Tuesday, August 21, 2012

[Re-read] Jon I: Beware the Balrog

Forge of Darkness is coming along just fine, but though I am continually gaining more admiration for the sheer ambition of mr. Erikson, I still do love those three first novels of Ice and Fire, by our good friend mr. Martin, who apparently earns tons of money these days - so maybe I have to admit that maybe he was/is selling water-damaged RPG books, signed Wild Cards etc. on his blog not for profit but out of nerdity. Doesn't take away from the fact that the way he acts the peddler is somewhat obnoxious, but hey, the man is making millions and millions now, and I believe this has a lot to do with two certain TV producers and their Game of Thrones series on HBO. /shrug One more quick little nasty rant before I gather myself together. Did you see the latest update on his majesty's blog? "Writing". That somehow made me think that HEY WE GET AN UPDATE ON WINDS OF WINTER or at least a confirmation that he is actually working on it which is in fact doubtful, but no. He's writing "sidebars" for The World of Ice and Fire, the latest product to roll out from the growing franchise empire. Is that bad? No. The success of his series allowing mr. Martin to sell spin-off products - fine by me. It's the fact that he either doesn't realize or just ignores that the big "Writing" sign is a wrong signal. "Look here, endless hordes of raving fans waiting in torment and despair for the next chapter in the epic saga! I am writing something else." Yay. And now, without further ado...

Michael Kormack's Jon Snow is perhaps the awesomest.
At any rate, it is time for another chapter of A Storm of Swords, still the most awesomety book I read. The first - and last - book that had me so totally engrossed, the only book I've thrown at a wall, the book that made me appreciate writing as art and as craft. Today's topic is Jon Snow's first chapter.

Nerdflash: Sony Online Entertainment's Vanguard: Saga of Heroes is now free to play. Downloading as I write, curious about this game that supposedly is a more hard-core, big time open world multiplayer online game as opposed to the super-easy, linear and small popular games like World of Warcraft. I have no idea what to expect.
But downloading takes its sweet time when we're talking gigabytes of geekery, so the reading of Jon I commences just about...now.

All right, Jon Snow, ladies and gentlemen. Quick recap: I don't like the character very much, but neither is he intolerable. Just a bit meh. As of yet, at any rate. He's the farmboy hero archetype of the story, but the trope's been tugged and twisted enough to make him stand out from the endless heroic clones of the genre...but still. He whines, he's awkward, got a tougher upbringing than many other characters, dreams of heroic deeds, struggles with his loyalty, gradually turns into a (flawed) hero, receives an epic sword and an epic sidekick in the form of Ghost, rises through the ranks...That's Jon Snow, on his hero's journey in the freezing North. The last time we saw him he turned his cloak and went with the wildlings, killing Qhorin Halfhand to play the role of turncloak convincingly (he's really still loyal to the Night's Watch, but that's a secret, so don't tell anyone, especially not Ygritte, because you risk getting a You know nothing thrown your way even though you know a lot about Jon's inner workings).

The chapter starts with the outer world, however, the physical world in which Jon resides, and we get an image-conjuring, epic description to guide us back into Jon Snow's storyline: "The world was grey darkness, smelling of pine and moss and cold. Pale mists rose from the black earth as the riders threaded their way through the scatter of stones and scraggly trees, down toward the welcoming fires  strewn like jewels across the floor of the river valley below." Now, a literary analyst would perhaps claim there's too heavy a use of adjectives but I don't care, this is a nice description evoking mood, setting the stage (riders on the move toward the fires of the camp). This opening paragraph is followed by a quick catch-up, reminding us of Rattleshirt's presence, Ghost's presence, going so far as to have Jon think "Wildlings, and I am with them." That's blunt. 

Longspear Ryk rides in front, Ygritte right behind him, the two of them being Jon's guards. This reminds us  that Rattleshirt doesn't trust Jon. We're reminded they are on their way to Mance Rayder, the King-beyond-the-Wall: "Might be you fooled these others, crow, but don't think you'll be fooling Mance."  There's dialogue between Ygritte and Jon, building on their relationship, and eventually as they meet the camp's outriders, we get a new character, The Weeper. Probably some emo-dude, then. Rattleshirt tells the Weeper what happened to Qhorin and that Jon is a warg. They ride single file through the camp (to hide their numbers?), dogs are attracted to Ghost's scent (nicely echoing Jon being different from the wildlings). Jon gets a good look at the camp, and so we readers also get a closer look at these wildlings who we've been hearing so much about, but don't really know that much about. 

At last they reach Mance's tent, music drifting from within. Inside, Jon meets not one, not two but six new characters. Necessarily, we get a few paragraphs of descriptions to help us visualize these people; people who are decidedly different than the characters we meet in, say, the Red Keep. I am still not sure what to make of these characters, to be honest. Mance Rayder is okay, but Tormund Giantsbane comes across as too...I don't know, too cartoonish? With his hars and the grease dripping, to me he would feel more at home in The Hobbit among the company of dwarves than A Storm of Swords. Somehow, the character becomes almost too fantasy-clichéd (I know this is not a legal construction of words) so that it takes me a little out of the story. Of course, it's a minor niggle, but Tormund just isn't believable the way most characters in this story are. Mance's description is nice and gives us an immediate sense of what kind of man he is after one line: "The King-beyond-the-Wall looked nothing like a king." Interestingly, we'll see him develop throughout the series, but re-reading all this stuff I have this feeling that the overall story wouldn't suffer much if the wildlings were figuring less prominently. 

Jon is introduced to the gang in the king's tent: There is Mance, of course, I was about to compare him to Robin Hood but that would suit even better to Ser Beric Dondarrion, I suppose; there is Styr, a Magnar of Thenn (a magnar is a lord); now here comes Tormund's introduction and does it really gel with the gritty fantasy we've had so far? "(...) before you stands Tormund Giantsbane, Tall-talker, Horn-blower, and Breaker of Ice. And here also Tormund Thunderfist, Husband to Bears, the Mead-king of Ruddy Hall, Speaker to Gods and Father of Hosts." I half expect the Balrog of Moria to make a cameo only to be flicked away by Tormund's mighty swatter of evil (TM). There's a woman, Dalla, who carries Mance's child. Her sister Val is present, too. And there's a guy called Jarl (that's Norwegian for earl). Completely forgotten about him since re-read # 9. Guess he isn't the most important character in ze saga. 

Next up is Mance interrogating Jon; Tormund makes a fool of himself (first, he disrupts Mance's interrogation, then he actually takes a chicken of the brazier and stuffs it in his pocket - okay maybe that's not foolish but the image...tucking a fried hot chicken in your pocket...I mean, that's greasy). Mance throws everyone out, wanting to talk to Jon alone; well, Dalla stays behind but she's Mance's better half so that's fine. We get an interesting reminder that Mance was a black crow once, too, a member of the Night's Watch that is, and I guess it's important to bring that point to the fore to make more believable Mance's willingness to give Jon a chance. Turns out they've met before - Mance relates the tale. Back when he was still in the Night's Watch, he visited Winterfell with the then-Lord Commander, and caught Jon and Robb making a trap out of snow, to dump on Fat Tom, one of the Winterfell guardsmen. More interestingly, Mance was present at Winterfell during King Robert's visit (in A Game of Thrones)! His story sound suspiciously like that legend we read about in A Clash of Kings. The tale of Bael the Bard; Jon remembers it, which is a good thing because now I don't have to go back and find it in the previous novel. And yes, Mance admits to have been inspired by that tale. We get a little description of the laws of hospitality (nice to tuck it in here, when it becomes so prominent later in the book in a whole different place and situation - it's a setup, but not quite a setup if you know what I mean). 

Jon decides that Mance likes the sound of his own voice, indirectly this tells us that Mance has an ego, and probably enjoys being the King-of-the-Wall, and why not? Mance explains that he simply got fed up with being sworn to the Night's Watch, that he yearned for freedom, and that was his basic motivation for turning his cloak. Then, Mance asks Jon the same - why did Jon turn his cloak? Quickly, Jon makes up a lie that is close to the truth to sound convincing - in essence, Jon is saying that he wasn't treated well as a bastard, as opposed to the trueborn children of Lord Stark, and that is good enough for Mance, who closes the chapter with, "I think we had best find you a new cloak." He has decided that Jon will be a wildling, then, and so we can, with some satisfaction perhaps, conclude that this is one of the few chapters that a) is full of set-up, mostly of new characters and some subtle foreshadowings, and b) that Mance decides to trust Jon Snow for the time being at least. 

Not the most exciting chapter, then, but a good read. I remember the first time I read this chapter I was curious about the wildlings and was a little disappointed they came off so, well, can I say predictable? Predictable in the outlaws-banding-together sense, not predictable within the story at all - they are quite different from everyone else in Westeros.

And lo! and behold! Vanguard is installed. Off to explore yet another secondary world...


  1. Yeah, well, Tormund grows considerably in ADWD. And I like the character. While I agree with you that he's a bit cartoonish (interesting to see how they'll pull it off in the show), he's still believable. The wildlings are a different society, and a tall-talker can rise up in their ranks, especially if he can support his claims with some fist-work. And I don't doubt Tormund can deliver. He's a good leader, I guess. A village led by this guy...seems like a good place to live.

  2. Tormund.... Mehh... Too over the top for me, and so filled up with awesome, he's clearly going to die in some spectacular manner. Sacrificing him self for the lives of thousands. Ned was too cool to stay alive as well. This doesn't explain Tywin and Joff of course...
    Mance accepting jon because he's bastardy.. Not so satisfying either. About as convincing as Jaime's transition from kid maimer to Lefty the Mensch. Off topic here, but the HBO series Jaime is more convincingly dark (brutalizing Cleos), however it may be even harder to accept a transition to an honorable guy.