This summer, be free of the need to read Fire & Blood
When Game of Thrones premiered in 2011, I was thrilled to be a “book reader.” As a recovering English major, I loved having another version of a story rattling around in my brain as I experienced a new movie or TV show, and much of my excitement for the series came from the seeming impossibility of translating George R.R. Martin’s dense high fantasy series into a mainstream HBO drama.
Over a decade later, and three years after A Song of Ice and Fire reached its (controversial) televisual end as one of the most successful shows of all time, HBO is counting on spinoff series House of the Dragon to recapture the magic; it adapts Martin’s Targaryen family history, Fire & Blood. And since I wrote about Game of Thrones from a book reader’s perspective for The A.V. Club and even wrote a book on the show, Polygon reached out to me to ask what readers should know about the source material heading into House of the Dragon’s August debut.
There was just one problem: I haven’t read Fire & Blood. And the request made me realize something that I had been too afraid to put into words: I do not want to read Fire & Blood. And I am officially submitting my proposal that we collectively resist the pressure to read an 800-page book to follow along when the spinoff premieres later this summer.
Maybe it’s just me, but being a “book reader” during Game of Thrones’ run was exhausting. In the beginning, it felt both fun and productive. Our knowledge of the books helped us acclimate other viewers to the sheer volume of characters and the depth of Martin’s world-building, and tracking changes to the story allowed for equal parts meaningful analysis of narrative adjustments and pedantic complaining about the absence of direwolves, two of my favorite pastimes. It might have seemed silly to an outside observer to have different reviews for “experts” and “newbies” across the internet, but it created a really fascinating insight into the adaptation, and I loved both writing and reading about it.
But as time went on, and the show veered further away from the story in the books, we had dug ourselves so deep into the Lady Stoneheart of it all that the ability to just watch and enjoy the show on its own merits felt out of reach. And when the show passed the books, we couldn’t dig ourselves out, struggling to grapple with the phantom of Martin’s unfinished volumes and take in the final season as something other than a purple-monkey-dishwasher rendition of his intended ending. Being a book reader became a burden, and I envied those who could just get angry on the internet about the finale as just a reaction to a TV show and not as A Whole Thing About The Books.
This was one of several reasons I skipped Fire & Blood when it came out in 2018, although I likely wasn’t alone in this; it’s written as an in-world history of the Targaryen family told by Archmaester Gyldayn of the Citadel, and Martin himself went to great lengths to emphasize that this was “not a novel,” instead collecting various bits of “imaginary history” together into what he jokingly dubbed the “GRRMarillion” in a nod to Tolkien’s history of Middle-earth. This distinction meant it was easy to put it aside for a rainy day, and even when it was announced as the source material for House of the Dragon, I didn’t feel a strong urge to rush out and read it; this wasn’t another character-driven narrative but rather a recording of historical events, which offers a more limited insight into how the show will approach the stories within.
And yet still my time as a “book reader” created this sense of shame as House of the Dragon has crept closer to being a reality, even though my resistance has only grown. As actors began to be cast in different roles, I watched the news alerts from Westeros.org come through my Twitter feed and realized I felt none of the thrill of watching it and other fan sites like Winter is Coming react to the casting news like back in 2009. It was clear to me that having an opinion about whether Matt Smith was good casting for so-and-so was entirely unappealing, and I dreaded the day I would inevitably cave and cover the show in my newsletter.
But why should any of us feel like we need to spend our beach days this summer poring over what some reviews have called “interminable” and “a mildly interesting, but often tedious, piece of homework”? Frankly, I don’t know that I’d even agree with these reviews were I to read the book; the idea of an in-world history actually sounds fine to me in the abstract. But after the discourse around Game of Thrones became so entangled with one’s relationship to the books, I am loath to re-enter those discourses solely because some combination of the internet content machine and the innate desire for wielding authority is hanging over me.
And so while I have no doubt that there will be explainers as to why you should read Fire & Blood before House of the Dragon, I stand before you suggesting that we should collectively resist this framework. Read it or don’t read it, but we need to normalize removing ourselves from this narrative, even if that puts me in the awkward position of discouraging the act of reading and advocating for the value of ignorance.
Although, it isn’t ignorance, really. When Game of Thrones launched, book readers offered a guide to a dense world that most viewers had no understanding of. But for anyone who followed that show for eight seasons, the world of House of the Dragon isn’t a complete mystery. Even a casual viewer understands the basic ethos of House Targaryen, and those of us who were in the trenches of book readership have plenty of frames of reference to be able to pick up new names and find our way in this older version of Westeros. In other words, we have enough context to simply treat this like we’d treat any spinoff: more of what we’re invested in, with the promise of that carefully constructed blend of familiarity and novelty.
And frankly, House of the Dragon already has enough to deal with without bringing the book into the equation. After a busted pilot from Jane Goldman starring Naomi Watts, this is HBO’s second crack at making a prequel to Game of Thrones, and there’s a lot riding on it considering how that show’s final season disrupted the momentum both on-screen with ratings and off-screen with licensing and merchandising. Will greater creative continuity through director and co-showrunners Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan J. Condal help the show recapture the essence of what made Thrones a cultural juggernaut in a way the failed pilot didn’t? Was this particular take on a spinoff — from Condal — chosen because it was the best, or because it had the word “dragon” in the title and captured the most recognizable bits of the franchise? The context of the show’s creation offers more than enough narrative to feel like it’s unnecessary to add “Does Emma D’Arcy capture the essence of *insert character name I’ll learn to spell in August by reading her IMDB page*?” to the mix.
Having been one myself, I hold no ill will toward book readers. I won’t begrudge anyone who shells out $10 for a mass-market paperback of Fire & Blood and reads it at the beach, on their commute back to the office, or with their Zoom camera off while working from home. I have no doubt that book readers will write valuable and trenchant insights that will help new and seasoned viewers alike engage with the story being told, and I sincerely hope it enriches their experience.
But I am officially declaring that I will not be among them, and that we should give ourselves the freedom to enjoy — or not enjoy! — experiencing this story anew, with only our existing relationship to Game of Thrones to guide us. House of the Dragon is a reset button for HBO’s biggest franchise, and we should be willing to use it as a reset button for our experience getting too invested in it on the internet.