Book Review: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (George R.R. Martin, 2015)

A superb trio of novellas set a century before the events of Game of Thrones.

This really is a must-read for fans of George R.R. Martin’s magisterial A Song of Ice and Fire series. A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is a compilation of three stories that follow hedge knight Ser Duncan the Tall (known as Dunk) and his impish squire Egg around a happier and more stable Westeros, still reigned over by House Targaryen. We get a load of intriguing historical back-story, and a richly satisfying array of characters and details that it’s a delight to immerse yourself in.

The first novella, The Hedge Knight, first published in 1998, is I’d say the strongest of the three. The lowborn but newly knighted Dunk, a charmingly stolid, instantly likeable POV character, travels to a tourney at Ashford hoping to earn a crust by winning a couple of jousts. On the way there he takes on ‘Egg’, an insolent shaven-headed urchin, as his squire, without yet realising that Egg is in fact Aegon Targaryen, the free-spirited youngest son of the youngest son of the king. Upon arriving at Ashford, Dunk and Egg are embroiled in a thrilling storyline involving a confrontation with unstable princeling Aerion ‘Brightflame’, and a series of jousts with tremendously high stakes.

This first story is the standout mainly because it has such a memorable cast of secondary characters, particularly the frankly awesome heir to the throne Baelor ‘Breakspear’ Targaryen. There’s also a perfectly judged mixture of world-building exposition and fast-moving action set-pieces – a mixture that actually gets a little bit skewed in the other two novellas.

In the second tale, The Sworn Sword, written in 2004, Martin changes up the scale and the tone. While The Hedge Knight deals more with the royal family and major affairs of state, this novella sees Dunk and Egg in service to a penniless old knight, Ser Eustace Osgrey, and arbitrating a dispute with a local rival. This low-level feuding between minor nobles makes for a quieter story with lower stakes, though certainly still a compelling one. We also learn a great deal of history about the fascinating Blackfyre Rebellion – though perhaps there’s a touch too much exposition here, and this, combined with the slight dramatic shift-down, means The Sworn Sword as a whole has less of an impact than its predecessor.

The final instalment is The Mystery Knight, published in 2010. This one focuses on a conspiracy to launch a second Blackfyre Rebellion, and also boasts a plethora of indelible characters, such as albino spymaster Lord Bloodraven and the charismatic Ser John the Fiddler. The storyline is more complex than the other two, with double-crossings, disguises, and overheard conversations galore, and is a real page-turner as a result. In spite of this I felt that it suffered marginally from, again, too much exposition, and a few elements of the plot didn’t quite click.

Even with these small flaws in the second and third stories, taken as a whole A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is an enormously enjoyable dose of literary Westeros to tide you over until the release of The Winds of Winter. The living, breathing world that Martin has created with its tapestry of families, sigils and histories is yet again vividly realised, and in a way that lets you wallow in it all a little more thanks to the absence of the apocalyptic urgency that besets the main novels. The two heroes are always great company, the narrative arcs are well-crafted and exciting, and the prose is as clear and strong as ever. I can only hope that GRRM will eventually bring out further instalments, and see the Dunk and Egg saga out to its conclusion.

Edition:

Harper Voyager | 2015 | 355p | Hardback | Buy here

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