I'm pretty surprised that it took me this long to read George R. R. Martin's Tales of Dunk and Egg. I'm a huge fan of his series A Song of Ice and Fire, but I haven't been too tempted to check out his other works, like Wild Cards or his early sci-fi stories. (That said, a recent A. V. Club "Gateway to Geekery" article does make me think I'd at least enjoy the sci-fi stuff.) I've recently learned that his Dunk and Egg stories are more connected to the plots of ASoIaF than I'd assumed. Since I've got another ten months or so until my next fix of the TV show, and several years until my next fix for the novels, I decided to take them in.
Unfortunately, they're pretty hard to get. Each is published in a separate anthology, and so contains a bunch of stories by other authors as well. I hope that eventually Martin will collect them all in one volume, but I suspect there may be one or two more entries before he completes and collects them. In the meantime, you can find them if you look hard enough. They should be read in order to avoid spoilers: The Hedge Knight comes first, then The Sworn Sword and finally (for now) The Mystery Knight. (Apparently, at least a few of these have been adapted into graphic novels, but so far I've just read the original novellas.)
They're excellent stories. They're very well-written, with a few deeply drawn characters. Each stands on its own well as a short story, and I think that even someone who hasn't read any of the ASoIaF books could totally understand what's going on... they're very heavily tied to recognizable medieval concepts (tourneys, chivalry, squires, etc.), with a couple of references to standard fantasy tropes (dragons and sorcerers, neither of which has a very direct impact on the plot but colors the narrative). Unlike ASoIaF, there's a single point-of-view narrator, and basically a single narrative thread, although we do also learn in passing about some wider events taking place in the Seven Kingdoms and bump up against a few other plots along the way.
Specifically, these stories take place approximately 100 years before the start of A Game of Thrones, and about 200 years after Aegon the Conqueror's landing in Westeros. So there are no characters who appear in both works, but we do get to see the ancestors of some major characters, and learn more about various large and small Houses.
MEGA SPOILERS (for all stories and the novels)
Martin does a good job at maintaining mystery. Either that, or I'm really stupid. I'd suspected early on that Egg was a Targaryen - Dunk notices that his eyes look purple - but I had no idea that he was actually a prince or any kind of nobility. I'd sort of assumed that he might be a bastard offspring of a Targaryen king. I was wrong, of course, and what's worse, I've actually argued in the past that the Targaryen genes are highly recessive (much like the Baratheon genes are dominant), which explains the rareness of their coloring and the reason for their interbreeding. Purple eyes probably means two Targaryens, which probably means royalty.
After finishing The Mystery Knight, I pseudo-cheated and looked up the Targaryen family tree to see just where Egg belongs. And - historical spoiler alert! - it looks like he will actually become the King, specifically King Aegon the Unlikely. Unlikely indeed. His brother is Aemon, who I think of as Aemon the Awesome. I mean, seriously, isn't the dude, like, over a hundred years old?
As is his wont, Martin has a fairly realistic bent to his writing. Dunk is the hero, and a very likeable person, but he's also pretty stupid, and fails at much of what he tries to do. Dunk is absolutely enormous, nearly seven feet tall (what is with Martin and ginormous men?), and because of his height he's an effective fighter, but he isn't, like, the most skilled knight in the land or anything too dramatic like that. He's trying to do the best he can.
Oh, yeah, and as to the ASoIaF connection: I can't take credit for this, but a keen observer has noted that the "Aegon" of A Dance with Dragons, who supposedly is Rhaegar's son who was rescued and spirited away before the Sack of King's Landing, may actually be a Blackfyre. Blackfyres have the exact same coloring as Targaryens, so he would fit in well; and it certainly explains why he would pop up in Essos, consorting with the Golden Company. "Aegon" himself may or may not be aware that he isn't actually Rhaegar's son. Anyways... one of the best parts of these stories is learning more about the Blackfyre rebellion, which adds even more color to an already intriguing plot.
One of the things I most enjoyed about these stories was getting a better look at the life lived by the very lowest end of nobility. The world of Westeros is a very caste-centric world, and most of ASoIaF is concerned with the lives of people at the very top of that world: the kings and princes and their hand-picked champions. Starting with A Feast for Crows, we've started getting a better look at the life lived by the smallfolk: much like peasants in our own middle ages, their lot is far worse, and Martin gives us some inkling of their lives, dominated by fear of starvation but also helplessness in the face of arbitrary power.
Dunk is in between those two worlds. He's fortunate enough to be a knight, which gives him a certain position and certain rights; however, he has no land, and no possessions other than what he carries with him; his horses, sword, and armor are basically the entirety of his wealth. He has a degree of freedom and autonomy that no smallfolk have, but he must follow the rules of his caste.
The stories are quick reads, and would probably be perfect introductions to ASoIaF for new readers. Well, I guess that the TV series is actually the perfect introduction... but these stories are still a great entry point, rewarding without being overly complicated. Veteran readers like myself will not only enjoy a deeper immersion into some aspects of Martin's world, but may also gain an insight or two into the main series.