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 -

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