A whileback when HBO's Game of Thrones was on TV I whizzed through the novel like the devil was on my tail. When the time came to get into Book 2 I started reading and while I have to admit I enjoyed it I did stall round about the one-third mark and started reading (of all things) Ravenloft fiction instead.
What brought me back to Martin's epics (I'm now just finished A Storm of Swords:Steel and Snow) was when I sat down to read his three short stories, The Tales of Dunk and Egg. These are 3 novellas that feature in different fantasy anthologies George R.R. Martin has written. They are all set in Westeros and set 100 years or so before Game of Thrones. As novellas they weight in at around the 100-200 page mark, which is as punchy as Martin gets, suffering from as he describes it "diarrheoa of the wordprocessor".
As a prequel they've often been described as analagous to the Hobbit, but really they are three episodic tales featuring Ser Duncan the Tall, a hedge-knight (wandering knight in the ronin tradition) and his unique squire, Egg. Typically Martin has indicated there will be several more stories, as many as nine to twelve, covering much of the life stories of the two protagonists. There are only three written, with a fourth on its way. Additionally mention is made of unseen adventures that take place between the novellas, including mention of a meeting with a minor character seen in Game of Thrones.
It is more high-adventure than Song of Ice and Fire. While dragons are no more the Targaryen dynasty are still in charge, albeit having to fight a rival branch of the family who are trying to usurp their rulership, and in true Martin tradition killing each other. Also, given Martin's page count is restricted the stories tend to be quite well pace.
The first story, Hedge Knight, takes place as Dunk encounters his new squire whilst vying for a minor victory in a grand tournament. This being Westeros he encounters a prominent member of the nobility being not very nice to the peasantry and being true to his knightly ideals ends up insulting said douche. Needless to say this ends up with our hero in a joust for his life against some of the most prominent warriors in the realm. The resultant fight is brutal in typical Martin tradition. One major revelation in the story stretches the credulity of this series given how dark and dangerous Westeros is, but other than that it is a good read.
The Sworn Sword sees Dunk and his squire swear loyalty to a really poor lord and get involved in a land dispute with the lord's neighbour. This starts off a little Seven Samurai but ends off going of in its own direction. The harsh life of the peasantry and the effects of a drought are typically gritty Martin story elements but the ending of the story is remarkably upbeat for a George R.R. Martin fantasy story. Ultimately this is probably the weakest of the three stories so far as the main characters' development is non-existent and an adventure that is mentioned having taken place between Hedge Knight and the Sworn Sword sounds just as interesting.
Mystery Knight takes place at a tourney again, with Dunk abandoning all reason and tactics we saw in the first story. It features some really nasty grey characters and this tournament is somewhat more unique than its predecessor. There's some nice character moments and development, particularly of Egg.
This is where the series ends, though Martin has a fourth one in the works called "She-Wolves of Winterfell", which is being published in a book called "Dangerous Women" - a fantasy book about warrior women one presumes. There's also vague mentions of the stories one day being reprinted together in a single volume (currently they're a pain to get in three different books), which will presumably feature "exclusive" short stories. This is of course if Martin writes them since he is supposed to be writing Books 6 and 7 of a Song of Ice and Fire. Currently I expect all these to be released in 2020.