Saturday, November 30, 2019

Revisiting Fire and Blood

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As already mentioned in my latest podcast with "The Laws of Ice and Fire", Clint, I used October to reread Fire and Blood for the first time since its arrival. I have been lukewarm on all the fake histories of Westeros, as our previous podcasts (Princess and the Queen, Aegon's Conquest, Rogue Prince, Fire and Blood) indicate, and stayed largely away from the discussion in the fandom. Since it's the only new material that came out these past years, that also meant staying away from a lot of the discussion, period. Now I wanted to see if my opinion changed.
And overall, it didn't, not really. The start of the volume is engaging enough, with Aegon's Conquest and the following reign of Aenys (which provides a real interesting might-have-been had his son come to rule) and then Maegor the Cruel. A lot of it is very self-referential to the Targaryen family, in a manner so contained that it feels encapsulated and isolated from the continent itself. That may be on purpose, but it limits my engagement with the text.
I can also never shake the feeling that the reigns of these three kings feel more fairy-tale-like than the following ones, and the fairy tales in question aren't particularly interesting. It's a slog for me, and I was glad to finally see Maegor bite it under the unknown circumstances that we have and to make way for Jaeherys' reign.
That starts promising enough with young Jahaerys chafing under the rule of his Baratheon hand. However, the big middle section of the book concerned with Jaeherys' long reign is the worst part of it, for various reasons. Once Jaeherys gets onto his throne, the book for me became a real chore.
Others have spoken at length about these problems; I want to point out Queen Alysanne's tumblr in particular. But the central problem is the central premise: That Jaeherys, the Conciliator, is in any way a stellar human being that should be put on a pedestal. There are several issues.
One, Jaeherys is just an awful human being. His treatment of his children in general and his daughters in particular is abhorrent; his treatment of Alysanne gives her grounds for divorce enough for three marriages.
What we hear of this personal judgments is dominated by equally personal feelings and displays no real principles or core convictions that would warrant imitation. He's vindictive and erratic in his judgments. His ideas of knightship are hollow and never scratch the shining surface.
What we hear of his reforms and projects is random, often infused by his enigmatic advisors (I'm still no closer to understand the person of Septon Barth; he's just an angelic figure of good who's never wrong on anything but decides not to interfere most of the time).
However, this all doesn't come to the fore because the text insists that everything is A-alright, and Jaeherys just is the best dude ever. There are two reasons for this. One is the narrator, a subject we'll return to shortly, and the other is how the deck is stacked in favor of Jaeherys. The crisis, such as they are, that he has to deal with in his regency are negligible. Think of the Dornish invasion; it's almost comical how bad his enemies are and how easily he dispatched of them.
The inclusion of all the family tragedies therefore reads no in a way that would waken my empathy; rather, it's a slog of self-inflicted misery that neither Jaeherys nor the narrator are ever able to correctly trace to its source, the person of the king himself. Therefore, nothing much interesting happens, and what happens is uninteresting. Jaeherys' reign is the biggest letdown of the whole volume for me.
It surprisingly gets a lot better with the reign of Viserys and the Dance of the Dragons, for here, the characters are a whole lot more interesting and the story branches out and feels like a story for the first time, with real twists and turns, multi-faceted characters and the like. And of course the spectacle of dragons fighting.
It's still nowhere near to the novels proper, of course, but that's again a consequence of the choice of narrator on the one hand and the sheer awfulness of everyone involved on the other hand. Neither Greens nor Blacks are worth anything. The pox on both their houses. And if you hate EVERYONE in a story, it's hard reading.
The story then fizzles a bit with the regency and rule of Aegon III. It doesn't get Jaeherys-levels of bad, and the fact that it's still the newest and least explored material from the book keeps you hooked, but great literature, it ain't, either.
I've spoken about "the narrator", and the thing is, I mean the fictional persona of the maester Gyldane writing the book as much as Martin himself. The narrator's voice is utterly caught up in almost comical levels of misogyny. While this has been a staple of the novels and rightly provoked much thought and analysis, nothing like it is to come here. There are no moderating voices, no hints of alternate readings. It's just plain awfulness on display, page after page after page. But, seriously, I understood how awful it is after the first twenty pages. I don't need three hundred more of the same.
On the other hand, way too many of the historical personas are almost comically one-sided. The Brackens are always evil, as are the Peaks, whereas the Starks and Blackwoods come off as unabashed heroes (even though the Hour of the Wolf gives us rulings by Cregan Stark that are just as head-scratching as the ones delivered by Jaeherys). That way, you're never able to form any emotional bond to the persons involved.
As a final verdict, I think it comes down to this. Martin's superior skills as a writer elevate the material to readable levels, but on the whole, the faux-histories are a failed experiment for me. It simply doesn't engage me on near the level that the novels proper do, and ultimately, it frustrates me as much as it entertains or enlightens me. I'll return to the real history for history, and the real novels for fantasy, and keep the two separated.

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