Book Review: George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms
So there’s this TV show you might have heard of, Game of Thrones. Y’know, the one on HBO about boobs. And dragons too, I guess.
Not to sound like a nerd-hipster or anything, but I read the first Game of Thrones book well before it was a TV show. Not knowing what the heck it was about, I went in pretty much blind, so Martin threw me for a loop with all the grimness and politicking in what I thought would be just another generic fantasy novel.
The grimdark tone, not to mention my growing aversion to long-running fantasy series (at least to long-running fantasy series that I haven’t started reading already) kind of put me off of Game of Thrones– though every now and again I’ll read spoilers on Wikipedia to see just what the heck’s going on in Westeros.
And, in my Wiki-delving, I stumbled across another related work: Martin’s “Dunk and Egg” series. Still set in Westeros, the Dunk and Egg novellas are set decades before the events of A Song of Ice & Fire. I figured they would be more approachable and less gritty than the main books– and, well, I was half right.
The Dunk and Egg novellas, collected in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, center around Ser Duncan the Tall, a wandering, landless knight, and his squire, Egg. Egg is also a disguised Tagaryen prince, because continuity. Together, they roam around Westeros, getting into the requisite trouble that comes to protagonist characters.
Dunk is large, honorable, and just a little bit dim. In another author’s hands, he’d be an unstoppable killing machine, but Martin doesn’t go for the pulpy swords & sorcery approach. Dunk is strong and tough, sure, but more often than not he’s the underdog going up against better trained and equipped opponents. Egg is a little more straightforward: he’s spunky and clever and a little bit snooty, as one would expect a young princeling to be.
While the Dunk & Egg stories aren’t quite as brutal as the main Game of Thrones books, that doesn’t mean they’re all sunshine and rainbows. Death, war, and melancholy (or maybe just misery) are all woven through the novellas. It doesn’t get too gratuitous, but it’s still there. Oh, and don’t forget a steady supply of sneering, arrogant noblemen to be assholes to everyone. Of course, Dunk is an upstanding and honorable man who actually survives, so I guess that makes the book more optimistic by default.
A lot of fantasy writers have specialties. Tolkien wove mythology and invented languages for his books. Sanderson makes up precisely calibrated magic systems like something out of a video game. Martin specializes in feudal politics. On the one hand, I can appreciate the work Martin put into cooking up all these various houses and giving them reasons to hate each other. On the other hand, it can be a bit of a pain to keep track of who is who when a lot of the players have ridiculously similar names. In brothers, no less. So there’s Daemon and Daeron or Aeron, Aemon, and Aegon … or maybe it’s just that Tagaryens have terrible naming conventions. I’m sure a reader who’s more into the main Game of Thrones series than I am would be able to pull a ton of enjoyment from a peek into the history of Westeros.
The three stories that make up A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms were written years apart– but collected in one volume, they come off as a little formulaic. They all feature a lot of discussion about House history, and a recent civil war (as well as the makings of a new one). The climaxes of all three stories feature Trial by Combat (Westeros doesn’t have the best legal system, of course), and by the end Dunk and Egg hit the road again in classic itinerant hero fashion. The stories can get a bit repetitive individually, as well, when Martin drives home little points and discussions over and over and over again. But Dunk’s supposed to be kind of thick in the head, so maybe that’s just part of his character or something.
These little quibbles aside, I devoured A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms in just a couple days of reading, finding excuses to go and stick my nose back between the covers. So there’s that. And as an added little bonus, the collection I read has a bunch of illustrations as well, which is fun (and possibly something they used to pad out the word count). While it wasn’t quite the bit of pulpy fluff I was expecting, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms was an enjoyable enough read. I’ll definitely check out any further Dunk & Egg stories Martin writes in the future, though I may have to wait awhile before he finishes up the main series first. Ah well.