Review: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, George R R Martin

Game of Thrones is drawing to a close.  Soon we will find out the ultimate occupant of the Iron Throne.  Except.  It’s happening all wrong.  It’s on TV rather than on the page.  There’s still no sign of when The Winds of Winter will ever arrive and only a blind optimist still expects to ever read A Dream of Spring.  There are a lot of reasons why this has happened.  The series has become overburdened with its huge cast, each of whom seem to have complex sub-plots of their own, the young people started out too young and Martin was never able to incorporate his planned five year leap … and so on.  A Song of Ice and Fire has come to feel a little doomed.  Martin seems now more in love with the setting he has created, the land of Westeros, than with the series which must be a source of enormous pressure.  With this in mind, it seemed a good time to step back and look at A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, the collection of Dunk and Egg novellas, set a century before the War of the Five Kings.  Rather than the frustrations of the current situation, I wanted to remember what drew me to Westeros in the first place.The tales of Dunk and Egg refer to the legendary Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire, Egg.  More on the latter later.  The characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, particularly the younger ones, occasionally tell stories of Ser Duncan’s legendary prowess and there are hints that he is an ancestor to Ser Brienne of Tarth.  In A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, Martin charts his rise from Flea Bottom scamp and slow climb up the knightly ladder.  The first story is The Hedge Knight, then on to The Sell Sword and then finally The Mystery Knight.  In classic Martin style, a further four novellas are planned but none have been released since 2010.

We know from Maester Aemon up at the Night’s Watch that Dunk eventually rises high, becoming Lord Commander of the Kingsguard under King Aegon the Unlikely, one of the great Targaryen kings.  When we first encounter Dunk however, he is seventeen years old, nearly seven feet tall and a mere hedge knight with barely a penny to his name.  He has only the most forlorn of hopes that he will ever improve his circumstances.  After the death of his master, Dunk sets off for the Ashford tourney, knowing that one lost lance will be the end of his ambitions.  The loser at a joust has to give up his armour and sword to the victor.  If they want them back, they have to pay a ransom and Dunk has no money to do so.

At an inn on the way however, Dunk meets a stable boy with a shaved head who goes by the name of Egg.  Despite attempts to shake him off, Egg is insistent that a knight always needs a squire and that Dunk needs one even more than the average knight.  Having also once been a boy all alone in the world, Dunk feels protective and makes a place for him.  Dunk stands in contrast to most if not quite all the knights they meet at the tourney since despite his low birth, he cares less about the glory and more about what the knightly code of conduct.  In this he has much in common with his descendant Brienne of Tarth.  Both stand as outsiders and yet both show greater honour and valour than those born to the life. Egg has chosen his mentor well.

The relationship between Dunk and Egg gives the stories their heart.  Even when Egg’s true identity is discovered (spoilers: he is no mere stable boy), his admiration for Dunk is unquestionable.  Aged eight in the first story, he has been surrounded for all his life with figures of authority and yet he finds none so worthy of his loyalty and respect as this nobody from Flea Bottom.  The contrast between the boy Egg and the position he holds is striking in each story – he can go from scared child running to Dunk for help to angry lordling in less than a minute.  In the same way, when Dunk realises who his squire really is, his fondness for the boy never wavers.  He understands what it is to seek adventure.  They are a fantastic double act.

The pair travel through a Westeros which is both different and rather similar to the one we are familiar with from Ice and Fire.  On the one hand, the Targaryens are secure on the Iron throne and have been for centuries.  It is unthinkable for another house to take their place.  However, exactly which Targaryen or indeed Targaryen descendant will get that sought after seat remains a sorely contested question. A twist of fate, a misplaced swing of a mace – everything can change so quickly.  The Blackfyre rebellions keep on coming and you will never get an outcome that pleases everyone.

As a long-term nerd, I have always enjoyed seeing how George R R Martin takes the events of history, jazzes them up and then plonks them in Westeros.  The Blackfyre rebellions makes for a fantastic re-working of both the Monmouth rebellion and the further Jacobite insurgencies.  The choice between the Red and Black Dragon, between Daemon Targaryen and his half-brother Daeron Blackfyre also bears similarities to the Stephen-Matilda conflict.  Perhaps because of this, but for other reasons too, there were moments in all three stories which reminded me of The Brother Cadfael Mysteries.  That in itself indicates a real shift in pace from Ice and Fire, with a more gentle mood behind Seven Kingdoms despite the shared brutal landscape.

Although I enjoyed all three, my favourite was The Sworn Sword.  In this one, Dunk and Egg find themselves in service to Ser Eustace Osgrey, an aged knight who lost all of his children one way or another during the first Blackfyre rebellion.  Ser Eustace comes into conflict with the lady in the neighbouring manor and Dunk tries to help keep the peace, then has to train the local villagers for battle.  The shadow of Blackfyre hangs over the entire story.  Early on, we hear that Ser Eustace spends all his time with his boys in the blackberry patch.  Only later do we discover that this is where they were all buried.  The reason why the villagers are so ill-suited for battle is that a generation was wiped out fighting for their lord during the rebellion.  Ser Eustace’s pride in his family name has grown twisted and is bound up with Blackfyre and his speech about how the events unfolded is one of the most iconic passages that Martin has ever written.  Ser Eustace understands the game of thrones better than anyone – he has well and truly lost the round.

I can see why the people of Westeros would remember Ser Duncan the Tall with affection, but Seven Kingdoms concludes before he has really hit his stride.  We are still a long, long way before he reaches the command of the Kingsguard and other than the incident at the Ashford tourney, one wonders whether any of these tales would be ones memorable enough to retell by the fireside.  Martin has not yet made Dunk a legend.  The stories are more about what it takes to truly be a knight – the risk, obstacles, sacrifice and how very, very easy it is to fall short.  Some hedge knights lose their rounds deliberately in the hope of securing favour from the lord who has ‘bested’ them.  Others sneer at the master they serve and try to steal when his back is turned.  In harsh winters, an impoverished knight may resort to highway robbery.  Ser Duncan the Tall is determined not to be any of these.

Despite the bleak moments, there is a sweetness to A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms which made it a real comfort read.  Egg is a lovely child who manages to be wise beyond his years without ever being irritating.  He can reel off the heraldry of every major house which makes him a useful guide to both Dunk and the reader and given the boy’s background, it is hardly surprising that he is an expert.  I had managed to read The Hedge Knight years ago but I was especially glad to find the stories in one place because they come with Gary Gianni’s stunning illustrations.  I loved how he captured Egg, particularly the straw hat.  The tales of Dunk and Egg were pleasure enough but with Gianni’s artwork, Seven Kingdoms becomes a book of rare beauty.  No matter how Ice and Fire finishes, I will always want to read more about Westeros.

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A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms Published by HarperCollins UK on October 6th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic, Historical, Action & Adventure, War & Military, General
Pages: 368
ISBN: 9780007500413

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