The greatest empire in the history of the known world was the Valyrian Freehold. From volcanic Old Valyria dragons and their riders conquered most of the world, until the Doom destroyed the empire in a single day of fire and smoke. Thousands of miles to the west, the Targaryen family was the only group of Valyrian dragonriders to survive the catastrophe. Rather than try to reclaim the homeland or seize the colonial territories, the Targaryens instead turned their eye west, to the great continent of Westeros where seven kings and queens vied for power against one another. Aegon the Conqueror and his sister-wives Rhaenys and Visenya conquered the land with their dragons and gave birth to a dynasty that would rule the continent for nearly three hundred years.
The history of Fire and Blood is an unusual one. Way back in 2007, George R.R. Martin's publishers suggested they release a companion volume to the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin agreed, but his workload on the novel A Dance with Dragons prevented him from writing it immediately so he suggested that Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson (who ran the largest ASoIaF fansite, Westeros.org) write the book using the material they had collected together over the years from the books and some notes he had provided. When he finished Dragons he would write a few thousand words of introduction and sidebars.
As is now well-known, Martin took longer than expected to write and publish A Dance with Dragons, so it wasn't until 2012 that he finally delivered the sidebars and notes he'd promised...but rather than a few thousand words, he'd ended up writing about 300,000 words in the space of a few months. Although this encompassed many parts of the backstory and setting, the centrepiece was a massive section on the history of the Targaryen kings, running from Aegon the Conqueror to Aegon III in extreme detail. Needless to say, this was far too much and Garcia and Antonsson found themselves massively compressing that material for the book eventually published in 2014 as The World of Ice and Fire. The question of what to do with the original, uncut manuscript arose, with Martin pondering releasing it as a stand-alone book (his "GRRMarillion" as he joked, referencing Tolkien's The Silmarillion). In the event he left as reference material and used excerpts from it as short stories for his various anthologies (The Princess and the Queen, The Rogue Prince and Sons of the Dragon).
In 2018, with the sixth and (hopefully) penultimate novel in the series, The Winds of Winter, still incomplete, Martin's publishers have decided to finally release this material as a stand-alone book. It's a curious beast in several respects. Despite the comparison, it really isn't a GRRM version of The Silmarillion. The Silmarillion covers the entire mythology and history of Middle-earth, from its creation through the ancient wars between the higher powers to the desperate War of the Jewels between the exiled Noldor elves and the forces of the first dark lord, Morgoth. It covered thousands (if not tens of thousands) of years and channelled an epic combination of Homer, the Bible and the heroic cycle of Gilgamesh. This tome is instead much more like a fictional version of Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It covers the first 135 years (or so) of the Targaryen dynasty in exacting detail, from Aegon's invasion and conquest of Westeros through the uprising of the Faith Militant against his children when they refused to give up the practice of incest through the long, eventful reign of Jaehaerys the Conciliator (who restored peace to the realm but only at grievous cost) and then to the massive, multi-sided civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons and its chaotic aftermath. The book cuts off at this point with the remainder of the story - the Young Dragon's invasion of Dorne, the debauched reign of Aegon the Unworthy, the five Blackfyre Rebellions, the tragedy of Summerhall, the War of the Ninepenny Kings and Robert's Rebellion - to follow in an as-yet unwritten successor volume;
How much you enjoy Fire and Blood will depend on several factors. The first is your pre-existing investment in the ASoIaF/Game of Thrones setting. If you really enjoy reading about fictional backstory, about the socio-economic underpinnings on why certain things happened, and if you like treating fantasy like real history, with the more lore and detail the better, then absolutely Fire and Blood is worth picking up. Although the broad strokes of the story are familiar from the main series, there's an absolute plethora of new information here, and dramatisations of key moments from the history of the Seven Kingdoms (when the high and somewhat remote style of much of the book gives way to almost novelistic out-takes of key scenes). There's also lots of completely new material, minor episodes, even small wars and skirmishes which have gone unmentioned so far in the main series.
If, on the other hand, you take the view that only as much backstory and worldbuilding should be there to support the main narrative at hand, and anything not related to that is irrelevant, then absolutely Fire and Blood is not for you. There's relatively little material in this book which I think will become relevant in the main series, a couple of minor elements aside.
As a narrative, Fire and Blood is more lively than I was expecting. Martin's structural conceit is that the book is the work of Archmaester Gyldayn, an archmaester preparing a history of the Targaryen dynasty in the time of King Robert Baratheon, and Gyldayn is happy to discuss both the dry, traditional histories and also the more salacious rumours of unreliable eyewitnesses (most entertainingly Mushroom, a court fool from the reign of Viserys I through Aegon III who kept careful records on everything that happened, although he often added an unnecessarily ribald slant). On occasion, Gyldayn seems to give up on trying to find the truth and instead presents several theories various maesters and historians have put forward, inviting the reader to work out what happened themselves (and providing fodder for many years of fan forum and Reddit discussions to come).
It helps that Martin stretches a few muscles here that he hasn't used in a while. In particular, in one downright disturbing episode (and arguably the book's highlight) he gets to use his skills as a horror writer that he hasn't fully deployed since the likes of Fevre Dream and The Skin Trade. In another he channels a history of maritime exploration and gives us a particularly intriguing mystery surrounding the very nature of the world itself.
The other thing that Martin does well here is engaging with thematic ideas. One of these is the sheer random chance of history, the number of times that history moves onto a completely different course due to one or two unforeseen events. If anything, Martin lowballs this compared to real world history, probably to make it feel more convincing. Another key point is the price and value of peace. The long reign of Jaehaerys I, the Conciliator, has been mentioned before but usually skipped over in any kind of detail. We know that Jaehaerys restored peace after the insanity of his uncle and the religious wars with the Faith, and we know that he built the Kingsroad and created the first codified set of laws, but apart from that the histories tend to skip almost immediately to his immediate descendants and their civil war, the Dance of the Dragons. But Martin fills the rule of Jaehaerys (which was really a co-rule by Jaehaerys and his sister-wife, Good Queen Alysanne) with intrigue, the aforementioned unusual mysteries and an interesting cohort of supporting characters. Jaehaerys and Alysanne's lives are difficult ones and they pay as much, if not more, of a price to keep the Seven Kingdoms in peace and prosperity than their ancestors and descendants would through war. Arguably this is the book's finest triumph, making the bits when people aren't smashing in each other's faces with morningstars as gripping and interesting as the bits where they do.
The level of detail does vary from episode to episode and I suspect people may have foregone the extremely lengthy account of Aegon III's regency in favour of more detail on the Conquest, or even on a prologue detailing the Targaryen's origins in Valyria (here very lightly skipped over), but I was surprised that the pacing held up as well as it did over such a long book (this book is as large as Martin's full-blown novels A Game of Thrones and A Feast for Crows, for comparison purposes, and isn't far off A Clash of Kings) given its non-traditional nature.
I would say one major omission (although this may be just my thing) is the lack of any maps. In fact, in at least the UK edition, there aren't any maps at all, not even the ones normally present in the novels. This is a major omission as the military campaigns make frequent mention of locations and places as the site of battles and the absence of maps sometimes makes it harder to visualise what's going on. It does have excellent illustrations by Doug Wheatley, however.
Fire and Blood (****) is something of an unorthodox book and one that is certainly packed with surprises, intrigue, action and occasional thought-provoking moments regarding historical processes, although the pace occasionally flags and some episodes feel like they didn't need quite so much detail. But if you enjoy the world of A Song of Ice and Fire and want to delve much more deeply into the lore and backstory, the book is a must buy. If you are less interested in that aspect of the setting, or irritated that Martin delayed The Winds of Winter by a few months to write this, then it's certainly not an essential, immediate purchase. The book is available now in the UK and USA.
Full disclosure: I am a moderator on the Westeros.org website and the creator Atlas of Ice and Fire website, so my investment in this work may be higher than most. Whilst I have tried to have been as honest as possible in my review, you may want to bear these factors in mind.