George RR Martin's dour prequel Fire & Blood does not bode well for two more books - will they ever see the light of day?
The Game Of Thrones TV series comes to a conclusion next summer but creator George RR Martin is still two books away from completing his masterpiece. He's just released a dour prequel novel but with seven years since the last instalment, will they ever see the light of day, asks Ed Power
There was a bittersweet development for Game Of Thrones fans this week. George RR Martin, from whose bestselling saga the HBO hit is adapted, has published a new book. It is set, like the TV series, in the violent and pro-gratuitous nudity world of Westeros.
But there's an important qualifier. The 750-page Fire And Blood is a prequel to Martin's as yet unfinished Game Of Thrones saga, A Song Of Ice And Fire. More problematic still, it isn't really a novel - rather, a condensed history of one of the great dynasties featured in GoT.
"One thing I want to be clear in the piece here, this is not a traditional novel," Martin told Entertainment Weekly this week. "I don't want people buying it thinking they're going to get something like A Game Of Thrones."
Another Game Of Thrones it certainly is not. Fire And Blood is a thumpingly arid read, in the style of a dusty reference book. Delving in, readers may experience a sinking feeling. The sensation will be similar to that which overcame a previous generation of fantasy fans who, having finished The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, rushed out to feast on Tolkien's The Silmarillion only to discover it was a turgid chronicling of kingly dynasties.
The real issue, of course, is that, as Martin bores us sideways with his indulgent world building, the more important matter of finishing A Song Of Ice And Fire dangles in the wind.
This is not a trivial matter. David Benioff and DB Weiss' TV series concludes early next summer, with each of its six episodes set to be a feature-length movie.
But Martin has yet to catch up with his own story and has spent forever tinkering with the as-yet-unpublished penultimate volume of his GoT sequence, the now semi-mythical Winds Of Winter (even more mythical is the promised concluding novel, A Dream Of Spring).
It's over seven years since the most recent Game Of Thrones novel, A Dance With Dragons. And that came six years after A Feast For Crows. If this suggests that Martin (70) has tied himself in knots attempting to conclude his life work… well, that would seem to be his take too.
"I know there are a lot of people out there who are very angry with me that Winds Of Winter isn't finished," he told EW.
"And I'm mad about that myself. I wished I finished it four years ago. I wished it was finished now. But it's not. And I've had dark nights of the soul where I've pounded my head against the keyboard and said, 'God, will I ever finish this?'. The show is going further and further forward and I'm falling further and further behind."
The success of Game Of Thrones on HBO was both the best and worst thing to happen to Martin. In his 60s, the veteran scribbler became suddenly famous while sales of his books surged (the GoT saga has now sold 15 million copies).
However, this brought a degree of scrutiny under which any writer would find difficult to work. As time ticked by and no new novel appeared, the comments section of his online blog became an assembly point for outraged fans. Once, when he announced he was about to take a holiday, he fielded dozens of emails to the effect of who did he think he was taking time off when there was still thousands of pages to write?
Those who had been reading his books from the start - the original A Game Of Thrones was quietly published in August 1996 - also noted another less than positive development. As he started to win the acclaim of the sort of people who don't usually enjoy genre fiction, Martin's writing changed for the worse.
The first three entries in A Song Of Ice And Fire were short and snappy and appeared without fuss over four years. Fantasy fans enjoyed the meticulous plotting and the author's devotion to his characters, but were not blown away. Martin was regarded as a top tier fantasy novelist - but not quite the second coming of JRR Tolkien.
But then word spread among the wider reading public. The sort of people who proudly enjoy Harry Potter as grown-ups or who had never heard of Iron Man until Robert Downey Jr.
They hailed Martin as a seer. Their argument was that, in writing about sex and skulduggery, he was repudiating the sanitised 'Tolkien' version of fantasy. But that spoke to a deep ignorance of Tolkien - who was subverting heroic tropes in his own way - and also of the swords and sorcery genre, which had always been obsessed, to one degree or another, with sex and backstabbing.
Unfortunately, as the praise grew louder, so Martin seemed to feel obliged to write more "ambitious" novels. So A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons introduced dozens of new characters (many sensibly pruned by Benioff and Weiss) while tying his existing protagonists up in increasingly knotty plots.
The length of the books grew too. A Game Of Thrones was 694 pages, while A Dance With Dragons weighed in at 1,056. The crisp, efficient storytelling of the first three novels - which corresponded with the first three seasons of the show - had been jettisoned for something more sprawling and lugubrious.
But Martin was never a stylist and his ambition to transcend the pulpy fantasy novel has, across the past decade, come unstuck in slow motion.
That problem is unlikely to be resolved by Fire And Blood, which even diehard GoT followers may consider a slog. It tells the story of House Targaryen, as represented on the TV shows by Daenerys, Mother of Dragons (Emilia Clarke).
Transplants to Westeros from the fallen kingdom of Old Valryia, the Targaryens were historically cruel and ambitious even by Game Of Thrones standards. They were also advocates of incest within the royal family and commanded huge dragons. Which should have made for a heady brew of intrigue, illicit bedroom antics and the wanton burning of villages, castles and so forth.
All of the above does indeed feature. The problem is that Martin has decided to relay the story in the voice of 'Archermaester Gyldayn', a historian who appears to be on a crusade to cure readers of their insomnia. On and on the narrative plods, with every birth, death and mild tiff in the Targaryen line exhaustively chronicled. It's less Game Of Thrones than Games of Thronezzzzz…
"This is an imaginary history," said Martin. "It's written in the style of a textbook as you've seen, which is quite a different style and is deliberately that way. That's what I've set out to do and that's what I've done and, hopefully, people enjoy it on that basis. I don't want to mislead people into thinking they're getting a traditional novel. It's a generational story, it covers 150 years, there's a large cast of characters who are born, grow up and die, and are succeeded by their children."
Westeros is Martin's sandpit and he is entitled to play in and with it as he sees fit. But for long-suffering GoT addicts, the new novel is ultimately just another distraction. To paraphrase Tolkien, A Song Of Ice And Fire is a tale that grew in the telling. But, as of now, is also one to which there is no end in sight.
GoT books timeline
A Song Of Ice And Fire
A Game Of Thrones (1996)
A Clash Of Kings (1998)
A Storm Of Swords (2000)
A Feast For Crows (2005)
A Dance With Dragons (2011)
The Winds Of Winter (forthcoming)
A Dream Of Spring (forthcoming)
Fire And Blood (2018)