed with sawdust, dancing on its strings. Oh, and Dunk remembers old Ser Arlan talking about seeing a real live dragon once, perhaps that should suffice. If not, well…you can say “The Hedge Knight” is more of a historical adventure than a true fantasy, except that all history is imaginary. So what does that make it? Don’t ask me, I just wrote it”. My mind back then was full of the convoluted magic systems of Robert Jordan, and the near-religious mythic lore of Tolkien, so a story like “The Hedge Knight”, one so down in the dirt, so much closer to actual history, so human, felt really fresh and exciting to me.

The story itself is extremely charming and likable. Dunk is a relatable, endearing protagonist, and Egg an amusing, but layered sidekick. The story features more than one tragic death coming too soon – in fact, it opens with one – but it never feels truly dark, glum, or depressing the way “A Song of Ice and Fire”, set nearly a century after the events of the story, does. This isn’t some utopian age in Westerosi history, but it does truly feel like a simpler, less depressing one. And unlike the next two stories in the “Tales of Dunk and Egg” series, there is precious little backstory or worldbuilding here, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s a simple, strong story, told with brevity and clarity, and succeeding on every level it aimed at.

There are some minor oddities when reading it in the context of the wider universe Martin created – for example, why is the Blackfyre rebellion, an enormous event in Westerosi history taking place not that long before this story, not mentioned once? You could contort an in-story reason, but the simple fact is these were comparatively early days for Martin’s writings in Westeros, and it seems the Blackfyre rebellions just hadn’t been thought up in Martin’s head yet. I find the simplicity and slight off-kilterness from not meshing as fully into the vast interconnected backstories Martin would develop charming rather than jarring, as there are no contradictions with his later writings, just omissions of detail, which suits Dunk, as he’s a young man, living a simple life, in this simple story.

My enjoyment of this story led to me seeking out its sequel, “The Sworn Sword”, as well as the series it was a prequel for, “A Song of Ice and Fire”. I’d become a great fan of the series, devouring not only the books over and over again, but also participating in the online fandoms, reading the supplementary materials, playing the video games, and when it ended up being developed, watching the television adaptation “Game of Thrones” as well. While “A Game of Thrones” is a great fantasy novel, and the intended entry into the series, I’m much happier with this charming little story being my entry into Martin’s vast world. I give it four puppets, and a shooting star.

THE SWORN SWORD

The second of Martin’s “Tales of Dunk and Egg” series, which currently consists of three stories, with plenty more planned, but not coming anytime soon. I think this is definitely the weakest of the three, as it lacks the charm and strong narrative of “The Hedge Knight” and the more involved storytelling and set of characters of “The Mystery Knight”, but it is still a very enjoyable story.

The biggest issue with “The Sworn Sword” is how bogged down in backstory it is. Oh, Martin always finds logical places in the story to insert the many long pages of exposition, infodumping, and the like; it never feels unnatural, but it is noticeably prevalent. At its worst, the story feels more like a vehicle to deliver worldbuilding information Martin concocted after “The Hedge Knight” that he feels critical to the series now, than an actual cohesive story in its own right. I love that backstory and worldbuilding information Martin developed, but it’s a shame to see it overtake what I expected to be a proper Dunk and Egg story.

Still, there is a Dunk and Egg story here, and while it’s much thinner than the other two, it’s still good. Dunk and Egg are both still growing and learning, and they encounter some interesting people, situations, and events here. The mood and atmosphere of the story work quite well; it has a strong sense of place, like “The Hedge Knight” did. Many of the strengths of that initial story are still present here; it’s just easier to talk about the differences, like the undue focus on backstory.

It’s a good, charming story, just not quite as charming as its predecessor, or as good as its successor. I give it three chequy lions, and a black dragon.

THE MYSTERY KNIGHT

Definitely the most involved and complicated of the three “Tales of Dunk and Egg” stories that have been released so far, “The Mystery Knight” sees Dunk and Egg interact with a much larger set of characters than in either of the first two stories, and encounter a more interesting and complex plot than they’ve come across before.

Where “The Sworn Sword” was weak, “The Mystery Knight” is strong, building off the backstory laid down in that story to create a compelling narrative where the actions of the many characters are grounded and contextualised in sensible worldbuilding, but compelling as relatable actions in their own right as well. “The Mystery Knight” feels more like an “A Song of Ice and Fire” novel than either of the first two stories, as it features the mix of mystery, politics, and plotting that were fairly absent in the prequel series until now, yet always very prevalent in the novel series.

Where the first two stories were charming yet “inconsequential” yarns in the grand scheme of the events Dunk and Egg would later become involved in, “The Mystery Knight” actually is an important event in that greater story of their lives that Martin has talked about in interviews, occasionally referenced in “A Song of Ice and Fire”, and would eventually detail more explicitly in the worldbook “The World of Ice and Fire”.

The charm and innocence of the first two stories isn’t lost though; Martin does a good job meshing the more critical narrative with Dunk’s worldview so that it feels like a natural, organic evolution of the series, rather than a jarring tonal change or anything. The story actually feels more comic than the first two if anything, with Dunk’s complete lack of understanding of when a principal character is flirting outrageously with him a highlight.

I give it four dragon eggs, and a red birthmark.

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