Tales Spun Around a Hedge Knight’s Fire
There are two ways to go with this book. One is to take it on its own merits: three well-crafted novellas with memorable characters getting into memorable messes in a well-loved setting. The other is to take it in socioeconomic context: three previously-published stories rereleased with illustrations, either as a fix for starving fans, a reminder that a new book may eventually come, or a money grab at the new and less-zealous among Martin’s readership.
If you’re among the newer fans, the book is undoubtedly worth a read. Everything we love about Martin is here: the deep and credible worldbuilding, the unexpected (and oft fatal) plot twists, the crooked but loveable characters and, of course, Martin’s top notch prose. Set 100 years before the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire, these novellas follow lumbering hedge knight Dunk (“Dunk the Lunk”) and his unusual squire Egg (secretly young Aegon of the still-in-power House Targaryen) through a series of tourneys and low-level political conflicts, with Egg’s secret identity and Dunk’s lumbering stature pulling them out of many a sticky situation. The stories are by turns dramatic, lackadaisical, humorous and insightful, spun in masterful prose.
Despite its similarities to A Song of Ice and Fire, there are a few big differences here. One is the pacing: for short stories where not a lot goes on, they take their time doing it. Unlike many of today’s break-neck shorts, these tales meander through the Westeros of old, an enjoyable way to fill an afternoon but perhaps not appropriate if you’ve only got fifteen minutes at lunch. There’s also little of the continuing drama of character we love in Martin, the rise or disastrous fall of personality that makes the series shine. In fact, despite Dunk and Egg being a likeable and well-matched pair, they don’t learn much in the course of the stories, nor do the tales have real bearing on the main series. They are more like tales told around a hedge knight’s humble fire, spun (and perhaps embellished) more to pass a long evening than to recount anything of true note.
That is one way to view the book. The other would be for those of us who read the Dunk and Egg stories years ago, already hungry (and now starving) for any new Song of Ice and Fire material. For us, all this book adds are some pleasant but superfluous illustrations, and the convenience of one volume should we choose to read them again (which I did, rather than outright die of malnourishment). For those few of us also trying to make a living as a writer (ahem, me), the fact that these “never-before-collected” (i.e. previously published) stories debuted at numbers two and three on the US and British bestseller lists can rub the wrong way. Sort of the like the valedictorian who applied for all the scholarships though she knew she was going to Harvard, just to take them from her peers, the move can appear more about money or ego than good fiction. Beware, dear readers, lest my cynicism corrupt your ample good nature.
What to make of A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms then? These are worthy tales, no doubt. If it is your first time around the hedge knight’s fire, they’ll serve well to pass a dull evening. Those of us who’ve sat here before, however, may wonder if the teller doesn’t recount them here (never-before-collected—with illustrations!) more for coin or attention than the true love of the tale.