George R. R. Martin’s ”The Princess and the Queen,” a novella exploring the history of Westeros — the setting for his Song of Ice and Fire series and the HBO drama it inspired — clocks in at 35,000 words. With Game of Thrones months away from returning and Martin’s next volume still a dream on the horizon, consider ”The Princess and the Queen” an oversize stocking stuffer to keep you warm during this cruel winter.
The princess and the queen are Rhaenyra Targaryen and her stepmother, Queen Alicent, whose rivalry explodes into continent-burning warfare. Anyone searching for clues about beloved Thrones characters will be disappointed; the story is set nearly two centuries before the series proper. Good news: There are a lot more dragons. Less good news: It is written as deep history, with a style closer to Tolkien’s faux-biblical prose than Martin’s dialogue-rich snap. Some paragraphs consist of little more than lists of confusingly identical names: Aemon and Aemond and Daemon, plus two guys named Aegon, all trying to kill each other.
But the novella is also a great demonstration of Martin’s ability to dramatize the slippery complexities of power: how evil begets heroism, how heroes become villains. And he still has an eye for addictive detail, like ”skulls grinning under rusted helms as their green and rotted flesh sloughed off their bones.” ”The Princess and the Queen” is densely packed with warfare, politicking, bloody melodrama, and dragon-on-dragon assault. It reads like Martin’s outline for a Game of Thrones prequel that never was. B+