Fantasy master Martin (The Ice Dragon, 2014, etc.) provides backstory for the world of Westeros, extending the story of the Targaryens centuries into the past.
Martin aficionados are used to eldritch epochal terms such as the Doom of Valyria and the Dance of the Dragons, here evoked as defining points in the emergence of his Targaryen dynasty of effective if often very unpleasant rulers. Over the span of 700-odd pages, he recounts the deeds of King Aegon and his two same-named successors, dragonmasters and occupiers of the Iron Throne, neither of them jobs to be taken lightly. As in his Song of Ice and Fire series, Martin’s characters are somewhat larger than life but with the foibles and misgivings of humans: Aegon the first, for instance, “was counted amongst the greatest warriors of his age, yet he took no pleasure in feats of arms, and never rode in tourney or melee”—and this despite wielding the “Valyrian steel blade Blackfyre” and riding “Balerion the Black Dread.” It doesn’t take more than a couple of dozen pages before Aegon is the lord of “all of Westeros south of the Wall” save for the thorn-in-the-side lands of Dorne, leading to a series of Dornish Wars that ends on something of a whimper, more of a skirmish against “the minor son of a minor house with a few hundred followers who shared his taste for robbery and rape.” Alas, those tastes are widely shared indeed, and there aren’t many role models in Martin’s pages—the third Aegon is pretty creepy on some scores, in fact, muttering that if the “smallfolk” don’t love him for the food and peace he provides, then he’ll serve up other diversions: “Someone once told me that the commons love nothing half so much as dancing bears.” Dancing bears aside, there are plenty of fierce dragons, impaled bodies, and betrayals to keep the storyline moving along briskly.
A splendid exercise in worldbuilding and a treat for Martin’s legions of fans.