Monday, May 26, 2014

[Re-read] Jon VII: The Morose Thinker Strikes Back

[The spoilers in this post will leave you gagging if you haven't consumed 
everything Martin-related there is]

Is it weird that a Sunday without an episode of Game of Thrones feels wrong somehow, and that the wait for next week's episode feels so long (especially considering the fact some of us have been waiting five and six years for new books in the series)? I guess it is a little weird. Those episodes are quite addictive, no matter how far they stray from the good stuff in the books most of the time. Every episode, it seems that the strongest scenes are the ones that are more or less lifted straight from the books - why do the producers and writers not trust Martin's dialogue more? I still understand certain choices but the more I watch the series, the more I feel like they are moving unnecessarily far away from the books in terms of them writing their own stuff. I hope the makers of the show catch on to the fact that usually the scenes closest to the books often are the scenes that people like the best (and it even goes for non-readers, too). Well, with no TV show to get excited about this week one can just as well read another A Storm of Swords chapter, even if it's Jon Snow again. That guy.

All right, with that meme straight out of tumblr to set the mood, let's check out on Jon Snow - and see if he is having fun.


Whoops, it's Monday all of a sudden. My read of Jon's chapter was interrupted by more pressing matters. Doesn't really matter, Ice & Fire is enjoyable any day of the week. But the lack of an episode this week. It's a void. Best fill it right away.

My favorite opening lines that Martin employs is the kind of line that this chapter opens with; short and to the point, and kind of casually mentioning something quite dramatic to reel the reader in from the get-go: They woke to the smoke of Mole's Town burning. Such snappy, to the point information! He conveys so much in these few words, but also prepares you for what's to come and has you excited about what's going on. Also, I have a suspicion we might see Mole's Town burning next week in Game of Thrones, from the preview at least it seems I'm in the same place as the show right now. Sounds like Jon's going to have som fun after all! Kind of.

So, Jon is leaning on a crutch, watching the smoke rising from Castle Black. Mole's Town is surprisingly close to the Night's Watch fortress. Jon reflects that Styr now has lost the element of surprise, so he might as well not trouble concealing his approach - hence, the smoke. I guess that HBO is going to have Gilly face the Thenns next week, because she's a character we're invested in, thus heightening the tension / drama, and then Sam or Jon or whoever swoops in to save her. Or whatever.

He's in a lot of pain, but wants to fight anyway. There's a quick reference to "the pointy end", I like that Jon remembers telling Arya about that (and again, this might indicate that the two will meet each other again, possibly at pointy ends); so Donal Noye has put him on the tower with a longbow. Now that sounds like a decent place to be when push comes to shove. Picking off wildlings from on high sounds better than facing them on the ground, especially when you're seriously wounded. Building up tension, Martin allows Jon to think of the advancing wildlings, how they will become visible on the horizon, and that Ygritte will be one of them. He thinks of how the arrow she shot had gone through his thigh, but soon enough his thoughts dwell on the cave and their nudity and the...cunning lingus he performed there. Well, all right, Martin doesn't explicitly mention what Jon remembers from his adventures with Ygritte in the cave, but. You know.

Nine out of every ten crows on roofs and tower tops are actual scarecrows then, to suggest they have more men than they actually have. This is useful information for the reader. I'm not so sure we needed to know that a guy named Mully has greasy orange hair and is pissing through a crenel (well, I expect we'll see him die later in this chapter, so that we think, oh, that pissing guy, to make an unknown character's death have some little impact). Apparently it was Maester Aemon's idea to add the scarecrows (maybe there's a Targaryen backstory waiting to be explored?) The hope is, that seeing so many "men" will make the Thenns reconsider an assault.

There are two actual living breathing beings with Jon on the tower in addition to six scarecrows. One is Deaf Dick Follard, who is methodically cleaning his crossbow, the second is an Oldtown boy named Satin who is pretty as a girl and "green as summer grass". I suppose the drama could have been heightened if one of the other characters was someone we know a little better, like Grenn or Pyp, which would allow for some fun banter, but Deaf Dick (what a name) and Satin will have to do. In the TV series, the pretty Satin has been swapped with a random northern boy who saw his village butchered and was told his parents were going to be eaten. The trauma is unfathomable.

Next we get a solid dose of exposition, aka infodump, and right now I am not sure how much of it is actually something I need to pay attention to because there will be some kind of payoff. We learn why the castle doesn't have proper walls....oh wait, dammit, there is a nugget in this block of text! Let's see if I can untangle it without having to quote the entire paragraph. First of all, Jon thinks of his uncle again - Martin sure doesn't want us to forget about Benjen Stark's existence - and the whole infodump is actually Benjen talking in Jon's memory; so Benjen has a perhaps surprisingly good knowledge of the Watch's history, whether that means something to the plot or not; but the nugget here is that this text seems to be a blend of foreshadowing and some, uh, inverse foreshadowing? I mean, Benjen told Jon about Lord Commander Rodrik Flint who thought to make himself King-beyond-the-Wall, thus echoing Mance Rayder (that's what I'd call a kind of inverse foreshadowing); Tristan Mudd is mentioned (remember the story of the Mudds in a Catelyn chapter?) - just interesting that the Mudds show up again; Benjen talked about the commanders of the Snowgate and the Nightfort going to war against each other (which I believe is foreshadowing, and we haven't seen it coming yet); and a Lord Commander was murdered by his own men (foreshadowing a late chapter in A Dance with Dragons). And of course, the dialogue reveals that Jeor Mormont was Lord Commander number 997, making Jon Snow 998, then whoever takes up the reins in The Winds of Winter will be 999 and wham (not the duo, thank you very much) Jon Snow can return to become # 1000. Pretty cool number to end up with (yes I believe Jon will remain with the Night's Watch). So...dense bit of text there, but unraveled now and quite interesting to boot. And now I am curious about this Mad Marq Rankenfell. That's a surname I haven't encountered before (like Mudd), who is this guy? Oh, Martin, you and your casual mentions that manage to arouse curiosity.

The men of Castle Black have tried to make up for the lack of a southern wall by improvising a crescent-shaped barricade ten feet high made of stores. That will keep the Thenns out. Ah, they are sheltering the runaways from Mole's Town. The naming conventions at Castle Black suddenly got a lot more gender-confused, I think. First there's Satin, pretty-as-a-girl-boy (sounds like a character more at home in Moulin Rogue), and now we have Sky Blue Su (what?!) and Lady Meliana who was no lady, her friends agree. Transvestite? What's going on, Night's Watch? I thought you were all hardened grim men and now all of a sudden you're preparing a cabaret for the wildlings? Oh well, I guess that's what happens when you simmer too long with boys only far from the world. Craster was right. :-P Tongue in cheek, folks! No, not tongue in cheek. You mind of dirt.

There's a little bit of bla-bla going on now in this chapter, though. Jon thinks "we should go get them, with fifty rangers on horse we'd cut them to smithereens", then follows up that thought with "but we don't have fifty rangers on horse so that was a useless thought." Do people think like this? Yes, so it's realistic. Is it interesting? I can't say I am reading my eyes out here. I'm rather thinking, get on with it, or write about something more interesting. Like that Sky Blue Su. What kind of name is that? And why haven't we heard of this character before (if it is a character)?

We're told, again through Jon's gloomy thoughts, that what is left of Castle Black's garrison is a rather paltry group of men, "the brothers Bowen Marsh had left behind" (I see what you're doing here, Martin, you don't want me to like Bowen too much, amirite?) So there are old men, cripples, and green boys (or rather, boys of many colors?) We get a laundry list of such characters, none of which we have heard of before (and thus not making it, as mentioned, as interesting as if we had a few known guys around like Grenn). And so many all of a sudden have nicknames, the nickname: normal name ratio has gone totally askew. Kegs, Spare Boot, Easy, Dornish Dilly, Young Henly, Old Henly, Hairy Hal, Spotted Pate. Rast is there, though. Wait, isn't he dead? Maybe not. He's raking leaves, and one of the skills needed for that chore is being alive. Jon looks down from the tower at this motley collection of nicknames, realizing they all think him a turncloak. Jon remembers that he threatened to have Ghost rip Rast's throat out if he didn't stop pestering Samwell Tarly.

Oh my, uhm, I was about to say god but I don't have any so, uh. Oh my how much Jon spends thinking in his chapters. Once again I am remindeth of the reason why I rank his chapters so low. Setting is cool, some of the supporting cast up here are cool, but Jon...he's such a morose thinker.

Now he's thinking of Donal Noye having such a lovely commanding voice, a lord's voice if you will, 'cause Donal is roaring at some Mole's Town men who aren't doing a good job, and I wonder if this is vague foreshadowing of Jon's own stint as a lord (commander). Ned told Jon that a captain's lungs are as important as his sword arm, which is kind of funny since Donal is missing his sword arm so it's good he's got great lungs. What is it with this chapter and the homoerotic undertones? They are everywhere. I don't mind, it just strikes me as ... actually there, if you know what I mean. Or I'm just cross-eyed tired from being up a few nights with a severe throat/jaw infection thingy. Even that sounds dirty. Rest assured, it's a bad tooth causing the whole thing.

ANYWAY. Donal Noye has a really impressive set of lungs.

More info: 3/4 of the citizens of Mole's Town have come to seek refuge at Castle Black, having listened to Jon's warning the last time we saw him. Every one of those spry enough were given weapons. In case you wonder what kind of weapons, Martin gently supplies some more detail. Spear. Axe- Double-bladed axe. Razor-sharp daggers. Longswords. Maces. Spiked morningstars.
The women and children have been put to work. And on and on it goes before we finally get some dialogue, because you know, too long without dialogue makes for less entertaining reads.

"It's cold."

Well, that's a big surprise right here at the Wall, Satin. His cheeks were bright red. Oooh, spanky. No, sorry. Jon's too cool though, telling Satin that this is nothing. Reminds me of myself. Whenever someone says there's a wind, I'm like You call this a wind? You should have seen the hurricanes I had to endure when I lived out on...and so on and so forth. Satin's such a wuss though. "I knew a girl in Oldtown who liked to ice her wine." That boy is going to die so hard.

Oh come on. Midday. Still no sign of the Thenns. Martin sure likes to make me wait. Does build up expectation, doesn't it? Owen the Oaf pops up the trapdoor with food. Okay. Dick is deaf indeed, but his nose works. Okay. Raisins, nuts, buns warm from the oven. That sounds rather good, doesn't it? Gimme gimme. Jon takes a stint at commanding when Satin doesn't feel like eating (implying he's nervous) and Jon tells him to eat anyway. Owen the Oaf still believes King Robert rules the realm, because he's brain damaged. Okay. We're reminded that Aemon has sent letters to basically everywhere:

Wildlings at the gate. The realm in danger. Send all the help you can to Castle Black.

A simple enough message to understand, innit. I wonder where more specifically Maester Aemon sent letters. It would be interesting to know where the ravens of Castle Black flew, so I can imagine their trajectories over the Westeros map, a bit like airplanes crossing the map in Indiana Jones. Fortunately, Martin gives us a quick insight into this particular topic. Oldtown, the Umbers, the Boltons, Castle Cerwyn, Torrhen's Square, Karhold, Deepwood Motte, Bear Island, Oldcaste (huh?), Widow's Watch, White Harbor, Barrowton, the Rills, the Liddles, the Burleys, the Norreys, the Harclays (I always read that as Barclays) and the Wulls. For good measure Martin also repeats the message one more time in case you got lost during the list.
Am I trying to complain, once again, about Martin's penchant for lists? I don't know. In one sense, it is important we know who knows. On the other hand, come A Dance with Dragons, it just seems that nobody really cared about the letter and then it is pointless to spend so many words describing who got it. And now I have spent enough time on it. I'll send the neighbor's cat up to help out, Aemon. Hate that thing.

Morning turns to afternoon (sounds weird right?) and the smoke has cleared. Okay. Okay. Guards pace restlessly. He really portrays the agonizing waiting well, doesn't he? Both literally and, you know, when it comes to publishing schedules. At evenfall they eat and Jon tells Satin to light the fire and fill the kettle with oil. Jon's leg still hurts a lot. He pays a visit to the privy. Okay. There's some looking at stars. So what kind of deity or whatever is the constellation of the Horned Lord named after? I know only of one Horned Lord and he isn't in the books, he's in the TV series (and The Phantom Menace).

Finally (I am exaggerating a little, but I do want to get on with the action right now), the wildlings arrive! High five all around. They came in the night, of course. Of course of course! Why wouldn't they? When the horns blow, Satin takes a leak (all right, "pisses himself") but Jon pretends not to notice. Embarassing, Jon? Why were you staring at the beautiful boy's crotch anyway that you noticed? Satin is afraid, of course, I don't know if it was necessary to have him state the fact when we already had the pee-part described. Jon tells him that the wildlings are afraid, too. That's probably true. So, there we are, with Jon Snow, Deaf Dick Follard, and Satan Satin taking up positions on three sides of the round tower. And we're ready for a fight.

And well, there's not that much to say about the battle, really. Its action. Things happen, in the darkness. There's chaos. Blood. Arrows are fired. Satin is happy to have killed someone. There are a lot of wildlings streaming into Castle Black. Fire begins to, well, burn. Mully (hey there he is!) shoots someone. On and on it goes, Jon loosing arrow after arrow, his fingers growing stiff and his thumb bleeding. Deaf Dick dies. Ygritte shoots him down. He can't make himself shoot at her. The villagers of Mole's Town break and flee before the onslaught. The namedrops we got earlier die in various ways.

It's all exciting and I can't wait to see how it plays out next week, but there's little subtext here. It's a rollercoaster ride of a closure to the chapter, and Martin does really write good action scenes. There are some lulls when we catch Jon Snow pondering some memory of what someone told him once, but generally the pace is quick and efficient, with short to-the-(sword)point sentences that leave little time for pondering (which is good for the reader, less so for Jon Pondersnow).

The crows entrap many wildlings, including Styr, by setting fire to stuff and shit and then the wall begins to crack and melt due to the heat and big chunks of ice drop down on them. Mm. Quite a risky plan, really, depending on a lot of variables. Temperature, speed, movements, ice, fire. Hey! Ice and fire. He wonders if Ygritte escaped the trap. Hopes, really.

Aw poor Stone Thumbs is dying. We hardly knew ye. He finds Ygritte dying as well. Funny how memory works and how the mind plays tricks. In my recollection, we saw Ygritte die in an action scene, Jon watching as Satin shot her in the tits or wherever. But that's just a fabrication of my delirium! He just bumps into her, lying on the ground with an arrow, well, there you go, between her breasts. There is a poetic quality to the description we get:
The ice crystals had settled over her face, and in the moonlight it looked as though she wore a glittering silver mask. 
Darkly beautiful. Will probably be another shocker for the TV series-only crowd. OH Hell's Yeah!!1

There's some lovelorn dialogue between the two, Ygritte happy to finally see a proper castle, Jon Snow telling her she will see a lot more castles, refusing to realize she's dying. It's kind of a small tragedy within the greater narrative. It does echo a little bit of Romeo and Juliet, doesn't it? Not just a little bit, either, come to think of it. The classic "star-crossed lovers" tale is just what the Jon/Ygritte tale is.

But I can't tell you how silly I think the last lines of this chapter are. Real stinkers. In a narrative generally very good to excellent to I wet my panties, having Jon tell her she's going to live, and then her saying, for the gazillionth time even, "You know nothing, Jon Snow," before took the sting out of the tragedy for me personally, the first time, and now the tenth time. Not only was I (am I) tired of the repeated phrase, but the framing of the scene makes it more funny than sad. It's like a silly comedy where people are talking and when they are done, just at the right time, they keel over dramatically and die.

So from a great opening line that invited interest, through a lot of ponderous thoughts from Jon Doom, to a quickly sketched but exciting battle (it deserved a few more pages) to a silly, immersion-shattering moment that should have rung with sorrow and grief and loss and rage at destiny, but instead is just a lil' silly.

Oh well. Next up is Bran Stark, which also promises a lot of good stuff in its first opening lines, but will it deliver? Only the Old Gods know. And perhaps Rh'llor, god of parlor tricks and flame. At least these two celestial (?) factions seem to have some kind of power within the world. When are the Seven stepping forward? Or have I missed something crucial?
(As a matter of fact it seems the story is solving the issue of deities already; the old gods are the Children of the Forest; Rh'llor is tricks and magic; and just maybe the Seven will be represented through a collection of seven characters.)

Enough! It is time to sleep! Tomorrow marks an important day for me. It is the last day out of, oh, about 90, that I am off work to stay home with the Second Son, who is growing fast to become a fierce combatant. Wednesday it is back to work for poor old me, but I'm looking forward to mingle with people with a more expanded vocabulary than "Ball. Bread. Light. Tree." 

[If I made any glaring errors re: content, please tell me. I am in fact a bit delirious due to medication.]

On a quick, unrelated note. I have purchased, for the first time ever in the history of me, non-Ice & Fire book that I already own copies of. Yes, I needed me some Steven Erikson in digital version so I bought Deadhouse Gates for the Kindle the other day. And a few other books. Because I don't have a big pile of unread books, no sirree. /facepalm  [And, I have two copies of Gardens of the Moon, a regular paperback and the 10th anniversary hardback edition].

Anyway, the point is, that's how good The Malazan Book of the Fallen is! The prologue in Deadhouse Gates is so good. I've read it five times. It's creepy, macabre, challenging, well written, dense, and exciting all at the same time. About time I pimped the series again, I think. Steven Erikson remains a king among writers the way he takes time out of his schedule to interact with his fans over at, communicating his thoughts and ideas. Smart guy, to be sure. I was skeptical at first, man I needed three attempts to even get through the first book in the series, but I did become a convert by the end of The Crippled God. Ten fat books, with one long narrative divided in three main arcs, a story with a conclusion, full of all the things Martin is renowned for, but with more spectacle, a lot more high fantasy, but also some very well realized dramatic scenes. Night.

1 comment:

  1. identifies some of those gay-looking guys as not Watchmen but Mole prostitutes. Though of course there's question - whom they serve. Probably gay Watchmen =D