Tower of the Hand

Johnny reviews The Rogue Prince

Tags: Review, TRP
6/19/2014 9:00:00 AM ET

Although it is shorter than George R. R. Martin's last "short" story by almost every measure-- length, dialogue, action, significance-- "The Rogue Prince" matches "The Princess and the Queen" exactly in terms of style and purpose. It's told from the same humorless perspective of one Archmaester Gyldayn. It focuses on the same set of characters from an only slightly earlier era. And TRP is, like TPATQ, a boon to those of us who love the history of A Song of Ice and Fire. But for all its similarities, is "The Rogue Prince" as good as "The Princess and the Queen?" Is it even any good at all?

dragonsssguild.jpgTRP offers context to the context of TPATQ, with none of the dragon battles. (Artist: Steph Jones)

George R. R. Martin is a master short story teller. It's evident in A Song of Ice and Fire; you could pluck a lot of chapters out of context-- say AFFC: The Princess in the Tower, or ADWD: Bran III-- present them to readers unfamiliar with any part of ASOIAF, and they'd understand and appreciate the chapters as much as they would any short story. It's also easy to forget that before he became a household name, GRRM had to make a career out of selling short fiction to magazines and anthologies (as opposed to publishing novels, of which he's only finished three in his lifetime outside of ASOIAF). He's the winner of 4 Hugos, 2 Nebulas, and 1 World Fantasy Award, all in recognition of his short stories and novellas. So there's no doubt that GRRM has the bona fides to tell a short story.

But "The Rogue Prince" and "The Princess and the Queen" are huge departures from his usual writing technique. They are history lessons, delivered without verve or urgency by a fictional scholar who only deviates from his own objectiveness when he wants to comment on the inaccuracy of others' accounts. The unreliability of the narrator is perhaps one message that GRRM hopes to convey with these histories, but otherwise, they are about as straightforward as you'll ever see from a work of GRRM. They are all plot, moving steadily from point A to point B, with no time for complex characters, deep symbolism, or lyrical prose.

So the success of these short stories must rely on something other than their literariness: the subject matter. Indeed, I suspect the quality of material in the upcoming World of Ice and Fire book will vary wildly because some subjects simply will be more interesting than others. "The Princess and the Queen" was entertaining because its subject-- the Targaryen civil war known as the "Dance of the Dragons"-- was epic. Not only did TPATQ give context to an event frequently referenced in the ASOIAF novels, it also featured some very exciting dragon battles that hinted at what we might yet see with Dany's dragons. "The Rogue Prince," on the other hand, is merely a prequel to "The Princess and the Queen." It only offers context to the context, with none of the dragon battles. As a result, it's tough to become fully invested in its subject, ostensibly the relationship between King Viserys and Prince Daemon.

Daemon is portrayed here as a much crueler man than he was in TPATQ. There was always a disconnect in that story between how other characters regarded him and what we saw of him, so TRP does well in explaining that he is perhaps more ruthless than roguish. We witness his rivalry with his brother Viserys, which may seem reminiscent of Euron/Victarion Greyjoy, except Viserys never sees it in such competitive terms. In fact, Viserys is forgiving of Daemon's misdeeds to the point of inanity. We learn how both brothers came to be with the women that define TPATQ, and there is quite a bit more sexual hijinx in TRP than I remember being in TPATQ. Gyldayn labels most of these indiscretions "salacious," but lists them anyway. I'm glad for it, as I found them to be the most revealing details about these characters.

Since we know the ultimate fates of most of the characters in TRP, there are few surprises to be had, but that doesn't mean it fails to address questions that TPATQ left unanswered. TRP states right in its subtitle what I had spent 1,000 words trying to figure out: Daemon is indeed Viserys' brother. It also settles the matter of the Targaryen succession, at least as to how Viserys came to the Iron Throne. (Viserys was the first son of the not-first son of Jaehaerys I.) There are a few other TPATQ mysteries solved, too. Why was Ser Criston Cole the Kingmaker such a staunch supporter of Aegon? (Reports vary, but he was either a spurned lover of Rhaenyra's or he was severely turned off by her advances.) Why did two of Rhaenyra's sons have traditional Valyrian names-- Jacaerys and Lucerys-- while the third had an ignoble name like Joffrey? (Laenor named him to honor his dead lover. Ha!) What happened to Harwin Strong, the alleged father of Jace, Luke, and Joffrey? (He burned to death in a tower, with too many suspects to choose from.) Why was there so much enmity between the sons of Rhaenyra and Aegon? (Boys will be boys.)

Notice that none of these yield answers that are particularly illuminating. After all, if a detail was significant, it was likely given in TPATQ. It begs the question why TRP wasn't included as part of the TPATQ in the first place. The subject isn't that interesting on its own. The story feels unfinished. The revelations don't change how we look at TPATQ. Together, though, the two short stories form a more complete account of the Dance of the Dragons, and their split seems only to satisfy the titles of the two anthologies being pushed to publication. Certainly, Daemon Targaryen was a rogue, and Alicent Hightower a dangerous woman, but let's be honest. Neither should merit consideration as anything other than a side character; they are missing for large swaths of their own stories. No, the title of the combined tale ought to be-- boring as it may sound-- "The Princess and the Prince," because the stars of this show are Princess Rhaenyra and Prince Aegon. How could it be anyone else when those two are the figurative dragons who dance?

Then again, "The Princess and the Queen" ended rather abruptly, with fighting between the blacks and the greens still waging, even though Rhaenyra was dead and Aegon not long for the world. Perhaps there is a third part to Gyldayn's account that is waiting to be told in the next appropriately named anthology. Or maybe what happens next will be the focus of a fourth part, which is actually a prequel to the third part. But, honestly, I think I've learned all that I can about the Dance of the Dragons and I'm ready to move on to a new subject.

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