Wednesday, October 29, 2014

[Re-read] Jon X: Between the Wall and a Hard Place

Inching ever closer to completing a read of A Storm of Swords for the tenth time (and still missing stuff that other readers with more adhesive brains would scoff at), and getting closer to that Feastdance attempt at getting a more positive view on the two last novels in the series (that sounds ominous doesn't it), and I am at the moment not in that Ice & Fire zone where I am obsessing over the characters and events of Martin's work. I guess I'll soon enough be in the zone again. There's the world book coming out tomorrow, for one. That will probably garner a lot of discussion that will heat the flames of passion for one of my favorite stories ever told. However, I think I won't get overly excited about the series again until there's some hard evidence for The Winds of Winter coming out. A release date, another excerpt...something like that. It feels like it's been really quiet these last months. No, I don't believe we're in a "calm before the storm" situation where we suddenly are given the news we want, but I do hope this means work is being done on that sixth elusive book.

Fortunately, there's been a slew of great fantasy books lately to read. As with Abercrombie's Half a King, I find myself devouring Mark Lawrence's Prince of Fools as I already have read a whopping 29% of it. Something about both these authors. They both reel me in and write in such an entertaining way that I just have to follow along. But still...fourteen years after A Storm of Swords there still hasn't been a novel that can beat it. And maybe there never will be. I mean, this book might just be the epitome for me, the same way no other movie can ever touch The Empire Strikes Back because that film just gives me the right feels, no matter how well made other movies can be. But we always search for the next fix, don't we? Over at Tower of the Hand, they are setting us up for a The World of Ice & Fire Week, which might keep the flame alive while we wait and wait some more.

Anyway, let's rock on. Here's Jon Snow's tenth chapter re-read. And what a chapter it is, with regards to how the story develops from here!

The opening sentence in this chapter is George R.R. Martin sneaking in a homage to the greatest music in the world: "The wind was blowing wild from the east, so strong the heavy cage would rock whenever a gust got in its teeth." I appreciate that. I love wild, strong heavy rock too. When I read the previous chapter I was listening to King Diamond, I've been having a kick on his albums the last couple of weeks, having bought the remastered editions of Fatal Portrait and Abigail to complete my collection, but today I am in the mood for something with a little more crunch and bite, so as I read Jon X the soundtrack is a playlist of my favorite groovy death metal songs. Seriously I wouldn't know what to do without this music. It gives me so much joy and energy (as opposed to the negative view many people seem to have on this kind of music). There I went off again. Sorry. Back to the chapter.

It's a nice descriptive start to the chapter though, Martin grounding us into the setting. He continues by describing the sky and Jon thinking it's a grim day. He's in aforementioned cage, on his way down from the Wall, "as if he were being lowered into some bottomless pit", the imagery here almost Biblical in its gloominess; Martin also sets up the tension for the reader here when Jon thinks that when the day is done, his name "will be shadowed forever"; making us wonder how this will come to pass. Jon's had better moods, that's for sure. Of course, Martin is playing with contrast here, starting off very dark and then he actually brings in some light of hope toward the end of the chapter, which is unusual by itself in A Song of Ice and Fire. We are also reminded that Jon is going to murder Mance Rayder. The boy's got plans.

So Jon's been kept in a cell for five days, which must have been fricking terrible, what with the cold and all; but Maester Aemon has been able to keep Jason Slynt and Ser Alliser Thorne from executing Jon, which is a consolation, of course.  The price Jon has to pay is to act as an envoy for the Night's Watch: to go and parley with Mance Rayder but really to kill him. Thorne and Slynt aren't making Jon's life easy; Jon recognizes the planning as Alliser's rather than Slynt's, and oh don't you just want to slap Janos Slynt for forcing Jon to call him 'my lord'. Really obnoxious fellow. I know, I know. I used to call myself Slynt back in the day (I'm still Slynt over at Tower of the Hand but that's because I'm lazy and haven't changed it). Conclusion: Jon Snow is trapped between the Wall and a hard place.

Jon lands safely and exits through the Wall, sauntering past corpses and a raven eating from a giant's brain and cawing "Snow" (and we can all wonder whether this is Bloodraven or Bran calling out to him, but if it was, wouldn't it make Jon more attentive it the raven called out, "Jon Snow of Winterfell" or some such? Or just "Hey you moron, stop, we need to have a chat and stuff.") So maybe it's just a raven quorking something that sounds like snow. Those ravens are a bit annoying really.

A lone rider approaches Jon and it is none other than Tormund Giantsbane, one of those characters I still feel don't belong in A Song of Ice and Fire for his over-the-top manners and dialogue. He feels like a Middle-earth dwarf stuck in the wrong story. Maybe it's just me. I feel the toned-down TV version actually is an improvement. They have a banter as they move together toward Mance's camp beyond the battlefield. Jon explains that it was Donal Noye, the one-armed blacksmith, who slew Mag the Mighty. Tormund seems to believe it, and they share mead. So potent you'd suspect it was brewed by Dwarves. Jon also tells him that Ygritte is dead, but Tormund doesn't sound like he cares that much; he admits she was a nice girl and all that, but there is no trace of sorrow here. It kind of makes me like him a little less, as it shows him to be lacking empathy, both for Jon and for Ygritte, really - or he's just keeping up a mask, of course, the tough guy mask, maybe to intimidate Jon, or to let Jon think of him as an emotionless warrior. Who knows? Not I.

Ygritte continues to haunt Jon's thoughts, some of it poignant, but for me personally I can't get into it because I have to endure yet another "You know nothing, Jon Snow" which is really grating by now. Soon they are in the wildling camp, as expected there's no order or structure to anything. At last Jon stands before Rayder again. And the wildling King-beyond-the-Wall sums it all up succinctly: "You must be very brave or very stupid, Jon Snow, to come back to us wearing a black cloak." Of course, Jon doesn't have much of a choice, but still - Jon is brave. He's basically walking into the lion's den, and while doing that he manages to have a conversation with Tormund as if they were out on a fishing trip. Well, that, or he is stupid.

Varamyr tells Mance that he had warned him about Jon being false; Martin gives us a description of this character here, so that we are prepared for the Varamyr prologue to be published a cool twelve years later. Still, it gives the reader some more insight into the warging ability. Gotta love it when Mance invites Jon into his tent, and tells everyone else to stay outside:
"What, even me?" said Tormund.
"Particularly you. Always."

Inside, Dalla lies on a pile of furs, pale and sweating. Val, her sister, is holding her hand. Now I've read some interesting theories on these sisters, in which it is implied that they may (or may not) be some kind of divine beings, but I'll not go into that right here and now, as I can't say I feel the text here supports any of those notions. Not in this chapter anyway. But we can't forget that Val is full-breasted, of course. It's been a few chapters actually since we've had the mention of a breast (or two). Jon closes his fingers around his sword, wondering if he has to kill Mance even as a child is being born in the tent. Then he sees a big black horn in a pile of equipment, and Mance tells him it is the Horn of Winter. It's a huge thing, making me wonder if it could be a dragon's horn (because Jon thinks it this is an aurochs horn, that aurochs must have been the largest to have ever lived). There's gold and runes too, so it's a proper cool McGuffin. Jon now wonders why they haven't used it to blow down the Wall, which is an excellent question to ponder, really. Dalla answers for Mance. The answer is simply that magic is dangerous ("sorcery is a sword without a hilt") so they try other options first; if this Horn is similar to the Horn of Dragons we learn about in Feast, that might just be smart. Seems that this magic (horn magic, if you will) also demands a bloody price; it's one of the things that sets Martin's use of magic in his novels apart from other fantasy; there are some heavy prices to pay for the use of sorcery, it seems. And it fits a grim world like Westeros better of course. It keeps it mysterious and dangerous.

...and of course, there's the Others. If the Wall goes down, there's nothing standing between the Others and the rest of Westeros. I like how the wildlings, for all their perceived barbarism and lack of civility, can actually weigh options and think ahead. Unlike, say, the entire population of Westeros south of Castle Black.

A discussion follows, where Mance offers the horn for free and safe passage out of the North; but Jon can't trust him, can't trust him to keep his wild people in check once they are south of the Wall. This discussion lays the seeds for Jon's story in Dance, where he decides to grant the wildlings the passage Mance asks for.

At an impasse, the parlay is interrupted by the sound of a war horn outside. Varamyr tells them something's coming from the east. Jon at first thinks of the Others. Mance tells him it can't be them; they never come when the sun is up. Mance seems to wonder if Jon is a distraction ("Mance glanced suspicously at the Wall"), then begins to give orders. Something's coming, and the wildlings seem unprepared.

Varamyr says he sees men in steel and men in black on horses; Mance immediately assumes the Night's Watch is coming - chaos ensues. Jon tries to convince Mance that he knows nothing of this sudden attack but Mance doesn't seem to believe it at first, but then he notices that the Night's Watch rangers who are now assaulting the wildling camp look like Eastwatch men - "Sailors on horses" - but then he hears someone shout about iron men; we get more descriptions of Varamyr to help us remember him come Dance, and in the chaos Jon hopes to take or destroy the Horn but Varamyr's shadowcat blocks the way, and then the skinchanger screams in agony and in the sky his eagle begins to burn (which I can only assume is Melisandre's work, as she is linked to fire); Mance goes off to lead his men into battle, and as the battle truly commences, a baby is born in the tent. Battle-born, they call it these days. Confusion follows, and it takes Jon a while to figure out who is coming. Jon promises to protect the women, sends Val back inside to be Dalla's midwife. Varamyr flees crawling.

Not long after, the wildlings break and then he hears a name being cried out among the attackers. Stannis!

And that's how the chapter ends. On a high note - dramatic, intense...yet I feel Martin could have made us care even more if we had Jon helping out with the baby birth which could have contrasted with the dying outside; for most of this chapter I feel detached from the drama going on; I don't know why, maybe because I don't care about Jon that much? What if Jon was forced to kneel down and help Dalla give birth to the baby, and Jon only caught glimpses through the tent flap of what was going on outside, and there would be a feeling of a race against time to get this baby born before the attackers came upon them? I don't know. It feels like a missed opportunity.
This chapter feels a bit lackluster when you think of how pivotal this scene really is as Stannis Baratheon has come north to fight for the Wall. It's still pretty good stuff, of course, I just feel it could have been even better. In most other chapters in A Storm of Swords I feel like I'm inside the character experiencing the story and the drama and the feelings of that character, but here I feel more like a detached viewer seeing it from above, if you will. I don't know if I'm making sense here so I'll just leave it at that.

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