Tuesday, May 1, 2012

[Re-read] Prologue - A Storm of Swords

So. May the first. That's a national day off here in these parts. I like days off. Especially days like this, with a clear blue sky, and spring almost on the verge of turning, prematurely, into summer. There is still snow in the shadows where the cold doesn't release its grip so easily, but out in the open it's surprisingly warm. And with a day off I'm finally finding the time and rest to delve back into George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga, and continue where I left off.

Having spent the last couple of months moving into a new house has been a somewhat burdensome experience. And there are still many things to fix. My office is, at the moment, basically a repository for all the crap we haven't been able to put elsewhere, with no furniture. But my bookshelves, those are back and up and running like a finely tuned YT1300 engine, with Martin's books occupying the honorary upper section of one shelf. Weird thing is there's one book missing and I just can't find it - A Dance with Dragons. Coincidence or the irony of fate? It has like, vanished. I can't remember burning it in a fit of rage nor, disappointed, giving it away, and really I have opened like a million crates these months and no dragons. Crows, swords, kings and thrones everywhere but no dragons. It felt so good getting my favorite books back in place in a house where there's actually room for them. Now I can walk by everyday and let their magic envelop me so that I can go inspired to work or wherever. I imagine tiny pixies buzzing about. Kind of. Speaking of books, I am - believe it or not - still struggling with The Winds of Khalakovo! It just doesn't want me to read it. There's this battle going on, and the imagery is strong, but I'm just not getting involved. Oh well, I will finish it since there's just a few chapters left. But every time I've read a chapter I immediately switch to a chapter of Gardens of the Moon (Erikson) because it's such a fun re-read. But for now, it is time to get back into A Storm of Swords, and you know what really prompted me to go back in - it was episode five of HBO's Game of Thrones, season two. Why? Because I feel the TV series is really branching away to the point that it's getting a little bit irksome. The real deal remains the books. Why can't they wait with the diverging until they get to season four? /trollface.

Well, I suppose upon cracking open this fat third book that this is where we got the first warning signal. Before anything else, we get a "A Note on Chronology" from the author. Why I'm calling it a warning signal? Well, when the author needs to explain - outside the story - how things are put together it is somewhat worrisome, because it could be taken as the author losing control over the flow. Easy to say now with hindsight, of course - it's not like I took notice way back when. The maps are what they are, I know I was excited that there was new ground covered but now of course I know where everything is so it's not like I'm hardcore studying them on this tenth re-read.  Skipping the cartography, I arrive at the...


And we're back, with an opening sentence so typical George RR: "The day was grey and bitter cold, and the dogs would not take the scent." That's mr. Martin all right, a short snappy two-part sentence, the first part setting the mood and the second part giving us direct information  about what's going on. This is the kind of sentence Martin uses often to kick of his chapters and reading it now is like meeting an old friend. Well, not exactly of course. You know what I mean. It's almost comforting. This is when A Song of Ice and Fire is still completely amazing and awesome. In one sentence we're reminded we're not in some fairytale land of the imagination, but rather a harsher world; and in the same sentence Martin sets up a question to hook the reader - what is the scent the dogs will not take? Pitch perfect.

Turns out the dogs are Chett's, a Night's Watch boy we met briefly in A Clash of Kings, and that having sniffed at bear tracks, the dogs refuse to cooperate. Chett isn't too happy about being out in the cold, thinking that he should be back at the Wall. Through his thoughts we learn that he is afraid though he doesn't admit it directly, which is cool - but it's tucked in there: "I should be safe back at the Wall (...)". Not afraid perhaps, but at least not feeling safe. Which helps with the atmosphere too, of course. It's all a bit ominous. We also learn soon enough that Chett isn't particularly happy with Jon Snow's existence. Angry, he snaps at the dogs as if they are to blame for him losing his steward's job to Samwell Tarly (in A Clash of Kings), threatening them which makes him look rather pitiful, which I guess is the point. Also, this is a prologue and veterans of the series will know that it may just be a little ironic that he's threatening them because he'll most likely end up dead at the end of the prologue.

Chett is not alone with the dogs; there's Lark the Sisterman, freezing and complaining, and Small Paul who is anything but small and who we'll meet again in a particularly exciting chapter later. From their talk it becomes clear that all is not well within the Night's Watch - seems Lord Jeor Mormont has lost a couple of respect points. In fact, from their chat it appears that these guys have been thinking about treason for a good while, and that they've been talking of killing off the leadership - another reminder this is Westeros, and it's great. Martin takes care to see things from all angles, not just from Jon Snow's perspective, or Mormont's, but we also get to see the disgruntled soldiers, the miserable and traitorous ones, completing the illusion of the Night's Watch organization as a real thing with both external and internal struggles:
"We been over this. The Old Bear dies, and Blane from the Shadow Tower. Grubbs and Aethan as well, their ill luck for drawing the watch, Dywen and Barmen for their tracking, and Ser Piggy for the ravens. That's all. We kill them quiet, while they sleep. One scream and we're wormfood, every one of us."
This says so much about Chett - Martin excels at characterizing through dialogue. At the same time he sets up suspense - so these guys are actually going to try and kill all these people! Exciting stuff. Not only that, Martin manages to use this new angle - Chett's POV - to give a quick reminder of where they are, what the Night's Watch is up to, in case the reader has forgotten, without it becoming too intrusive or breaking the flow. The most important point being, that Mance Rayder and his wildlings are coming down the Milkwater. It is clear Chett fears the wildlings - he doesn't want to stay around to meet them, he wants to be off, to live - another little irony right there - and has convinced these other guys of his treacherous scheme ("Schemes and plots are the same" - best line of Episode Five this week, and it wasn't even in the book).

What the author does not go into is the fact that, you know, Chett kind of has a right to be a little angry. He held a nice position as Maester Aemon's steward, which I guess is one of the better positions at Castle Black. Tending to an old blind man, staying inside to feed the fire, fill up the old man's goblet and write his letters sounds like the summit of comfort up there in the north - and he was demoted just like that. I'd feel sorry for him if he wasn't such a bastard. Whoops, sorry Jon, I didn't mean it like that.

Night's Watch miniatures. You MUST have them. That's a direct order from GRRM's wallet!

And so Martin gives us a little backstory as to how this small group of dissenters have prepared themselves. I like the sound of that word. Dissenters. It reminds me of something.
Then we launch into a quick reminder of the route the Night's Watch is taking - "the Milkwater would take them past the Fist of the First Men, the ancient ringfort..." Hey it's a fort again now.
Lots of reminders then, so that a reader can enjoy this book without having to go back and re-read A Clash of Kings. No worries, mr. Martin. You have created the second-most eminently re-readable series in fantasy literature.

We also get Chett reflecting on the plans the leadership is making. Summed up, Chett thinks they are kind of stupid. They are three hundred, the wildlings are reported to be thirty thousand. So far, Chett seems a rather reasonable fellow doesn't he? Sparta! Seems the Old Bear (that is Jeor Mormont, in case you forgot) is about to be convinced of the plans too - to strike with three hundred against thirty thousand. Well, there are shadow baby assassins and dragons in the world, so I can't complain it sounds unrealistic to agree to such a plan. Chett fantasizes about Jon Snow being dead, and this is where we have to draw the line, Angryboils. You can't go about wanting to kill people for putting you in a bad situation. Try talking.

More is revealed; Chett has been starving his dogs to make them mean and hungry, which is part of the plan he's been concocting. He is going to let them loose on the horses, to create havoc in which him and the thirteen others can escape. Not much of a nice fellow then, this Chett. No consideration for his allies. Even more backstory as to how Chett recruited these thirteen people, and through these thoughts Chett clearly thinks of himself as cunning, priding himself that he's the brains behind it. He dreams of how he is going to kill Samwell Tarly, has already decided on what he is going to say to him. In one way, it would be quite interesting if Chett's plan succeeded. If not entirely, at least partially. Would the story improve if, say, Chett slew Sam? Maybe, maybe not. Chett has also considered what to do with the ravens, so it seems from the text that he really has been giving this plan some serious thought.

They decide to return to the others, the dogs pulling him along. On their way back they talk about what they are going to do once they are free, which is ironic of course, but also adds that little touch of realism, showing us the hopes and dreams of these desperate men. Desperate to flee the Night's Watch before it gets trampled down by thirty thousand wildlings. But, again, Chett demonstrates a certain cunning; when Lark talks about how he's going to make for the coast, Chett thinks to himself that there is no way that's going to work, but he doesn't share that thought. Traitorous fellow indeed, but also careful in that he stakes his own course, not trying to be influenced by the others. A quick sketch of his background is given (he grew up in place called Hag's Mire, so bad he doesn't want to return there again ever), which is just enough. It is kind of clear that Martin is filling up the space of the prologue with this backstory and Chett thinking about a variety of things (how he could be the next King beyond the Wall, the whores at Mole's Town...) because in essence the prologue's plot is one quick event to set the stage for the rest of the novel (just like the two previous prologues really - in A Game of Thrones, the event was the Others slaying Ser Waymar Royce, yet Martin filled out the pages with descriptions, background etc., in A Clash of Kings the central event was Pycelle trying to assassinate Melisandre and having the (painted) table turned on him). So, with this in mind, one should read the prologue as a mood-setter, building up the atmosphere, reminding us of what has gone before, and then hitting us in the face with the event.

Chett goes from understood to disliked to disgusting, by the way, as he reminisces about the whore he stabbed. The way he thinks about it, with utter lack of empathy and/or emotion, really puts the character over the line. We also learn through these thoughts that he is a man from the fiefdom belonging to House Frey, and being connected to the Freys definitely pushes him over the line. Interesting though, that the Martin gets in a little "Frey-hate" right here in the very beginning of the book that had us hate the Freys forever after. At any rate, seems Chett's plan is to go and take over Craster's keep - metaphorically speaking, Chett wants to become the next Craster. The new Craster. 

Finally there's some dialogue to break up all the introspection when Small Paul (kind of a cliché character isn't he, but thrown into this motley gang of thieves and rapists it's almost refreshing) asks about "the bird" - poor dimwit wonders who will feed Mormont's raven when Mormont is dead. Funny how much this question tells us about the inner workings of Small Paul. A simple mind. Lark's comment, "Small Paul, thick as a castle wall" momentarily takes me out of the story as it reminds me of The Hedge Knight, not that it's a big deal, it sounds like a good proverb and it isn't overused in this series like certain other proverbs. The banter between Chett, Lark and Small Paul is for me the highlight of the chapter, it's not much, but it's funny and you just have to like Small Paul.

Finally they come to the hill, near the archery range. They see Samwell (also known as Ser Piggy) practicing.  Anyone else reminded of The Lord of the Flies here? The way Chett disdains Sam? Chett sends the others on, he tells them he wants to watch this, in typical bully fashion. Chett laughs loudly as Sam sends his first arrow deep into the woods. Here, Martin guides the reader further into disliking Chett; he really isn't an amiable fellow. We get a Dolorous Edd classic in here too, by the way, as Edd complains about how he once lost a white horse and it was snowing. Too funny. Actually, I think his next line, which is overlooked compared to the first one, is just as giggleworthy: "I believe you knocked a leaf off that tree. Fall is falling fast enough, there's no need to help it." Also a blink-and-you-miss-it reminder from the author that autumn is here, and -wait for it - winter is coming. In fairy tale fashion, Sam misses his second shot, then gets a hit with the third. When Sam asks if it was a killing shot, Edd dryly replies, "Might have punctured a lung, if he had a lung. Most trees don't, as a rule." That's three dolorous classics in a row. 

I can't help but be reminded of 80's high school movies with Chett being the angry bully and Sam the helpless victim, and I can just see Chett screwing his face up when Sam eventually hits the target. And just like in those movies, Chett gets a comeuppance when Sam proves to be not that bad after all. The nerd wins, the jockey is shamed. Kicking one of his dogs in anger (always helps to kick defenseless animals to gain the readers' appreciation), he stalks off. Once on top of the hill, he goes to report to Mormont.

Notice how cool and detached Chett is. This is the guy who is planning total murder come nightfall, and here he just saunters up and delivers his report. Ominously, when he leaves the commander's tent, Chett thinks it feels colder outside. Any astute reader will know what that means. Martin spends some more time establishing this cold - and Martin adds, the wind was rising as the shadows lengthened, surely a sign that something's up. 'The cold winds are rising', indeed. Literally in this case. Martin draws it out, getting us to twilight, dropping small bits of mood, clearly setting us up for a creepiness. In fact, twilight is creeping through the woods by the time Chett sits down to edge his sword. Dogs whimper as the sun goes down, the wood is too silent according to Dywen, there are looks shared, and once again Martin lapses back into a calmer sequence where Chett does some thinking, only to have a sudden shout, "Assemble!" wake up both reader and characters. 

Night's Watch shirt! Mr Martin doesn't want you to buy this one. It's not official.
Funny thing here is, Martin is playing a little bit with us, turns out the shout is just the leadership gathering the soldiers for a speech. Pretty cool, isn't it? Reminds me a bit of the trickery used in horror stories to unsettle and bewilder; here you're reading and expecting shit to hit the fan at any moment, then it's just a quick jolt before the real nightmare. I like how Martin on occasion trickles in some other genre conventions into his work; we've had fairy tales, high fantasy, adventure fantasy, dark fantasy, horror, comedy, drama and so on and so forth. Mormont informs the gathered soldiers of Mance Rayder and his host that he has finally settled on what to do. And he is in fact going to go with the plan of attack. Three hundred against thirty thousand. In his speech, Mormont explains that of those thirty thousand, many will be children and women (hasn't heard of spear-wives then) so the actual number they'll be fighting will be less. Besides, the wildlings don't know they are waiting (though Chett thinks otherwise). 

So here Martin is baiting us again, taking our attention away from his setup (the cold winds rising) to the wildlings and war, masterfully done in this instance, in my opinion. Seems the soldiers aren't entirely on board with Mormont's decision; Maslyn sums up their feelings quite well: "We'll die." Mormont shrugs it off, saying that yes, many - maybe even all - of them will die. Then goes on to add that this is why they wear black. Which is funny. He is just quoting another lord commander, it is not the real reason why the Night's Watch wears black, of course. It is because of the camouflage, as you could see in episode five of the TV series, they were practically invisible against the majestic Icelandic backdrop. Or not.

The oath is spoken again, there on the hill by the three hundred brave warriors (minus fourteen). When the chanting is done, and the decision has been made, Martin takes us back to the ominous mood - Chett once again hears the wind picking at the ringwall.....hey, wait a minute. Am I an idiot or what? I've been complaining earlier about Martin not being able to decide on "ringfort" or "ringwall" and not until now does it occur to me that, you know, the ringfort has a ringwall. Slapping the face with a sloppy herring.

Speaking of herrings...you're not fooling me, Martin. I've read this book before, you know. The cold wind and the eerie silence is so holding my attention while all the talk about wildlings is just blahblahblah to mine ears. I know what you're up to. And it is just as spooky now as it was the first time. Me loves it. The wind sounding like the wailing of a child; ice caking his beard; snow begins to fall...this is Martin telling us, with certainty, that WINTER IS HERE.

The falling snow means the ruination of Chett's plans, of course: They'll leave footprints (not that it has been a problem before in the series that I am aware of; but then again, I keep forgetting that there hasn't been that much snow). Ironically, since (Jon) Snow has disrupted his plans before. 
Martin tightens the suspense now: Chett decides to at least go and kill Sam. Not thinking clearly anymore, then. Confused and angry, bereft of hope...Hilariously (if you're not a Chett fan), when he finds Sam's tent, the ravens inside begin quorking "snow". Poor Chett. If anyone hates snow in Westeros it must be him. And then, finally, Martin hits us with the real danger of the prologue.
Just as Chett is about to go and slit Sam's bacony (can I say that) throat, a horn begins, er, ululating. That's a nice word mr. Steven Erikson taught me. 

And well, the rest of the prologue is action. Sam wakes up to the sound in time, Chett complains as a second blast is heard that the wildlings have come, but then a third blast, er, ululates across the hill and that means the Others. Martin writes it superbly, interjecting dialogue into the situation, timing the description and sequence of events perfectly. Really it must be read and appreciated.

(Sam) spied Chett standing there.
"Was it two?" he asked. "I dreamed I heard two blasts..."
"No dream," said Chett. "Two blasts to call the Watch to arms. Two blasts for foes approaching. There's an axe out there with Piggy writ on it, fat boy. Two blasts means wildlings."
The fear on that big moon face made him want to laugh.
"Bugger them all to seven hells. Bloody Harma. Bloody Mance Rayder. Bloody Smallwood, he said they wouldn't be on us for another -"
The sound went on and on, until it seemed it would never die.

That's good stuff, isn't it? Martin maintains the illusion - through Chett - that we are facing wildlings, that's all Chett's really been thinking of isn't it - and then there's the third blast, changing everything - the point of no return, so to speak, of this prologue. Intense. And it isn't made clear whether Sam suspects why Chett is there in the tent. In true Westerosi fashion, Chett pees himself when he comes to the realization that the Others are coming for them. I noticed we had our first pee-in-breeches sequence (that I'm aware of) on TV as well this week. I have to say I love the guy playing Hot Pie, perfect casting and he acts really well.

What did surprise me on this tenth re-read (mind you, it's been a couple of years, maybe three or four, since last I visited A Storm of Swords) was that the chapter ends with Chett still alive. I was certain that the prologue ended with him being slain by an Other or some such. Strange how memories can play tricks on you. Although, in this case, it may also be the meme that Martin always kills off his prologue POVs. Well, Chett survives the prologue, so goodbye pesky meme. Not saying he'll live much longer beyond the prologue, but hey, he suvived until the final punctuation. Go Chett. Yay. Woo and hoo. 

It's good reading A Storm of Swords again. Hope to see you follow along as I delve into the first chapter proper next time. My memory suggests the first chapter is Jaime Lannister, so we'll find out then if I'm playing tricks on myself again, or if I remember correctly.

In the meantime, stay legal.

1 comment:

  1. Cressen tried to kill Melisandre, not Pycelle. With that nit firmly picked, nice job on the rest.