Our long wait for more George R.R Martin content – it’s been a year and four months since we got “The Forsaken” – has ended, as we now have “Sons of the Dragon,” an unexpurgated version of the reigns of King Aenys and King Maegor.
Now that the withdrawal shakes have faded, what new information do we get about their reigns?
I have something of a mixed feeling about this particular short story. I was initially not that interested, both because these particular years aren’t my favorite period of Westerosi history and because I felt we’d already gotten a pretty full account in the WOIAF, so I thought this essay wouldn’t really add anything new. That particular concern has been pretty solidly answered – there’s a wealth of new material in this short story, and it really does add to our understanding of the period.
On the other hand, not everything new is that good. I’ll get into this more when I begin to move through the text, but apparently this short story is the un-edited first draft that GRRM wrote and not the edited (and abdridged) version that went into WOIAF, and it shows. Names change, plot threads get dropped and various plot holes emerge, and other kinds of continuity errors emerge (and given my own mistakes in the High Spider, I’m hardly one to judge too harshly), but beyond these issues there’s a larger issue that an editor should have brought up: namely that the story get a bit same-y and repetitive and could have really used some tightening up to prove smoother narrative arcs.
This section is mostly concerned with establishing the sharp distinctions between Aenys and Maegor – the former sickly but charismatic, the latter ridiculously physically robust but unpopular – but there’s plenty to talk about.
For one thing, one of the things that “Sons” does which WOIAF didn’t was to ironically establush Aenys as daddy’s favorite and Maegor as loved only by his mother – I liked the touch of Maegor being given Dark Sister by his mother, although that sets up an unfortunate overshadowing when he gets Blackfyre in a bit – which is an interesting subversion from the way that we usually gender these things. (I was surprised that Aenys was made a passable warrior in this draft, since that cuts across themes in a way that doesn’t really payoff)
One thing I didn’t like as much was how heavy-handed this section was about Maegor’s psychopathy. Going back to the Joffrey well of having the young prince “butcher one of the castle cats” was doubly strange to me, because why have “this tale…a calumny devised by his enemies many years later” if it was open fact that Maegor stabbed a horse to death for kicking him, and then “slashed half the face off the stable-boy who came running at the beast’s screams”? If it’s public knowledge that Maegor was murdering animals and people from an early age, why go to the effort of inventing slanders?
One thing that this section did nicely was to really build up the idea of how unstable Aegon’s Conquest was on religious grounds and how widely incest was abominated.*(Speaking as the writer of the life of the High Spider, I actually laughed out loud when I read that “there was a single god with seven faces” – clearly the High Spider’s work outlived him!) For example, we learn that “many amongst the Most Devout” wanted the High Septon to come out against Aegon I and opposed his decision to anoint the Targaryen Conqueror. It certainly makes it more credible that a religious rebellion would inevitably boil up if for twenty six years “the question of incestuous marriage remained, simmering below the courties like poison.”
* This may be me reading more into it than is on the page, but I thought it was interesting that “the doctrines of the Faith, handed down through centuries from Andalos itself, condemned the Valyrian marriage customs” seems to suggest that the Andal taboo was something of a reaction to the Valryians themselves. Although notably the taboo seems limited to direct relations, with cousins and uncle/aunt-niece/nephew marriages left out, which is a much, much narrower taboo than the medieval Catholic Church.
Another nice bit of of worlbuilding that I quite liked was the new information that Aegon the Conqueror had “exempt[ed] its wealth and property from taxation,” which makes the Faith move that much closer to the medieval Catholic Church in prosperity if not in political power.
Other small details:
- Interesting running theme in this section about fertility vs. strength in arms, foreshadowing Maegor’s all-consuming problem later on.
- I loved the inclusion of Sargoso Saan, yet another illustrious piratical relative of our own good friend Salladhor.
- Blackfyre being burned with Aegon and yet not burning is a nice visual.
The Reign of King Aenys (yes, go ahead and snigger):
While I liked the theme of a class divergence in public opinion, with the smallfolk liking Aenys (at first) and the nobility preferring Maegor, the bit with Blackfyre didn’t work for me. It was too close a foreshadowing to Daemon Blackfyre and frankly doesn’t really make sense in-universe; why would Visenya make that big a deal about the sword when Aegon the Conqueror himself pressed Blackfyre into Aenys’ hands? Seems a poor argument to rest one’s case on.
The revolts against Aenys were some of my favorite additions to the text, as they really added political context from many different angles: in addition to the idea of the scars of the War of Conquest, you have a nice parallel to Aegon V with the knights and lords bemoaning their lost liberty to “slash their way to riches and glory…to tax their smallfolk or kill their enemies.” This gives the sense that there were two distinct revolts against Aenys: one by the nobility and one by the smallfolk.
To get into more detail:
- While the additional fatshaming of Lord Gargon Qoherys is really not needed, GRRM, I did like the fleshing out of the story of Harren the Red: the outraged father being the one to betray Gargon the Guest, the ongoing theme of animals eating humans in Harrenhal fits nicely with ASOS/AFFC, etc. Also, I liked the inclusion of the origins of House Brune here.
- We get a wealth of new information about the Vulture King, which ties in his “rebellion” in with the Dornish Wars, as he “called on all true Dornishmen to avenge the evils visited on Dorne by the Targaryens.” Especially with the information that Deria Martell was “playing a double game” by denouncing him publicly but sending him arms and trained men, it definitely gives a sense of the Dragon’s Wroth backfiring on them even unto the next generation. (Not as much a fan of the No-Nose Dondarrion; that’s going to the same well a bit much for me.) And his downfall of trying to attack Stonehelm and Nightsong at the same time, as well as the nature of “Savage” Sam Tarly’s trap and his meting out of vengeance worked really well.
- Still no new info about the great council…sigh.
- We don’t get much new information about the Vale here, although it is interesting to see the Royces once again acting as the Loyal Opposition…and given that the current line of Arryns has Royce blood in them, that fits quite well.
The revolt of the Faith Militant is also given a huge amount of new material, some of which I’ve talked about before and some of which I’ll touch on in a bit. I would like to know more about the “Valyrian rite” (although the “wed by blood and fire” betrays GRRM’s overmuch love for sticking his house words into places where they don’t work) of Maegor’s second marriage, and I found it somewhat surprising that the Faith Militant didn’t try to prevent the marriage of Aegon and Rhaena given that they would seize the capitol very shortly; I especially liked the detail of them taking over the worksite of the Red Keep.
The Reign of King Maegor:
We finally get the identities of the participants of Maegor’s Trial by Seven: Ser Damon Morrigen, Ser Lyle Bracken (hey, a good Bracken for once!), Ser Harys Hopre, Ser Aegon Ambrose (ironically named if so), Ser Dickon Flowers (another highborn Reach bastard in the Warrior’s Sons!), and a Septon Knight on one side, and Dick Bean, Ser Bramm of Blackhull, Ser Rayford Storby, Ser Guy Lothston (again, with the fate hate, GRRM?), and Ser Lucifer Massey on the other. And I could see why GRRM cut the details on the fight (the forty pies, the swapping hands, and so on are pretty OTT) .
After Maegor’s duel, we get the expanded info on the Revolt of the Faithful: in addition to learning that the Warrior’s Sons had a chapter in Oldtown, Lannisport, Gulltown, and Stony Sept (another of the High Spider’s works!) we learn about Ser Horys Hill (who’s a bit new), Wat the Hewer (who’s not, although what happens to him is quite new and grisly), the Fighting Fool, and so on.*
* incidentally, this is where I get a bit annoyed with the pacing, because having the section on the Poor Fellows before the Great Fork and then another section after, and then again after the Godseye contributes to the same-y feel of some of this. (Ditto, it feels like Maegor outlaws the Faith Militant once before Bitterbridge, a second time after his third marriage, and then again after he takes Oldtown.) Some consolidation would have worked wonders.
But coming back to stuff I liked not as much: having Maegor cut off the head of Grand Maester Gawen is quite shocking; when he cuts off the head of Grand Maester Myres, it’s less shocking and leads to a gradual process of de-sensitization where GRRM has to keep upping the stakes of atrocities, especially when he kills the third one. You start to wonder after a while why anyone bothered sending new ones, or why in hell Alyssa would ever agree to come back to the Red Keep from Driftmark when the king is murdering people left, right, and center. (Also, while we’re on the issue of slander…if it’s open fact that Alys Harroway jumped into bed with Maegor and Tyanna, why bother making stuff up with the Black Brides?)
I especially liked the Year of Three Queens, which brings with it a bunch of new Faith Militant desperadoes – Ragged Silas, Septon Moon (who I really liked, especially when he gets crowned as High Septon and starts giving Jon Ball-like speeches in front of thousands…I would really like it if he became High Septon in fact at some future point), Ser Joffrey “Red Dog” Doggett and his blessing by the High Septon, and Poxy Jeyne Poore (another favorite). I especially liked the bit with the Red Dog sending out his men in the guise of hedge knights to assassinate Maegor’s cronies.
My one dislike is that I felt that Visenya and Maegor burning the Reach and the Westerlands felt A. a bit too similar to the Dance of the Dragons, and B. not well-edited (since a bunch of the Houses aren’t from the right regions). I will say that the description of Maegor’s march on Oldtown, with the full version of the city’s preparations and the High Septon’s assassination, was a real improvement and put me in mind of the High Spider quite a bit. The additional info of Ceryse Hightower being given her “rights, incomes, and privileges” really makes it seem like the Hightowers cut a deal to whack the High Septon and deliver the votes for the new one.
The Battle of the Godseye is another improvement. We learn a lot more about Prince Aegon’s supporters (although not how his dragon got to him from King’s Landing…): he was supported by the Tarbeckes, Pipers, Rootes, Vances, Charltons, Freys (a rare example of a daring Frey), Paeges, Parrens, Westerlings, Corbrays, Dustins (a rare case of Northern political activity), and a Connington, whereas Maegor was backed by the Harroways, Tullys, Rowans, Merryweathers, and Caswells. (I did like Alyssa conniving with the Baratheons, Arryns, Starks, and Lannisters.) The description of the encirclement of Prince Aegon’s army was particularly well done. (Btw, I noticed a continuing theme of lethal Corbrays…)
The downfall of House Harroway is turned into Anne Boleyn on steroids, with Alys being accused of incest with her father, a list of twenty men put to the torture, her father flung from the roof of the Tower of the Hand, his male king thown into the moat around Maegor’s Holdfast, and then Harrenhal and Lord Harroway’s town purged as well. Interesting that even after the melee, Harrenhal’s “domains were much diminished, as the king granted Lord Harroway’s Town to Lord Alton Butterwell, and the rest of the Harroway holdings to Lord Domand Darry.” (To still be the richest fief in ASOIAF, they must have gotten some back since, since we know the Butterwells have their fall.)
Moving on to 45 AC, Ceryse’s death is gruesomely expanded on, although I still wonder why the need for the slander. The setpiece of the death of Poxy Jeyne was quite good, although again the back-and-forth is a bit annoying.
Moving on to 46 AC, I liked the addition of the council’s advice that led to the Black Brides, although the bit of business with Rhaena and her daughter was a bit unlikely. Likewise, I don’t get the need for the legends around the Black Brides. The bit about “his privy parts were poisoned, his seed full of worms” was a nice addition, though.
The fall of Maegor has some nice additions – Ser Joffrey Doggett as Lord Tully’s guest, Septon Moon’s march on Oldtown, a possible Dornish invasion, etc. Jaehaerys being given Dark Sister and Blackfyre seems a bit superfluous as with before.
Finally, six years and sixty-six days…oh, GRRM.