A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is set a century before A Game of Thrones, fifteen years after a great event called the Blackfyre Rebellion. Blackfyre is the name of the Valyrian steel sword that the Targaryen kings used to wield, but a certain foolish king named Aegon gave it, not to his legitimate heir Daeron, but to one of his bastards, Daemon. Daemon eventually rebelled against his brother, taking as his symbol not the red-on-black dragon of House Targaryen, but a black dragon on red; the two sides came to be known as the red dragon and the black dragon, and people say, "I fought for the black dragon." The rebellion was decided in a battle called the Redgrass Field, where the forces of the legitimate king, led by a sinister, sorcerous minister known as Bloodraven, were victorious. Here is one of Martin's great strengths: the roll of names and nicknames, impossibly noble and impressive, along with little sketches of the characters of each lord or knight. Here one character explains why he fought for the black dragon:
"Daeron . . ." Ser Eustace almost slurred the word, and Dunk realized he was half drunk. "Daeron was spindly and round of shoulder, with a little belly that wobbled when he walked. Daemon stood straight and proud, and his stomach was flat and hard as an oaken shield. And he could fight. With axe or lance or flail he was as good as any knight I ever saw, but with the sword he was the Warrior himself. When Prince Daemon had Blackfyre in his hand, there was not a man to equal him . . . not Ulrick Dayne with Dawn, no, nor even the Dragonknight with Dark Sister.I love this sort of thing, and I think it makes a perfect background for a story. The thing is, it does not, in itself, make a story. The three stories that comprise A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms are all nothing special and far too long. There are tournaments in two of them, and Martin cannot resist going on for pages about all the knights who participate, their names, their coats of arms, their armor, their horses, a sentence or two of background. ("In the rebellion, Lord Butterwell's second son fought for the pretender and his eldest for the king. That way he was certain to be on the winning side.") The rather paltry events of the narrative drown in all this chivalric detail. Plus, the characters mostly remain at the level of those first, two-sentence introductions, never acquiring any more depth or interest.
"You can know a man by his friends. Daeron surrounded himself with maesters, septons, and singers. Always there were women whispering in his ear, and his court was full of Dornishmen. How not, when he had taken a Dornishwoman into his bed and sold his own sweet sister to the Prince of Dorne, though it was Daemon that she loved? Daeron bore the same name as the Young Dragon, but when his Dornish wife gave him a son he named the child Baelor, after the feeblest king who ever sat the Iron Throne.
"Daemon, though . . . Daemon was no more pious than a king need be, and all the greatest knights of the realm gathered to him. It would suit Lord Bloodraven if their names were all forgotten, so he has forbidden us to sing of them, but I remember. Robb Reyne, Gareth the Grey, Sir Aubrey Ambrose, Lord Gormon Peake, Black Byren Flowers, Redtusk, Fireball . . . Bittersteel! I ask you, has there ever been such a noble company, such a roll of heroes?"
Martin has more in common with his hero Tolkien than the middle initials he borrowed: for both of them what came naturally was spinning out the history of a great, fantastic world. What they both struggled with was the telling of human-scale stories. I imagine that for Martin the writing of his first Westeros volumes must have taken an immense effort of will, constantly forcing himself to stick to the story and focus on the dozen or so main characters. Just so with Tolkien, writing The Hobbit, which was so different from his usual manner of writing that the book embarrassed him. It also strikes me that Martin's greatest creation is a dwarf, Tyrion, who like Tolkien's hobbits is excluded by his small size from participating in the high doings of Great Lords and Valiant Knights.
Tolkien managed to sustain his focus until the end of his story, but Martin has not been able to. He has been unable to resist expanding the tale with endless heraldic detail and ever more new characters, each introduced with a few lines of cool description but mostly never taken beyond that. (Is anything Varys does halfway as interesting as the simple idea of Varys the Spider, Master of Whispers?) There has been a lot of complaining lately about the failures of the producers who brought the Game of Thrones to television, but in some ways they have been better than Martin: they have pared away much irrelevant detail, and they have explored some of the characters more fully than Martin did. I think Cersei and Jaime Lanister in particular are much more full and interesting in the show than in the books, and there are others.
Besides the endless roll of noble knights, the thing that struck me most about A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms was Martin's attraction to tragedy. He portrays the Targaryens as a bloody, corrupt lot of tyrants, but he does give us one crown prince who seems like a perfect candidate for the throne; so of course he is killed in a jousting accident, leaving one of his bloody, corrupt brothers to take the throne in his place. It is always like this with Martin, who seems to take delight in teasing us with hope before tearing it all down before our eyes. Those poor fools who expected Game of Thrones to have a happy ending had paid no attention to whose story they were following.