Wednesday, August 1, 2012

[Re-read] Sansa I: Butterbumps - A Study in the Use of Jesters in Political Landscapes

All right, the CD collection has been arranged alphabetically in my new mini-office-room-thingy, time to go and enjoy the sun out on the terrace with a chapter of A Storm of Swords. Being a grimdark book, maybe reading it in the sun will diminish the experience? Or is George R.R. Martin's writing so captivating you forget where you are and you're just sucked into Westeros? I am suspecting the latter.

Three days later...Yeah, and then there was that other thing I had to do, and another thing, and this and that and oh why isn't society merely sitting in the shade of an oak reading a book, like the fellow on the Kindle screen (well before they updated anyway)? I know there's a very long answer to that question. The upside is that once you do find time to enjoy something purely for your own egoistical enjoyment - like a good book - it feels great. A Storm of Swords then, the fattest of the Ice and Fire books unless I'm mistaken but boy it doesn't feel that fat does it? I remember a time when fat books seemed daunting, unsurmountable. Swords is a breeze, innit. Incidentally I discovered this song today: A Storm of Swords by thrash metal band Lich King. Enjoy at your own peril. One would think the title to be a coincidence until one peruses the lyrics:

Weeping, the wall
Assailed by freeborn men
Giants and worse that time forgot
Rapers and thieves
Are sworn and bound to serve
Brothers in black keep the watch

Islands of iron
Drowning men and god
Blood and all its bonds are dashed apart
Greyjoy, undone
The fall in dead of night
A ship on the horizon drawing near

Prophecies of a greater undoing
Azor Ahai and a gathering horde
Listen closely, winter is coming
Dark wings for dark words
A storm of swords

Unburnt, the queen
Ascending with the whip
Mother of dragons frees the slave
Last of her kind
Born of smoke and salt
Waking the children out of stone

Direwolf, the king
Unwelcome wedding guest
Ask bread and salt once through the gate
Hidden, the lion
Replace the traitor's head
Debt is paid in full, hear them roar

Prophecies of a greater undoing
Azor Ahai and a gathering horde
Listen closely for winter is coming
Dark wings, dark words
A storm of swords

Champion, the mountain rides
The viper strikes, the mountain dies
The seven burn to please R'hllor
The witch will win her master's war

Accused, the imp, avenge the wife
Escape, and end the monster's life
Accursed, the kinslayer, the dwarf
Revenge upon the lying whore

Valar Morghulis

Beyond the wall and the haunted wood
Wights with black hands and bright blue eyes
Ice spiders shimmer, pale and dead
Soon the Others wage their war on the sky

Beyond Dorne and the Dothraki Sea
Three children are foretold for the one
Heirs to the black dread, Balerion's throne
Dragons growing in the heat of the sun
(Lyrics (c) Lich King, from the album World Gone Dead) there are many ways to express one's love for a book. Blogging about it, thrashing about it, putting up posters on thy wall, recommending it to others etc. A Song of Ice and Fire has invaded popular culture, not yet with the same (ahem) force as Star Wars, but more and more people are becoming aware. "Phenomenon" isn't that what they call it? Speaking of phenomena, let's take a look at Sansa's first chapter in this third book of the EP1C SAGA and see if there's anything phenomenally phenomenal to glean from its pages of grimdark. As I mentioned in the A Clash of Kings re-read I was kind of surprised that Sansa didn't escape because that's how I remembered it - alas, she is still a captive within the Red Keep, that formidable building I unfortunately feel they didn't quite managed to capture in the TV series (perhaps aside from the throne room which was incredibly well visualized). Anyway, I am going to keep the HBO talk to a minimum now; just want to note that I actually haven't rewatched any of the episodes of the second season, while I saw the first season episodes three or more times each. It isn't enticing enough that I have prioritized it (yet), as I am currently knee-deep in the first season of The Borgias featuring less well acted characters but with the intrigues and plots that I do love to watch unfold. Funny how the first time I heard about this Borgia family was on a A Game of Thrones cover blurb; "More poisonous than the Borgias" (paraphrased). It made we wonder who the Borgias were. I went online and found out. Saw a comic book about the family too, but it was too offensive even for jaded Slynt. The TV series is fair entertainment though, though it lacks a certain something to make it outstanding, but don't ask me what it is because I really don't have a clue. Let's call it the x factor. But I'll tell you that the TV series The Borgias doesn't even come close to the real-life Borgia family's decadent, violent, opulent and utterly macabre lives.Wait...I'm reading A Storm of Swords, not reviewing TV series. I am getting distracted in my old age /sigh.

As he so often does, Martin fires off the chapter with a quick sentence making us curious about what is going on. There's an invitation, and it makes Sansa's tummy tight. What could the invitation be? From who? Does Sansa suffer from indigestion? The answer is provided awfully quick, though; sometimes you have to wait like half a chapter but here we have Sansa thinking of Margaery Tyrell, who is going to be the queen, and who is the one who has sent her the invitation. The tension then lies in knowing that Sansa is going to sup with Margaery, and leaves us wondering how this will affect the story and in particular Sansa's future. After this, Martin goes back in time like he also does quite often in his chapters, laying out some background and kind of backwards-introducing some new characters as well, including fan favorite (?) the Queen of Thorns.

There's an interesting contrast between Sansa and Margaery that the author himself reminds us of: Sansa had done nothing to make the commons hate her, no more than Margaery Tyrell had done to win their love. We get a paragraph of Sansa angsting over the invitation, in which the author reminds us that Joffrey is a bad boy, that Ser Dontos promised to help her escape, and that this escape can come anytime now. What makes Sansa such a realistic character is how she considers the invitation - at first she wonders what cruelty lies behind it, but then she tells herself that maybe it's kindness. Kind of how people think and act, weighing possibilities, hoping for the best and dreading the worst. It's what lifts A Song of Ice and Fire above vanilla fantasy where characters never feel like real people. I don't mean it's just Sansa considering the invitation that lifts the saga, of course. That would be a somewhat grand declaration to make. If there was one thing that Sansa Stark had learned here, it was mistrust. Has she? That's an interesting thought Sansa has, but I am not sure she's quite as hardened as she thinks. Anyway, she has to accept the invitation. 

Now comes an interesting paragraph in which Sansa wishes the Hound was around. Again we are given a few reminders of what went before, but the interesting part is that she misses his presence, thus feeling less secure without him. A subtle little development. And finally the chapter brings us action: Sighing, she got out quill and ink, and wrote Margaery Tyrell a gracious note of acceptance. Yes, that's the most active part of the chapter so far - and still it's so good. Fantasy does not have to feature giant battles, terrifying monsters and incessant clashing of steel all the time - there is room for writing gracious notes. More action follows when Ser Loras Tyrell arrives, standing on the threshold. He makes her heart beat a little faster, the author notes, which I assume is because he looks ridiculously good. She is actually stunned by his presence, and you can just feel her awkwardness, the quick infatuation, and appreciate the dramatic irony (remember, Loras is into the dumpster scene). Anyway, Loras tells her that she won't be supping with Margaery alone, oh noes - Lady Olenna, that would be the Queen of Thorns and Marge's grandma - will also partake. Gotta love that verb. "Partake". Almost pancake. There's some more internal monologue from Sansa as she secretly fawns all over Ser Loras. They pass the inner courtyard which allows Martin to put in a few minor characters (a Redwyne twin, Ser Tallad, Kennos of Kayce, the Kettleblacks and hey! Morros Slynt). Again, Martin shows his disdain for the House Slynt by adding that Slynt will have "a rich crop of bruises by the morrow". What's the man got against the Slynts? Dammit. Kennos we'll see more of in A Feast for Crows, so I guess Martin put him here for consistency. More importantly, we meet Ser Garlan, who is Loras' older brother. How complicated can it get with all these family members? A lot more, I assume. There are still new characters being introduced in A Dance with Dragons. That's the price of realism, I guess; characters have family. 

Sansa realizes Loras has forgotten he gave her a rose during the Tourney of the Hand (all the way back in A Game of Thrones) and this startles her; personally I think it is somewhat satisfying to have Sansa realize she isn't all that. The rose didn't mean anything, though in her mind it meant everything. Another lesson for little lady Stark. She continues to make small social blunders around the Tyrell brothers (and Martin sneaks in a hint of Loras' anger about Renly's death), gradually opening up the chapter so to speak for the supper we're expecting. But not before we get some more exposition on where Mace Tyrell and his entourage stay during their visit to King's Landing, introducing us to Erryk and Arryk, Olenna's personal guardians, also known as Left and Right, which is kinda funny and tells us a little about Olenna's character before we've even met the old hag. Clever. 

...And finally we have the confrontation we're curious about. Margaery turns out to be courteous and gracious enough. She also helps set up Olenna's character with her comment that Olenna isn't the most patient of ladies. We meet Lady Alerie, Mace's wife (the mother of Loras and Garlan and Margaery), and several other characters of the Tyrell entourage (Megga, Alla, Elinor - all three put on the board for the next novel, Buxom Lady Janna, an aunt, Lady Leonette, Garlan's wife, Lady Graceford, Septa Nysterica, Lady Bulwer, Meredyth Crane, and finally another important setup character, Lady Merryweather. That's a lot of new characters for a third book in a series! But it couldn't be any other way, could it? Another House has definitely joined the fray. Finally, Sansa is introduced to Olenna Tyrell. By the way Martin first leads us, through Sansa's eyes, through the court before ending up at Olenna also gives us a hint as to the hierarchy (or rather matriarchy) here - with the big boss being Olenna Tyrell. Martin really sets up this character well, doesn't he? Before she's spoken a word you should have a pretty clear understanding of her position in the family, her sense of humor, and her personality. Here's to seeing the Queen of Thorns in The Winds of Winter

Turns out Olenna is "the littlest bit of a thing", and doesn't seem thorny at all. Appearances can deceive, Sansa, but I guess that's a lesson for later? Funny how Olenna knew Sansa's grandfather Rickard, you know, since I was talking about family. Also, seems a lot of people knew Rickard but then he was a prominent lord so why not. When Sansa tells Marge she's saddened by Lord Renly's death, we're given Olenna in full: "Gallant, yes, and charming, and very clean. He knew how to dress and he knew how to smile and he knew how to bathe, and somehow he got the notion that this made him fit to be a king. The Baratheons have always had some queer notions, to be sure. It comes from their Targaryen blood, I should think (...) They tried to marry me to a Targaryen once, but I soon put an end to that."
So what does this tell us? Well, you can glean a lot about a character from how they think about others - in this case showing us that Olenna is shrewd and sees things for what they are (Renly's demeanor), she has no fondness of Targaryens (could come in handy in, I don't know, The Winds of Winter?), and damned if she wasn't supposed to marry a Targ. Now that's funny, and also note how Martin manages to sneak in the word "queer" when talking about (Renly) Baratheon. Now who was Olenna supposed to marry? I am sure more geeky geeks than me have figured it out,  but I am not that fond of memorizing Targaryen names/dynasties so I have no clue to be honest. I like how Martin here and there tucks in quick reminders of the Targaryen history which ultimately has had a lot of effect on Westeros and its Houses, and it also important - I suppose - to remember that the Baraboys have Targaryen blood (who knows, mayhaps it will come in handy for Stannis one of these days, I don't know, in The Winds of Winter maybe?)

Fantasy Flight Games
And so we slide into Olenna's banter, and she sure has opinions, and I like how her word view is quite different from what we've had so far in the series, giving us fresh hag eyes to see Westeros with. She shows that she's a player of the Game, that's for sure, and I suppose Olenna is the next "mentor" in Sansa's story arc; she's learned a little from Cersei, now it's Olenna's turn to help shape Sansa into a formidable player (at least that's the feeling I'm left with reading this). The rest of the chapter is really all about Olenna giving us exposition on a whole lot of stuff; the bloodline of the Tyrells, how she's in touch with Varys, she tells Sansa what a fool her son Lord Mace is, how her husband rode off a cliff while hawking, and there is just an overload of information but all told through Olenna's sharp voice, making it entertaining - and it turns out there's a point to it as well, which Olenna gets to eventually, which is figuring what Sansa thinks of her ex-fiancee, Joffrey. You'd think Olenna knew already so this is most likely the Queen of Thorns testing Sansa's loyalty: "Yes, all the Lannisters are lions, and when a Tyrell breaks wind it smells just like a rose," the old woman says, suggesting that she has no love for the Lannisters, and knows them for what they are. She assures Sansa she can speak freely, but Sansa is scared witless of course. Now, Olenna has the fool sing loudly so as to hide their conversation - and I remember how confused I was reading this the first time; what was this old woman doing? What was her intent? And I remember so hoping that this would be Sansa's ticket out of her hell, and so sure that this would only lead her deeper into trouble. Butterbumps - the jester - begins singing what can now be called a classic I suppose - The Bear and the Maiden Fair, and Olenna tells Sansa to speak truthfully. Though it is heavy on dialogue, it remains an exciting - and pivotal - event, this talk between Olenna and Sansa - perfectly illustrated by Sansa feeling as "though her heart had lodged in her throat". What a dilemma, folks, does she dare trust the old woman with the truth, or not? It's not nail-biting intense, of course, but there is lot of tension anyway, gotta love it. And then, Sansa spills them proverbial beans, and it feels good for me as a reader that she finally can tell someone. "A monster," she whispered, so tremulously she could scarcely hear her own voice. "Joffrey is a monster. He lied about the butcher's boy and made Father kill my wolf. When I displease him, he has the Kingsguard beat me. He's evil and cruel, my lady, it's so. And the queen as well."
There you go, that feels so good! Although, come to think of it, I'd like it if Sansa went a little further; she doesn't even mention what perhaps is his cruelest act against her - taking her to the walls to show her Eddard's - her father - head on a pike. She could also have mentioned the flinging of the Antler Men, as another illustrative example. What I am still curious about, though, is whether Olenna already knew and needed it confirmed, or if she is playing a game here. Probably playing a game.

Once Sansa has told the Queen of Thorns, she regrets it, naturally - almost reflexively, but Olenna tells her not to fear. Margaery herself seems unperturbed although she's listening in on the conversation, so it seems to me that this is the first hint that the two are in cahoots, and that Margaery herself sees the wedding to Joffrey as purely political. Margaery also hints - something I didn't catch the first time around - that Sansa should come with them to Highgarden (a place that, ironically perhaps, sounds just like the kind of dreamy paradise Sansa's been wishing for), but Olenna stops her - another hint that the two have some designs for the future (in this case wedding Sansa to Garlan and Loras' oldest brother - no wonder Olenna wants Margaery to keep quiet about it for now; if I recall correctly, this oldest Tyrell boy is lame and I mean literally). They also tell Sansa that Queen Cersei will have to let Sansa go if the Tyrells demand it; the author subtly showing us how powerful the Tyrells really are; I mean, if you suddenly introduce the whole Tyrell family three books down the line, you have to ground them so that the reader keeps believing in this story, no? There must be precedent for their power - which mainly comes from, well, being Tyrells but also through marrying into House Lannister. Lovely. Hope I made sense here, it's late.

Ah, here Olenna reveals that their purpose is indeed to marry Sansa. For a moment she believes they mean Loras, and we get a paragraph of her mentally imagining a life with him, before that hope/dream is erased when Olenna tells her she means Willas. Old and crippled. But hey, he's the fricking heir to Highgarden. Little detail I had forgotten - Willas is crippled and the Red Viper, Oberyn Martell, has the blame for it. Nice of Martin to sneak in a mention of Oberyn here, seeing as he'll make an appearance later. Oh my, those script writers over at HBO are probably having more than enough to do sorting out all these new characters. Sansa is hesitant about the plot, but given time I am convinced I remember that she is able to think for herself that marrying the heir of Highgarden, slightly dysfunctional but most likely good-looking if his brothers are anything to go by, is a way better future than staying in the Red Keep being beaten by Joffrey's Kingsguard.

Whew, so that was, in a nutshell, Sansa's first chapter and it is lengthy (at least it feels lengthy) and full of talking, yet it is very interesting; the intrigue, the plotting, new characters (Olenna is a hoot if you ask me), the ever-expanding scope, new twists and turns in the tale (it definitely grew in the telling), and I find myself wondering if we'll ever see some kind of resolution to Olenna's story. She did kind of just leave the stage didn't she? Back to Highgarden in A Feast for Crows, if I recall correctly. I feel her purpose in the saga isn't over yet, but who knows?

A final note; I wonder whether Martin chose the title The Bear and the Maiden Fair consciously, or if it is coincidence. Why? Well, in the beginning of the chapter Sansa (the Maiden Fair) finds herself missing Sandor (the Bear) - yeah, probably reading too much into things (again...sigh), but still. "I called for a knight, but you're a bear" ... Sandor is no knight; will we see Sandor licking honey from Sansa's hair? Or does the text indirectly imply Sansa's hairnet in the wedding scene to come? There's a bear in that scene too, isn't there? All right, now it is really late (well, for me) and I better stop thinking about this because it is driving me crazy and I know the story isn't over and I know Martin doesn't talk about plot details like this to enlighten his readership old gods bless him. Or is The Bear... really an allegory or whatever they call it these days for Daenerys and Ser Jorah? My brain. Hurt!

Better get back to bed and the four books I'm reading simultaneously...The Wise Man's Fear, The Desert Spear, Gardens of the Moon re-read, and now also Glen Cook's first novel in his The Black Company series. I'm crazy. And Erikson's Forge of Darkness is, according to Amazon, dispatched and on its way to my claws. No wonder my re-read of A Storm of Swords is somewhat...slow.

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