A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R.R. Martin

Bone-crunching jousts, a hard slog along lonely highways and a never-ending search for gainful employment, this is the life of Ser Duncan the Tall and his young squire Egg. Ser Duncan, Dunk, is a hedge knight, a masterless warrior who hires his sword to lords and country squires who are often little more impoverished than himself.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

Set a hundred years before the events of A Game of Thrones, Dunk and Egg explore a forgotten world of Westeros, which is much more Mediaeval in flavour than the early Renaissance feel of A Song of Ice and Fire. The characters are thrillingly real, especially in their willingness to disregard the chivalric norms of their era if it will bring them some slight advantage.

Dependent on winning ransoms in tourneys to earn enough money to live, Dunk and Egg are perpetually at risk of being robbed of their rightful winnings by all kinds of chicanery. Hedge knights will kill to hide their underhanded dealings, while others have a secret agenda all of their own.

Gary Gianni art

Poor Dunk suffers from what we might call imposter syndrome. Born in the slums of Fleabottom, illiterate and anonymous, he is a knight by virtue of having been dubbed by his previous master. A common and accepted tradition, he has no way of actually proving this act except by calling on the aid of lords for whom he has been in service. They in turn see him as little more than a jumped-up mercenary, hedge knights being forced to sleep out in the open or in barns due to their limited resources.

However, Dunk is not entirely alone. His squire Egg is actually a scion of the ruling Targaryen family, a fact that turns petty lords to jelly once the truth comes out. Amusing as it is to see these jumped-up bullies exposed as the weaklings they are, Egg must be careful not to trumpet his bloodline too loudly, for the presence of a royal always sets forces in motion beyond his control.

The snail may leave a trail of slime behind him, but a little slime will do a man no harm … while if you dance with dragons, you must expect to burn.

Lurking in the background, lies the Hand of the King, Bloodraven, an eminence grise who is the power behind the throne. Though glimpsed only from afar in these tales, Bloodraven is a compelling creature whose tendrils permeate every nook and cranny of this ancient land:

A shadow came at his command to strangle brave Prince Valaar’s sons in their mother’s womb. Where is our Young Prince now? Where is his brother, sweet Matarys? … The grave has claimed them every one, yet he endures, this pale bird with bloody beak who perches on King Aerys’ shoulder and caws into his ear.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is not entirely new. It is a collection of three novellas that previously appeared at six-year intervals from 1998 to 2010. For people who have never encountered Dunk and Egg before, this is a great opportunity to delve deeper into the world of George R.R. Martin. On his blog, Martin has said that he plans many more stories in the series, but we may have to wait for that as he is currently beavering away like mad on the final volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, The Winds of Winter, estimated pub date 2016 and A Dream of Spring.

One other thing that makes this collection such a beautiful thing to hold is the line drawings by Gary Gianni that pepper the text. As well as giving the book a warming retro feel, these drawings are often split across and along pages in crafty ways, making this a book that is best enjoyed in dead tree format.