Thursday, February 14, 2013

[Re-read] Sam I: It ain't over until the fat boy swings an obsidian blade +2


I was interrupted while writing yesterday's post and accidentally hit the 'publish'-button. I was about to do something useful anyway, so I let the rest wait - so here's the second part of my re-read of Samwell Tarly's first very own chapter in the saga. The character Small Paul just appeared on the scene, so I'll go from there. Click here to read the first part.

The most prominent song of the novel, 'The Bear and the Maiden Fair', is mentioned even here in the dark and desperate flight of the Night's Watch and it feels forced. Martin really wanted to have that song everywhere. I've never really put much thought in the lyrics but now that I'm thinking about it I think it's quite obvious the alternate title for the song is 'King Robert and Cersei Lannister' or am I totally wrong? The bear, at least, has got to be Robert. 

It becomes clear through his dialogue that Small Paul is a simple-minded man, and I love how Martin uses his dialogue to establish this fact instead of giving us exposition in the vein of "Sam knew Small Paul was called that because he had a small brain." Paul would've liked one of the ravens as a pet, but they've all flown off; Martin repeats this fact several times, presumably to make sure we will remember this for later. There's more thinking about what happened on the Fist, and it should be obvious by now that, after all the medieval politics in King's Landing, epic fantasy has landed in Westeros: "(...) he remembered the dead coming over the stones with arrows in their faces and through their throats. Some were all in ringmail and some were almost naked...wildlings, most of them, but a few wore faded blacks." It's more like a zombie flick at this point. I wonder if any of those wights could be Benjen Stark. 

It's not Sam, but it's too awesome a piece of art.
Like any good Westeros citizen, Sam pees himself in fear (well a really good character 'soils' himself); turned out that in the midst of "carnage and chaos and blowing snow" Sam found Dolorous Edd, Sam witnessed the undead slaying men in different and gruesome ways, and Sam remembers the Old Bear calling the retreat, there is more urine leakage as Sam sees a big rotting bear (!) ripping Thoren Smallwood's head off. Seriously, the Fist must be the absolutely worst nightmare to experience of all bad things that have happened so far. The smell alone! Sam and others escape by horse, the experience is recounted through Sam's thoughts and again I wish we had this whole attack scene as an actual real-time event chapter thing instead. Oh well, there are plenty of cool events in real-time as well, but with A Storm of Swords, we are starting to see a few things creep into the saga that I personally would be without - a proliferation of new POVs, more events related or told in flashbacks...these two are already showing up, though it not intrusive yet; not ruining the experience, which happened to me with books four and five. There's also a third element creeping in, the element of repetitive phrases, the best example in this chapter being the aforementioned song of the bear and the fair maiden. Anyway, the Night's Watch leave in a so-called 'spearhead formation', Sam among them, and someone yanks him from his saddle (again reminding us there are bad guys on all sides, not just one) to get his horse. I wonder who that Night's Watch member was! Reminds me of these tragedies were people, in their haste to survive some catastrophe, will ensure their survival at the cost of others in the same event. This explains how we find Sam, at the beginning of the chapter, on foot (not that I ever wondered). 

We get some more on Small Paul, him being the strongest man in the Watch, and he's carrying Sam, but Paul's strides are shorter now, and there you get that "real-time" tension back into the chapter (I admit I had forgotten there were so many flashbacks in this chapter, and I find them a little bit intrusive when the atmosphere and tension of the 'current' is so atmospheric, so palpable). Beginning to lag behind, others tell Paul to leave Sam to die, but Small Paul remembers that Sam had promised him a bird, and so he carries Sam. Eventually, the two and Grenn realize they are alone. Now that's scary knowing the night is full of the living (and hungry) dead! And poor Paul no longer has the strength to carry Sam. It seems as if death has caught up with them, with icy claws. Knowing their torch will gutter out soon enough, they suddenly know they are not alone after all. What a relief...wait a minute.

"A horse's head emerged from the darkness. Sam felt a moment's relief, until he saw the horse. Hoarfrost covered it like a sheen of frozen sweat, and a nest of stiff black entrails dragged from its open belly. On its back was a rider pale as ice..."

This is not a scary Other I'm sorry to say.
Reminds me of Grandpa Smurf.
Yes, folks! After so many pages, we are again seeing up-close on of the mysterious Others, who so eloquently slew two rangers in the prologue of A Game of Thrones. This scene kind of echoes it, but stands on its own (the echo being three Night's Watch members); Martin has to sneak in another comment about piss which I find totally unnecessary. Here we are facing one of the feared Others - not a blue-eyed wight, but an Other , "sword-slim and milky white", its armor rippling and shifting ("What?" said someone at HBO; "I thought they were supposed to look like the fierce fighting Uruk-hai!"). Small Paul, unperturbed, unslings his axe and makes ready for battle with a great line: "Why'd you hurt that horse? That was Mawney's horse." Small Paul: He likes animals.

Sam doesn't have a sword, Grenn does an Aragorn and waves with his torch, trying to scare the Other off. Can't wait for this on the television screen! Though it's kind of ... mm..could HBO have changed the Others' appearance to make them less similar to the Ringwraiths? Just a thought that struck my head like lightning on the Vatican roof. 

Now most readers are probably firmly entrenched in the chapter during this scene, and it reads fast and furious, and poor Paul gets a crystal sword stabbed through his everything and all the poor guy can say is "Oh", and Samwell is gathering courage as he hears the voices of Alliser Thorne and his father Randyll urging him to stop being a craven, he even hears Jon - but hey - now that we've read A Dance with Dragons he could in fact be hearing Bran (how I hate that everything can now be attributed to Bran Stark of events beyond the Wall). Anyway, Sam stabs the Other with this obsidian dagger and it's a critical hit. In addition, the dagger does bonus damage (apparently) to Others so Sam's lucky in that regard. And we, as readers, get the all-important clue that these obsidian daggers are very useful in a fight with an Other. It's almost too cliché for A Song of Ice and Fire, but there you have it; and the story lines beyond the Wall have always been closer to Tolkien than the other story lines.

So, Grenn and Sam survive, and we're explicitly told that they also call obsidian for dragon glass BIG SIGN RIGHT THERE and Grenn shows some respect for Sam at last, which he better, and, almost unbelievably, the sun is rising in the east and they decide to go follow the pink light of dawn to catch Mormont and the others, and Sam...takes a step - and then another... All in all, a well-crafted chapter, the orange glow of torches in the darkness, the snow and the cold, the suffering, all framed by Sam's step-by-step journey through the dark woods... Lovely. 

I wonder how it all will play out. Do we need dragon glass if Daenerys shows up with dragons? Will the dragons not show up in the North after all, and it will be the Night's Watch armed with obsidian who will ultimately defeat the Others? There are a thousand questions about the closure of the story, and so far few have been forthcoming. Still, it's better to read about Sam slaying an Other almost by accident in a moment of utter terror - and not knowing what's gonna happen next - than reading about fat pink masts and tedious sea voyages with not much going on. With that snide sniper shot at A Feast for Crows I bid you a good day and may you have a great exploration of one secondary world or the other today (I'm currently learning all there is to know about the fabled island of Evermeet, the Valinor of the Forgotten Realms, or something like that). 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

[Re-read] Sam I: It ain't over until the fat boy swings an obsidian blade +2


Boy, it's truly been a week illustrating how the mighty can fall. Martin signing the deal with HBO, the pope abdicating and revealing he had a pacemaker all along, conveniently forgetting that he's god's man on Earth and so really shouldn't need to trust in technology produced by that all-awful thing called "science"; North Korea are rattling with their sabers nuclear devices which I'm pretty sure will result in a mighty fall (and possible world war, just saying - possible, I'm not an educated prophet); some dude planned to blow up the Norwegian goverment building last night, and everywhere I look (when I'm looking at reality) there's negativity, pessimism, hate, intolerance, bigotry, hopelessness, war, starvation, disease etc. Sure, there are a few glimmers of hope in between, like Bill Clinton's work to get more contraceptives down where they are needed, the increased focus on reason and sensibility in many countries....still, whenever I find myself stressed about all the doom and gloom of real life, I love to dive into secondary worlds and, well, enjoy the doom and gloom there instead. Because it isn't real, and usually there are heroes fighting against said gloom, or at the very least there is entertainment involved. I am not entertained by nuclear devices, popes and hunger. But throw in a Dark Lord, or magical weapons, or mystical bonds between man and animal, and I'm all there, baby. 
Aside from another chapter of A Storm of Swords I've been enjoying a number of RPG sourcebooks describing fictitious lands and characters and events. Last weekend I spent time in the city of Neverwinter - the first beta of the online game, which for me was a truly disappointing experience aside from the fact that for a beta, it ran smooth as a duck's shaved behind. It simply wasn't the game I expected it to be, nor was it the game I wanted it to be. Oh well, some serious money thrown away for nothing, but beyond that not a big deal. I didn't feel that invested in the game, not in the way I'm invested in, say, A Song of Ice and Fire. And with that dubious transition, it's time for a freaking storm. Of swords! Not a real-life, coastal storm threatening people, a force of nature to make peoples' lives miserable, but a triumph of the imagination mixing up fantasy and medieval history taking the reader away for a while. I heart secondary worlds. They are not real.

So here we are with another character getting his own chapter. Ser Jaime Lannister, the unsung hero of the saga started this new trend with the book's first chapter, and now we have, of all people, Samwell Tarly getting his own. I remember being surprised when I flipped to this page (or read the table of contents) and wondered what need we would have of this bumbling nerd's point of view. As it turned out, I forgot all about it reading this chapter as it is pretty intense from the get-go and doesn't stop holding your attention until it's over. It's one of those close-up intimate chapters where you can't help but become totally immersed in the suspense, and it is one of those chapters that linger in the mind long after you've closed the book. Well, that's how it worked for me, anyway. Now there are Sam chapters coming up (in A Feast for Crows) that are the complete opposite - tedious and not as well crafted - but for now, we have a chapter before us that invokes a number of images in my mind from previous readings. You may have noticed the picture on the left of Sam as he's presented in the TV series. Before jumping into the chapter I want to mention that I really feel that actor John Bradley does a great job with Sam, but at the same time I feel the writers have turned the character into someone too different from the one in the books - yet at the same time I understand the decision to make him so overly interested in sex (it builds up his eagerness to help what's-her-name Gilly). Look-wise I always thought Sam was at least twice as big, but that's really not a biggie. Bradley is for me one of the standouts of the series, and I am looking forward to see today's chapter in particular make it to the screen. Finally, since Martin did decide that Sam's POV was a necessity, I wonder what will happen to him in the next volume, and how him becoming a maester will tie in to the story at large (I'm thinking he will discover some useful lore about the Others while in Oldtown, or maybe even something about Jon Snow himself, who knows). Anyway...

Sam is sobbing and thinking that he won't be able to take another step. This is right in character, with him being physically challenged (if this is an offensive way of putting it, my apologies); the lands beyond the Wall are harsh and unforgiving to a fat boy with a short breath. However, one would think that he'd be shedding flesh the way he's been marching. He's been quite active, although of course we also have the scenes where he spends nights hunched over ancient tomes, much like many of us spend our time hunched over modern screens with their soft alluring glow. We've been set up ever since his first appearance to think of Sam as a coward - he even calls himself a coward - and so when he takes another step, and another step - we are seeing courage coming to the fore, a wonderful development of the character and maybe one of the reasons we needed to get inside his mind, to fully appreciate how far the boy has, after all, come. 
The snow is drifting up past his knees, and Sam's thoughts seem to linger on him thinking of himself as some grotesque wandering through the white - in fact, one could be lead to think of Quadimodo, with descriptions like "like two clubfeet made of ice" and "The heavy pack he carried made him look like some monstrous hunchback." In his thoughts, he prays to the Mother - it's a small detail that I love; that even after he decided to take his vows before the old gods of the North, when he's despairing his thoughts turn to the gods he's been familiar with before becoming a member of the Watch. It's a minor detail that helps make the character realistic. 

Martin goes out of his way to give us the impression of how terribly uncomfortable Sam is; from the way the snow cakes around his boots and slows him down, to the scabbard weighing down his belt so he has to pull it up all the time (I can really feel that one - I always forget to throw a belt around my body so I am constantly hitching up my trousers); we are given a quick reminder that he has the dragonglass dagger - now so obviously put in there so that when he produces it toward the end of the chapter it doesn't come as a WTF. Chekov's gun, Sam's dragonglass blade. Same thing, different story, no? Martin tells us that Sam's belly is still big and round, so he hasn't lost much weight after becoming a member of the Watch (so far I buy it; he's been mostly holed up in the library), but from now on I expect him to shed flesh. Shed it! Not that my weekly excersises make me any thinner. It's all the sweetrolls and lemoncakes, dammit. Sam doesn't have access to the sugar anymore, though, it's rougher fare and hence: shed that flesh. 

As he stumbles through the treacherous terrain, Martin weaves in short flashbacks the way only he is able to, masterfully crafted bits of information to fill out the chapter even as we're basically just following one character around. Between these thoughts of Sam we're given reminders of his precarious situation which keeps up the suspense: after giving us the rather mundane info of Black Bernarr breaking his ankle (okay, I guess the ankle isn't the mundanest thing to break but anyway) reminds us effectively: But if he stopped he died. And that's the sinister beauty and simplicity of the chapter: Move, or die. It's exciting because we as readers know Sam ain't all that tough. What makes it less exciting is that he's gotten his first chapter so one might reasonably assume that we'll have more chapters from the guy (and a quick scan of the content list confirms just that). Still...I think Martin is at his best in these kind of dramatic chapters where we're close up to the character in question, and there is this great tension. But I guess you knew that already.

We're given a good look at what exactly Sam is wearing to explain just how much clothes he needs to keep warm; it's a veritable host of clothes. Can't imagine how freaking cold it must be. Of course, there's also the fact that he's outside all the time. Not a short trip to the store to pick up some coke cans. He can't feel his feet anymore, though the day before they hurt. Martin sure wallows in misery; "Every step made him want to scream." And we're getting into the juicy details; what happened after the horn had blown on the Fist? Well, it's quite easy to sum up: People panicked and got the hell down from there. So much for the "shields that guard the realms of men". There's more suffering to behold, more snow to be described, and more of Sam thinking of himself in a not-very-constructive way. There's crying - and the freezing of tears - and there is more steps. Martin does a nice little literary thing in this chapter; many of the paragraphs begin with "Sobbing, he took another step" (or the variant, "Sobbing, Sam took another step"). So many in fact, that once you notice, you pretty much have to think one of two things: Either Martin was lazy and repeated himself and didn't notice or he did these repeats for a reason. Of course he did them for a reason, and to me it works fine - by repeating this sentence when opening a new paragraph, we get the impression of monotony, it strengthens the reader's perception of Sam struggling with each and every step, and it makes us wonder when that last step is coming. It's simple, but brilliant. 

It takes a while before the camera cuts back to give room for more than Sam and his sobbing and his stepping; the first part is a close-up, we are in Sam's mind, but now Martin opens up the scene by giving us details about Sam's immediate surroundings, and I find the following sentence particularly evocative: "Off to the left and right, half-seen through the silent trees, torches turned to vague orange haloes in the falling snow." He's not alone then; there are more Night's Watch men stomping through the woods, carrying torches; the Old Bear Mormont has ordered a 'ring of fire' - watchmen with torches encircling those without torches, so that everyone moves together. A sound plan; Sam, however, wishes he could be a torchbearer, dreaming of the warmth from the carried fire. More frost and snot and self-pitying, and more begging the Mother for mercy, followed by Sam's thoughts turning to his real mother, and his little brother Dickon, and, thoughts turning to the old gods of the north, and he begins to pray to them instead. Now, see, it all feels so natural. Then he begins to think of a hitherto unknown character, Maslyn, who had screamed for mercy. What's this, then, the reader wonders, arching one eyebrow and curiously flipping to the next page. Ah, a Night's Watch member - the way this Maslyn is introduced fooled me for one second into thinking that Sam was remembering someone from his past on Horn Hill, but alas! I had forgotten this little bit. Maslyn had been lifted in the air by a wight, by the throat Vader-style, and nearly got his head ripped off. These wights are strong then. Cleverly, Martin injects this bit right here to make the wights even more threatening, and....Sobbing, he took another step.

Sam trips over a root, and once down he really doesn't want to get up. He's telling himself all manner of excuses to keep lying in the snow, kind of reminding me of all the excuses my mind makes up in the morning when I'm supposed to get out of bed and make myself ready for another day. This is when we get the first piece of dialogue in the chapter. It almost comes as a little shock after so many pages of being intensely with Samwell, and is a nice break that breathes new life into the situation (you may guess that I love this chapter). "Back on your feet, Piggy," someone growls as he passes the boy. No poor little Sam here. It's every man for himself; still, the man is nice enough to utter a comment. Sam begins to fantasize about dying right there. We're told that hundreds had died on the Fist, which is pretty darn interesting since in Jon's chapter we didn't see any Night's Watch corpses and thus clues the reader that they're all probably wights now, with blue eyes and strong but stinking arms, and Sam has seen many die which of course is more than enough of a trauma to render any character terrorized (is that a possible sentence?). We're given a few reminders of Sam's duty as raven master, how old Aemon had stayed behind at Castle Black...Sam is sinking back in the snow, letting his memories take hold, and one important bit is that Samwell at least got the ravens off to warn Castle Black of the attack on the Fist. 

We're taken back to the moment the horn blew on the Fist, with Sam waking up, Chett nearby, funny how Sam notices the dagger in Chett's hand but doesn't make any connection beyond that. Sam gets the ravens off, showing us that no matter how cowardly he is or isn't, he's doing his duty and that's a likable trait making us connect to him on that reader-character level. The longest of the chapters' memories / flashbacks, we are given a little treat of a look at the battle that took place on the Fist; however, I wish we could have gotten it directly through Sam's POV because that would have been quite exciting. It could have been Sam's first chapter, and this one could have been the second. It's great reading, though, all chaotic and sinister, but soo enough we're back in the present with Grenn trying to get Sam up. There's a lot of back and forth - Sam wants to die here  in the snow, feeling that he has spent all his energy, while Grenn wants him to go on, which of course is a very friendly thing to do given the situation, yet Sam thinks, "I thought Grenn was my friend. You shouldn't kick your friends (...)" which is a clever way of the author to show us that Sam is actually delirious. Dolorous Edd and Delirious Sam. The spin-off series soon on HBO. 

Small Paul appears - a minor character that I nonetheless am fond of -

Thursday, February 7, 2013

[Re-read] Arya III: To Ride Peaceful and Shoot Straight

Sometimes I get comments on old posts; I usually don't have the time to reply, but be assured I read them. There was a comment this morning about women in the Middle Ages that I'd like to respond to at length, and I want to thank for all those links (they go straight into the 'Medieval stuff'-folder of links!), but remember I was talking about Westeros rather than medieval Europe. Still, point taken and I will definitely look into the post regarding women in medieval times if the re-read of A Storm of Swords is to be edited into a book. That's an if though, as my second book Re-reading A Clash of Kings is now almost a year late for various reasons. I do hope it will be published as its a far more in-depth, and far less "bloggy" effort than the first. He shrugs.

I used to think that managing my mp3 collection (using WinAmp, still my favorite media player after testing out basically all options) was a hassle. I'm a bit of a catalogue-freak, needing to have everything alphabetically, chronologically, with the tags correct, with proper cover art, the right credits in the right places etc. Then I began to collect Kindle e-books. Getting those thingies to present themselves in a proper manner is worse. Last night I wasted hours trying to re-insert missing cover art, retagging titles to add proper series titles, secondary titles etc., get the authors' names correct and so on and so forth. To do this I had to download a third-party piece of software, Mobi2Mobi, and it doesn't always work as I want it to. Very annoying. I want the books to display in a certain order with the proper art when I open up my Kindle program (I use it on this computer, as well as on my smartphone). Several titles just force Mobi2Mobi to crash, while others are easily edited. I am glad I don't have that many e-books yet, because this is a project worthy of the greatest of procrastinators. Which brings me to George R.R. Martin and my e-book-version of A Storm of Swords, fired up and ready to go in Kindle. Ka-ching!

All right, so we are back with Arya Stark. Last time we saw her hope welled up as Harwin of Winterfell entered the Inn of the Kneeling Man and, at least on the first read of the book, every heart rejoiced with this unexpected reunion that could lead to all kinds of good things for little fierce Arya. With this in mind, it is kind of surprising to see the chapter start kind of slow, with rains coming and going, and the streams running high, and Arya noticing the "moss was growing mostly on the wrong side of the trees". It opens up the question - is she walking somewhere with Harwin? That's an assumption a reader could make, so in this sense, we are already curious about the words to come, even as the chapter opens in a relatively mundane way of describing nature (which, by the way, subtly hints that autumn is growing ever more autumny). But look, she's talking to Gendry, and both of them are riding - no boating, then. She thinks they are lost, Gendry sounds more confident; reading between the lines one could assume that Gendry is only pretending to be sure to make Arya feel safe; there's a great exchange between the two characters that always makes me smile: When Gendry complains it rains so much they'll have moss growing out of their ears, Arya replies, "Only from our south ear," which is funny and feels so right for her character to say. It is revealed that Hot Pie is no longer with them - he stayed behind at the Inn to help with the baking of bread. A less exciting but hopefully safer way of life for Hot Pie, then. Still, a shame to "lose" him as his presence gave Arya's chapter a nice character to contrast against Arya's bravery. He begs Arya to come back to him after the war is done, which I guess we can write down in the Great List of things we'd like to see before the series ends. 

Wondering which way to go.
Next up is more flashback exposition as we learn more about what Arya and Harwin talked about; she told him about his father's death, about Yoren and the escape from King's Landing, leaving out her killings and leaving out the whole Jaqen H'ghar story (somehow I doubt Harwin would believe that anyway). We are reminded that she still carries Jaqen's iron coin and the phrase Valar Morghulis is repeated for us. Harwin on his side gives us some exposition on Lord Beric Dondarrion and his group; back in A Game of Thrones, Beric was the one Lord Eddard Stark sent off to find and apprehend Ser Gregor Clegane. We are given a few of the names of those who went west with Lord Beric: Thoros of Myr, Ser Raymun Darry, Ser Gladden Wylde, Lothar Mallery - mostly unknowns, but their names alone evoke enough of a feeling, I think. I can see in my mind's eye this group riding out of King's Landing, mud spattering about the hooves of their horses, grim and determined faces out to find the Mountain that Rides to bring him to justice. Here we have a good suggestion for HBO and George RR Martin - make a spin-off series about the Lightning Lord and his adventures in the Riverlands. Oh. All those guys are dead already (except Thoros). I forgot that. So much for the epic riding out of the Mud Gate - scene. Lots of information to digest here as Harwin just keeps on talking. This gives Lord Beric and his men some needed depth and background, and one can expect to meet them since Martin spends so many words giving these characters their backstory.

Interesting! This is very interesting! Lord Beric was considered dead, but Thoros prayed for him all night and at dawn Beric was stronger than ever. No, this is not the interesting part. This is: "He told us that our war had not ended at the Mummer's Ford, but only begun there, and that every man of ours who'd fallen would be avenged tenfold." See the mirroring here? In the next book, we'll have another character similarly thought dead, coming back strong, and bent on vengeance. This line then, could be considered both foreshadowing, mirroring and possibly telling us something about what Thoros' resurrections do to a person's mind: They become hell-bent on revenge and little else. Okay, maybe not that interesting but I never noticed this bit before. Taking a break right now to get a proper look at the upcoming MMO Neverwinter. I am itching for this.

...And back. Well, the game does look promising in some ways, and not so promising in other ways. Loved the many, many character creation options but the world felt small (from what little we got to see obviously) and I am not sure the high octane action is really what I am looking for. I'm more into exploring secondary worlds at my own leisure. But boy is it itching! Oh well, back to A Song of Ice and Fire. How's that MMO coming along by the way? Hasn't been much news there, has it? In an ideal world it will be a fantastic experience unlike no other MMO with family affilitations, House against House play, enormous areas to explore and with people actually roleplaying out politics, intrigues etc. In an ideal world. 

Back in a more violent and cruel world, we have Arya and Gendry moving through woods (I assume they are in the woods, what with their discussion about the moss but it is never explicitly stated); Harwin is still telling Arya about how Lord Beric and crew went west, tells her about the fights they've had, who's dead, and we get another panoramic view of the events of war that have been unfolding (no wonder many people new to the series are a tad confused): "(...)but we told each other we'd join up with King Robert when he marched west to crush Lord Tywin's rebellion. Only then we heard that Robert was dead, and Lord Eddard as well, and Cersei Lannister's whelp had ascended the Iron Throne." Well that's a quick yet correct summation so far; but the point of Harwin's story is that suddenly roles were reversed and Lord Beric and his men now find themselves being considered outlaws instead of King's Men. Lord Beric did not wish to yield, and decided they would go on fighting (another hint at his changed, more vengeful character). Harwin tells her how his group has swelled; fieldhands and fiddlers and innkeeps all want to become part of his band of avengers of justice - even which Arya replies, "I wish I had a good mean dog," which both reminds us that she lost her direwolf Nymeria and gives us a different kind of foreshadowing in the fact that she will team up with...well, a certain dog. Could a direwolf kill a lion? she wonders, and we all would like to know the answer to that. So far, the only important Lannisters killed have been killed by non-Starks. I do have a feeling though, that before it's over we'll have a Stark killing a Lannister in what I can only assume will be a most satisfying way. For the readers, I mean. And maybe, since the question is posed by Arya, it will indeed be Arya who takes down an important Lannister. But who? And how? And most importantly, when dammit?!

House Dondarrion's sigil according to HBO.
Gendry and Arya aren't traveling alone; they are with the band including Jack-be-Lucky, a new character, Lem Lemoncloak and others. There's more rain (more autumn), they shelter in a burned, abandoned village; though it turns out it isn't that abandoned after all, people are just hiding and supporting the the merry men, reminding me (and probably most readers) of how commoners supported Robin Hood and his band. There are more resemblances to Robin Hood too, like Beric and Thoros being kind of like Robin and Friar Tuck (though he's also a little bit of Little John). At the village, they learn that Ser Jaime Lannister has escaped the dungeon of Riverrun. Now, I wonder, since this bit of news comes so close on the heels of Arya wondering about the direwolf killing a lion  - are we being set up for a confrontation between Arya and the Kingslayer? It's happened before in this series, you know - someone is mentioned and then a little while later that someone becomes central to some event. Jack-be-Lucky is one-eyed and has apparently spent some time in Riverrun's dungeon himself; I do not know whether this will ever become important, but it's a quick reminder that these guys aren't just do-gooders. As they talk about Jaime, Anguy reveals that Lord Beric always gives his enemies a trial before hanging them - another similarity to another character in A Feast for Crows. Well, not similarity actually but a contrast, come to think of it: that other character skips the trial. Tom Sevenstrings begins to sing, and now we're really feeling the Sherwoody mood as they sing about themselves as "that fearsome outlaw band". The band appeals to me, much more than, say, the Night's Watch, for some reason. Perhaps I like characters who take destiny in their own hands, I don't know. I've always liked the stories about Robin Hood, could be that. Arya drifts off to sleep, and dreams of Winterfell. It's not a good dream (has there been a good dream in these books?). It is unclear whether she was, for a moment, inside a wolf's body at Winterfell, or if it was just a dream to remind us that Winterfell is kind of broken.

Next morning comes up precisely when it means to, and they are off again, with more descriptions suggesting the change of season: "The wind was gusting, sending dry brown leaves swirling (...)" Now Arya becomes convinced they are traveling the wrong way - she wants to go north, to Riverrun, but they are moving south, led by the band of outlaws. Not sure why they wait so long to tell her, but as Arya reins in her horse, Lem tells her that she is right - they are not going to Riverrun. Such a downer for Arya! And for the reader, too, to have her suspicions come true. They are taking her, no not to Isengard, but to meet the Lightning Lord, Beric Dondarrion. She is after all valuable, being the daughter of the lord of the North and all. Oh, that feeling of not getting anywhere. Frustrating but it makes for a ripping good yarn eh.

Beautiful art showing autumn in the Riverlands. Not the season to be jolly.
Naturally, Arya chooses the only option available to her. She tries to flee, urging her horse to a gallop. The outlaws pick up the chase right away. I can almost guarantee that this scene will make it into HBO's third season, it's dramatic and full of tension even though its short. "Arya dashed across brown weedy fields, through waist-high grass and piles of dry leaves that flurried and flew when her horse galloped past(...)" Hells to the yeah. Her escape is described vividly and in detail, Martin really shines here as he takes us with Arya on horseback. Eventually, it is Harwin who catches up with her for maximum dramatic potential (had it been Greenbeard, it wouldn't be as interesting, no?). "Lord Eddard's dead, milady. I belong to the lightning lord now, and to my brothers." They no longer fight for House Stark; a bond has been forged between these outlaws (I believe 'male bonding' is the correct term) and it sounds as if Harwin believes Lord Beric can field an army on his own and thus become yet another king in the making. And so Arya, once again, has become a captive. I love this part of the story so much, how Arya goes from victory to defeat to victory to defeat, how through her journeys we get to see the Riverlands and learn more about the political developments, yet also the story encompasses a more traditional type of storytelling with the journey and the outlaw band, it's pretty much perfect. We get it all, kind of - drama, betrayal, geography, politics, interesting secondary characters, tension, action - but the chapter ends rather quietly with Arya sullenly agreeing to "ride peaceful." 

Wondrous isn't it! And if I remember correctly, the next chapter up isn't exactly a dud either. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Beginning of the end of ice and fire?

Big news then (conspicuously absent from the Not-a-Blog as of writing this tiny piece of rant). What does it all mean? Well, maybe not as much as fans over at the Game of Thrones fan-site Winter is Coming are suggesting. It's not the end of the world, but it might be the beginning of the end for A Song of Ice and Fire. Maybe.

Looking happy.
George has signed a two-year deal with HBO. Two years isn't that much, really. I've waited for books longer than that. Deadline calls it a "pact", which I find is a word with negative connotations, but that's hyperbole for you. So what did he actually sign a deal for? To "develop and produce new series projects for the network". 

That's the big news, which isn't really big news; it is rather the consequence of this deal that has people worried. Of course one has to wonder how this will affect The Winds of Winter. Not only do we not know anything more than that he's got 400 manuscript pages of that novel done - in rough form, and half of them written originally for A Dance with Dragons, so they don't really count - but we also know from his blog that he has a lot of other projects going on simultaneously. I'm almost glad to see that people over at Winter is Coming are generally more furious and frustrated than happy with the news. Personally I can't see what exactly about this news should make a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire happy. Are they happy because it might mean we'll get a Wild Cards TV series? My mind simply cannot comprehend such a suggestion. 

Which brings me to the point of this little rant. Is George R.R. Martin changing his strategies - and is he planning to leave the ending of his magnum opus to HBO? Because that's what people are fearing: No more novels - just loads of marginally related projects, and we'll have to wait for the TV series to actually finish the story. Seeing how little interest Martin has shown in his own saga over the last decade or so, it would actually not be surprising

Saddest thing is that not that long ago, he went on his blog and said he was going to say no to further deals. And here we are, with Martin signing a two-year deal in the middle of trying to get book six done. If I hadn't already been pacified by the numerous disappointments since, oh, 2005 or thereabouts, I'd feel properly betrayed by this. 

I foresee a new round of "He's not your bitch" / "Entitlement" issues coming out of this. But I do notice that the number of people claiming Martin is doing just fine, is reduced - more each day. I am curious to see what Martin himself will say on his blog. I have a feeling he's sweating over that post right now.

And yes I hope I am wrong and he's writing the living stool out of The Winds of Winter. Or at least jotting down on a post-it his thoughts on how HBO should finalize the story that started out oh so strong.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dark Lords of Stilt

Another book digested. See I am trying to keep to my New Year's resolution of reading more. I know I read far less than many other devourers of fantasy, but still I'm kind of pleased I'm on a roll. So that's two licensed novels down - Red Magic first, and yesterday I ripped through the rest of Darth Plagueis, as you guessed a novel based on the Star Wars galaxy. 

Is he dozing off? Most likely.
If you've been following this blog you probably know I have a love/hate relationship to Star Wars, I'm one of those classy nerds who lived the original trilogy and went ballistic on the prequel trilogy (though I've become mild after raising my own son who is now heavily into Star Wars and loves The Phantom Menace); well, I can say as much that the prequels are definitely better than this book about Darth Plagueis - or Hego Damask - the Sith Lord who was the master of Palpatine aka Darth Sidious. If you thought the movies had stilted, unrealistic dialogue, wait until you read this novel. It has its moments - not many, but a few - where I was momentarily transported to that galaxy far, far away, but for the most part it's a dry laundry list of events setting up Palpatine as the master of the universe. It provides a backstory on his political rise to power, how he met and began training his apprentice Darth Maul, gives us all the details on his relationship to his own titular Sith master, and a lot of vague, uninteresting political events mostly related to taxation, trade, a few assassinations, installing puppet kings etc. It could have been, or should have been, a novel that made me all giddy and excited. But when the best background story to explain Maul and Sidious' relationship is that some random woman approaches Sidious with a horned baby and asks him to take it, well, then I find that the author's imagination has floundered severely (or maybe this was a decision given to him by Lucasfilm, who knows). The novel tries to bridge the wacky Star Wars Expanded Universe with the canon of the movies, throwing in familiar characters like Jabba the Hutt (why does that stupid slug have to be everywhere?) without emotional context. Jabba was just fucking fine when he was the mafioso in Return of the Jedi, properly set up through a few lines of dialogue in the two preceding movies, but when they put him in the special edition of A New Hope and now gives him a very large role in the Expanded Universe it becomes meaningless. Just like the infamous "rule of two". Remember the scene in Menace when Sidious and Maul are having a little discussion on a balcony on Coruscant? At that point we had Darth Plagueis, Darth Sidious, Darth Maul and even Count Dooku was getting in on the Dark Side of things. Nah, I better forget this novel quick as possible. It manages to ruin even the prequels.

The novel is unable to build much suspense for two main reasons: One, we know the outcome (the prequels faced the same problem, but in their case, we were all excited to see how things came about) and two, every time there's some plan in motion we are given paragraphs of exposition. There's a whole lot of tell, and far too little show. 

So, after two novels based on existing franchises it's time for something fresh, and something well written. I have decided on Saladin Ahmed's debut novel Throne of the Crescent Moon, published exactly one year ago in two days, and boy it's a breeze from the start after the clunky writings in the two previous reads. Already 14% in, I am looking forward to the adventures of the Doctor Ghul Hunter and his fundamentalist companion. And, of course, I am looking forward to continue re-reading A Storm of Swords.

Still on the table next to my bed is Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings - where it's been since 2010 (!!). It is very well regarded over at Goodreads, and I can't for the life of me understand why, aside from the world building perhaps. Was there ever a more ponderous tome? Maybe I should get back into it, maybe it picks up speed at some point. There must be something I'm missing since so many people love it.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Beware the red wizards!

Spent six hours aboard a train yesterday which gave me the opportunity to read a little bit. I finished Red Magic, and boy was it a struggle. This book was extremely hard to get through because it's so incredibly bad. For each paragraph there was at least one thing that took me right out of it. Clunky dialogue, lots of tell instead of show, an abundance of adverbs ruining the immersion, poorly realized characters, whimsical plot details that made the experience feel more like some Dungeons & Dragons game master's campaign journal, chronicling the adventures of the players (and for all I know, that's exactly what Red Magic is). I am sure it would be fun to be one of the characters in a game, but as a narrative it's not very fun. The only reason I decided to chug through it was to get a feel of a section of the Forgotten Realms campaign world (in this case, the land of the Red Wizards, Thay), and that it was mercifully short. 
Seriously, how this got published is a mystery to me. 
Finishing it, I jumped back into Star Wars: Darth Plagueis, thinking that after Red Magic that book would probably feel much better, and it did. I'm going to try out a few more Forgotten Realms novels, just to see if they are all equally craptacular, but wow. Still, that being said, it's fun as a guilty pleasure to try to envision a centaur climbing up a tower's stairs. But it's not fun with contradictions, plot holes, random encounters, unbelievable character motivations etc. in a narrative. 
How it gets three point five stars on GoodReads is nigh on unfathomable, but I suspect there are many D&D fans who like these books and maybe young people derive more pleasure from it (not meant as an offense; rather, that my taste has become discriminating perhaps especially after being exposed to quality fantasy material like Martin and Erikson); it also has three stars on Amazon.
I planned to do a write-up of Red Magic with comments liberally sprinkled, almost like Mystery Science Theater but for a novel, but I ended up deciding it is not worth the time and effort, especially for a novel from 1991. 
Oh my. Best thing about it: The cover.