It’s a well-known story that George R. R. Martin, when asked to provide some (comparatively small) segments to the epos of “The World of Ice and Fire”, went wildly over any word budget and wrote tens of thousands of words about the beginning of the Dance of the Dragons, of which only a few hundred made into the final text. The rest was published in form of two novellas, in wrong chronological order, and received pretty mixed reviews. While many liked more background for the shaping events of Westerosi history, others bemoaned the relative lack of the character-driven drama that fuels the series proper as well as the Dunk&Egg novellas. Whichever group you belong to, the next novella in that series (which Martin plans to compile into one giant volume called “Fire and Blood” later down the road) will not change your mind.
“Sons of the Dragon” tells the story about Aenys Targaryen, son of Aegon the Conqueror, the small civil war that ensued after his death and the following reign of Maegor the Cruel. The outlines of the story were known before. The line of succession wasn’t established yet, as Aegon had instituted the first continent-wide monarchy. The fact that Aenys had given Blackfyre to Maegor was used as an argument of his faction for his succession, and Aenys’ weakness strengthened that case. Aenys’ reign ended with a giant rebellion of a checkerboard coalition of lords and the whole of the Faith against the Targaryens, and Maegor used his command of Balerion and Blackfyre to get a hold of power and then to wage war by all means necessary, drenching the continent in blood until finally, besieged by all sides and threatened by his prosecuted family members, dying under mysterious circumstances on the Iron Throne.
I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of the novellas. It’s not like their bad or anything, but they simply leave me cold. The detached historian’s style in which they are written – while cleverly reserving room for a contemporary’s bias – lacks all the character insights and blind spots that make the POV chapters such a delight to read. We’re often either told what, according to a faceless historian, motivated these people, or told nothing of the sort at all. While this style is only proper for historical analysis – whose real world counterparts I really enjoy, being a historian myself – I simply can’t bring myself to delve deep enough into the history of Westeros to find much engaging stuff in there, especially if it’s only peripherally interesting to the “real” story.
Of this, of course, there is a bit. Aegon giving Blackfyre to Maegor, who is then recognized by a jingoistic elite as the “real” ruler whereas a bookish and culturally refined one is viewed as “weak” is a direct foreshadowing of the Blackfyre Rebellion, albeit one so blatant it could be asked why it was never brought up by the characters before. Aenys allowing the Ironborn to expel the Faith is another tidbit that bears direct revelance to the myth of the “Old Way” the Ironborn in the current storyline are following to their doom. And then, of course, there’s Maegor’s war against the Faith, against which the counter-insurgency in Vietnam looks like the best executed strategy ever devised in military history, with a clear callback to Cersei’s policies in “A Feast for Crows”.
On the whole, though, it’s a rather tedious list of who does what, who speaks to whom, at in-universe speculation about why this is all happening. In short, as I said in the introduction, the novella isn’t going to change any minds. If you enjoy this sort of thing, it’s right down your alley, but if you don’t, this one won’t bring you over in the other camp. I for one would prefer a Dunk&Egg novella or, of course, “The Winds of Winter”. But given that I don’t have the choice, I read “Sons of the Dragon” and enjoy what satisfaction I can get out of it.