The Princess and the Queen by George R.R. Martin

King Viserys I Targaryen has ruled the Seven Kingdoms for more than twenty years, presiding over a time of peace and prosperity. He has declared his heir to be his eldest child, his only surviving child from his first marriage, Rhaenyra. But after his death, his widow, Queen Alicent of House Hightower, and Lord Commander Criston Cole of the Kingsguard instead crown his oldest son as Aegon II. Rhaenyra rejects this as a coup and is herself crowned on Dragonstone. The Seven Kingdoms are divided, with the Starks, Arryns and Tullys declaring for Rhaenyra and the Lannisters, Baratheons and Tyrells for Aegon. This will be a civil war of not just armies and fleets, but also of dragons battling one another in the skies of Westeros. The Dance of Dragons has begun.

The Princess and the Queen is a 30,000-word, 80-page novella. It sits somewhere between an actual story and a narrative history, alternating between brief summaries of events and dramatic exchanges (of dialogue, steel or dragonfire) between characters. I must admit to some scepticism when the change was first announced (The Princess and the Queen replaces the fourth Dunk and Egg novella, which Martin has now delayed until after The Winds of Winter comes out), wondering if this was going to be nothing more than a bit of filler. Instead, I was surprised to find it a fairly gripping and interesting account of the civil war.

The Dance of Dragons has been oft-mentioned in the novels, but not in as much detail as other events such as Robert's Rebellion or the Blackfyre Rebellions. What has been established about it in the novels is fairly minimal, giving Martin the freedom to populate it with a whole host of new characters and political factions and set them against one another. As with the main series, Martin has little truck here with 'good guys' and 'bad guys': Rhaenyra's claim might be more sympathetic, but both sides have heroes and villains. The war takes several unexpected twists and turns, with the capital changing hands several times and major figures in the war dying unexpectedly. Both sides are also brutally betrayed at different times. In terms of tone, The Princess and the Queen reads like an ultra-condensed version of A Song of Ice and Fire itself.

The biggest difference to the main series is its use of dragons. At this point dragons are, if not commonplace, certainly reasonably established in Westeros. The Targaryen princes and princesses (and, controversially, some of the bastards) travel around on dragonback and they are often used in war. What is unusual is them being used to fight one another, and there are several brutal battles between dragonriders which are vividly described by Martin. There are also interesting descriptions of military engagements between conventional forces and dragons: the armies of Westeros and the Free Cities have had more than a century by this point to get used to dragons being around and the surprise and terror of Aegon's Conquest has passed. It is possible (if extremely difficult) to kill a dragon and that knowledge provides the downfall of several of the creatures.

Considering the short length of the story, Martin successfully embues the characters with life and motivations. Rhaenyra is proud and haughty, but also jealous and over-protective. Her husband, Daemon Targaryen, is a charismatic warrior, ruthless but also prone to bursts of romance and chivalry (though never to foolishness). It's also fun spotting future historical figures in their youth, such as Alyn Velaryon (who will grow up to be Admiral Oakenfist, partially responsible for Daeron I's successful invasion of Dorne).

The story certainly isn't perfect. The format means that this sometimes reads like a summary of what could have been (in a different life, or much further down the line) a fascinating duology or trilogy of novels in its own right. In addition, whilst Martin takes some effort to come up with new Targaryen names, there's still a few too many Daerons, Daemons, Aegons and Aemons (or Aemonds) wandering around to easily differentiate them at a glance, at least at first. Most notably, the story cuts off a little too abruptly with the war still not done. Considering the story's presence in the Dangerous Women anthology, I was expecting a greater focus on the battle of wills between Alicent and Rhaenyra, but this is a minor element at best in the story. Cutting it off after this element is resolved may be thematically correct, but as the theme was not dominant in the story it simply feels a bit random for the conflict to be left hanging. The World of Ice and Fire, due in 2014, will at least resolve this issue.

The Princess and the Queen (****) isn't just a stopgap, but a readable and entertaining story that expands on our knowledge of the Song of Ice and Fire world whilst also working as a narrative in its own right. More encouragingly, Martin apparently wrote a much longer version (almost 90,000 words) - of which this is an edited excerpt - in just a few weeks, showing that he can still put the pedal to the metal on writing when he needs to. Whether this means we can expect The Winds of Winter in a reasonable timeframe is still unclear, of course. The novella is published as part of the Dangerous Women anthology, available now in the UK and USA.