Monday, July 15, 2024

Top 7 Takeaways From Fire and Blood

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Right before Thanksgiving last year, George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series (ASOIAF), released a new book. No, not Winds of Winter, but rather Fire and Blood, part one of a (currently projected) two part history of the Targaryen Dynasty from Aegon’s conquest down through the reign of Mad King Aerys, father of Daenerys Targaryen and grandfather of Jon Snow. Part one covers Aegon the Conqueror through Aegon III. It’s…long. At 700 pages, many fans of the book series proper (and show adaptation, Game of Thrones) might not find it worth investing in. Especially since the style of writing is different, it’s less action oriented, and many of the major plot events have already been covered—albeit in brief—in The World of Ice and Fire (TWOIAF).

Maybe you love the books but lack time and energy to read so much in-universe history. Or maybe you don’t like the historical prose style. Maybe you just don’t really like Targaryens so you think it’s not worth your time. Either way, you don’t want to read it, but you don’t want to miss out on anything that could be cool, be it new characters, new theories, or new events that may be foreshadowing character arcs or events to come in the rest of ASOAIF. I read all of it, and loved it, so I’m here to give you the lowdown on what I think are the most interesting bits: Fire and Blood the ‘good parts’ version.

1. So Many Awesome Female Characters

Let’s just say you could retitle Fire and Blood as Martin’s Book of Fascinating Female Characters and you wouldn’t be wrong. For those of us in the fandom who have been, shall we say, disappointed in the way women have often been written out of Westerosi histories, Fire and Blood more than makes up for it. The Targaryen dynasty may have been ruled by men (more on this below), but the true stars of this book are the women.

Though a self-styled history of the reigning Targaryens, Fire and Blood might better be styled a family history. These are the stories left out of TWOIAF. The way characters in the ASOIAF talk, you’d think only the Targaryen men mattered, except for perhaps a handful of women like Visenya, Rhaenys, Rhaenyra (from the Dance of Dragons), and Good Queen Alysanne. But as I read, the impression grew that the ‘silent history’ of the Targaryen women did more to influence the historical and political history than they’ve been given credit for…much like real world history.

Incidentally, this is one of the things I love most about Martin’s choice of an in-universe bias. It showcases just how our own history is written and recorded. Fire and Blood highlights how women are written out of history despite being major players and influences themselves, and that despite being repeatedly and consistently shut out of positions of powers purely on the basis of their gender. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s just say that Martin offers a plethora of stories about Targaryen women. Powerful women, jealous women, cold and bitter women, fiery and feisty women, lady-like women, timid women, fearless women, dragonriding women, courtly women, scheming women, charming women. Targaryen women come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities, just like the Targaryen men/kings do. Gee, it’s almost like Martin understands that female characters can be…well…people.

Can all of the Targaryen women be my favorites? No? Oh well. I’ll content myself with naming a few standouts. Alyssa Targaryen nee Velaryon, wife of Aenys I and later Rogar Baratheon, fast became one of the most interesting and tragic female characters in the first third of the book. She’s graceful, sorrowful, dutiful but strong, and endures hell for the sake of her children during the reign of Maegor. Her daughter Rhaena—one of Maegor’s Black Brides and elder sister to both Jaehaerys the Conciliator and Good Queen Alysanne—drew me from the first. She’s a disempowered heir with a childhood marked by beauty as well as tragedy. Plus, she’s queer (and not the only canonically queer woman!), and it’s possible Jaehaerys had something to do with the death of her favorites to secure his own line of succession. Rhaena’s twin daughters Aerea and Rhaella, barely more than a footnote in TWOIAF get fleshed out, Aerea in an objectively horrifying but thoroughly fascinating way that I’ll talk more about in a bit.

Queen Alysanne at one of her many ‘women’s courts’, held throughout Westeros, where she listened to the complaints of nobleborn and smallfolk women. From these courts, she influenced Jaehaerys to institute many reforms.

Good Queen Alysanne is truly the star of the middle third of the book. In fact, I couldn’t fault anyone for coming away with the impression that the reason Jaehaerys the Conciliator was so successful and his reign so peaceful and prosperous was due almost entirely to Alysanne. Though of course the ‘official’ histories give the credit to Jaehaerys, a scathing commentary on the silent but powerful role women play in real world history. The worst decisions he made were those done against Alysanne’s better judgment, to the detriment of Westeros. Fire and Blood shows us more than the dutiful, feminine ideal of Alysanne. We see her charm, her feistiness, her wit, her intelligence. She’s a powerhouse of a woman, and I love her.


Alysanne’s daughter Alyssa is delightfully ribald and sex positive. (Dorne would be proud of her.) Seara reminds me of Max and Elinor from Black Sails, and her story showcases what a dick Jaehaerys could be (and how bullshit the Westerosi sexual double standards are). I have so much to say about the Queen Who Never Was Rhaenys and the Half Year Queen Rhaenyra of the Dance of Dragons, but I’ll have to save that for another day. Seriously, I could write full essays on each of these women. Plus, there’s the twins Baela and Rhaena, Rhaenys’ granddaughters, each of whom is compelling though they’re as different as sun and moon (like Sansa and Arya…).

Seriously, I could keep going.

Nor is Fire and Blood dominated by Targaryen women alone. Elinor Costayne, another of Maegor I’s Black Brides, surprised me with how intriguing she was despite being a tertiary character at best. Even Alicent Hightower, mother of Aegon II who schemed her son into usurping rightful heir Rhaenyra and thus starting the Dance, gets fleshing out. Martin managed to make her more human, and there’s even a note of tragedy to her seeing all her children and grandchildren die.

There are several entirely new characters to adore. I need Dunk and Egg style novellas about Alysanne’s sworn shield Jonquil Darke, aka the Scarlet Shadow, stat. She reminds me of Brienne, which makes me hopeful for Brienne as sworn shield to Sansa Stark. That gives me all the feelings. Alys Rivers, witchy woman and lover of Aemond One-Eye during the Dance, is mysterious and powerful. Alysanne Blackwood (Black Aly) does her namesake credit in the charm and wit department. That she woos the cold-hearted and stony Cregan Stark (as Good Queen Alysanne once charmed and, may or may not have slept with, Alaric Stark) only makes me love her all the more. Also, she’s very likely bisexual so…yeah. Badass all around.

Then there’s Elissa Farman. Good god we deserve an entire book about Elissa Farman. Also known as Alys Waters (Martin does love his Aly-/Alys- names huh?), Elissa is an adventurer, explorer, and sailor. The story of her sailing west to seek out what was beyond the Sunset Sea bears all the horrifying marks of Lovecraft, but with a happy ending (at least for her). We learn that the famed seafarer Corlys “Sea Snake” Velaryon, supposedly the first the reach Asshai from Westeros might not have been. Chances are, Elissa got there first. Did I mention she was one of Rhaena Targaryen’s ‘favorites’? Oh yeah, she’s queer too. Both of them are.

Then we have the women who ended the Dance. According to Mushroom,

“The great lords would have given us another two years of war…it was the women who made the peace. Black Aly, the Maiden of the Vale, The Three Widows, the Dragon Twins, ’twas them who brought the bloodshed to an end, and not with swords or poison, but with ravens, words, and kisses.” (Fire and Blood, p. 580)

That’s right, women ended the Dance and with diplomacy and love rather than more violence. It’s almost like there’s a theme here… Anyway, Martin further exposits the role women played in healing the wounds left from the Dance and bringing Westeros back to health when he mentions a tome called The Winter of the Widows. Which I need. Immediately. In it, the roles played by the surviving widows of the Dance are chronicled. While we don’t get that full text, we do get tidbits about the most important four widows in Fire and Blood. They’re all pretty neat.

Anyway, I’ve probably talked your ear off by now and this is only the first point. But it’s an important one given how much flak Martin has taken for the lack of exposition of women in history in ASOIAF proper. To my mind, it speaks to how much the sexism we see evinced in the story is a matter of in-universe culture and bias rather than the bias of the author himself.

2. Canonically Queer Female Characters

One of the biggest criticisms Martin has faced in the past several years has been his dearth of canonically queer female characters. Dany and Cersei each have issues associated with their queer interactions in the story, and Lady Nym being queer only if you look in the appendices hardly counts for ‘good’ and ‘clear’ representation. To my mind, Fire and Blood shows that Martin has been listening to fans because boy did he ever make up for the lack of queer women.

Queen of the seas and my heart Elissa Farman.

I mentioned a couple of queer female characters in the preceding section. Rhaena Targaryen, daughter of Alyssa and Aenys I Targaryen is the first mentioned. She has multiple female ‘favorites’ and her second husband, Androw Farman, is obviously a beard (aka, a spouse of a different gender designed to ‘hide’ a queer person in plain sight). He’s the brother of Elissa Farman, the spirited adventurer also noted above. I love that Martin literally gave us the story of a queer woman who marries a man in order to be close to his sister because it was necessary to keep social conventions. “Oops, wrong sibling” is one of my favorite tropes.

Then there’s Sylvanna Sand and Essie, the mother of Gaemon Palehair (pretender to the throne after the death of Aegon II and dear friend of Aegon III). Both Sylvanna and Essie are sex workers and they anoint Essie’s son Gaemon as king after Aegon II’s death (claiming he’s one of Aegon’s bastards). What I love about them is that through the four-year-old boy king, they attempt to enact some of the most progressive and egalitarian reforms to Westeros. It’s pretty damn cool that two queer ladies get that role.

The “Maiden of the Vale” Jeyne Arryn, noted champion of Queen Rhaenyra’s blacks during the Dance and one of Aegon III’s regents, is also queer. She exclusively prefers the company of women and even dies in the arms of one of her favorites after a long tenure as a fair, honest, and strong ruler of the Vale. She has a lot of Queen Elizabeth I vibes as well as reminding me of Sansa so…fingers crossed for queer Sansa? (I doubt it, but a queer girl can dream).

Another of Queen Rhaenyra’s most vocal defenders, Sabitha Frey, is also queer. She’s,

“a sharp-featured, sharp-tongued harridan of House Vypren, who would sooner ride than dance, wore mail instead of silk, and was fond of killing men and kissing women.” (Fire and Blood, p. 572)

Be still my heart! Also likely queer, as noted, is Black Aly, who was seen much in the company of Sabitha Frey. She even shared Sabitha’s tent when they were campaigning, so to my mind, Black Aly is bisexual.

There are plenty of rumors of queer women amongst minor characters, too, including some interesting gender transgessiveness. Some of this could be slander along the lines of them being witches or bathing in the blood of children. Even so, that Martin bothers to include such lines shows that he’s learning that queerness amongst female characters shouldn’t be ignored. More than anything, what I appreciate most is that he doesn’t type-cast his queer women. Yes, characters like Elissa Farman, Sabitha Frey, and Black Aly have a bit of boyishness to them and are noted ‘warrior women.’ But then there’s the Maiden of the Vale Jeyne Arryn and Rhaena Targaryen, both of whom present as more traditionally feminine.

It’s refreshing and delightful to see such an array of queer women, especially from an author who has been criticized on just this point before. Thank you for listening, Martin, I’m quite pleased. (Now give me queer Sansa and Brienne please and thank you.)

3. Martin Throws Pretty Epic Shade

One of the best moments in the book, hands down, is when Martin throws shade at Game of Thrones and the showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Under the guise of the discussion of a book called A Caution for Young Girls, Martin makes his opinion of certain decisions made in the adaptation process of his own books very clear. He begins by calling the book “distasteful,” a book found in brothels and catering to those of low morals. He then mentions that parts of the book “strain credulity” given how ridiculous the tales are, and increasingly so as the story continues.

“We have no way to ascertain the veracity of her story, nor even whether she was in truth the author of this infamous book (some argue plausibly that the text is the product of several hands, for the style of the prose varies greatly from episode to episode).” (Fire and Blood, p. 157)

I mean…good lord. The use of “episode to episode” makes the true object of his ridicule pretty clear. But he doesn’t stop there. Continuing with his mockery of the writers of the tales, he writes,

“[T]he scribes responsible were most likely septons expelled from the Faith for drunkenness, theft, or fornication, failed students who left the Citadel without a chain, hired quills from the Free Cities, or mummers (the worst of all). Lacking the rigor of maesters, such scribes oft feel free to “improve” on the texts they are copying. (Mummers in particular are prone to this.)

In the case of A Caution for Young Girls, such “improvements” largely consisted of adding ever more episodes of depravity and changing the existing episodes to make them even more disturbing and lascivious. As alteration followed alteration over the years, it became ever more difficult to ascertain which was the original text, to the extent that even maesters at the Citadel cannot agree as to the title of the book, as has been noted.” (Fire and Blood, p.158-9)

I can’t stop cackling. This is the best shade I’ve ever seen.

It’s not really shade, but Martin does include pop culture easter eggs in the book as well. There’s the men of Sesame Street House Tully during the dance: Grover, Elmo, Kermit, and Oscar. One of the dragons in the Dance is named Morghul, a name from Lord of the Rings. The Maiden’s Day Ball of Aegon III has Cinderella vibes, and Ser Tyland Lannister gives me Phantom of the Opera vibes (though maybe that’s just because I was relistening to the original Broadway cast recording). I’m sure there’s more, but it’s a big book, and I can only take in so much at once. The Tully men win the prize, though. I can’t stop imagining a large, red-bearded man talking like Kermit the Frog.

4. Theories and Prophecies: Bastards, Incest, Valyria, Literal Dragon Blood, and The Hammer

As many of you know, I’m a part of the Twitteros crew that call themselves the Myth Heads. We’re a group ofASOIAF fans interested in mythological and symbolic analysis and we discuss it on Twitter and in both written and video essays on our various websites and channels. For us, Fire and Blood was like catnip. There’s so much symbolism going on, especially when it comes to Nissa Nissa and Azor Ahai, what we call the “monomyth.” But rather than focus on about that, since it would take tens of thousands of words, I’m going to discuss my favorite theories to arise from the book. I’m sure there are more—and you can check out various Fire and Blood themed livestreams and YouTube videos for what other people found compelling—but these are my favorite few.

First, the idea that Aegon I may have been sterile. This theory may have floated after TWOIAF, but the first in depth discussion I’ve seen has been after Fire and Blood. The theory comes from the fact that Visenya is mentioned as using “dark arts” to get pregnant with Maegor and Rhaenys had many lovers outside of Aegon, any one of whom could have fathered Aenys.

Why does this matter? Well, if true, it would make all Targaryens bastards, quite literally. If Aegon fathered no trueborn heirs, any and all Targaryens to rule after him were not truly his heirs by body, which, given how much stigma against bastards there is in Westeros, calls into question the succession of the entire dynasty. That seems kind of the point to me, if Martin is indeed hinting in this direction. We all know that the Targaryen rule is purely a matter of whim and aggressive conquest rather than ‘legitimate’ authority. They’re imperialist colonialists. What better way to highlight how illegitimate their rule is over Westeros than to have no trueborn heirs of Aegon I?

Relatedly, Fire and Blood draws a strong correlation between the so-called ‘monster babies’ born to certain Targaryens and incest. Again, discussion of incest and monster babies dates back to TWOIAF, but Fire and Blood lends even more credence to the idea that monstrous babies are a direct result of genetic manipulation and incest rather than pure chance. Maegor fathers no living children. His only offspring are both stillborn and monstrous. If Maegor is Aegon’s child, the monstrous children make sense as the result of incest. If Visenya somehow managed to use ‘dark arts’ to create Maegor, the correlation to genetic manipulation is even more direct. Meddling in fertility to produce ‘blood of the dragon’ only leads to one thing: monsters.

Most of the other monstrous babies born to Targaryen women are the result of incest as well. To my mind this points directly to the way Martin wants us to think about incest. According to one of my fellow Twitteros writers The Fattest Leech, Martin clearly thinks of incest negatively in both ASOIAF and his other writings. It’s a form of oppressive control, both of women and their fertility, and only ever leads to monstrous ends. Eugenics is self-destructive and destructive to society. It may give us the dragon bond and dragons, but dragons are the equivalent of weapons of mass destruction in this universe. Should we really be cheering incest as a way of creating them, especially when it subordinates women and only propagates violence and destruction? That, more than anything, is one of my major takeaways from Fire and Blood thematically.

Also, it serves as pretty good evidence that the Targaryens are quite literally dragon people. Valyria likely manipulated human genetics and found a way to splice them with dragons, which is where we get the dragon bond and ‘blood of the dragon.’ Again, these theories have been around for a while, but Fire and Blood gave us more direct evidence of their veracity.

In terms of prophecy, the supposedly ancient prophecy of a hammer that will slay a dragon has drawn a lot of attention in the fandom since the book’s release.

“And talk was heard in camp of a prophecy of ancient days that said, ‘When the hammer shall fall upon the dragon, a new king shall arise, and none shall stand before him.’” (Fire and Blood, p. 496)

Who is the hammer? Is it Robert and the dragon Rhaegar? Is this about something that’s already happened in history or is it about something that will happen in The Winds of Winter or A Dream of Spring? Is this even an ancient prophecy at all or did Hugh Hammer (or one of his cronies) make it up to legitimate his bid for kingship during the Dance? The question really is one of whether this so-called prophecy is merely an anecdote or if it has any bearing on the current story. I, for one, tend to think that it’s symbolic more than literal and if it has bearing at all on the current story, it does because it’s an echo of something that’s already happened in the past.

I really, really dislike Aegon II and his brother, Aemond One-Eye. Like, so much. Maegor I and Unwin Peake come in a close third and fourth.

I’m far more fascinated by the ‘ravings’ of the Shepherd during the Dance. He pronounces several prophecies of doom against specific individuals that turn out to be true (including Aegon II). Martin frequently uses specific members of the Faith to pronounce judgments against the Targaryens. While in-universe they’re deemed mad, treasonous, or overly bombastic, when you look closely at them, there’s truth embedded in the thunderous preachings of doom and destruction. The Shepherd, like Septon Moon and the High Septon when Aegon conquered, denounces the sin of incest as an abomination and calls the dragons demons whose only end is destruction and violence. He further proclaims that Westeros will only know peace once the dragons—both Targaryens and their mounts—are expelled from Westeros.

Sounds like typical doom and gloom stuff, but he’s not wrong. The literal dragons are monstrous and bring only sorrow and death. The Targaryens are colonialist imperialist conquerors, and given how negatively Martin frames incest and its use in eugenics and control of women…well, it’s hard to fault the Shepherd for calling it an abomination. The official history would have us dismiss such preachings and prophecies as mad ravings of religious freaks, but I think that’s most likely Martin hiding clues in plain sight. Westeros will only have peace when the dragons are gone. Dany, her dragons, and Jon Snow may save Westeros from the Others, but I have a strong feeling that their heroic tale will be the true and final dying of the dragons.

Finally, the tale of Aerea and Balerion lends credence to the possibility that Euron may have actually sailed to Valyria. Others have discussed this episode at length, but suffice to say, it’s one of the most intriguing of the novel. Aerea and Balerion very likely flew to Valyria. Someone, or something still lives there. Something big enough and fierce enough to attack Balerion the Black Dread and wound him grievously. Something capable of infesting a human being with horrible parasites that look suspiciously like pre-genetically modified dragons or fire wyrms and kill Aerea in a graphic and horrifying way. (Seriously, it’s gross.)

And if Area was able to travel to Valyria and return—though I won’t say she ‘survived’—then maybe Euron isn’t so full of shit when he says he sailed there. I’ve always assumed that was bluster, but now…I’m not so sure. Honestly, I hope he dies the way Aerea did. He deserves it far more than she did.

5. Targaryen Exceptionalism is (Almost) Entirely A Matter of Propaganda

Ever since Daenerys Targaryen survived the miraculous birth of her dragons in Drogo’s fire, rumors and theories have abounded about so-called magical Targaryen blood and Targaryen exceptionalism. Targaryens are closer to gods than humans. Targaryens cannot die in fire and are immune to all disease. Targaryens are above human morals and laws and can get away with things non-Targaryens cannot. Martin has put certain elements of this mentality to rest—he famously called Dany’s survival a ‘miracle’ and has proven via other characters that Viserys is wrong when he believes Targaryens are immune to fire.

Fire and Blood goes further. Via Jaehaerys and Alysanne, Martin clarifies that the idea of Targaryen exceptionalism is a matter of propaganda rather than fact. Yes, Targaryens do seem to have resistance to certain diseases and may have a higher than average heat tolerance (perhaps a result of genetic manipulation with dragon DNA in Valyria). However, when it comes to morality, Targaryen exceptionalism is a creation of Jaehaerys and his propaganda machine. The Targaryens aren’t above the law except in their own minds. The only reason Westeros accepted this as fact is because Jaehaerys managed to have it codified in the laws of the Faith. (And at what cost? My friend and fellow Twitteros denizen Joe Magician and I have ideas that we may discuss in a YouTube video, so stay tuned if you’re interested.) Targaryens should be subject to human rules, but they have good publicists and convinced the right people to make their exceptionalism the law of the land.

It’s as ingenious as it is insidious, and we best not miss the lesson: we, as readers, must not be deceived into accepting Targaryen exceptionalism the way Westeros was. They’re men and women like anyone else. Just because they think of themselves as above the law doesn’t mean we should excuse their behavior. Martin is showing his hand: the story may seem to promote Targaryen exceptionalism (or the exceptionalism of others in the elite class), but it’s just hype. Astute readers should be able to see it for what it is.

6. Sympathizing With The Invaders: The Ambiguity of House Targaryen

Many may disagree with me on this point, but this was one of my major thematic takeaways. However sympathetic individuals are, Targaryens as a group are invaders and conquerors, just with good publicists. Fire and Blood makes the Targaryen invasion purely a matter of whim and aggression. Storm King Argilac Durrandon felt threatened by King Harren the Black and petitioned Aegon to help him beat back the King of Harrenhal, offering his maiden daughter and heir as a wife in return for aid. Aegon spurned the offer and offered instead to marry Argilac’s daughter to his baseborn half-brother Orys Baratheon. When Argilac refused, offended at the idea of his daughter marrying a bastard, Aegon decided to invade. No grand holy destiny, no mystical purpose. Just pure and simple offended pride and ambition for power. That’s why Aegon invaded Westeros.

He succeeded because he had dragons.

To my mind, the havoc, devastation, death, destruction, and horrors inflicted because of dragons (both literal and metaphorical) far outweigh any magical destiny. Yet such a magical destiny doesn’t exist, which only highlights just how utterly pointless and empty Targaryen invasion and rule is at its core. Dragons make it seem cool, but it’s imperialism and colonialism at its heart.

I happen to think this is part of a point Martin is making and have thought so since before the release of Fire and Blood. To my mind, this book only furthers my case even as it muddies the waters. Liking and sympathizing with certain Targaryen family members obfuscates the point, making it harder to see dragons as weapons of mass destruction and Targaryens as invasive forces in Westeros, but it does not make that point moot.

Likewise, Martin uses propaganda—such as the doctrine of Targaryen exceptionalism—both in-universe and with the reader as a second war front. More than once he speaks of the “war with words” that is the Targaryen propaganda machine. It may be polite invasion, but it’s invasion nonetheless in the form of tolerance for Targaryen imperialism. Rather than use violence or force, some Targaryens use persuasive arguments to convince the Westerosi (and the audience) of their legitimacy and right to rule Westeros.

Let’s not forget point of view bias, the literary device Martin is most famous for. The maesters who write the in-universe histories, including Fire and Blood, have themselves been convinced of Targaryen legitimacy or appear to have been. At the very least they are unable to be outspoken of any doubts they may have of Targaryen rule as a whole even if they have biases for or against any one particular Targaryen king.

But just as we’re meant to question point of view bias in ASOIAF proper, we’re meant to do the same with the histories. Most importantly, I believe we’re meant to think long and hard about Targaryen rule and legitimacy. While many fans bicker over who is the ‘true heir’ to Aerys—be it Dany, Jon Snow, or Aegon—we should be asking if any of them ought to be sitting a throne founded on naked ambition and violent conquest. Like the lords we see in Fire and Blood, we’re bickering over which child of which invader should sit a throne founded on death and devastation instead of questioning the entire system.

Martin clearly isn’t a fan of feudalism or imperialism. I feel like that shouldn’t have to be said, but it may need to be given certain discussions I’ve seen in the fandom. To my mind, all the horrors of the Dance in particular and Targaryen rule in general are meant to force us to question Targaryen rule. Much as we enjoy certain characters, I know I certainly do, it can’t get in the way of asking the broader questions. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about Martin as a writer. He finds ways to nuance even his critiques. Life isn’t clear cut, and even interesting, compelling, and empathic characters/people participate in messed up systems. We can both love and identify with these characters/people and challenge the system they exist in.

7. The Systematic Disempowerment of Targaryen Women: More Evidence of Martin’s Feminist Agenda

I have so many feelings about Rhaenyra Targaryen and many, many things to say. I’ll never shut up about her.

Speaking of challenging systems, Martin shows his hand when it comes to the disempowerment of women in Westeros, especially Targaryen female heirs. I’ve written an essay about disempowered women, the first of a multi-part series I have planned detailing Martin’s embedded feminist critique of patriarchy and the way it shuts women out of power. I dedicated a huge chunk of that to the Targaryen dynasty; Fire and Blood gave me even more to talk about that I plan to work into my essay series. The number of times Martin goes out of his way to mention that a female heir was passed over “purely out of consideration of her gender” (or something similar) alone…it’s so obvious he thinks this is bullshit.

Rhaenyra may be the most famous and most clear cut example of a Targaryen disempowered female heir, but she’s far from the only one. There’s Rhaenys, her aunt, and Rhaena, eldest child of Aenys I and Alyssa. Each of these women is clearly passed over in favor of a male heir. Archmaester Gyldayn, the in-universe narrator of Fire and Blood, goes of out of his way to delegitimize, villainize, or flat out dismiss each of them, as well as any other Targaryen female heirs. It’s almost comical, and clearly meant to raise our eyebrows.

Most tellingly is one of Martin’s retcons from TWOIAF. In the worldbook, the birth order of Jaehaerys’ and Alysanne’s children differs from what we see in Fire and Blood. Moreover, Martin exchanges a male child who dies in infancy with a daughter, Daenerys. This new second-born child of Jaehaerys and Alysanne lives after the death of their firstborn, baby boy Aegon. The difference between how Jaehaerys and Alysanne think of her is highly significant,

“Jaehaerys loved all three children fiercely, but from the moment Aemon was born, the king began to speak of him as his heir, to Queen Alysanne’s displeasure. ‘Daenerys is older,’ she would remind His Grace. ‘She is the first in line; she should be queen.’ The king would never disagree, except to say, ‘She shall be queen, when she and Aemon marry. They will rule together just as we have.’ But Benifer could see that the king’s words did not entirely please the queen, as he noted in his letters.” (Fire and Blood, p. 256)

Alysanne prefers absolute primogeniture. As eldest child, she believes Daenerys should inherit the throne, period. Jaehaerys thinks somewhat differently. While he acknowledges Daenerys’ queenship, he does so only as she is consort to a male Targaryen ruler, their son Aemon, who, albeit younger than Daenerys, is male. To Jaehaerys, a woman rules only as queen and consort to a man, not in her own right, even if she is the elder.

Jaehaerys’ views are a microcosm of how Targaryens—and Westeros as a whole—view female power. It’s always secondary to and only a consequence of authority wielded by a related male. In my opinion, Alysanne clearly represents what Martin believes should be true of society. She’s consistently depicted as the wiser, more intelligent, and more progressive of the pair. Jaehaerys’ other sexist behavior, though overall ‘benign’, only serves to highlight that he’s in the wrong, as is this entire worldview.

Your mileage may vary, but to my mind Fire and Blood more than proves Martin’s feminist agenda. While he has been critiqued in the past—legitimately to my mind given how subtle his critique can be at times and how blurry the line can be between depicting the problem and propagating it—I believe Fire and Blood should put minds at ease. As I said at the outset, this is a book about women. It’s a book about how women have been shut out from historical records despite being influencers and powerhouses throughout history. It’s a book that takes a direct look at female disempowerment and sharply criticizes it and those who support it. If you’re skeptical about George R. R. Martin, Feminist, Fire and Blood is the book that ought to change your mind.

Images Courtesy of Bantam Books

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