George R.R. Martin shows what happens when dragons go to warS

While you're anxiously awaiting the sixth Westeros book from George R.R. Martin, there's something to tide you over. This week, Martin released a new novella set in the past of Westeros, and it shows just what happens when there's a war with tons of dragons.

Top image: Tomasz Jedruszek/CG Society

Spoilers ahead...

Martin's story "The Princess and the Queen, or The Blacks and the Greens" appears in a new anthology he co-edited with Gardner Dozois called Dangerous Women, which is 800 pages of short fiction about tough or mischievous female characters. "The Princess and the Queen" takes place long before the time of Ned Stark and Tyrion Lannister, during the turbulent period of Westerosi history known as the Dance of Dragons.

In a nutshell, King Viserys I dies and leaves his daughter, Rhaenyra, as his chosen heir. But his widow, Queen Alicent, wants her son Aegon to take the throne instead, on the grounds that only men can sit on the Iron Throne. These two women launch a massive, bloody civil war that trashes large swathes of Westeros, and includes betrayal, murder, horrible atrocities and wholesale destruction.

And dragons. The main thing that's a revelation about this story, after reading so much about a Westeros where dragons are thought extinct, is that there are so many dragons, and they pretty much drive the narrative. You see first hand just why dragons were the WMDs of Westeros back in the day. One dragon can decimate an army, and five or six dragons are an unstoppable force.

Even as the two claimants to the throne try to win the support of various lords and seize strategic strongholds, the main action in the civil war is all about who's got the most, and biggest, dragons. You learn a lot more about dragon husbandry in this story, including the mechanics of just who can and cannot ride a dragon, and there's also a ton of detail about dragon battle strategy.

And lots and lots of dragons killing each other. There are dragon sparring matches, dragon jousting, dragon dogfights, and basically dragons ripping the shit out of each other. Here's a brief sample of Martin describing two dragons going at it:

The attack came sudden as a thunderbolt. Caraxes dove down upon Vhagar with a piercing shriek that was heard a dozen miles away, cloaked by the glare of the setting sun on Prince Aemond's blind side. The Blood Wyrm slammed into the older dragon with terrible force.

Pretty thrilling stuff. Also, there are a lot of insights into Westerosi politics here that longtime fans of the series will find interesting — including a glimpse of just what happens when the smallfolk in Flea Bottom rise up in force, way beyond the riots we saw in the Song of Ice and Fire books. Also, it's both jarring and cool to see the members of House Frey and House Stark and House Baratheon playing very different roles in this conflict. All the political maneuvering you've come to expect from Martin is here, in spades.

George R.R. Martin shows what happens when dragons go to warS

You can easily imagine Tyrion Lannister reading this account of Westerosi history and learning a lot about both dragons and politics from it.

That said, "Princess" is basically just an extended excerpt from a history book, and not really a great piece of narrative fiction in its own right. Martin gives us glimpses of the personalities and their clashes, but after a while you might find yourself losing track of some of the players here — and in general, Martin's famous gift for internal monologue and tight POVs is sorely missed here. Most of the action here is narrated by a slightly pompous historian, who covers the facts of the war in as interesting a manner as possible — but it's no substitute for the more personal touch that Martin usually uses.

All in all, "The Princess and the Queen" is a must-read for die-hard fans of Game of Thrones or Martin's books — but not really essential reading for anyone else.

As for the rest of Dangerous Women, I've enjoyed what I've read of it. Given that it's 800 pages long and I'm trying to finish the new Gene Wolfe, I haven't been able to read every story, alas. There are definitely some gems here — most notably Pat Cadigan's very personal, intensely powerful story about two sisters coping with their mother's Alzheimer's Disease. Lev Grossman tells an entertaining story of pranks and a mysterious ghost at Brakebills, his magical school. Diana Gabaldon tells a new story in the world of Outlander — given that these stories span everything from paranormal romance to epic fantasy, it seems like the sort of book that will have something for everybody.